Not a review: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

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He who controls London controls the world. That the crux of the central, historical story in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. It’s uttered right in the opening chapters of this latest in the long and storied Assassin’s Creed series. It just so happens that the chap who controls London in Syndicate’s Victorian England is a right bastard; a tyrannical megalomaniac by the name of Crawford Starrick. He also happens to be the Grand master of the British Rite of the Templar Order – which is all the impetus that’s needed for Assassin rivals to want him and his order squashed.

“Today, Starrick sits at the helm of the most sophisticated Templar infrastructure known in the western world. Every class, every borough, the gangs, the industries – his reach extends all across London.”

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I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate for the past few days, and while I’ve not put in nearly enough time to pen a conclusive review, I thought I’d throw up some thoughts and impressions for you. I’ve played enough to get a feel for the branching, more open narrative, I’ve freed a few of London’s boroughs from Templar control, and I’ve levelled up my player characters sufficiently to see some of their unique skills and abilities. Once again, this is not a review, but rather how I feel about the game a handful of hours in to it.

When I first started the game, it reminded me most of Assassin’s Creed 3 of all games. Now before you roll your eyes back so fast that your head snaps clean off of its shoulders, remember that Assassin’s Creed 3 started off strong, introducing one of the best characters in the series; the charming and delightful Haytham Kenway. It was only hours later that the bait and switch happened, replacing the fun subterfuge, ye olde spy games and Haytham’s personality with the stoic and dull Connor. In those first few hours, Assassin’s Creed 3 held such promise.

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The same goes for Syndicate. Kenway’s been replaced this time by a pair of protagonists; Jacob and Evie Frye. It is, thankfully, not another origin story. The Frye twins grew up in the Assassins order, so there’s none of that faffing about with them finding their feet, discovering the magic of eagle vision and learning about the Creed. They’re fully-fledged assassins, newly relocated to London to carry on their father’s legacy. At least, that’s Evie’s plan.

The more grounded of the two, Evie wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and take on the Templars by finding and using pieces of Eden. Her brother, Jacob is more impetuous. He wants to take the Templars on by force, building up an army of gangs – his Rooks – and bashing away at the Templars, like a blunt object bashed against an enemy’s skull.

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I didn’t think I’d like Jacob much, he seemed another boring white male in a sea of white males in games, but he’s an affable chap with the sort of roguish charm that’s hard to dislike. The interplay, witty banter betwixt the two and their obvious love for each other despite their butting heads make them interesting characters to play as. You can switch between them and use either within the open world, but they each have specific missions so you’ll need to spend time playing as both. It’s a good thing then, as Assassin’s Creed inches ever closer to being an RPG, that when you earn experience points and their resultant skill points, you earn for both characters.

Their skill trees are, admittedly, very nearly identical, with just a few moves and abilities unique to each. Jacob gets more brutish, combat-focused upgrades while Evie’s additional skills lean towards stealth.

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Combat and stealth are both areas that I feel have improved this year. Though combat boils down to the same sort of dodge, parry, attack gameplay of games past, there’s a lot more flourish in the melee, with a slightly quicker pace, a great big combat multiplier and some lovely, brutal executions in play that make it a tad bit more exciting. Stealth, likewise, actually seems to matter more. The player, once in a stealth position, is now encircled with a stealth meter that shows little audio spectrograms showing enemy position, and the noise you’re making relative to where they are. From within the cover of darkness, Evie and Jacob can launch knives at faces for concealed killing.

New to the series is the physically improbable grappling hook, which allows for quick and easy vertical scaling, making getaways often easier than they used to be. It can also be used to fashion on-the-go lines which you’ll use to scurry from rooftop to rooftop. Given the scale of the buildings, how tall and how far apart they are, this helps keep the parkour action as fast-paced as it can be. There are, on occasion, targeting issues with the grappling hook not quite going where you want it to sometimes, but I’ve found the general movement far more fluid than before. It isn’t too removed from Unity’s implementation, with a button for going up while free-running, and another for going down.

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The city streets are longer and wider this time, which benefits the new vehicular drive. You’ll often have missions involving riding carriages, chasing or tailing people, and it works. Video game horses are, by their nature a bit stilted, but it’s more fun that I thought it would be, especially enacting action hero stuff like climbing to the top of a carriage, to jump from its roof to another vehicle while both are moving.

There’s the borough and gang warfare stuff, which I’ve played with, but not touched too much. Like your own skills, you can spend money and resources to upgrade The Rooks, who you can drag in to fight for you. Clearing one of the boroughs, places like Whitechapel, London City, Westminster, etc make it less likely that you’ll be accosted by Starrick’s own gangs.

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The city is alive, but with it being industrial revolution England it is darker and drearier than the magnificent opulence of the French Revolution, so it does look like the game’s taken a visual step back. Whether that’s down to technical reasons or art design is for somebody else to delve in to, but from my perspective, the game looks quite spiffing; its recreations of the Palace of Westminster’s clocktower (often mistakenly referred to by Big Ben, the name of the ball that resides within its clock), the Thames and other London landmarks are all exquisitely detailed.

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I’ve been playing it on the Xbox One, and it not only looks good, but runs well enough too. There are occasional frame drops, and on the whole it runs below its intended 30fps, but I’ve not seen any great big bugs, unrendered faces or people falling through floors.

There aren’t great big, sweeping changes to the established formulas here – it’s still very much Assassin’s Creed. Kill people, synchronise viewpoints, muck about in the open world collecting things, opening chests and engaging in crowd events. That’s all still here – but the setting, its characters and the little changes that have me wanting to play it more. Yes, I actually want to leave my desk and play more of the game, which I think is all that really needs to be said.

We’ll have our review up, with a score and everything once we’ve finished the game.

Last Updated: October 22, 2015

Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

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