I have an odd relationship with the Assassin’s Creed franchise. I don’t give it much thought throughout the year, unless I’m covering it in the news cycle, yet every year, I find myself jumping into Ubisoft’s flagship series quite looking forward to it. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag was one of my favorite games of 2013 and despite having reservations, I feel Unity was pretty unfairly panned in retrospect. It was an alright Assassin’s Creed game that got eaten alive by reports of bugs and glitches. It’s difficult to pretend the series isn’t feeling a little tired at the point now though. While the shift in time and place is not an insignificant change to each title, the fatigue of the same mission and game structure is beginning to weigh on the series due to the annualization of the franchise.
This was my major concern coming into Syndicate. Could it really address the fatigue the series is experiencing? Having 20 hours with the game now, I have to say, the answer to that is complicated.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is what is being touted as the first ‘modern’ Assassin’s Creed game. Taking place in Victorian London is certainly an interesting change of pace for the series. Now we have trains, electricity, (grapple hooks) and carriages all bringing an extra flavour to the traditional Assassin’s Creed mould. In the grand scheme of things, it isn’t a huge departure from Unity‘s French Revolution torn Paris from last year, but it is hard to deny that these additions do add a colour and texture to the world that we haven’t seen in the series yet. As a London native, I was continually surprised by the faithfulness of the cities creation, even being able to navigate the map fairly accurately based on the incredibly on point recreation work that Ubisoft have done. It’s not a 1 to 1 comparison of course, but for a condensed version of the city, it’s stellar work. There is a real vibrancy to the space with a neat sense of life brought to navigating London.
Inhabiting this world is Evie Frye and Jacob Frye, two twins you will take over in your quest for dominating one of the most important cities in the time period. Unlike Arno from last year, these two have much more going for them as interesting and fun characters. Jacob, while appearing to be ‘generic video game protagonist’ on the surface, actually has a real deal of charm to him. A light-hearted, ‘cheeky’ psychopath, who loves to get hands on and mess with the world by stabing people up when he can. Evie on the other hand is much more considered and grounded of the two. While that could have easily just made her cold and standoffish, there is real charisma to her that is delightful to see play out on screen. She’s one of the very best protagonists in the series since Ezio came onto the scene, and is one of the true delights of the game. In fact, the game is populated with great characters, which has been a problem for the series in the past. Too often the supporting cast of the games have filtered away into the background, but there is a real sense of fun and memorability to most of the major players in the game. Really giving the game a strong backbone is antagonist Crawford Starrick. He is a pantomime villain at points, but he is a just a lot of fun. He is easily the most notable bad guy in an Assassin’s Creed title that I remember, and I loved what little time the game spent with him. That side of things is delightfully good fun.
The narrative has a real sense of ‘jaunt’ to it bringing us one of the most light-hearted games in the series and it is a great look for the franchise. There is real sense of adventure to the title that was missing in Unity in retrospect. It really does harken back to the strengths of Black Flag and that makes it a winner in my book. While there are a few fluffed pieces of dialogue and sometimes there seems to be connective tissue missing from seqeuence to sequence, like two characters all the sudden hating each other with only thin reasons too, I found the process of playing through the twin’s quite enjoyable indeed.
However, that Assassin’s Creed fatigue is real, and Syndicate certainly strains under the weight. The basic structure of the game is still the same and at this point, it is feeling dated. The mission structure here is pretty much the variety you’d expect in an Assassin’s Creed. Go to a place, use eagle vision to spot targets and places of interest and then execute on them. The problem with Assassin’s Creed formula now is that this gameplay is based of systems from the first game. Franchises like Hitman and Far Cry are all about finding your own way to complete your objectives. I find myself gagging for Assassin’s Creed to take from that book. While Syndicate tries to add optional goals in the big assassination scenes at the end of every sequence, eventually almost every mission feels like it is actually just pushing you down a singular corridor. This is a problem as I don’t think the game is asking much of me besides getting to one place to the next and doing the thing I’m expected to. Simply put, there just feels a lack of agency. This structure is just asking too much from a game in 2015 that we’ve seen year in and year out. It’s a massive problem for the series. Syndicate is really hurt by this as well, and I really hope Ubisoft can figure out a way to refresh how all of missions in future games work, because it is consistently becoming one of the weakest part of the series, dragging down everything with it.
It can be noted that the team certainly tried to shake things up somewhat and give Syndicate something unique with the Gang mechanic in the game. Having you take charge of the Rooks, you can piece by piece take over London from the rival gang already in control. The problem here is the execution though. I understand why the developer would choose not to actually force players to interact with this mechanic, but as a result, it feels inconsequential and like extra side work in a series that really doesn’t need extra side work. Jacob is supposedly the leader of the gang, but when I’m only really thinking about them at all every couple of hours, it’s an issue. I’m pretty sure running a gang in a crime riddled London would be a pretty full on job. This just feels like someone slacking off work. The tragedy is that with more integration into the game and narrative, this could have been a deep and complex system. Instead, it just kind of hangs there limply, only really turning its head to you when you are forced to interact or you get a couple of NPC’s running to help you in a fight.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention something else though. Grammy nominated composer Austin Wintory being brought on to do the score was a left field decision, but it has proven to be inspired. The music is really something else, bold in its presentation. It’s one of the most eccentric Assassin’s Creed soundtracks you’ll ever hear, but it the execution is distinctive, adding real texture to the game. It’s stellar work.
Ultimately, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is a tough one to fully land on a solid position. While the mission structure feels dated and some connective tissue between scenes is missing, it’s a perfectly enjoyable game. It’s fun romp through Victorian London and brings back a real sense of adventure to the series that hasn’t been with it for a while. In the broader context of playing a game in this franchise every year though, all of the things that drag down the title seem thanks to the labored production cycle of the franchise. This series has serious quality and it shows every year, but it’s framing is becoming tired and old. It’s not enough to put a downer on my experience with Syndicate, which I do believe to be one of the better games in the franchise. Maybe even top three. It’s really a great little title and one worth your time if you are looking to play an honestly good Assassin’s Creed game. This franchise is crying out for an evolution though, and it needs one soon.