For all it’s faults and narrative WTFery, I really do like Assassin’s Creed. Its semi-revisionist historical fiction is goofy and weird and its science fiction requires more than a little suspension of disbelief. That said, I’ve always been fascinated by every entry in the long running series. I can always count on it to take me on interesting historical tours filled with interesting men and women (both real and fictionalized) with a stake in the long running secret war between the Assassins and Templars. Assassin’s Creed, as a game, changed dramatically after the first game and with Ubisoft striking it rich with a new design via Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood, the developer fell into a trap of its own making. Not only had the series gotten so incredibly rote, but the “climb the tower” mechanics bled into other, non-Assassin’s Creed games that people enjoy making the argument that other Ubisoft properties like Far Cry and Watch_Dogs share the same universe.
That’s not to say each game in the franchise didn’t try to introduces changes and innoventions. Assassin’s Creed II introduced the formula we know today but each game after expanded on the core design with unique ideas. Brotherhood introduced Assassin’s that could be called upon to attack targets and cause distractions, Assassin’s Creed III took the series out of the big cities and into the wilderness (which brought changes to traversal), and Black Flag – oh, Black Flag! – brought in real pirate radio (and kick ass sea sailing, too). Rogue came packed with an interesting character, a great bridge between Flag and III and a chance to see the war from the other side. It’s also a beautiful, beautiful game. And then there was Unity. Without going too far into well traveled territory, Unity was a steaming mess of microtransactions, unreliable companion app, stupid Uplay shenanigans, and technical problems. For all of its deserved flak, it did do some interesting things, making the product feel like an experiment that simply got away from its handlers.
With Assassin’s Creed, you really learn to put up with nonsense. Roman Space Gods, a genetic time machine, Assassin abilities that worm their way into people using the Animus, a Templar run video game developer front company — all these things are ridiculous in their own right but Ubisoft is committed to these ideas and I’m board with anyone that not only owns their silly plot contrivances but runs with them all the way to the end. Unity was the straw that broke the camel’s back, it was the game that pulled away the rose colored glasses away from the franchise. Were it possible to take the Red Pill, I would have happily done so, to be blissfully ignorant of what makes the franchise so plainly odd. Interestingly enough, that Red Pill ended up being another Assassin’s Creed game!
Syndicate is very much an Assassin’s Creed adventure. All those familiar pieces are there: synchronization points, collectibles (about two thirds less than what was in Unity), and rubbing shoulders with famous historical figures. From a big picture view, Syndicate is neither a step forward or a step back. It feels like an attempt to recapture the spirit of the fan favorite Brotherhood, which it successfully does. The gang mechanic is not unlike the Assassin guild Ezio sets up, as AI controlled hoodlums can be used to distract, defeat, and provide backup against enemies either stronger or large in number. Syndicate also borrows from Unity‘s better parts, specifically the Rockstar-style random encounters and non-story related mysteries. Gangs, controlling territory, and putting out small fires while traipsing around a steampunk-injected Industrial Revolution are ingredients that made Syndicate one of the most fun games to play in the series.
In the pantheon of Assassin’s Creed protagonists, Jacob and Evie now sit high on that list. I never thought about it before, but a brother and sister team is something I never thought I wanted. Little time is spent developing the backstory of these two characters (that’s saved for the copious amount of database content meant to supplement everything you see and do in the game) but we come to know them as devotees of the Assassin Order. The siblings travel to London for bigger game, against the wishes of their Assassin taskmaster, after making some noise in Croydon. While Evie is concerned about scouring London for a Piece of Eden artifact, Jacob has his own designs for dismantling Templar control through street gangs. The pair are so fun to watch as they interact with each other and the big city around them. Jacob is, ostensibly, a cocky thug who appreciates a straight up fight rather than sneaking around the dingy streets of an Industrial London. And for every eye roll Evie sends his way, she can’t help but smile mischievously. Their banter is adorable and Jacob plays the role of the obnoxious brother quite well whenever Evie shares a moment with the dashing leader of the London Assassins.
(As a side note, Ubisoft’s infamous excuses for why there were no women in Unity are made all the more baffling now because Evie and other prominent women, including Mrs. Mary Anne Disraeli, are incredibly well realized and animated. I researched Mary Anne disraeli after playing the game and was delighted to see that she was as high spirited as the game depicted her!)
The present day shenaningans of the Assassin/Templar War is mostly told – unfortunately – from the Helix hacker introduced in Unity. Thankfully, these interludes are given a lot more attention and weight with the grand return of Shaun Hastings and Rebecca Crane (previously seen manning a coffee kiosk at Abstergo Entertainment). The present day content is mostly filler as Shaun and Rebecca (once again) try to information seen through the Animus to determine the location of another Piece of Eden.
On the surface, Syndicate doesn’t go beyond what previous games have done in the past. Evie hunts for the latest MacGuffin that the Templars (both in the past and future) covet, leading both groups on a chase to secure the latest precursor artifact. Jacob’s focus on capturing territory mirrors Brotherhood only this time, takeovers are dividing among four scenarios. The repetitiveness of these scenarios would normally a shunning (after all, that was my big complaint against the first Assassin’s Creed) but the different architectural zones of 1860s London offer a diverse set of obstacles, hideaways, and strategy. Syndicate also introduces a major game changer: the grapple hook. For those who have struggled with the game’s sometimes wonky, sometimes unresponsive traversal controls will find joy in a tool that makes such complications a thing of the past. Even though it turns combat engagements into Batman: Arkham (especially with the added fear-based techniques Evie gains in the Jack the Ripper DLC), I have a hard time wanting to play another game without it. Time period be damned!
As for the game’s setting, I think 1868 London is the most realized locale since Assassin’s Creed II. A lot of what draws me into the setting is the elegance and regalia of Victorian London with the dirty, sooty, working class created by the Industrial Revolution. The gentle sprinkling of steampunk flavoring, so evocative of the era, certainly helps too. The environment does a fantastic job of showing, but not telling, the plight of the lower class. London is a veritable city of industry and in the areas east of the Thames, you’ll find the poor, tired, and soot covered faces of the underprivileged and overworked. A stark contrast to Westminster and the Strand, where the streets are lined with elegant looking row houses, lush parks, beautifully dressed men and women, and fancy pubs. At night, alleys and factories can be downright spooky, especially during the Ghost Club side mission handed out by Charles Dickens. A thick fog envelops the city, making an already unnerving sight seem all the more frightening.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate may be rote, but it has tons character and heart, something Unity lacked. It’s not completely untouched by Ubisoft’s microtransaction scheme. Helix points function as a secondary currency to be used on XP boosts, extra crafting materials, and special maps. I don’t take issue with such boosts, it’s not like it is difficult to gain in-game experience and despite goods costing a lot of money, the cash isn’t hard to come by. What irks me is that two treasure maps, one for music boxes and the other for Helix glitches, can only be purchased with Helix points, more than the game actually dishes out. You get more buy spending actually money as the amount dished out in-game would make Oliver Twist’s food hoarding taskmaster cry in sympathy. I broke down and purchased a bundle of Helix points just so I could collect the Helix glitches. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s no achievement for that.
Despite all that, I really enjoyed playing (and finishing) Syndicate and easily recommend it to anyone. While it’s nowhere you haven’t been already, it’s a great way for Ubisoft to regroup after Unity and possibly close the series as we know it before the (possible) relaunch in 2017. Now that Ubisoft is taking a break this year from releasing a game, I hope to see a grand overhaul of the series. Now is the time to make changes, to retire the design and focus on creating something new, unique, and different.