I was not as negative on Assassin’s Creed Unity as others were — It was flawed, but I thought the Assassinations were closer to something out of the Hitman series and were a little more elaborate than in past games, and the changes to the control scheme were welcome. As time marches on, so does the Assassin’s Creed series it seems. The 8th Assassin’s Creed game (9th if you count Liberation) in the last 6 years is upon us with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. This time, the game takes place in 1860’s London, and you play as the brother-sister combination of Jacob and Evie Frye.
I’m not sure if Syndicate’s representation of London is accurate. To be quite honest, after Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, it has felt like they’ve put a lot less care into making the cities seem like they have a lot of unique areas. That being said, it works out as an Assassin’s Creed city because it has a bunch of tall buildings. And now with the new rope dart– which allows you to make makeshift zip-lines across the roofs of buildings, you never have to get back on the ground. After Brotherhood, most of the cities in the series had this problem where the buildings weren’t connected, and made the free-running disjointed, but thankfully this problem has been resolved.
The free-running control scheme in Syndicate works great. It retains the free-run up/down paradigm that was in Unity. But now they’ve added a wrinkle in that the rope dart which allows you to instantly slingshot yourself up a building. To be quite honest, I’m not a huge fan of the series trivializing free-running and climbing buildings as they’ve seemed to have done ever since Assassin’s Creed II. I actually was a fan of the slow building climbing in the first game, and how climbing every building felt like a mini puzzle up until Brotherhood. Ultimately this is not why I like or hate the game directly, but I just don’t feel connected to any of the buildings in the city as I did in the earlier games because I did have to climb up every inch of those buildings and soak in the glory of their architecture.
The biggest real issue with the control scheme is weapon switching. In earlier games in the series you could bring up a weapon wheel which paused the game and let you switch to the weapon you wanted in one action. Now you have to cycle through your weapons (without the game pausing) on the d-pad. I hit several frustrating moments in the game where I wanted to switch weapons, but never was able to, because I knew if I had tried fumbling around to get the right weapon, I’d probably be killed while doing that.
In contrast to recent open world stealth action games like Metal Gear and Shadow of Mordor, the mission design in Syndicate feels a little Shallow and scripted. You have to follow everything the game asks of you to a T. Sometimes, Syndicate seems like it wants to be Shadow of Mordor by letting you get to an area to find your target. But unlike Mordor (where the area your target could be in was quite large), the act of finding your target in Syndicate is never as deep and satisfying. Many times you’ll get to the area and instantly see your target. And most Assassinations end up boiling down to running up to the target and killing them, or jumping on the target and killing them. You don’t have the need or even the ability to get creative with the ways you assassinate your targets, which is probably the biggest shame with this game.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate now has a leveling system where you gain XP and level up Jacob and Evie, and you’re even able to pick skills for your character (much like Shadow of Mordor).
Syndicate also has a couple of proper boss fights which are not fun and are quite infuriating. When I got to the first one of these, I was under-leveled for the fight by one level. But it wasn’t obvious to me that this memory would be almost impossible to beat, as previously in the game anything I was under by one level I was able to complete with a little skill. I had to quit out of the memory, spend an hour or so leveling up (with the help of an XP boost– through Ubisoft Club you get enough in-game currency to buy your first 2 hour XP boost for free), then replay the whole memory again to beat it.
The combat is different, but I don’t enjoy it more than previous games. The game feels more Batman/Mordor like in its combat with its heavy focus on stunning and countering opponents, and having to hit enemies multiple times before killing them. But I kind of felt like I was mashing my way through the game instead of skillfully fighting. I found myself getting locked into animations which made countering and stunning problematic and not fun at all. Sure, the combat in previous games like Brotherhood and Black Flag could have used some challenge, but not like this. The combat in those games had an enjoyable flow that I didn’t find in Syndicate.
Syndicate’s visuals are great. I was impressed by the facial animations as well. It’s on the level of the stuff you see from other top-notch studios like Naughty Dog. I also enjoyed the performance particularly from the main villain, Crawford Starrick. Evie and Jacob were serviceable main characters but I never fully was emotionally invested in either of their stories. And speaking of the story– it is slow to get going and doesn’t pick up until the latter half of the game.
The much maligned uPlay seems to have been repackaged as Ubisoft Club now, but it’s not any less broken. I had serious problems redeeming my in-game Syndicate rewards in the Xbox One Ubisoft Club app. I had to keep cancelling out of and then relaunching the redeem dialog before it would let me redeem my rewards.
Assassin’s Creed games have a current day meta-narrative that wraps around the story in the past, and Syndicate continues this. The current day stuff is actually more significant than Unity, but ultimately it’s still pretty minimal. As a fan of the current day story in past games, it’s a shame. I’d still like to see them finish the threads they opened in Assassin’s Creed III & Black Flag. Game design in 2015 has moved beyond Assassin’s Creed with deeper and more dynamic experiences. If you really love Assassin’s Creed, you can probably lose yourself in this game and enjoy it– it can be comfort food at times. But it’s also not the pinnacle of storytelling or mission design for this series, let alone for 2015.
An Xbox One code was provided by the publisher for review purposes.