Game Review: Assassin's Creed Syndicate

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After a few lean offerings in the Assassin’s Creed stable, Syndicate continues the work begun in Black Flag in returning the series to the things which drew gamers in years ago – and keeps it as a fun blast through Olde Londontown.

Syndicate sees you play as twins Jacob and Evie Frye in the heart of the industrial revolution – London, 1868. The evil Templar have taken control of London, and you’re there to bring them down. You can choose to play either character with no real disadvantage – and personality-wise they’re great. Jacob is the guy obsessed with action and chaos, wanting to kick in the front door and take people down head on. Evie is a strong female character who’s task-focused and mindful of the big picture, with a stronger emphasis on stealth elements.

Both of these are character types are tropes and a bit of a let down - though they work, it could be a little less obvious. It’s likely Evie’s inclusion (and that of female villains) is a direct response to the controversy Ubisoft attracted online as SJWs protested the lack of female protagonists in Assassin’s Creed Unity and Far Cry 4 last year, and some ill-thought out public comments by a Ubisoft employee spawned #womenaretoohardtoanimate. But both areas feel obviously tokenistic, and are such obvious lip service to the idea it’s almost demeaning.

The campaign has a solid, if not spectacular, storyline that stretches the relationship of the twins to the limit, with a very good villain and enough twists to keep the stay entertaining while avoiding any sense of cliché or lazy writing. It contains enough to keep those die-hard AC fans engaged, but new converts to the series aren’t going to walk away thinking they’ve seen something genre-defining.

But that’s okay, because that’s what AC is. Jumping on for an hour or so to parkour your way through historical environments and stab people from hay bales, rooftops, and the like is the entire attraction of AC, and it caters to the casual audience. It’s not intended as a Fallout-esque take-three-days-off-work-and-binge game. So having a storyline which feels more like a Saturday-morning cartoon than a Noah Hawley-penned drama is totally acceptable and it hits this metric well.

It’s noteworthy Ubisoft decided to avoid multiplayer in this game and it feels way more focused and polished as a result. Sure, you may only play through it once or twice but the great plot will leave you feeling rewarded and not missing grinding away in multiplayer to try and unlock some cosmetic upgrade.

Optional side-missions contain all the core Ubisoft ideas – climb up this tall thing to unlock the map for an area, go to this place and eliminate all enemies to take control of it, that kind of stuff. If you’ve played any Ubisoft game in the past three years you’ll know exactly what these are - and how they manage to offer just big enough a reward to make them worthwhile, even as you’re groaning “not this AGAIN”. This cookie-cutter approach to side missions has merits in making all their games accessible to someone new to the series, but equally has started to earn them a little resentment among those who play most of their games.

Syndicate also keeps the simple but effective control process which makes AC games fun to blast through for an hour or two – hold a button to climb buildings, press different buttons in combat to have fights between enemies across a 360 degree range of motion (they still only attack one at a time, but to Ubisoft’s credit, they realise this – one early boss even pokes fun at it).

The experience of industrial-age London is incredible, from climbing the clock-face Big Ben to hopping across barges on the Thames, it’s difficult to just head to the next mission without getting sidetracked by historic parkour jaunts. The city looks incredible and well detailed, and though it’s huge, you’re not left wandering for hours to try and get to the other side – you have your own train that can navigate the map, as well as the ability to hijack a horse-drawn carriage and gallop around the cobbled streets.

Very early in the game, you also unlock a new grappling hook type feature, letting you zipline to the top of buildings much faster than the tradition climb option, like a gothic Spider-Man. It’s a little confusing to have so many new travel options in one game - especially as carriages are slower than the grappling hook and lack the same kind of movement freedom. They’re essentially rendered a hinderance unlikely to be used for anything other than in the story missions, when you’re shoehorned into them and forced to outrun enemies by either swerving your carriage into them until they are destroyed or escaping (driving in circles around a block works wonders for this second one).

Another new feature is the gang function – essentially, Jacob Frye is obsessed with using London’s last remaining vestiges of rebellion to take down the establishment. Recruiting them is as simple as walking up to someone wearing green and tapping a bumper. They can be used in story missions – point at an enemy and tell them to attack and you’ll have a nice wee distraction as you creep past to take out the big boss. This is a bit of a gimmick, though, and doesn’t really serve much point as you can do the missions pretty easily without them.

There is a lot more to do in AC than just the main story, with a host of side missions probably three times the length of the plot which sees you trying to wrestle back control of London from the Templars. While they do get a little repetitive, there’s a range of different mission options to help keep things fresh as well – you don’t have to grind through one particular type of side mission again and again. History buffs can also look forward to cameos from a host of recognisable figures, like Alexander Graham Bell, Karl Marx, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, and Florence Nightingale.

It’s pretty clear Ubisoft has taken an inward look following mediocre offerings in the recent past – and not just among the AC franchise – and made an attempt to correct them. That is commendable in its own right, but even more so for how much better Syndicate is as a result.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate
On PS4 | Xbox One | PC

Publisher Ubisoft
Developer Ubisoft, Ubisoft Quebec
Genre Adventure, Action, Stealth
Players 1+
Rating R13
Released 23 October 2015

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