Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
Ubisoft Quebec / Ubisoft
Reviewed in: Xbox One
Also on: PS4, PC
Street: 10.23 (PC: 11.19)
There was a time when I was an enthusiastic Assassin’s Creed fan. As a budding history buff, the 2007 debut title piqued my interest with the possibility of exploring places like Jerusalem, Acre and Damascus during the Third Crusade. More games kept coming and I kept playing them. I was intrigued enough by the story’s bizarre left turn, but the further down the rabbit hole I went, the more I found myself asking, “Wait … what?” Upon completing Assassin’s Creed III, rather than even ask myself the same question, I stepped away from the franchise a little disappointed.
Recalled to Life
Eight years later, we’ve finally arrived at Assassin’s Creed Syndicate—the ninth product to the core series and the spark of my renewed interest. After the events of ACIII, the present day protagonist structure shifted from a third-person experience to first-person. You play as an Initiate, part of a hacker sub collective under the Assassin Brotherhood umbrella, tasked with searching history yet again for another relic designed by the Isu—an ancient civilization responsible for the creation of the human race. The plot simultaneously follows Jacob and Evie Frye, Assassin twins in Victorian era London as well as the modern day escapades of Shaun Hastings and Rebecca Crane who are agents in the struggling Assassin Brotherhood determined to undo the schemes of the Knights Templar. A word of advice: If you’ve taken a break similar to mine, I recommend you supplement those missing games by sifting through general plot threads so you won’t feel terribly lost—well, more lost than you might be by simply playing the game.
The game’s tutorial mission introduces the controls and foundational mechanics by sabotaging machinery, thus provoking nearby guards to open a locked door. As I crank the last wheel, workers shout for repairs, but immediately I’m questioning why no one confronts me or cries, “Who’s this bloke fiddling with shit he shouldn’t?” It’s not as though I infiltrated with only a cardboard box and my wits. It’s apparent I’m a bit rusty with terrain traversal, but by the time I reach London, I feel more competent in my abilities to do the “hokey pokey.” Independent to each of the Fryes, there are now new skills, upgrades and crafting materials to unlock with experience. The previous titles dipped their toes in this pool with the ability to modify equipment and build the Brotherhood; Syndicate finally jumps in, offering an enjoyable first effort at a mechanic, which I suspect will evolve to something stronger.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is the first game in the series which enables players to swap between protagonists on the fly—excluding missions specific to their character arcs. I noticed early on how much I preferred playing Evie Frye over her male counterpart. Encounters with Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens reinforce why it’s so easy to connect with Evie: She’s the more focused of the two, radiating with charm and grace. For most of the game, Jacob Frye is an arrogant and abrasive protagonist to whom I found it difficult to relate. Given the intimidatingly thorough encyclopedic database, I expected some specific backstory trauma festering into a need to prove himself to the point of being detrimental to the bigger picture, but the info hub provides only smatterings of dead parents and athletic tendencies. It isn’t until much later in Syndicate—just shy of the end actually—that Jacob approaches tolerability. Sadly that breakthrough occurs just in time for the credits to roll on their story.
Virtues Carried to Excess
You only get a fleeting impression of the game’s truly massive size the first time you open up the map. It wasn’t until I clambered atop the Elizabeth Tower—not unlike the Caped Crusader—that the scale really sank in. The downside is that another open world game means more errands to run and checklists to fill. For someone familiar with what the AC series brings to the table, this is a minor deterrent, but with so many worlds to explore, who really has the time?
My biggest criticism with the series is that while it certainly is an impressively large and beautiful world, getting around it was often tedious and unintuitive—the biggest selling point of the Assassin’s Creed franchise is by far the most clumsy. The crowning achievement with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is how much smoother it is to scale buildings and travel across rooftops like a cat in the night. I attribute 90 percent of this to the addition of the grappling hook. If there’s any singular improvement in AC history behind which I can rally, it’s this glorious device. Conversely, from a list of issues that test my patience beyond reason, carriage driving bolts to the top. I spent an unreasonable amount of time retrying missions, not to placate my inner perfectionist, but because every attempt to navigate the streets of London with my Rooks was cumbersome at best.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate definitely improves upon the majority of the series’ shortcomings, though it fails to add anything substantial. The series’ foundation is starting to crack under the strain inflicted by the bloat of annualization. I believe the narrative would flourish if Ubisoft just waited an additional year between releases, though I wish that timeline was closer to three years. Considering the extensive catalog of the Assassin’s Creed universe, incoherent plot devices and suffocated ideas make it increasingly difficult to see the forest for the trees. The series has so much self-referential history—not counting the real world history inspiring it—that it’s easy to be overwhelmed. I appreciate that each mission allows players to rate the experience, indicating that the developers care about user experience on a case-by-case basis; I only hope that this doesn’t sanitize future iterations. All things said, however, I had fun exploring Victorian London. The beautiful, yet smog-injected scenery in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was lovely to look at with much to offer, and the sibling bickering was entertaining—Jacob and Evie are some the best written ancestors in series history. If you have the spare money and the time, give it a try. Just pay no attention to the ancient civilization behind the curtain.