For years now, Assassin’s Creed has followed a formula that mostly worked. Have a rather bland story as an excuse to sneak around and kill tons of people, include some cool-looking but easy to pull off parkour, set it all in gorgeous historical settings and let people play in the sandbox. But that model has become tired and old, in desperate need of something to refresh it, and that something came in the form of the Frye twins.
The story focuses on a pair of sibling assassins. Forgoing all the usual training malarky of previous games, this one already starts with the idea that Evie and Jacob Frye know what they’re doing, with prompts given in the early game as tutorial for those who are new to the franchise or updated controls. Taking a leap of faith into the deep end, the story is one much along the lines of what we’ve seen in previous Assassin’s Creed games – there is a big bad Templar running the major city in the game (Victorian-era London, this time) and you will need to undermine and eventually overthrow him. Along the way, there’s a piece of Eden to be found and some lore peppered throughout for added drama.
While the story is fairly standard fare for Assassin’s Creed, it’s the way that it’s told and the characters who tell it that make it an absolute joy to play. I was expecting to enjoy Evie and find Jacob forgettable. In truth though, I found Jacob’s rakish charm far too compelling, often laughing out loud at his jokes and fully enjoying the witty banter between him and Evie. The well written script and voice acting combine perfectly with facial captures to make each character feel much more real, right down to Evie’s flirting and suggestive eyebrow raises or that smirk that seems to wait just behind Jacob’s eyes. I felt drawn in and connected with the twins from early on in the game, making me that much more invested in the journey they were going on, even if I knew much of it meant finding hidden chests or collectibles or killing random people for… reasons.
As Assassin’s Creed Syndicate continues to edge ever closer to an RPG experience, both Jacob and Evie follow a fairly similar skill tree, although there are some highest level abilities that are exclusive to one or the other. Skill points are doled to both of them, though, so you never need to worry about playing them equally if you tend to favour one’s style over the other. Evie is definitely more stealthy, which somehow made Jacob’s bludgeon-styled gameplay more enjoyable as a contrast. You can also level up your gang, which can help to not only give more income but also improve their usefulness in street fights and gang wars.
The environment has always been a big part of the experience in Assassin’s Creed, not only for historical tourism, but also as the sandbox and setting for something bigger. Each game in the franchise has sought to show us a bigger map with more detail. However, in recent iterations, it has ended up feeling like unnecessary padding, with much of map neglected unless you were on an obsessive mission to track down every last collectible. London is refreshingly different in that regard.
Divided into boroughs, players need to engage in a variety of activities to free the area of Blighter control. These range from simple Templar assassinations, to freeing children forced into child labour in factories or even kidnapping criminals for the police. Each activity uses skills that are useful in story missions, plus they becoming strangely addictive as you slowly take over the area, culminating in a gang war to assert Rook control over the borough. Within each area, there are also secrets to be found, as well as fun extra missions and memories players can follow, including quests with Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Alexander Bell and Charles Dickens. These were diverse and a whole lot of fun, and actually made me excited to see what they do with the Penny Dreadful extras coming to PS4.
But it goes even beyond the quests or the pretty buildings. I kept finding moments taking place in Victorian London that made me feel like the city was alive. I climbed over a church wall in search of a hidden chest to find a bunch of monks playing cricket on their private lawn. Or I’d find groups of people posing for pictures in the park. One particularly fun mission involved showing a high class lady through the most dangerous area of London, complete with roasted dog vendors and back alley pubs. Beyond the breadth of the city, the depth of what it had to offer is what made me so excited to see everything it had to offer.
With everything from carriage races and heists to extra memories and even fight clubs (yes, much like Sleeping Dogs these are among my favourites), there is plenty to do in the game without ever getting bored. And yet, it also doesn’t feel as long as other games. No, it doesn’t feel cut short, but rather that the whole narrative and extra elements are woven together to cleverly that it doesn’t feel like a padded, bloated experience, but instead a complete and diverse one.
One of my biggest gripes in previous Assassin’s Creed games was the combat. The stealthy bits were generally good, but enter into open combat and it all felt unrealistic and boring. Syndicate certainly fixes that in a big way. Combat feels much more fluid and it was actually fun to line up gruesome multiple kills and combos. I particularly enjoyed doing this in the fight clubs as Jacob or Evie could get a group of enemies staggered in the squared circle and then unleash a whirlwind of impressive moves to knock the whole gang out. With a variety of weapons available as well, players are able to find their preferred form of combat for those moments when stealth doesn’t work and it’s time to rail on the baddies with your favorite knuckle dusters or cane swords.
I was worried that the rope launcher would undermine the fun of parkour in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Part of the puzzle and enjoyment in previous installments in the franchise was figuring out exactly how you would get up a monument or escaping from chasing guards using the various ledges and jumps at your disposal. Now, the buildings are much higher, and I spent a good portion of the game channeling my inner Spiderman as I rope launched to the roof and then grappled from point to point across the city. With the higher buildings and wider streets of London, this tool is absolutely vital to enjoy getting around, but there are still plenty of opportunities when parkour is best and after a while the rope launcher feels more like a means to speeding up your movement around the city rather than undermining it.
That isn’t to say that the game is without issues. I experienced a number of strange glitches, include two complete crashes while playing. Most of the graphical glitches were amusing but not game breaking, and could probably be chalked up to using a “stolen Animus” or something, and I’m sure they’ll be patched out in time. The bigger issue for me was that the final sequence ended up feeling rushed, with some rather janky animation and uninspired gameplay in parts. Still, the final boss fight was rather fun if mostly predictable, and the concluding “Present Day” elements should make most lore fans happy for future iterations in the franchise. From a story perspective, the ending and character interactions were stellar, but the actual gameplay in the final hour or two of the game simply didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the experience that was so well-paced and enjoyable.
Additionally, I was taken aback by the distinct lack of characters from the colonies. Sure, there are a couple of major Indian characters, but in this period London was a melting pot of people from around the world. Where are the Caribbean, African and Asian characters? It was great to see gangs composed of men and women, but they were all clearly white locals cut from the same few templates and I would have liked to happen upon merchants, traders and even stable boys from other backgrounds. We know that characters like Adewale and others had already come and gone, it would have been nice to see other ethnicities represented in cosmopolitan London.
As a critic, there are plenty of things that I can point to that made this installment in the franchise less than perfect. Contextual commands are sometimes odd, some of the gameplay can feel repetitive and it’s still way harder to parkour down a building than up. However, as a human who enjoys sitting down for of hours and playing games, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is one of the best experiences that I’ve had this year. So much so, that even after this review goes live, I’m excited to jump back into it and do all the things I didn’t have time to complete because I had to finish the story and write these words for you. I finished the game with a huge smile on my face, excited to see what else the game has for me to experience.
Last Updated: October 28, 2015