The Assassin’s Creed franchise has had a rough few years. Culminating with the poorly received Assassin’s Creed Unity, the series has been criticised for a number of valid reasons that sadly turned a lot of people away from the previously much loved games. Syndicate, the latest installment, looks to repair some of the damage done by Unity by delivering a much more polished and engaging tale of two assassins, going back to the series’ roots.
Syndicate tells the story of Jacob and Evie Frye, two assassins in London during the Industrial Revolution. In the title sequence we’re told that whoever controls London controls the world, and unsurprisingly the city is controlled by templars. Over the course of the story you’ll play as both Evie and Jacob to rid the city of the moustachioed and villainous Templars, rallying the people behind you as you do so.
While the premise is all very business as usual for an Assassin’s Creed game, it’s the dynamic of two very different characters with differing goals and motivation that make the story quite engaging and new. Jacob is a headstrong, brute force kind of guy who tackles the world with his fists and smart attitude. He’s the one who decides to build the in game gang, the rooks, and approaches the templar occupation in a very head on way.Evie on the other hand is the quieter, more considered of the two. Often berated for being like their assassin father by Jacob, Evie is fixated on the shadowy conflict between the two factions and devotes her time to tracking down the shroud of eden, an artefact the Templars are also after. Her level head and focus on the overall goal mean that she can reign in Jacob, sorting out the messes he so often creates with his brash moves.
I really appreciated this distinction in both character and gameplay – instead of making a character that’s all at once stealthy and fast but tanky and brutal like in previous titles, the two styles are broken down into two people. The yin yang relationship the Frye siblings has quickly brought interest to the way the story plays out, as well as resulting in some clever and amusing banter between the two.
The only thing that marred this duality is that by the end it becomes clear you’re playing Jacob’s story, as he gets more and more missions and focus from around sequence six onwards. You have to switch purposely to Evie to do side missions as her and the final most impactful sections all take place while controlling Jacob which was a little disappointing given how compelling the two stories and characters were whilst running side by side. Evie’s own tale actually gets cast aside a little because of this, resolved not through her work throughout the game but by ‘the word of spies’ as you cause chaos as Jacob.By the end of the game, after a somewhat jarring final battle (that reminded me quite a bit of the Phantom Menace’s red shield filled final moments) the story comes to a very satisfying conclusion between the twins. The two are as likeable and charming as ever in our final moments with them as their personal tale comes full circle.
Ultimately, the story told in Syndicate is quite a good one. Upon completion I felt it rivalled that of Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brotherhood, delivering a satisfying tale set in one of the most gorgeously realised worlds in gaming at the moment. The surrounding cast of historical figures like Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, Florence Nightingale and even Queen Victoria herself made London feel like the centre of history it was, but the true star of Syndicate is the city itself.London feels alive at every step, from the slums to Buckingham palace. Plumes of smoke dot the horizon from the numerous smokestacks and factories active all over the city, while gangs and police roam the street. Even the Thames is packed with action, as all sorts of boats and barges move up and down it, giving you cargo to loot and enemy shipments to sabotage. The city shows off the innovation of 1868 with trains moving about on tracks above the street, while horse drawn carriages rule the roads below.
One of my favourite things about the world was that there was always something going on – be it to engage the player or otherwise. Random street events like scaring off bullies or tackling thieves pop up all the time in free roam, but it was much more impressive to watch police chase down a fleeing criminal in a carriage chase or fire trucks responding to a building set ablaze. As these weren’t story triggered set pieces London felt all the more genuine for these moments.The carriages are one of the best new additions to the series, allowing for thrilling racing, roof top fights and highjacking and generally allowing you to move around the city rapidly. They control rather well and definitely beat walking, but often fell into second place for mobility thanks to the other new addition, the rope launcher. Think Batman, but in 1868. The rope launcher allows a tonne of new mobility and assassination opportunities, allowing you to cover distances fast and stay above the ground even over enemy filled courtyards. You can even assassinate off them and scale viewpoints with them, making it faster than ever to get out of, and into, trouble.
While this made stealth outside a fair bit easier – air assassinate in then rope launch out before anyone sees you – it worked well within the updated systems. There’s no more hive mind on the enemies; alerting one or two foes will not result in an area wide alarm, instead you can dispatch those two foes and disappear back into stealth.The combat itself has a few tweaks to make it a bit more challenging than in the past, taking it to a more visceral, close and brutal style of small and concealable weapons. I found the Kukri, a short curved knife to be my favourite style weapon in game, able to take down enemies fast after parrying or breaking a block. Whether you go for all out brawls or stealthy pick offs, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s open design in both story and side missions caters for a huge variety of options, a very welcome adjustment.
Climbing and running around the world is very smooth for the most part, with only a few frustrating missteps throughout that will be familiar to anyone who’s played a previous instalment. It was really only in the few moments where super precise jumps were needed to nab a collectible animus fragment that I even noticed, but it’s still worth noting that the system has a few kinks.Speaking of collectibles, Syndicate has more than Unity ever did, with very authentic feeling objectives. Around the side missions and city liberation (perfect activities for fairly mindless fun of an afternoon), you’ll collect and sample beers from all over London, find letters from the royal family and even collect music boxes a legendary assassin used to secure his vault. They all felt like more than just ‘collect thirty hidden objects’ and lent themselves to the lore of the world, I very much enjoyed collecting what I have now and will likely return to the game to collect the rest in the future.
As if that wasn’t enough, there’s some really cool surprises in the story in the world that play into the modern day story, which Ubisoft seems to be reviving after dropping it a little for Unity especially. You’ll also find yourself able to access a small section of World War One London in 1916 for a side mission with Winston Churchill, a personal highlight of the game for me. There’s more and more to uncover the further you explore and engage with the game, something I missed from earlier instalments.
“There’s more and more to uncover the further you explore and engage with the game, something I missed from earlier instalments.”
As always, Syndicate is presented with a fantastic attention to detail in its score and sound design, bringing the world to life thanks to a fantastic score that feels like it was plucked from the 1860’s. Aside from a few minor glitches the whole experience was very polished, looking, feeling and sounding fantastic.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate delivers one of the best Assassin’s Creed experiences in years, with relatable and strong leads and a brilliant setting. With plenty of new additions that mix up the game for the better, a strong supporting cast and countless things to do in and around London, the few issues of controls and a less than stellar boss battle can’t discredit the overall experience Syndicate offers. Simply put, it’s the best Assassin’s Creed in years and may have even restored a fair chunk of faith in the series as a whole – here’s hoping our next outing takes us to Feudal Japan!
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC