Assassin's Creed Syndicate Review
Microsoft Xbox OneAlso available on PC and Sony PlayStation 4
London was always a glittering prospect to be discovered in a future Assassin’s Creed. Second only to feudal Japan, the grimy murk of the capital in the Victorian era seemed ready made for Ubisoft’s brand of lethal acrobatics. Syndicate finally visits the city right in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, apparently as console tech has only now reached the point of doing London justice. But after Unity’s glorious Parisian vistas were mired by ludicrous bugs all eyes are squarely on the series, albeit not for the right reasons.
Of course, Ubisoft are masters at world building as evidenced by the poor person who spent a year building Unity’s Notre Dame. The same detail is seen in London, with the added frisson of recognition that comes from living in the city - a double-edged sword (or wrist-mounted blade) that makes these eyes far more critical when something isn’t correct. For the most part, you can be happy that London looks so glorious. The major landmarks are present and correct, imposing edifices that are a thrill to explore. Even a seasoned Londoner hasn’t dangled from the minute-hand of Big Ben. Exploring a fully realised slice of history has always been Assassin’s Creed’s lure and that amazement is exponentially increased in relation to the familiarity of the landmarks on show. There is a caveat, however; if you’ve played Unity, you’ll experience deja vu. Perhaps the tiled rooftops are so similar as that was in architectural fashion at the time, perhaps it isn’t solely this and some assets have been reused. Either way, it’s not like the gradient of a London townhouse roof is the only overfamiliar part of the game.
Focusing on twins Jacob and Evie Frye, the game is Ubisoft’s silliest romp through history since Edward Kenway made friends with every pirate and discovered a secret Assassin enclave in the middle of the Caribbean jungle. Unity’s backdrop of the French Revolution gave it an unsettling atmosphere, the city descending into mob rule and overreaction with every mission passed. This London excursion is a theme park ride in comparison; a Forrest Gump-esque run through a Victorian tourist trap. In the first hour of the game you’ll have bumped off a famous physician, ploughed into Charles Dickens and heard more Cockneys than an Only Fools and Horses convention. Over the course of the whole game the Frye twins will seemingly have had a hand in most pivotal moments in 1868, from politics to the economy. The problem lies in the fact there isn’t a true narrative arc. There’s a MacGuffin, for sure, and the whole game revolves around finding it, but the remainder is an enjoyable, self-evidently silly ride that some might find too frivolous to care. Only the main villain has a genuinely peculiar quirk, given a liking to music in what must be a nice added touch by composer Austin Wintory.
Of Jacob and Evie, he’s a cocksure prick and she’s far more tolerable; a quick stick click in the menu allows you to change character outside of missions and you’ll be all the better for it. If you’ve played any other Assassin’s Creed you’ll immediately recognise the type of missions on offer. Gone - thank God - are the abysmal tailing tasks, although eavesdropping does feature every so often. In terms of new features, you could count them using a Twix - carriages and the zipline launcher. Carriages have been in previous games, but never with so much freedom behind the wheel. London’s streets seem overly wide, allowing for frantic carriage-to-carriage battles and chases. Meanwhile the zipline launcher arguably cuts out one of the cornerstones of the franchise - the ruddy climbing! It works brilliantly to escape problematic situations while also speeding up traversal of the uneven rooftops. It never ascends to the ease of use as its blatant inspiration - Batman’s launcher in the Arkham series - thanks to clumsy aiming. More often than not you’ll end up winging towards a building behind you, rather than your intended target.
That isn’t to say there isn’t fun to be had when it all comes together. Each district has a raft of activities to complete - sidequests, collectables and even missions that conquer the district for the Rooks, Jacob and Evie’s gang. While the game doesn’t explicitly force you to do this, it’s made mandatory through the levelling systems. Jacob and Evie have skill trees, as does your gang. Then there’s the upgradeable and craftable weapons, the treasure hunts, the various means of income. The list goes on and completionists will turn pale at the amount of busywork to tick off.
However, if you’ve played any other Assassin’s Creed, you’ve played Syndicate. While London is spectacular and a genuinely interesting place to explore, the mechanics of the game itself are as dated as the period setting. Combat is more button mashing heavy than ever, stealth works to a degree but is let down by dumb AI that either forgets you as soon as you break line of sight or dogs you for leagues, and climbing feels unintuitive thanks to a contemporary skyline not made for extended bouts of freerunning. What’s new appears to be a means to shortcut these age old stalwarts and helps, but maybe not enough.
Then there are the bugs. Unity had the goodwill from Black Flag and the honour of a new engine and console generation to afford it a few glitches in the system. While missing faces and floating NPCs aren’t wanted, the bugs encountered in Syndicate apparently had a vendetta against the poor Fryes. One mission where a body had to be hidden was going swimmingly, narrowly avoiding guards, until a guard popped-in to the game directly in front, immediately alerting all remaining guards. So late in the game it proved immensely frustrating and every bug before and after suddenly appeared magnified. It’ll likely be sorted through patches and is nowhere near as bad as Unity’s tech problems, but it exasperated nonetheless. It’s also perhaps why the streets of London feel so empty. Unity was hustle and bustle. In comparison, stood atop Nelson’s Column we counted two carriages in the entirety of the Trafalgar Square crossing. Cutting back on people has improved the framerate, but London sometimes feels like a half-dead city rather than the centre of the industrial world.
There’s a lot to like about Syndicate - it’s a rollicking jaunt, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and the scenery is stunning in its near accuracy. If you’re a fan of the series you’d be wise to pick it up and you’ll likely enjoy it. Anyone else should be cautious - this is not a revolution and if mission micromanagement isn’t attractive then perhaps Syndicate is due a miss. Ubisoft need to reinvent the wheel in a post-Phantom Pain world. As the Industrial Revolution rewrote the very fabric of the UK, so Ubisoft should look to the core of Assassin’s Creed to see what can change, what must change. For if Syndicate is a measure of entries to come, the future is gorgeously dull.