When I picked up Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate for the Playstation 4, it was primarily because I had played all of the other primary games in the series (AC, AC II, AC: Brotherhood, AC: Revelations, AC III, AC IV, and AC: Unity) and because it was only $8 on a post Thanksgiving sale. To be honest, I was not sure about starting such a long gaming endeavor, especially given how the series seemed to be struggling to find an identity. What I found when I started playing was a fantastically realized world, but with the same old Assassin’s Creed mechanics.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is the telling of a search for a Piece of Eden, an artifact left behind by powerful ruling beings before the time of Adam and Eve. A new initiate to the Assassin Brotherhood is tasked with finding the artifact by reliving the memories of two assassins, Jacob and Evie Frye, in late 1860s London. And so begins the story of Jacob and Evie, a pair coming to London to help the Assassin Brotherhood fight off a Templar threat, but each with their own agenda. Jacob wants to make a name for himself by taking over the gangs of London. Evie, on the other hand, is following in her father’s footsteps by searching for lost Pieces of Eden.
This also sets the stage for the variety of missions that will be experienced in AC: Syndicate. Jacob is primarily focused on ridding London of the Templar threat largely because they are controlling the current gangs in the city. Evie’s search for Pieces of Eden also put her against Templars, but mostly because they are also searching for the powerful artifacts. Each progressive mission has you dismantling a piece of the Templar infrastructure or searching London for clues that will lead to the artifact. These missions typically culminate in the assassination of a primary Templar agent. The main story missions are the highlight of the game, each adding to the story of the two protagonists. The assassination missions themselves also offer their own interesting challenges by giving “unique assassination” opportunities that can be initiated by completing certain tasks during the mission. I found myself needing to steal clothes from a guard, help a nurse to get the room keys, or enlist the help of a disgruntled employee. The main story missions did not feel overly repetitive either by task or setting, making their playthrough an enjoyable experience.
The side missions of AC: Syndicate are a completely different beast. Like previous Assassin’s Creed games, Syndicate features zones or areas that need to be unlocked to remove the enemy influence. In this case, the areas are controlled by gang leaders that must be ousted so the Frye gang can grow. Each area consists of a multitude of missions (often a minimum of 16), but with four primary mission types of child labor rescue, Templar hunting, bounty hunting, and gang stronghold. Having to engage in these mission types at least four times each to secure an area makes for a very repetitive and, in the end, boring experience. I would not call myself a completionist by any means, often choosing what is fun over “100%ing” a game, but I would contend that even most of that bent would find the gang wars a lot to handle.
AC: Syndicate does include other side missions that are given by historical figures. In some cases, the mission givers provide a brief story arc of their own, complete with a few tasks to complete. In other cases, speaking with them simply opens up new random tasks to accomplish on the map. As with any open world game these days, there are also a number of collectible items, from pressed flowers to beer bottles, scattered throughout the London setting.
If nothing else, AC: Syndicate is the best looking game of the series. The late Industrial Revolution London has the exact look and feel I would expect from the era. Buildings are taller than they have been in any AC game before, each with their own chimneys bellowing smoke into the sky (though they do not seem to be hot to the touch). Large crowds of people representing every walk of life fill the streets, making the city alive in every way possible. Trains and horse drawn carriages roam the city while large cargo and transport ships sail the river. Many of the buildings have explorable interiors and offer a convenient passthrough going from one side of the building to the other. While I prefer the setting of old Italy in the Ezio story arc (AC II), there is no denying that the Syndicate London is much more technically impressive with its potential fully realized.
Gameplay in AC: Syndicate falters a bit only because it is the same gameplay as all the other Assassin’s Creed games. While revolutionary in the first couple of games in the series, the style has been surpassed over the years by those that have improved on hand to hand combat (like the Batman games). Combat is pretty basic with one-on-one conflict a mash-fest on the attack button. Group combat offers little more, with the successful tactic of waiting for the blinking “I’m attacking now” flash to initiate a block and counter attack. Enemy AI does not help the situation, often either not responding to the disappearance of their fellow soldiers or giving up the search for the intruder after only seconds. In fact, the enemies seem far less likely to follow the player onto rooftops in AC: Syndicate than in others in the series, making an escape as easy as climbing a building. This makes combat situations feel effortless, but also has the benefit of the feel of being an elite assassin.
Given the increased size of the city, traversal options have increased. Fast travel through unlocked synchronization points still exist, but even these do not feel like enough to cover the landscape. In addition to running and jumping along rooftops, the player also has a grappling hook that can form a zipline from one building to the next or instantly take the player from the ground to the top of the building. When on the ground, the addition of the many carriages to the city streets also means you can Grand Theft Auto your way across town.
As mentioned previously, the presentation of the city in AC: Syndicate is the best of any of the series. The detail packed into every area certainly shows the commitment to realism of the era and the improvements in hardware available to run the game. Character models and animations are also very well done, again likely the best the series has seen. The combat moves have been expanded to befit the increased weapon variety in the game, meaning that weapon choice greatly impacts the animations used in combat sequences. The only nit I have with the presentation is that the lipsyncing is oddly off. When speaking, each character looks like they are trying to say the words heard in the audio, but that the mouth animations are cut short somehow, limiting the movement. It is a bit jarring in an otherwise good presentation.
Overall, AC: Syndicate certainly provides some steam in the Assassin’s Creed train, giving a jolt to a series that was certainly hindered by a bad AC III, lack of continuity in AC IV, and all around poor experience in AC: Unity. It feels as though Ubisoft might be pushing toward a series resolution with AC: Syndicate as a vital cog in the works. The main story may have a slow start, but it certainly picks up, making the two protagonists more endearing that I would have thought possible. If you have some time to invest (I spent roughly 30 hours with the game, completing the main story and half of the gang wars) and have a history with the Assassin’s Creed series, I would recommend picking this one up. And if you have already played AC: Syndicate, let me know what you thought of the game.