When famed writer Daniel Defoe first uttered the phrase "nothing is more certain than death or taxes," he probably never envisioned that a couple of centuries later the Assassin's Creed franchise would be added to that list. Indeed, the yearly release schedule of their historical open-world murder spree simulator has been met with increasingly diminished enthusiasm—kind of like death and taxes, really. After Unity saw the light of day during one of the worst launches in gaming's history, Ubisoft gives it another go with this year's Assassin's Creed Syndicate. Will Syndicate be able to revitalize a tired concept or will it stand as a testament of Ubisoft's unwillingness to let their IP have a moment to catch its breath?
After we visited Paris during the tumultuous French Revolution, Syndicate shows us a revolution of a different form: the Industrial Revolution in London during the Victorian era. This time around players won't just fill one, but two pairs of assassin boots. These two assassins are twins called Evie and Jacob Frye, who move to a Templar-controlled London to free the people and steal a piece of Eden from the illustrious Templar organization, killing every Templar who dares to stand in their way.[caption id="attachment_59961" align="aligncenter" width="587"] The Frye Twins.[/caption]
The two protagonists have two very distinct personalities and modus operandi: Evie is cool and collected. Her interest in the artifacts of a civilization that ruled the Earth before mankind took a crack at it, called pieces of Eden, lead her to London. Her brother Jacob is a lot more brash and arrogant, opting to rid the streets of London from Templar control using gang warfare. Evie, being the more subtle one of the two, prefers stealth over violence whereas Jacob is a brawler who relies more on the strength of his fists than his sneaking abilities.
Outside of gameplay, the two twins have an awful lot of banter that feels believable due to the chemistry the two voice actors have. Evie is probably my favorite of the two. She has a ton of personality and unlike her brother isn't spouting cool sounding, but nonsensical one-liners all the time. She's just awesome. Both characters are playable at any time unless you're already in a mission. The only thing I didn't like about their personal story arch was that most of it seemed to have happened during the game's loading screens. Large parts of their story just seem to be missing, making their development as characters feel extremely sudden.
With two different play styles come 2 different skill trees, a returning feature from last year's Unity. This allows players to customize how each character plays. On paper this should enable players to have more control over their character's abilities, but in reality the skill trees are almost identical with character-specific base stats only making the two characters feel slightly different. It feels like a missed chance. They could have done so much more to shake things up and make the two characters feel REALLY different, forcing you to consider every situation carefully and choose the right assassin for the job. Unfortunately, you'll rarely be forced to make that choice.
The RPG elements in general also seem to be toned down. No longer will you have the freedom to pick and choose your clothing. Instead, you can choose between a couple of different cloaks, belts and dyes. Some gear is craftable, but on the whole it seems like Syndicate has taken a step back in terms of player character customization.
A new addition to the customization, however, is that you'll be able to upgrade your gang a bit—affectionately named the "Rooks" by Jacob, continuing the franchise's theme of using birds as the assassin symbol. You can make your gang members tougher so they last longer in a fight and can inflict more damage on their enemies, or give them a larger presence in the city so that help is never far when you need it. It's nothing major, but it sort of makes up for the lack of clothing customization, something I really enjoyed.
Your fight against the Templar regime begins on the streets. In order to get to the main antagonist, a mustache twirling, tea drinking English stereotype called Crawford Starrick who, despite his cliché character manages to succeed thanks to great voice acting, you need to wrest London from Templar control. You do this by assassinating high-ranking Templars in Starrick's inner circle and by killing all the gang leaders in the London boroughs. The six boroughs of London are each led by a gang leader of the omnipresent Templar-aligned gang called the "Blighters." In order to liberate each borough, you have to thin the ranks of the Blighters in that area by delivering key members to the police, free child laborers from their factories and steal cargo they're ferrying around the city. Once you've liberated each neighborhood within a borough, you can trigger a gang war. Gang wars are essentially boss battles between your gang and the local Blighter leader. Once you've disposed of the leader, the borough becomes yours. Once you've cleared the last bit of the borough, the leader will appear and send a big group of henchmen your way before running away. If you manage to catch and kill her before she escapes, you'll have an easier time with the big gang war battle because you've killed the one in charge.
The gameplay itself is bog-standard Assassin's Creed. Freerun over rooftops, climb towers, assassinate your targets with you dual blades. If you've played Unity, then you'll know exactly how the free running works. You have separate buttons for free-running up and down, and by holding the right trigger you can smoothly jump over gaps and objects.
The combat is largely the same, with you monotonously pressing the correct button prompt at the right time to dodge, hit or break the enemy's defense. Enemies can attack simultaneously, but I do get the feeling that the AI seems more than happy to wait their turn, making the combat extremely easy if you're familiar with the controls. The enemies also seem to suffer from an extreme case of amnesia, looking straight at you while you're murdering their friends after which they just sort of shrug and walk away. The AI is extremely predictable and dumb as a brick, so no situation feels challenging.
The stealth mechanic introduced in Unity is also back. To go into stealth mode you simply press the X button, your character will put on their hood and crouch down. You will automatically stick to walls if you're near them and even though the system is rudimentary at best, it does the job. Evie especially is best suited for stealthy stuff due to her chameleon skill, a skill that makes her become invisible if she's standing still in stealth mode.
The mission structures have improved significantly over the older installments in the franchise. You won't be spending a lot of your time tailing targets. Instead, you are usually given the freedom to approach the mission in any way you want, with the actual assassination missions giving you several options to kill the target. You can kidnap a guard to sneak past security unnoticed, help out a character so they give you the keys to the building, or position yourself in the right place to get a unique kill. Like in all the other games, Ubisoft has included a ton of colorful and famous characters like Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, a young Arthur Conan Doyle, Karl Marx, Queen Victoria, and Alexander Graham Bell who, at the start of the game, acts as an industrial revolution version of Assassin's Creed 2's Leonardo Da Vinci. All of them give you missions and all of them are different. One has you infiltrate a base to get a specific item, one has you investigate a supposed haunted house or has you working as a bodyguard while they go about their business. It's all pretty varied and the game is better for it.
You have a couple of gadgets at your disposal in your fight against the Templars and the Blighters. The coolest one by far is the rope launcher. It works exactly like Batman's line launcher in the Arkham games. When you're near a building you can use the launcher on, a button prompt will appear that lets you scale the building at a pretty high speed. This makes zipping along the many buildings London has an absolute pleasure. No longer will you have to jump down to street level because the building you're trying to get to is too far to jump to. The rope launcher helps you maintain your momentum and it feels great to use the thing. It also makes climbing the many towers that allow you to open up a bit of the map a lot easier. It's a great way to move about the city.
In addition to that you've got your standard hallucinogenic darts that enrage enemies and lets them attack friend and foe alike, smoke bombs for quickly taking out entire groups of enemies, small handguns that work best at close range, bombs that electrocute enemies and stun them for a small time, and a cane sword. My favorite close range weapon was the kukri knife, a big knife not entirely unlike a machete.
Other great transport options are the carriages driving around. You can grab an empty one off the side of the street—car alarms weren't really a thing back then, and neither were cars for that matter—or you can kick some poor sod off his and take off in their carriage. This may or may not anger the local gangs, prompting them to come after you in their own carriages. The vehicle combat in this game is nothing short of awesome. Because carriages do not really need human input to move, you can hop up on the roof to gun down enemies or to fight enemies who boarded your vehicle, all while the horses keep running at break-neck speeds. I got into a little situation where I was being followed by three carriages at the same time so I jumped on the roof and over to one of their roofs to drag the driver out of the driver's seat, shoot the drivers in the other carriages, and jump back to my own just in time to make sharp left. Moments like this don't happen often, but when they do it's pretty damn great.
London itself is, on its face, a fantastic city to walk around in. The city has hundreds of little streets, a ton of famous landmarks—like Big Ben and St. Paul's Cathedral—and each of the six distinct districts just breathe atmosphere. The city is absolutely massive, clocking in at a size roughly 30% larger than Paris was in Unity. Because this game takes place in an era where photography was already invented, the art department had a lot of reference material of how the real world London looked during the Industrial Revolution. There are beautiful parks with people playing cricket (for real) and pubs full of people singing and dancing, people working in factories—all important details that make the city feel alive. Horse-drawn carriages fill the streets and the river Thames is so packed with ships going to and fro, the docks that traverse the river turn into a 2015 version of Frogger. You can say whatever you like about Ubisoft, but they do know how to create a beautiful open world.
It doesn't hurt that the game's technical issues are significantly less than Unity's. You get your standard open world glitches like NPCs getting stuck on objects or clipping through each other, but even that didn't happen all that often. The game's performance on the PS4 is passable, only dipping a few frames below 30 when there's a lot going on. A huge step up from the embarrassment that was Unity at launch (and sometimes still is. Yikes). It's not something that should be praised because your game should work right out of the box, but it is noteworthy at the least. The only thing I did notice quite often was pop in and textures not loading quickly enough.
And even though the city might look good, the illusion gets broken once you try to interact with its many denizens. Like the aforementioned enemy NPCs, the people of London seem to all be suffering from a mild case of extremely low intelligence. People will sometimes get into a panic because you've accidentally bumped into them, or not react at all when you kill someone right next to them. At one point I was pulling Blighters out of a window and throwing them on the streets below, and the two guys standing there didn't seem fazed at all by my incredibly violent murder spree.
This time around your base of operations won't be a café or a pub, but an authentic steam train called ''Bertha." The train will always be moving around the city, so it's entirely possible to happen across it while you're out and about. Not that you need to seek it out if you want to go home, you can just fast travel to it whenever you want. Too bad you have very little reason to go back there because most of the things you can do in your base, such as upgrade your gang and gear, you can already do from the pause menu. You'll only start the odd mission on the train but that's about it.
PS4 owners will also be able to play the "Dreadful Crimes" missions. These missions are almost exactly like the investigative Paris Stories you had in Unity. You try to solve crimes by gathering evidence, talking to witnesses, and ultimately pointing out the culprit. These missions are a lot of fun and a nice change from killing endless supplies of Blighters.
In terms of story, the game is decent at best. The story and the characters are all very well voice acted but due to how the game is structured you get very little time to get to know the characters, and as a result of that it becomes hard to care for anyone besides Evie and Jacob. The major enemies are pretty cool characters, but they're all cardboard villains who seem evil for the sake of being evil. Only Starrick seems to have a bit more depth to him, but he's almost never present, and we get little to no insight into his inner workings, making it hard to understand his motives or, like in some of the older games in the franchise, feel sympathetic towards.
The story's conclusions is suspiciously similar to Unity and feels extremely underwhelming. It always feels like a let down when the final boss is exactly like all the other fights with only a larger health pool slightly increasing the challenge. The modern day story is also back in a larger capacity than it was in Unity, with the story being told to you via cutscenes that feature fan favorite Shaun Hastings. The ending raises a lot of questions that will no doubt be answered next year, but I'm sort of worried with the path they've set the story on now.
It's all very dramatic and the assassins are, as always, incredibly idealistic, but this makes the narrative and gameplay feel dissonant. Evie and Jacob's mission is to free the people of London, and they do this by killing hundreds of henchmen from the gangs controlling them only to annex those people into their gang. You're not freeing the people as much as you are making them work for you. You're supposed to be the good, moral hero in the story so there's a bit of a disconnect there.
Even though I've really enjoyed my time with Assassin's Creed Syndicate, it is now clearer than ever before that the series needs to take a breather. We live in a post-Witcher 3/MGSV world now. Those games have really upped the ante in terms of open world gameplay whereas Assassin's Creed is still built around the same approach to open world gameplay as it was 8 years ago. Even though the open world is pretty and well laid out, the activities within that big sandbox pale in comparison to some of the excellent open world games we've had this year, and it will only get worse from here on out if Ubisoft doesn't decide to go back to the drawing board to think about how they're going to keep up with other giants in the genre.
The tech behind the games has steadily been improved, but the lack of gameplay innovation makes it feel like an average game in a beautiful shell, and as a fan of the series that does sort of sting. It's a good Assassin's Creed game that is a ton of fun if you're a fan of the franchise like me, and London is a fantastic playground that is just a joy to walk around in, but to me it feels like that is no longer good enough.
A copy of this game was purchased by the reviewer and played on the Playstation 4.