Review: Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (PS4)
Since the incredibly poor reception of Assassin’s Creed 3 in 2012, attitudes towards the series have been tepid at best. The ships in AC4 made the game somewhat enjoyable but many had already been put off, and the broken mess that was AC: Unity last year further reinforced the opinions of the people who felt that Ubisoft should just throw in the towel. Deciding to ignore the recommendations to take a break from the annual release model, they pressed on and threw us headfirst into London at the height of the industrial revolution. This time around, they’ve changed up the formula by giving us two playable protagonists, the twins Jacob and Evie Frye, as they strive to abolish the Templar hold over a city that stands at the very heart of 19th century industry.
The Worst Fryes in London
Breaking away from the usual Assassin’s Creed formula, twins Jacob and Evie Frye are already high-ranking Assassins at the start of the game and there is no tale of revenge that leads them to the Order. Evie and Jacob are described as the 2 most competent Assassins in London, raised to follow the Creed by their father. Evie was a doting daughter and student, hanging onto her late father’s teachings and implementing them in every aspect of her work for the Assassins, while Jacob was always more foolhardy and hot-headed, choosing instead to regard the tenets of the Creed as guidelines rather than a rigid set of rules. Unfortunately, the trend of weak stories that has plagued the series since the end of the Ezio arc continues in Syndicate. Although we are thankfully spared the angst-filled protagonist out for vengeance on the Templars because reasons, which Ubisoft seems to love, the story is unimaginative and familiar. Jacob and Evie must eliminate a cruel and ego-maniacal Templar leader who has a stranglehold on London, and if this sounds familiar to you, it’s because it’s more or less the premise of every other game in the series with the exception of Rogue and AC 1. The personalities of the twins are interesting, with Jacob as quite a “lad” who loves a good scrap and Evie who is cunning and intelligent, and their banter can be quite funny at times, but there is very little in the way of character development and I felt that there was so much that could have been done with their characters but the potential was wasted.
19th century London is by far the most beautifully crafted city that Ubisoft has shown us thus far. Sharp, Gothic architecture creates a breath-taking skyline in the richer areas like Westminster and is contrasted with dingy, smokey slums like White Chapel. The massive divide between rich and poor is highlighted not only by the buildings but also the attire and general attitude of the populous. With that said, there are a few graphical annoyances that take away from the game’s beauty. Many of the NPCs are of the copy/paste variety with every brute being a big, bald man; every sniper being a woman with dark hair; every lookout as a slight man in a bowler hat and so on. Of course, there are also the numerous graphical bugs and glitches that, although nowhere near as terrible as they were in Unity, still result in some very strange moments. Clipping issues resulted in me ending up stuck inside a wall or carriage a number of times, forcing me to reload from the last checkpoint, and in some cases textures and character models would disappear entirely from cut-scenes.
Although the musical composition that accompanies all of the previous entries is absent from Syndicate, the soundtrack is one of the best I’ve ever heard in a game, and I’d even go as far as saying that it could rival some of the Final Fantasy titles. The classical music changes, depending on which borough you’re in, and helps to build an atmosphere appropriate to each area; with a faster and more upbeat (ironically) tune for poorer areas; and slower, “classier” compositions for richer areas. The sounds of steam-trains and horns from the boats on the bustling Thames ring out periodically, a constant reminder that you’re in the city that serves as the backbone of a global industry. The dialogue is also very dependent on the area with NPCs in richer boroughs sporting the posh London accent that you’d hear in something like Downton Abbey while the slums are populated by folks who favour a bit of cockney slang, further emphasising the divide that existed during the industrial revolution.
Off ya trolley
The gameplay is a bit of an amalgamation of many of the aspects that made earlier entries enjoyable. Many of the mechanics from Unity have returned and have been refined, making parkour more fluid and intuitive than ever before. Climbing up and down buildings has never been as easy as it is in Syndicate but the introduction of the rope-launcher has also made it a lot of fun. Climbing up the tallest buildings in London can be done in just a few short seconds by standing at the base and hitting the L1 button, and it can be used as a zipline to span the distances between rooftops, meaning that you rarely have to touch the ground. In addition to the rope launcher, Syndicate also introduces carriages which can be hijacked or stolen anywhere in London and they give the game a bit of a GTA feel.
The carriages are not as difficult to control as I thought they’d be, handling very similarly to cars in other open-world games, and climbing onto the roof to engage in a fist-fight with pursuing Templars makes you feel like a 19th century Steven Seagal. The RPG-light elements from Unity have also returned with different equipment granting unique attributes, such as increased damage or stealth, and outfits that augment your eagle-vision or increase the number of tools you have at your disposal. Crafting items such as weapons and armour can be done by finding materials in chests scattered around the city, completing activities, or purchasing them with a credit card. Also making a very welcome return is the whistle ability that was introduced in Black Flag, but was sorely missed in Unity. Coupled with the dedicated stealth mode that was introduced to the series last year and Evie’s invisibility, a quiet approach is a far more viable, and satisfying, than ever.
Over and above the story missions, there is plenty to do in London and Ubisoft has added a lot of new types of activities and side-missions, many of which involving influential historical figures such as Darwin, Dickins, and Queen Victoria. The main focus of the game is on liberating the various boroughs from a Templar gang known as The Blighters and this can be done by performing liberation tasks within each area. These tasks include activities such as rescuing child-workers from factories, kidnapping Blighters for a bounty, and good old-fashioned assassination missions. Completing these tasks will raise your reputation with various allies that you meet along the way and as your reputation increases, you are given access to better weapons and equipment. As is often the case with the Assassin’s Creed games, however, these tasks become repetitive very quickly with each of them playing out almost identically to the last. For instance, every child liberation mission requires you to kill the factory’s foreman, sabotage the alarm and press circle near a group of children. Rinse and repeat for success. Liberating these areas also gives your gang, The Rooks, complete control of the borough and they can be recruited to drive your carriages, serve as a distraction, or even just as bit of backup when you feel like getting into a brawl.
Although I quite liked how the kidnapping mechanic could aid in providing mobile cover from guards, I found the bounty missions to be quite a chore because not only do you have to walk painfully slowly to avoid attracting attention, the person you’re kidnapping says the exact same line of dialogue over and over again at very short intervals. One of these missions took place quite far from the road where I had to shove the person into a carriage and I had to actually mute the sound because he just kept repeating, “Who are you? What do you want from me?” every 3-4 seconds. Once you’ve completed all of the liberation tasks in a borough, you’ll need to participate in a gang war, which is essentially just a large street brawl, to solidify your control of the area. Before that however, you will have an opportunity to kill the gang leader in charge of said borough and successfully eliminating them makes the gang war substantially easier. As a PS4 exclusive, players also have the chance to solve murder mysteries similar to those in Unity, and although they don’t contribute to your control of the boroughs, they are still quite fun if you’re fond of puzzle solving.
Since the beginning of the Assassin’s Creed series, there has always been an emphasis on stealth but the freedom has always been there should you choose a more heavy-handed approach and murder everyone in sight. As I mentioned earlier, Jacob and Evie have very different personalities and those personalities are reflected in what that character does best.
Jacob is more confrontational and is a much stronger fighter who specialises in dishing out, as well as mitigating, a lot of damage in a brawl, and is therefor the better choice when participating in gang wars or fight clubs. Evie is more agile and stealthy with one of her character-specific abilities allowing her to become completely invisible in stealth mode, making her the obvious choice when you’d rather not attract a lot of attention. Regardless of your preferred approach, Jacob and Evie share ability points, crafting materials, and money, so you won’t hinder one character’s development by spending too much time playing with the other. You can switch between them at will during free-roam and all of the liberation activities and income opportunities; such as fight clubs, cargo hijacks, and races; can be completed with either character. Most of the side and story missions, however, are character specific and the game will automatically switch to the appropriate character when you initiate them.
Like Unity, there is very little focus on present day events, with only a few video clips of Shaun and Rebecca on the run from a group of Templars whilst tracking down an artifact from the precursor society. The Juno story that was introduced in the Ezio story arc remains largely neglected and I can’t help but feel that Ubisoft have written themselves into a corner and aren’t entirely sure where they hope this story will lead. I know that a lot of people didn’t enjoy the present-day missions in the older entries of the series but I’m still holding onto the hope that we will eventually see some development on that front because I think that it has a lot of potential for the overall story.
Horses for Courses
There seems to be 2 types of Assassin’s Creed fans: those who hated Arno and the French revolution, and those like myself who find themselves repeatedly saying, “I actually liked Unity” and receiving a response of utter disgust. Sure, the bugs and glitches were a pain but the parkour had been overhauled for the better, the massive crowds helped to illustrate the tension of the time period, and Ubisoft introduced a lot of interesting new mission types. Many of those elements have returned in Syndicate and while the game is not perfect, it’s still very enjoyable and there is a lot of fun things to do to occupy your time in England’s capital. Whether you’re a die-hard fan of the series or you haven’t played the series in a few years and were looking at getting back into it, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate will be right up your alley. If, however, you feel that the series has gotten stale and you didn’t get much enjoyment from Unity last year, you may want to give this one a miss.