Assassin's Creed: Syndicate Review
The latest entry in the stealth action franchise offers more of the familiar
The long-running Assassin’s Creed series started off back in 2007 and has become a major franchise for publisher Ubisoft. The development often involves multiple studios in an effort to create an open world experience every year, while trying to maintain a high level of quality and production values. With last year’s AC Unity, the franchise contended with a generational leap for the first time, moving on to a new era of home consoles and a new engine. The result was a fun but flawed outing, as it tried to adapt to new hardware and attempt new levels of scale. The new Assassin’s Creed Syndicate feels like a much more subdued affair – despite introducing significant gameplay changes, it’s a game that feels like a step back from the ambitions of Unity.
The series has explored a number of notable historical settings over the years – from Rome and Constantinople, to the more contemporary American East Coast. In Syndicate, players embark on a virtual journey to Victorian London circa late 1800s. Following a very brief introduction, we meet the protagonists - Jacob and Evie Frye, brother and sister who are experienced assassins. Fed up with performing sanctioned missions, they travel to London, with their goals of finding a piece of Eden, as well as stopping the Templar who has taken control over most of the city.
For most of the narrative, Syndicate feels rushed. We get zero background on the siblings, their past or present. There are some walls of text in the encyclopedia that you can read, but it’d be better if the game’s storytelling was able to fit these details in. They have a habit of taking a sample of the victim’s blood (ala Dexter), but this is never explained. Their father figure comes up often in conversation as a pivotal man during their upbringing, but we don’t even learn his name until a particularly dull mission very late in the game. The siblings even go through a “rivalry” stage, but it comes and goes so quick that it feels pointless and underdeveloped. Writing is partly to blame for this – while some genuinely funny dialogue exists, most of the script is monotone and predicable.
The narrative also suffers when it comes to other characters. There are only a few major faces, and they come and go so quickly, switching from friend to foe, that the betrayals and twists have little effect. Even the main villain, Crawford Starrick, is a typical criminal kingpin that has his hands in every aspect of the city’s life – factories, transportation, banks, government – but we never actually see him do anything horrific. It’s just because he’s a Templar, and occasionally shoots his servants, that we must believe this is an evil menace. Unseating him from power is Jacob’s main motivation; since Crawford is after the piece of Eden as well, this brings Evie a goal to work towards. Syndicate’s story is a decent one, but it’s very by the book and lacking a real start or a satisfying finish, with many assassination targets that barely buy into the evil Templars narrative. Plus, players can eliminate innocent policemen and Royal Guards that stand in their way without punishment. So who is the real villain here?
We must also touch briefly on the modern day aspect. After so many years and a lot of nonsense, Ubisoft is seemingly trying to cut their losses. Last year’s AC Unity introduced the concept of players being home users of the new Abstergo Entertainment system, drawn almost involuntarily into the modern day conspiracy. In Syndicate, the modern day “story” is about five short cutscenes, with zero player input. You watch the team struggle to find the same artifact in modern day London that you’re trying to discover in the 1800s. There is no introduction of who you are (same player from Unity?) or who these people are. And it ends with yet another supernatural cliffhanger. At this point in the franchise, the modern day narrative is becoming an insult to long time series fans – and to newcomers, it’s detrimental, as absolutely nothing is explained. This aspect of the franchise has been begging to be put out of its misery, and Syndicate only makes that case stronger.
But back to the real experience - London in the 1800s. Jacob’s goal is to assemble a gang (the Rooks) and take back control of the city, while Evie aims to hunt down the piece of Eden before it falls into the wrong hands. Their respective story missions follow these concurrent narratives, though there is not much player choice involved – you’ll need to complete the missions for both characters before moving to the next sequence. The missions that you undertake are very typical for the series, following much the same structure as AC Unity. Like the story, they are painfully familiar. There are some highlights – like crossing the river Thames by jumping across moving boats, or infiltrating famous landmarks – but these moments are memorable thanks to the new locale, rather than mission design.
As always, there are tons of optional activities. The major meta-game in Syndicate is freeing London from Templar control. The map is divided into a few boroughs, each with a number of sections that contain a conquest mission. Completing these missions will free the area, and eventually once the whole borough is clear, the gang leader will challenge you to a gang war. Completing this war will let you assume control of the whole borough, but it’s not a very impactful event. There won’t be random enemies in the streets, but otherwise the game world remains unchanged.
The conquest missions come in four flavors – Bounty Hunt sees you kidnap and escort a target from his base to the police; in Templar Hunt you must eliminate a specific enemy; Child Liberation tasks you with infiltrating a building to eliminate a target and free the kids, and the classic Gang Stronghold simply asks to eliminate all enemies in the area. The kidnapping mechanic requires you to grab a hold of the target and walk them out of the area without alerting anyone. The rest are bite-sized classic AC experiences, and despite their familiar and similar nature, continue to entertain as you repeat them in new locations. After enough missions in a borough are complete, the gang leader will challenge you to a gang war – a big brawl followed by a mini boss fight. These boss fights are very shallow, amounting to little more than beating down on your opponent and occasionally blocking a QTE-like series of attacks. The ones you encounter in the main story are nearly identical, and similarly disappointing.
Story side missions include adventures with historical figures like Charles Darwin and Karl Marx. Other activities are fairly typical for an open world - from collecting things, to performing side missions for income. You can hijack or escort cargo carts, raid boats, participate in carriage races, or even rob trains and boats. The latter activities are uniquely enjoyable due to their mobile nature. Trying to get onto a moving train or boat is fun in itself, and then working your way through the ship/train makes for enjoyable moments. Performing side missions earns you loyalty with a few of the minor characters, and that gives you free items.
Both Jacob and Evie are playable characters, and you can swap between them at any time, except for character-specific missions. The siblings share everything – all XP earned, items, currency, and so on. You can craft or purchase new equipment, upgrade your pouches, weapons, and so on. There is a skill tree, however all except for the last few skills are the same between the two characters. Your upgradable skills range from the typical health increases to improved stealth and new combat abilities. The few late game unique skills cater to the strengths of each – Jacob is more of a fighter so he gets survival and combat skills, while Evie has better stealth ability and can unlock invisibility when not moving. The game does a great job of dishing out experience points, cash, and gear, so most players should be able to remain very well stocked throughout the campaign. It helps that an early skill lets you auto-loot any foes you eliminate silently, and that all chests can be opened without any online nonsense. If you still somehow struggle, there is an option to buy almost everything with microtransactions – from in-game cash to XP boosts and crafting materials. The game’s economy is generous enough that no player should ever need to utilize this option, but the trend continues to be worrisome.