I’m going to start off with an apology. Back in May, when Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate was shown off for the first time, I penned a piece explaining my concerns with what was shown. With changes for (what looked like) the sake of it and the apparent discarding of Unity’s good points, I was very, very worried. I shouldn’t have been, because Syndicate is the best Assassin’s Creed game since Brotherhood. In fact, it could be the best, full stop.
Jacob and Evie Frye are largely responsible for this. Dual protagonists, the twins are fantastically characterised. Jacob is blunt and rather rash, a street fighter at heart, rather than a thoroughbred assassin. Evie is the opposite, more restrained, concerned with the bigger picture – which for me made her the more interesting of the two. Despite their differences they work wonderfully as a team throughout the story, though it’s their nuances that impress me; the little comments and teasing that make up their relationship mirroring those of any real siblings.
Brilliantly, their differing characters mean that they actually play slightly differently, reflecting their personalities. In the side missions and the open-world you can mostly choose whom to control, swapping briskly from the menu, but mainline story missions force you to control one or the other. Jacob, as his character suggests, prefers a more direct approach, wading into fights and making a scene, while Evie prefers stealth, sneaking in and out, eliminating enemies one at a time; although, in truth, both are capable of each type of gameplay, and the majority of missions allow you to choose how you tackle them. Alongside this, the two also have almost identical skill trees, with only the later game funnelling them down combat and stealth respectively.
Characterisation across the story is excellent however, with the Fryes coming across Dawkin, Dickens and Florence Nightingale amongst others. The story is ‘classic’ Assassin’s Creed – city controlled by Templars, Assassin Order weak, etc. – but it’s carried off with aplomb, with the glimpses of the main villain pretty intriguing. Side-missions tie in incredibly well though, a first for the series, with the building up of The Rooks – the gang lead by the twins – and the supporting cast interesting enough to frequently pull you from the main tale.
The actual gameplay itself is massively improved as well. At its core it’s the same as it has always been. Combat – although more brutal, with knives, swordsticks and knuckle-dusters at your disposal – still relies on the trio of attack/counter/stun at its heart, and you’ll clamber up buildings and free run across them by holding the right trigger and either Cross or Circle (X or B on Xbox One) to go up/down. It’s the new stuff that makes things interesting.
A stealth mode is now mapped to Cross, and it actually works, with enemies much less likely to spot you in this mode – signified by putting up your Assassin’s hood. It actually makes sneaking a viable option for the first time in the series. Then there’s the grapple gun. This allows you to shoot to the top of buildings in seconds and zipline across streets when free running. It works fantastically with Syndicate’s overall flow, able to attach itself onto any surface you want. It means you can cross streets that are wider than before – Victorian London had to accommodate carts after all – but it really allows for some excellent, Batman/Predator style stealth, letting you leap from a roof to air assassinate a guard, grab his mate from behind a crate then launch back to another roof and arrive on the other side of the area in seconds. You actually feel like an assassin, which is a good thing given the targets you have to kill.
Missions have quite a variety – with no eavesdropping, thankfully – with plenty of actual assassinations for you to pull off. Even better, Syndicate rarely forces you to tackle a mission in a certain style, but even if you botch a stealth attempt, it’s never insta-fail. Instead, targets will fight you, but even if they run you have a chance to chase them down.
If things do end up in a brawl, you can always call on your gang members to help out. Rooks walk the streets, and can be recruited to follow you as you go about your tasks – though if they see you in trouble they’ll automatically help out. Most side missions relate to the gang conquering the city’s various districts, pulled off by taking out outposts, kidnapping or killing certain leaders and finally a good old fashioned street brawl. It’s pretty neat, with areas under your control populated by your gang members.
Drivable carriages are the other headline feature, and while they look a bit ridiculous in footage, when playing they are actually really fun. Naturally they serve as a faster way around the incredibly vast city, but they are also used in chase scenes, during which you ram other carriages and even jump from one to the other, all at high speed. Admittedly it is very unrealistic, but they’re fun to drive and never overused. Trains are the other transport you’ll see in the city, circling the tracks. Jacob and Evie’s headquarters in London is actually a train, which is quite cool, acting as a moving hub for certain characters and your income safe. It goes without saying that a fight on the roof of a moving train happens several times.
London itself is a sprawling cityscape, replete with all the landmarks you know and love. Naturally an early mission has you climb to the top of Westminster Palace (Big Ben, you philistines), but Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace and Covent Garden all make an appearance. It actually feels alive in a Rockstar-esque way: helped no doubt by the moving traffic rather than the hordes of people of past titles.
Visually, Syndicate looks superb – there’s debate in the team about whether it is better or worse than Unity was – but the facial tech in cutscenes has made a huge step forward, and the sound design is great (there are lots of violins).
It wouldn’t be an Assassin’s Creed game without upgrades though, and here is where things get a little messy. While the skill points, used to unlock abilities for the twins, are fairly straightforward, new gear and upgrades to your gang often need more than just money to pay for. Metal, chemicals and leather also need to be collected to gain access to better stuff, but you only get these from the chests scattered around the city and street urchins you’ve taken under your wing, and there’s no way of knowing what your going to get in advance. I’ve had urchins hand me a single medicine bottle before, while another handed me £5000. A new gauntlet may require 100 leather say, but you may only get 15 from one urchin in ten. The alternative is to purchase some with real money.
I’m not going to end on a downer though. Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is a fantastic game, one that has surpassed all of my expectations. The gameplay is the best it has ever been in the series and the story ranks highly as well. The Victorian era was a time of great invention and progress, and with Syndicate, Ubisoft has tinkered around behind the hood and gotten this series back on the right track. Long may it continue.
Jacob and Evie are excellent protagonists.
Proper stealth gameplay.
A brilliantly realised Victorian London.
Artificial grind for resources to get you to use microtransactions.