(Copy supplied by publisher, minor spoilers follow)
The Assassin’s Creed franchise represents much about the gaming industry. It represents the big budget, action-orientated spectacles, but unfortunately it’s also come to represent the shallow, fetch-heavy plot line, as well as characters that the script barely allows to breath.
Let us take a brief look back on the history of the historical-based series. Assassin’s Creed: Unity launched last year to laughter from the around the globe. The game could barely run properly and featured a range of glitches, the most notorious of which had people’s faces disappearing. The year before that, Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag had a fantastic protagonist, but a sparsely populated open world and an easy combat system.
With these two latest examples in the back of our minds, let us now venture forth and analyse Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Ubisoft’s latest blood-soaked offering. The game is set against the harsh background of Victorian London, and for those who know their history, this certainly wasn’t a happy time for the common folk of the city, not unlike last year’s French Revolution setting in Unity.
However unlike Unity, Syndicate actually utilises the harsh reality very well, using it to further the motivations of various characters (no spoilers here), as well as justify the gangs roaming the streets, something the urban entries in the series have struggled with in the past. Workhouses clog up the poorer areas of the map, while dark smoke from said factories blot out the sun, effectively giving quite an atmosphere to Syndicate in some areas.
With the two leads of the game, Jacob and Evie Frye, it really is a tale of two siblings. Jacob is evidently the more hot-headed of the two, while Evie is the one who would rather do things by the book, and is more concerned about saving London than killing the Templar leaders. Because of this, both siblings regularly separate onto their own missions, and while this gives a new dynamic to the plot line, it also works to undo some of the great chemistry that they have, with the siblings actually able to go for prolonged periods without even referencing, let alone seeing, one another.
Both Jacob and Evie also have different capabilities, and as their personalities might suggest, Jacob is more suited to combat while Evie works better in the shadows. I actually really like this move from Ubisoft, as it essentially gives you two completely different vehicles to play around with, and this works very well on the missions where you can use the sibling of your choice. That being said, it’s quite unfortunate that while Evie represents something completely new and more advanced, Jacob really feels like older iterations of leading characters, which only works to make him feel slightly more redundant.
I really should just take a minute to congratulate Ubisoft on creating such an entertaining character with Evie Frye, and also give a congratulations on a great performance from Victoria Atkin as said character. Evie really breaths life into Syndicate, and her missions are far more entertaining than Jacob’s. Sadly, Ubisoft dedicate the majority of the later stages of the plot to Jacob, as well as giving him the great Charles Dickens plot line, and the game really does suffer when Evie is absent for prolonged periods of time.
The extensive customisation system for both characters returns from Unity, only it feels a lot more fleshed out this time. While you can assign various different items to each character to boost their attributed in things like attack, defence and stealth, you can also craft items, giving the player more motivation to go around the map hunting for those pesky, elusive chests to open. Speaking of the map, while it’s arguably bigger than any in the series before, everything is actually nicely spaced out, giving the player a bigger sense of freedom that Unity was severely lacking.
Where the variety and personalities make both the siblings soar to a degree, the plot feels like a complete let down in comparison. I really feel like Assassin’s Creed games always put the plot behind the action and location of the game in importance, but it’s beginning to become blatantly obvious with this entry. The villain is Crawford Starrick, a man who sits behind a desk bellowing for 90% of the game, making hollow threats against his various cohorts while also never revealing his motivations or the extent of his control over London.
This also sadly impacts both Jacob and Evie’s motivations, since because Starrick is never anything more than a shallow, underwritten character, you never understand Jacob’s motivations for wanting to take him down so badly. Honestly, Starrick could have Parliament and the police force in his pocket, and you’d still never know the reason why Jacon needs to kill him so badly. The villains of the series are becoming an utter laughing stock for the Assassin’s Creed games, merely being there purely to give the protagonist something to aim for.
Aside from the main plot of the game, there are also a wealth of side quests for various factions that players can undertake. These missions include liberating children from manual labour, hunting down every member of a gang in a stronghold, and capturing a bounty target. All these missions gain you loyalty with a certain ally, and item rewards for the loyalty levels make the somewhat repetitive missions feel slightly more rewarding. The gang war missions that you can engage in after completing every side mission in a borough of London are quite entertaining, and clearly take influence from Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.
And now, time to focus on what matters most for the Assassin’s Creed series: the stealth. This is a truly grey area for the game, mainly because you’ve got so many factors (mechanics, glitches, missions objectives) affecting how players choose to utilise the stealth in the game. Firstly, the mechanics of the game are solid, if a little tiresome for veterans of the series. Yes, being able to quickly scale down buildings instead of dropping off is still a blessing, but there really isn’t anything new from Ubisoft this year.
Secondly, the mission objectives and stealth really don’t work in conjunction with one another. A good amount of the mission are open ended, but it’s quite obvious that Syndicate would really rather players used stealth to their advantage, particularly since so many of the bonus objectives for the mission are based around either not being spotted or not killing anyone. However Syndicate has absolutely no means of punishing players for not playing how the developers intend they play. If I need to reach an objective and go through a ton of enemies but also then be anonymous to interact with said objective, absolutely nothing is stopping me from killing everyone in my way to be anonymous for when I reach the objective, instead of taking my time to carefully manoeuvre through the area.
Aside from stealth, the actually combat of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is very similar to what Unity offered us the previous year. Veterans of the Batman Arkham series will be at home here, with the combat taking some cues like blocking and counterattacking from those games. However the use of the pistol almost screws up everything that the combat gets right, as players can essentially mash the quick-shoot button and mow down the majority of enemies standing in front of them. It’s quite disappointing that Ubisoft can let a relatively new combat factor potentially be so disrupting, and the pistol really can make players feel invincible.
And now, for your honorary glitch mention of the year. It feels slightly sad that almost every review of an Assassin’s Creed game will have a section dedicated to the glitches within the game, but after the train wreck that was Unity, what more could you expect? To say Syndicate has its fair share of glitches is an understatement. All you need to do is YouTube or Google the glitches within Syndicate to have ample evidence of this, but I myself have encountered a number of glitches within the game, ranging from Evie replicas to repeatedly falling through the world. What a shame.
In this day and age, with the obviously high budget that Assassin’s Creed games have, you’d expect something of a quality more akin to The Witcher 3 or maybe even Metal Gear Solid V. The reason we aren’t getting such a high quality Assassin’s Creed game? Ubisoft. The company is determined to milk this franchise for all it’s worth, pushing games out of the door on a yearly schedule to make the most money possible. This is the reason we see so many repetitive features and glitches, and barely any innovation in the series nowadays. It’s a true shame, considering the highs that Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brotherhood once achieved.
I really feel like there’s a good game just dying to get out here, but Ubisoft constantly stifle this by sticking to what they know and playing it safe. While Jacob is a fairly standard character, Evie is far more entertaining and fleshed out, and this combined with a fairly standard combat and stealth system give the game a good core on which to build. Unfortunately, it never builds on such promise, with a cartoonish villain and an absent plot, as well as mission objectives that can make the stealth system almost redundant.
Now, where’s my spinoff Evie game?