Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is the game that Assassin’s Creed fans – and critics, to some extent – have been demanding for around five years.
Ever since Ezio Auditore da Firenze’s storyline wrapped up in Revelations and the setting of Assassin’s Creed III in the US at the dawn of the revolution was greeted with as much enthusiasm as a tax audit, fans of Ubisoft’s historical franchise have been unequivocal in their desires.
“Set Assassin’s Creed in Victorian London and give us a steampunk-themed killbox.”
Syndicate, then, is fan service, and considering the fact that it’s the latest instalment in Ubisoft’s most bankable franchise, it should be an absolute knock-out.
The fact that it isn’t demonstrates that the Assassin’s Creed game franchise is in dire need of a break.
To start with, let’s be clear about the fact that Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate isn’t a bad game. Given the size and talent of the pool of developers working on it, it’s likely Ubisoft is incapable at this stage of producing a bad Assassin’s Creed game – and yes, that includes Unity because once its bugs were ironed out, it was rather splendid.
The problem is that Syndicate just isn’t a particularly good game. The new features it contains aren’t all that innovative or remarkable and for the most part its core mechanics and experience march in lockstep with previous iterations. Playing Syndicate is an all-too-familiar experience. It’s draw is very much the same of that of a jigsaw with an end picture one doesn’t care too much for in that you continue poking at it simply so you can finish it. Then you move on.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate – Plot
The game’s plot doesn’t resonate much; players control a pair of twins – Evie and Jacob Frye – who want to liberate London from the stranglehold of the Templars. This entails a lot of assassinating, a lot of gang fights and a lot of peripheral activities such as bounty hunting, freeing children from workhouses, hunting down Templars and… well… more gang fights.
Syndicate fills out the rest of the map with point-to-point races, some ‘secrets of London’ collectibles, some side-quests and fight clubs but they’re all pretty light on substance. The main drive for the player is in taking over London from a gang called The Blighters (yes, really) and removing an unsightly red hue from the in-game map. The environment is filled with a smorgasbord of collectibles – chests, helixes, Eagle-Viewpoints and the like – but these are diversions from the main narrative, which is one of Syndicate’s biggest disappointments.
The plot is unmarred by nuance or layers. It’s essentially: “Templars rule London. Templars Bad. Remove Templars”. That’s it. Given the impossibly broad palette Victorian London gifts any writer, the setting of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate feels woefully underused. The villains are all pantomime cut-outs. The staggering poverty that existed at a time when London was the heart of a global empire is barely addressed. There’s even no attempt to compare Victorian London to its modern counterpart – which faces a lot of the same issues, child labour notwithstanding.
The game ignores the rich potential of its setting and instead tells a rather forgettable story. As bad as it is, Syndicate’s London-based plot is nowhere near as rubbish as the one set in the present. Players probably never thought they’d miss Desmond, the bartender/assassin/blank slate who served as the series’ nominal protagonist until he was capped in Revelations. But as dull as he and the Assassin Scooby-Gang were in the first four games, at least their segments were interactive, rather than a bunch of cutscenes.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate – Mechanics
Along with its below-par story Syndicate also contains the series’ signature below-par mechanics. The free-running in Assassin’s Creed games has never felt as lithe or as immediate as it should, and Syndicate is no exception. Occasionally players will feel like they’re fighting against the control system in order to progress – this is still a franchise where walking through a doorway is more problematic than climbing up and over a building.
It’s not all bad, mind. First off, the developers have tossed players a very decent parkour aid in the form of a grappling hook. This allows them to scale buildings in seconds (a useful escape tool) and create ziplines over wide gaps. As an in-game mechanic, it’s been blatantly pinched from the Batman: Arkham series of games and it’s nowhere near as well implemented, but it’s handy to have just the same.
Second, there’s something wonderfully compelling about taking over London – or at least, the six boroughs (and the Thames) that are on offer. Players who just simply want to sink their teeth into completing Syndicate’s huge amount of content will find plenty to occupy them here. London offers vast amounts of activities and distractions and it’s easy to become lost in there. Syndicate could easily pull weeks – even months – off your life.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate – Visuals
The game’s main draw, however, is its gorgeous presentation. Syndicate may have its flaws, but its visuals and soundtrack aren’t among them. If anything, the beauty of the game’s environment is further proof – if anymore were needed – that Assassin’s Creed is a game franchise now driven by presentation rather than plot or narrative.
The in-game world both looks beautiful and goes a long way towards creating the atmosphere London must have had when it was the seat of power at the height of the British Empire; toffs in their full regalia jaunt along The Strand, children with coal-blackened faces man machines in factories and the Thames has more traffic on it than a modern motorway. Visually, Syndicate is a stunning achievement.
It’s just a pity the rest of the Syndicate can’t match the game’s production values. As has been said, Syndicate is not a bad game. It doesn’t even qualify as a ‘bad’ entry in this franchise. However at this stage of its existence, Assassin’s Creed feels like it should have evolved and improved upon what hampered it on the last generation of consoles. The problems that plague Syndicate have been issues since Altair was the only man in Medieval Damascus with an American accent. One has to wonder: if they haven’t been addressed by the series’ eighth iteration (dodgy handheld spinoffs notwithstanding) will they ever be?
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate – Conclusion
It’s likely Syndicate will satisfy the faithful, but ‘satisfy’ isn’t a whole-hearted recommendation – especially for a game that is so much a result of fanbase demands. The franchise needs a rest. It needs to regroup, reimagine and reinvent or it’s likely that Black Flag will be the last time Assassin’s Creed brought something really special to the party.