In the eyes of a lot of gamers Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate had a lot of cleaning up to do in the wake of its immediate predecessor. I wasn’t quite as down on Unity as a lot of people seemed to be; it was a technical mess certainly and it’s plotline felt entirely skippable in the grand scheme of things but I enjoyed it well enough for what it was. That said, Syndicate has it’s work cut out for it. It’s must restore faith in Ubisoft’s flagship franchise and though it stumbles in several key areas, it largely succeeds in that goal.
This time out, players take control of two characters for the first time in the series history: twins Jacob and Evie Frye, Assassins who take it upon themselves to bring war to the Templars of London in 1868. The game’s plotline is split into two separate threads as a result: Jacob, the more brash and impulsive of the two, contents himself with orchestrating a gang war to free the boroughs of London from the yolk of Templar and industrialist Crawford Starrick, while Evie attempts to find and locate the Shroud of Eden, a Precursor artefact that can heal any injury, before the Templars do.
The narrative is disjointed, playing like two separate games spliced onto the same map and it’s not necessarily a good thing. The storylines rarely cross over, save for the odd mission in which Evie finds herself forced to clean up after her brother’s rash and overzealous actions. The game tries to play up a tension between the two as a result, but it doesn’t invest enough time in the subplot to make it feel organic, resulting in a pay off that feels forced and unnatural.
The game continues its Forrest Gump style storytelling, introducing its character to numerous historical figures of the time but for the first time it feels a little ham-fisted and absurd. Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell, Florence Nightingale, Karl Marx, Benjamin Disraeli, Duleep Singh, William Gladstone, James Brudenell (who led the charge of the Light Brigade), Frederick Aberline (the chief investigator on the Jack the Ripper murders) and even Queen Victoria herself wander through the narrative, like a conga line of famous people inexplicably bumping into the protagonists for the slightest of reasons. It’s gotten ridiculous and while this sort of historical figure parade has been present in other games in the series, it’s never felt quite as heavy-handed as it does here.
All that being said, the present day plot finally kicks back into gear after years of treading water, and while it isn’t nearly as prevalent as it was in the first few instalments, it marks what appears to be a declaration of intent for the series going forward. The setup this time is that the present day Assassins are sifting through the historical memories of Evie and Jacob because they too are looking for the Shroud. Series mainstays Shaun Hastings and Rebecca Crane return to headline the narrative, which takes place solely through cutscenes that play every few hours or so through the main story. What seems like another instalment of treading water is eventually revealed to be the biggest step forward the plotline has taken in a long time and for the first time in ages it seems as though the plotline is heading towards a definite conclusion.
Syndicate‘s open world of London is an attractive one, beautifully realised and containing all the famous locations you’d expect. You can walk across Westminster Bridge, climb Big Ben and even tour the gardens of Buckingham Palace, all rendered in what appears to be a slightly less ambitious version of Unity‘s game engine. The engine seems to have been downgraded a little, with draw distance seemingly less than it was in Unity and the lighting striking me as a little less noteworthy. Hopefully the developers will eventually figure out how to get the thing running properly on consoles but for the moment at least the slightly less taxing graphical effects are a vast improvement to Unity‘s hitchy frame rate and graphical glitches.
The map is separated into boroughs, with each featuring a range of side activities like carriage races, fight clubs and gang strongholds to be taken over. There’s also a range of side missions to do for historical figures like Dickens and Darwin, short and sweet little stories that send you around London doing a variety of things but the best thread of these is locked away behind timed exclusivity for PlayStation 4. A series of ten missions, the quest line sees players solving murders through investigation and lateral thinking. Missions of this type were in all versions of Unity and it’s a welcome return here but it’s a pity that it’s locked away for two-thirds of the audience.
The repeatable activities are a mixed bag however. The simplicity of the carriage races and boxing matches is the game’s friend but it fails to make much else of the less story focused activities compelling. One particularly terrible activity involves kidnapping Templars and turning them in to police, a feat accomplished by sneaking into an area, finding the target and escorting them out without being seen by patrols. Assassin’s Creed‘s stealth gameplay has never been its strong suit so the decision to base an entire side activity around it baffles me. You can salvage the mission if you do get caught with a quick display of violence but its tedious and uninteresting.
I’ve always enjoyed the Assassin’s Creed traversal systems, despite their occasionally unpredictable controls and imprecise moments. Here though, Syndicate employs a new system first implemented in Unity and further refined here. I don’t remember it being this bad in Unity but this time around the redesign works terribly, latching onto things you don’t want to latch on to and generally causing issues. The main problem appears to revolve around the decision to devote climbing up and climbing down to two separate buttons. While it does help with vertical descents, it feels unwieldy in most situations, a trait not assisted by the maps design, which is filled with chimneys and window sills that slow progress when combined with the new system.
The game includes a grappling hook for the first time, and while it’s definitely a welcome inclusion it’s targeting is very off. Aiming at the ledge you want to zipline to is a chore, as the game seems to designate grappling points at random. What may initially seem like a viable option might not be and perhaps even more frustrating is the relatively precise angle you have to aim at for the button prompt to appear. The reason a system like this works so well in the Batman games is because it’s smooth and precise, but Syndicate‘s grappling hook fails in that regard.
You’ll need the hook too, because Victorian London is big and the streets are wide, to make way for the carriages. While jumping from rooftop to rooftop has almost always been a viable form of travel in the past games, Syndicate‘s long stretches of open space slow you down constantly and the grappling hook is a constant necessity to cross the broad streets. As a result it’s often far more effective to simply commandeer a horse and carriage if you’re traveling long distances, and this compromise works surprisingly well. The controls for the carriages are tight and responsive, not nearly as unwieldy as you may first expect and climbing on top of one to jump to the roof of an enemy’s to take them down never gets old.
Collectables litter the open world in the form of treasure chests, vintage beer bottles and pressed flowers (yeah, you read right), but the most enjoyable collectables are the ones that add to the story as a whole. Finding letters to and from Queen Victoria scattered around Buckingham Palace sheds light the time period and the character, while small anomalies scattered around the world will unlock copious amounts of audio recordings when collected, expanding on the present day storyline a great deal. The a hidden vault that can be unlocked upon finding a certain amount of elusive music boxes that can be detected by their sound, the reward for which is pretty cool. For most games in the series you’ve been able to buy special maps from in-game vendors to unlock the locations of these collectables on the map but that’s only half true this time around. Treasure chests, flowers and bottles can all be located with in-game currency but when it comes to the more valuable glitches and music boxes, you’re instead prompted to buy them with real life money.
These micro transactions are in the form of Helix credits, an in-game meta-currency that can be purchased in packs for real-world money. These are absurdly overpriced for the content received, which in addition to the maps includes experience boosts and in-game currency and locking away the maps like that annoys me to no end. The game does give you the opportunity to obtain Helix points without paying for them, earning some by completing side content and others being obtainable if you’re a member of the current generation equivalent of UPlay, the Ubisoft Club, but it seems designed so that you just fall short of being able to by anything worthwhile in an attempt to tempt the player to simply shell out the extra money.
The large amount of upgrades and the prices attached to them also seem designed with micro transactions in mind. There are two tiers: character upgrades and world upgrades. The character upgrades are unlocked with skill points in much the same way as most role playing games. Both Jacob and Evie have a skill tree attached to them and while a few skills are exclusive to one or the other, they overlap almost entirely. Enjoyably, when you earn a point for one character it also earns a point for the other so you don’t have to jump between the two to keep them levelling when exploring the open world. These upgrades don’t seem affected by the micro transactions at all but the world upgrades do. These upgrades (which affect things like the cost of gear from vendors and the power of allies in the open world) are ridiculously expensive and when combined with the fact that you’re always buying new weapons and armour, you likely won’t have the money to invest much in them without purchasing more with Helix credits.
The main mission design presents a very welcome reprieve from the usual tailing and eavesdrop missions that have plagued every Assassin’s Creed game (the latter type doesn’t even appear once) and if you do blow your cover the game is typically quite lenient in letting you improvise instead of forcing you to restart at a checkpoint. There’s a few small exceptions: not being able to start pick up mission objects when enemies are on alert makes no sense whatsoever and for some bizarre reason the developers have opted to make the player characters instantly recognisable to any enemy wandering the open world, which results in far too many unwelcome street fights. It was irritating when they first tried it in the first instalment and it’s definitely still irritating here.
The story missions are actually far more interesting when they restrict the player to a confined space rather than the open world. These interior areas and tightly scripted sequences are a blast and while the game largely lacks the epic set-pieces and traversal sequences of its predecessors, it makes up for it with the assassination missions. While previous games assassination methods were generally pretty mundane (it usually amounted to “sneak up behind a guy and stab him”), here the developers play around with them a bit. Originally introduced in Unity but a lot more refined here, the missions are presented kind of like a Hitman game: there are a number of options and paths to take to complete your objective, like pretending to be a cadaver to surprise an evil doctor or poisoning a tea-pot to whittle down your enemies reinforcements. There’s never more than two or three of these options per mission but it’s still a vast improvement when compared to previous games and it encourages players to think out their approach rather than rush in blindly with knives out.
In a lot of ways, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate feels like what Unity should have been, a smoother and more refined version of one of last year’s most divisive video games. It’s still got a ton of jagged edges and there’s plenty more that can be fixed going forward but a more freeform mission design and an increased focus on the present day story goes a long way to righting the ship Unity left reeling. It runs properly this time as well, which is an improvement over the buggy disaster that was last year’s instalment, but the fact that that’s even a point of interest for consumers indicates just how badly developer/publisher Ubisoft dropped the ball last year. In any case, it seems like the series is once again on the right track but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Ubisoft needs to take a good hard look at where they want the series to go and how long they want to take to get there. The present day storyline indicates forward momentum and if Ubisoft is smart they should realise that it’s about time to wrap up the long-running series.