If I’m understanding the review process correctly, we’re supposed to compare a game to the competition – recent titles and games that come out around the same time – and if it’s part of a franchise, you also compare it to recent iterations. If this is true, I fail to see how Assassin’s Creed Syndicate can be seen as anything but a marked improvement. With mechanical, technical and even atmospheric enhancements that bolster the gameplay and immersion, along with better characters and a more cohesive storyline, one wonders what exactly it is that naysayers want. “Oh, it’s just the same” is too idiotic to dignify with a response, as most new franchise entries don’t offer as many upgrades and additions as this one.
Love it or hate it, that’s a fact.
As has always been the case, Assassin’s Creed thrives on the environmental appeal. From the moment you step into one of these dynamically inspired historic set pieces, you’re enthralled. We all have our favorite locales and while one could argue that Ubisoft has yet to top Italy, there’s no doubt in my mind that 1868 London ranks right up there with the very best presentations to date. It’s jam-packed with things to see and do, the city streets teem with activity at almost all hours of the day, and the overall design is nigh-on unparalleled. There are a few very minor graphical bugaboos but they’re rarely significant enough to matter and they almost never impact the gameplay. With gorgeous character modeling and styling, superb animations, and a wonderfully authentic veneer, Syndicate is a thing of beauty.
Other positive traits for which this series is so well known: Fantastically orchestrated music, stellar voice performances and top-notch effects. With the exception of a few muddled action effects, the latest Assassin’s Creed excels in all facets of audio production. The voice acting is better than ever and the rich, diverse score amplifies the awe and wonder of Victorian-Era London. In open-world environments, it’s important to present the player with an all-encompassing sound structure, as even the most miniscule effects play a role. The subtlety of ambient background noise gels with the in-your-face flair of high-powered effects, leaving your senses awash with aural goodness. As always, the sound is an absolute highlight, continually challenging your perception. It’s fiction, yes, but it’ll do its damndest to convince you otherwise.
As the sun sets on another busy London afternoon, I crouch atop one of the amazingly ornamented buildings in the town square, looking down on the waning activity. There’s a sense of completeness because you feel as if you’re enfolded in a truly realistic setting, but there’s also a palpable sense of motion. In other words, you almost feel the life force of the city hurtling onward, as you would in real life when getting an eagle-eye’s view of a thriving metropolis. The period in time is irrelevant; what the more sentimental side of you acknowledges is that humanity has always struggled forward, regardless of the challenges. This is one of the most modern playgrounds we’ve visited in the series but what stands out is the authenticity of each individual NPC as they go about their fictitious lives.
This is one of the reasons why I have such difficulty stopping. You actually feel like you’re part of something special, as opposed to simply running around a clearly fantastical land that makes no bones about its absurdity. There is little to no absurdity here. There is only a strident attempt at an alternate reality and that’s what I tend to appreciate. The general structure is another reason I can’t stop playing: One minute you’re in search of hidden treasure, running around with Jacob, and the next, you step into Evie’s talented boots and embark on a mission to free enslaved children. Missions and side-quests show up organically as you traverse the environment, further enhancing the seamlessness of your immersion, and the dual protagonist concept works out exceedingly well.
Let me see if I can explain why it’s incorrect to ascribe the dreaded “rehash” tag to Syndicate. If the dual protagonist setup isn’t enough (and it’s huge, of course), there’s a better-paced and more involving storyline, the addition of various forms of transportation – most notably, locomotives and horse-drawn carriages – and several new additions to the standard gameplay. For instance, the rope launcher dramatically changes how you maneuver around the city, and the new Threat Ring, which tells you where enemies are in relation to your current position, is a huge boon to your strategic planning. Then there’s the AI, which isn’t fantastic yet but definitely better, and a refinement and polish for the basic controls that eliminates past problems, such as the “stickiness” of the main character in Unity.
Is that not enough? For most franchises, that would be considered massive; perhaps even seen as a partial overhaul to strengthen and refine. But of course, you have to deal with morons who have already determined to hate the game and hence, they will hate it. Leave them and their ignorance behind and simply use the eye test; what’s listed above comprises the most drastic upgrades and additions, but that’s hardly all the improvements. Control is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the franchise – has been since free-running was first introduced in the original title way back when – so maybe I should dive into that, so players understand what to expect. This is probably the tightest, most dynamic, and perhaps even the most realistic platforming and combat mechanics we’ve seen thus far in Assassin’s Creed.
The surrounding NPCs react to your actions and movements better than ever as well. They’ll yell at you when you loot bodies, say hello and goodbye as you walk past, and respond accordingly when you do something silly. Even moving about the vast city can trigger different reactions and cause the soundtrack to swell or diminish, sometimes offering a new score that better encapsulates the area you’re in or the view you’re seeing. It’s a living portrait of London, no doubt about it, and you can enjoy it thanks to fluid, satisfying combat that goes well beyond the standard counterattacking of days past. Here, you select attack, counter, stun, or shoot from the d-pad and then execute your chosen strategy based on your foes and surroundings. You can string together deadly combos or attack from afar; it’s your choice, and it all works very well.
Free-running is about the same as it has been in the past; you simply hold down R2 and off you go. You still have to get into the rhythm of things and if you’re not familiar with the series, it might take some getting used to. And yes, there are still inconsistencies that haven’t been fixed, such as accidentally launching yourself off a wall when you wanted to climb up or down, and the occasional death leap. They also haven’t fixed the handholds and grips entirely, either, which is why I’m not saying the control is perfect. Nor am I saying the combat is perfect, as there are times when it still feels unbalanced and awkward. What I am saying is that if you’re seeking improvement and you gauge a new entry’s quality on such improvement, you will appreciate the changes.
The aforementioned Threat Ring is a great new feature that eliminates any annoyance related to enemy positioning and being seen by the unknown guard. If you’re paying attention to the Ring, you can easily spot any enemies in the vicinity. This also allows you to plan out your attack with all the requisite information and you’re not that concerned about one guard spoiling your well-laid plain, just because he was out of sight for a few seconds. In regards to movement, that rope launcher is just plain bad-ass; it not only opens up more of the game (some side-quests and extra cash are hidden up high), but it also grants you more strategic options. It’s a tool that molds itself beautifully to the accomplished assassin and while again, it’s not perfect from a mechanical standpoint, it rarely malfunctions and it’s always a blast to use.
The story is another big bonus. I actually liked the story in Unity a lot more than other people, but Syndicate is certainly better because the characters are more likable and the plot is more intriguing. Jacob and Evie are endlessly interesting and of course, meeting the likes of Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and Alexander Graham Bell adds to the historical attraction as well. There are just so many examples of better character development throughout the narrative, and it isn’t long before you actually start to care about the two protagonists. I haven’t really cared about an AC main character since Ezio, so this is a very big accomplishment in my eyes. On top of which, the differing strengths and weaknesses of Jacob and Evie have a direct impact on the gameplay, so this is another depth enhancement.
Now, I’m not the biggest fan of the vehicles in question. Trains were such a huge part of 1860s London that they absolutely have to be included, and I very much enjoy their presence. I don’t really care about using them as fast-travel tools, however (my rope launcher more than suffices), and I don’t bother much about the carriages, either. It’s not the control I don’t like – they control just fine – but I’m more about the stealth, platforming and combat components in these games and frankly, I’m not certain we even needed to access those carriages. Of course, if you couldn’t, you’d have a thousand people calling out the developers for not allowing that access, so I guess you can’t win. However, let me add that being able to hide bodies in carriages, and using carriages to transport prisoners, is awfully useful.
Getting back to Jacob and Evie for a minute, not only do they offer two contrasting styles of gameplay (Evie is more stealthy while Jacob often acts as a tank), but they also present the player with wildly differing personalities. Perhaps some will call each persona somewhat predictable and while there’s some truth to this, that doesn’t change the fact that such contrasts only bolster the game’s overall appeal. Besides, creating your own gang, the Rooks, with Jacob can be just as satisfying as slinking around with Evie and acting like the traditionally-trained, super-skilled assassin figure. The bottom line is that you have a wide variety of advancements on both an artistic and technical level, and with a great story, more extremely useful features, and refined control leading the way, there’s very little to complain about, as far as I’m concerned.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a fantastic game. Let me repeat that: It’s a fantastic game. The lingering control issues (and even these are minimized) and some minor pacing issues as a result of the two-protagonist approach can’t taint this gargantuan project. There are improvements across the board and the stirring combination of artistic and functional contrasts, great new features and tools, and an unbelievably involving and authentic world is intoxicating. If you’re still going to find problems and you refuse to recognize the obvious progression here, then you’ve made your own biased decision that has no bearing on this product’s quality. And if you’re a confirmed fan of the franchise, there’s absolutely no doubt you’ll love it.
The Good: Gorgeous design, detailing and presentation; an unparalleled vision of 1868 London. Excellent voice performances and a wonderfully implemented score. Refined combat and platforming controls. Plenty of new improvements and features, such as the rope launcher and Threat Ring. Two protagonists enhance both the story and gameplay diversity. Remarkable characters amid a great story.
The Bad: Lingering control issues and eccentricities. Some pacing flaws in the overarching story. Didn’t really need the carriages as a form of transportation.
The Ugly: “Only the endless debate this series continues to spark, because in this case, there should be no debate.”