Ubisoft will be the first to tell you that last year’s game, Assassin’s Creed Unity, did not launch as robustly as they would have liked. Plagued by bugs, performance issues and all the while showing a game that had seemingly forgotten the advances made by the stellar Black Flag from the year before, it’s fair to say that the French publishing juggernaut would have probably wanted to do things a little differently. Fast forward just twelve short months and once again we have a brand new Assassin’s Creed title leaping out of the shadows to stalk physical and digital store shelves.
First things first though, let’s get the issue of polish out of the way – Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is streets ahead of the buggy, glitchy mess that somehow stealthed its way past Ubisoft’s hugely busy Quality Assurance team last year. While there are a few glitches present (the occasional invisible character model being the most frequent), there is nothing quite so catastrophic such as falling through the graphics engine or the now infamous ghoulish face-stripping visual bug that did the rounds on social media during the period of Unity’s release.
Performance too, has seen a notable uptick with Syndicate running consistently smoother than the 2014 release, even if the London crowds don’t quite match the overwhelming density of the Parisian throng showcased last year. Performance aside, Syndicate is clearly a better looking game than Unity too, with a big part of that being down to Ubisoft’s evocative depiction of nineteenth century London. From the muddy, rain-sodden borough slums where desperate families scrape together tuppence in the hope of being able to feed themselves for one more day to the regal finery of Westminster and the busy trade routes of the River Thames, Syndicate’s depiction of London during the industrial revolution is simply the best looking and most atmospheric playground that Ubisoft have allowed us to play about in since the series inception. So effective is it in eliciting emotion and feeling that London itself actually feels like a third main character and is every bit a key element in the narrative as the flesh and blood characters are. To say that it is nothing less than a constant joy to explore and uncover all its secrets would be a gross understatement indeed.
Traditionally, Assassin’s Creed has always been at its least interesting when it’s dealing with events occurring in the present day. That remains very much the case here, but rather than an inelegant hub with a bunch of pointless exploration tacked on, the game primarily focuses on the far more attractive period of Victorian London and by proxy, the story behind Assassin twins Evie and Jacob Frye as they attempt to wrest Templar control from the city. One Crawford Starrick is the main protagonist here – a Templar master of high rank and renown it becomes known early on that London is a veritable hotbed of Templar activity and in many ways represents the home turf of the nefarious order. Bolstering and securing Templar rule over the city are the ‘Blighters’, a consolidation of all the brutal street gangs of the era, these remorseless thugs exercise Templar rule and influence from the highest levels of society to the lowest.
Opposing Starrick’s iron-fisted rule and befriended by the Assassin siblings early on are the Rooks – an outlier street gang who stand as the last opposition against the might of the combined Templar and Blighter menace. This being an Assassin’s Creed title, all this gang violence and struggle for control unfolds against the backdrop of an epic quest to obtain precursor items in order to unseat Templar rule once and for all. All told, it’s a great story and one that continues the series tradition of enlisting personages such as Charles Dickens, Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin to great effect within the cloisters of its overarching narrative.
When it comes to our two assassins, Evie is definitely the more interesting of the pair. While Jacob comes off as hot-headed and impetuous with enough bravado to refloat the Titanic (or whatever’s left of it), Evie by contrast is calm, collected and wonderfully acerbic in nature, with savage combat skills whose sharpness is matched only by her silver-tongued quips and brilliantly sarcastic rebuttals. In short, Evie is now my new favourite assassin in the series, sorry Ezio old chum – you had a good run. In the game proper, the differences between the two are far less pronounced however. While Jacob is supposed to be the burly brawler type and Evie more suited towards stealthy pursuits, the progression systems that exist within the game allow you to fully customise each of them however you see fit. Also, while Syndicate will let you freely roam and tackle side activities as either sibling, the bulk of story missions are scripted and structured towards Jacob, so players expecting to play as Evie all the way through may be disappointed.
One of the biggest complaints about the series and this was something that was especially magnified in last year’s release, was just the sheer amount of needlessly padded out stuff to do. In Unity, the world map would often be swarmed with side missions, minor activities and other errands that it became exacerbating to even think about tackling it, let alone actually complete them all. It’s with great relief then that I can happily report that Syndicate’s technical strides are neatly matched by an improved, leaner game world with events that you actually want to take part in, rather than feeling like you’re being mired in pointless busywork.
In terms of the new stuff there’s a whole bunch of new events to get stuck into. Bounties task players with tracking down troublesome individuals, kidnapping them, stuffing them into a carriage and then making your escape. Templar Hunts on the other hand, require you to take out one of their order without being spotted while Child Labour side-missions demand that players free indentured children all the while dismantling the slave-like infrastructure from the inside.
In the case of these activities (and there are more than just these –prize fighting remains an enjoyable distraction in particular), they are all tied together by the new progression systems which feel more structured and far more worthwhile than in previous games. A big part of this is that completing activities in each of Syndicate’s areas effectively cleanses that area of Templar influence and so the notion of slowly but surely eradicating the control of your ultimate enemy proves to be at once an engaging and satisfying pursuit.
Not all of the series typical distractions have been eradicated mind; chests are still loitering around to be picked up, helix icons are floating about to scooped up and the crowd activity tasks from last year also make a return. Other elements from previous games make a return, such as crafting and managing a group of allies (in this case the Rooks). In the case of the latter, upgrading the Rooks makes gaining territory through means of inciting gang war easier while in the case of the former, materials and money obtained from completing side-activities can be funneled into creating newer and better equipment. Make no mistake; there is still a wealth of things to do in Syndicate, except now it feels manageable, worthwhile and best of all, enjoyable.
Elsewhere, enemies now proudly flaunt difficulty levels above their noggins while both Jacob and Evie can increase their level by ploughing hard-won RPG style experience points into three very different skill trees. In the case of your foes, nothing stops you from wondering into the higher-level areas and having a go at them. Handily, you can still stealth kill enemies of higher levels instantly, it’s just when the hand-to-hand combat kicks off that the disparity in level becomes an issue, so bear that in mind before you go off and start smacking up folks who are stronger than you.
One of the other big improvements that Syndicate makes over its predecessors is in the quality of the main story missions. In addition to an absolutely rollicking opening act, Syndicate introduces multiple ways to accomplish an objective. One mission, for example, might have you assassinating a foreman who is abusing his workers and to do this, you need to infiltrate his office which can be done by coming in through the roof, the front door, the back door, through a window or even by going underneath the building and coming up through the structure that way. Secondary objectives are also now better incentivised. In previous years, completing these would usually just yield an improved synchronisation rate rather than anything truly tangible in gameplay terms. In Syndicate however, secondary objectives now reward the player with additional experience and gear which make the act of going back and replaying these missions a much more desirable prospect than it ever used to be.
Further afield, it’s clear that other new elements have been folded into the Assassin’s Creed experience to spice things up. A new grappling hook allows zip-lining between two points in the world all the while enabling drop down assassinations and generally being a more expedient way to get around the place. Arguably, it feels like a worthwhile addition and while a little clunkier than the equivalent witnessed in the Arkham games to begin with, the presence of the gadget nonetheless is indicative of a series that understands it is operating against contemporary expectations. Another new feature is the horse and carriage riding. Here, players can ride carriages, use them to ram other carriages off the road or climb to the roof and engage in combat with an enemy carriage close by. While it’s certainly a neat new feature to have in the game and meshes well with the time period that Syndicate depicts, the actual handling seems a little off, especially when you’re charging down a cobbled street at speed and attempt a sharp turn as it makes the horse and carriage feel far more artificial than it otherwise should.
Even the series parkour and free-running elements have been freshened up, with it almost impossible to accidentally leap to your death while descent from structures at speed is now a comfortable and welcome reality. Sure enough, the free-running can still feel sticky at times, adhering your assassin onto some unwanted surface still happens from time to time but overall, this is the best that the free-running has felt and looked in any Assassin’s Creed title to date.
In case you’re wondering, multiplayer in all its forms has been removed from this year’s game. Though, if the improvements witnessed elsewhere in the game are any sort of indication, the trade-off was more than worth it and all-in-all contributes to Syndicates more streamlined and effective design. The leanest and most immersive the series has been since Assassin’s Creed II, Syndicate is the new console generation debut that players deserved last year and while not perfect, this year’s game nevertheless provides an enticing blue print for the franchise going forward.
A digital copy of the game for PS4 was kindly supplied by Ubisoft for the purposes of this review.
You can purchase Assassin’s Creed Syndicate here.