Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Review | Slipping Into Gear

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate does little to invigorate the series, but still has enough brass in its fist to survive the London underbelly.

With images from last year’s Unity still haunting children’s heads, Ubisoft have themselves in a bit of a pickle. No matter which locale of rooftops and crowds were chosen, this year’s title seemed to have some ground to make up out of the gate. With the team behind fan-favorite Black Flag helming this London adventure, what follows does prove that this new assassin machine can work even if there are still some kinks to sort out.

“Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, at its core, feels like Unity done correctly…”

One of the main kinks is the story; protagonists Jacob and Evie Frye may be some of the most clichéd characters with the least reason to take over a city in Assassin’s Creed history. Their short prologue gives you every bit of exposition you can handle except for their reason for going to London, leaving it to the player to make up a reason. The twins are different in the predictable ways – Jacob a ruffian, Evie a planner – and while their conflict technically builds to something, it feels like such a flatline issue that their personal journey just seems wasted by the end.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate
That’s a bear, ya’ll.

Originality

The story of London and their subsequent takeover isn’t much better, but it is ripe with some interesting characters and events at least. Main baddie Crawford Starrick only ever seems evil by proxy, doing very little to convince the player of the in-world hatred shared by common folk thanks to his direct actions. Sequences are usually tied to specific links in his empirical chain, leading to some worth-while interactions and motivations. The most interesting part of the story is how your actions as the twins do have effects on the world around you, making you engage with the city even if it is just a momentary event. It’s the fact that reciprocity exists in the game, that you’re not just the equivalent of a ghost to these London denizens, that feels unique to the series and welcome.

The story of Abstergo outside of the simulation is the definition of threadbare. The included database does give you some answers, but it adds up to nothing gained and nothing explained by the end. Inside the simulation, there are quite a few references to the series’ past protagonists and their work, which makes sense given that Assassin’s Creed Syndicate takes place furthest in the timeline to date. That kind of nod is appreciated given how much a part of history both sides of this ages-old war supposedly are, and boy, did the assassins ever help out with things during this time period. Historical figure appearances, popular and less recognizable alike, come at every turn and rise to Assassin’s Creed III levels. This amount of historical tampering feels excessive and unneeded, especially when Ubisoft’s original characters are almost always the best ones in their games as is the case here.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

Gameplay

Standard movement underwent a big change for the series in Unity, and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate features the refinement and maturation of that system. Running up and down buildings feels more precise than ever while combat has been given an extra layer of brutality atop the simple system. You still have your punch-counter style with mostly one-on-one encounters, but your array of secondary weapons mixes well with visceral finishers to create variety and a way out of the hairiest scenarios. Drivable buggies control well enough and can lend you a moving battleground to limit enemies, even if it isn’t exactly satisfying to ram a lifeless buggy into a wall repeatedly. One of the best additions to the series is the rope launcher, allowing you to zipline or, more probably, hop straight to the top of buildings and massive landmarks. Auto-scaling straight to the top of synch points feels great and like a new series staple that this game introduces wonderfully, lending another option to straight climbs of which London has plenty.

The other best additions to come from Assassin’s Creed Syndicate are the main assassinations and Gang Wars without a doubt. Main targets are now the assassin versions of heists, taking multiple steps to plan around the target while on the scene. Extra targets may open up a window of opportunity, or you can loot a key for a back entrance, or just plow straight through security to victory; there feels like far more reasonable options for taking out targets than ever before. Gang Wars are set as these climactic, inner-city brawls between the leader of an opposing gang and yourself, Gangs of New York style. The higher level the zone, the larger the opposing force, and the more attention you have to pay to your gang upgrades to make sure your Rooks are up for the challenge. While these are pretty darn awesome and a highlight of the experience, they’re also only available after taking out every mini-territory in a section of the map with the sections sometimes filled with over a dozen territorial zones. Plus, Bounty Hunter missions are a sore thumb standout as the worst mission available in these zones, making the grind through feel heightened when those are all that’s left between you and another gang dust-up.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate
These are still pretty darn cool.

That aforementioned difference between Jacob and Evie doesn’t carry over so well into gameplay. In fact, there are very, very few differences between the two at all. Evie can sneak marginally better than Jacob while he is built to be just slightly tougher than her in a scrap but that’s about it. Both have their own missions and their own inventories but do thankfully share experience and cash, and for some reason cannot be messed with as you are the other sibling. You have to pause, click to the other twin, pause again, make whatever adjustments you’d like, then switch in the pause menu to return to your character. You can see some superfluous steps in there. The actual differences between the twins are buried in the skill tree that is the exact same for both until you reach the bottom. Only then do Evie and Jacob assume their predetermined roles in stealth and combat, but the game may be nearly over for you come then.

This stands as a solely single-player game with only Ubisoft Club, microtransactions, and community events even marking that you’re online. As such, there are plenty of missions and unlockables to keep your gang busy, a lot of both involving those popular historical figures and gaining the favor of allies city-wide. You are rewarded with new weapons, crafting materials, blueprints and more as you break the loyalty barriers of each character, not to mention XP and further cash rewards along the way. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate continues the tradition of the series in the absence of tremendous mission variety, but the combat and movement lend you enough options for the experience to not feel stale too early. Your train hideout, it has to be said, feels like a constantly-moving, useless blight on the game. There is almost nothing on the locomotive that isn’t available in menus from anywhere in the city, and it can actively take you away from objective markers when fast-travel is made unavailable.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

Environment

London and its boroughs are presented with varying levels of artistry and beauty. The environment itself is full of looping life and enough detail to feel unique in the series, even if a lot of the city suffers from a sense of sameness after a while. Cutscenes are almost always just a series of close-up shots that show off the detail of the character models, especially the Frye twins themselves and their main adversary. Damage to buggies – chipped away wood and paint, broken wheels – is awesomely detailed and even changes your speed and bumpiness of the ride, both feeling like thoughtful touches. On the flipside, you may see a lot of repeated models on the same street and neither your nor the enemy gang has more than 4 or 5 different looking soldiers to send into battle. Sweeping camera shots around map synchronizations still retain their beauty and highlight areas for you before leaping into a soft pile, adding another reason to fast travel and attain that high vantage.

Also on the technical side, there are still plenty of bugs and glitches to speak of though none of them reach Unity levels. Some from hilarity – character models not loading in cutscenes, a floating man – and some from frustration – checkpoints not loading, inexplicable desynchronization. Their affect on the world is, sadly, expected at this point with none of this series’s entries being touted as an example of QA done well, but the mission glitches that force restarts should not be expected. This is a patch fix away, but early players are going to have to deal with the new norm of bugs and glitches that Assassin’s Creed Syndicate carries forth.

In this year when The Phantom Pain took a different approach to stealth, Ubisoft had to come out swinging to show that their own sleuthing franchise wasn’t going to be left behind. What’s delivered here doesn’t feel like much new for the genre, but what is present has been refined and shows that the big changes last year can work in a proper environment. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, at its core, feels like Unity done correctly on a gameplay level. There is a lot that still doesn’t work and the development team never really seems to have time to go that extra mile that’d bring this series back to its heyday, but the entertainment from the gameplay is worth the price of admission despite this buggy’s lame wheel.

Final Thoughts

Despite the lack-luster story of the Fryes’ rise, Assassin’s Creed Unity bolsters the ideas of last year with some new, worthwhile additions keeping the franchise fight-ready.

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