The Assassin’s Creed franchise is one of many ups and downs. Releases can be met with near uniform acclaim one year and ubiquitous scorn the next.
Assassin’s Creed is coming off one of those latter years. Assassin’s Creed Unity released to massive technical issues that required months of updates and patches. And even before its release, the developers faced blowback for comments about the inability to play as a female assassin in the game. (That’s not to mention Assassin’s Creed Rogue, which released only for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 last year. An entirely separate and more warmly regarded entry, it felt almost like an afterthought while persistent problems plagued Unity.)
Ubisoft is aware of the negative reaction the series received, and so it has presented Assassin’s Creed Syndicate as a mea culpa, a promise that the series can get back on track and deliver the experience players first loved. Set in Victorian-era London, players take on the story of twins Jacob and Evie Frye as they try to free the city from the iron grip of Crawford Starrick.
The game also tweaks its centerpiece parkour movement with a grapple addition and a vehicle system. And with a new setting comes new rooftops to explore, criminals to assassinate, and plenty of collectibles. But does Syndicate make up for the sins of the franchise’s past, or is it another step in the wrong direction?
Our early impressions indicate the former, but read on for more on what critics thought of the full game, which is now available on PlayStation and Xbox One.
“The main assassination missions are where Syndicate really shines. They place you into larger-than-life settings — the Bank of England, the Tower of London, Lambeth Asylum, etc. — and provide you with a variety of potential ways to get close to and take out your target. If you want to run in and clumsily kill everyone in sight, Syndicate will allow it, in most cases. But you can play it more carefully, sneak around, find hidden entrances, knock out guards for disguises and more. There are also unique assassinations you can pull off in each of these main missions, if you’re especially crafty.”
“You can play as either Frye as you explore the city, switching between them freely. Jacob and Evie have their own tailored story missions, but the bulk of the open-world activities can be completed as either one. Using two protagonists works surprisingly well, since they share important resources like money and experience. Anything useful you gain as one sibling can be used by the other. I conquered practically every corner of London as Evie, but switched to Jacob for fight clubs and races. Evie is the more likable of the pair; her measured demeanor and preference for stealth lines up better with my perception of an Assassin, especially compared to Jacob’s more violent and impulse-driven philosophy. Despite their defined narrative roles, Jacob can still sneak and Evie can still fight, though their aptitudes are based on how you develop them.”
“Every single thing is bound to the logic of lock and key, gear and cog, the strict rational efficiency of having the right tool for the job. On the level of narrative structure, the game has eschewed the meandering plots of some of its predecessors in favor of something much closer to the first Assassin’s Creed: a straightforward pyramid of bad guys requiring one-by-one elimination. On the level of missions and sub-missions, the game has taken dramatic steps to take the “side” out of sidequests and fold every activity into a larger grid of systematic and economic “conquest.” Even on the level of minute-to-minute rhythm, what it’s like to actually play this game, a set of refinements mostly cribbed from the Arkham series contribute to a sense of flow that’s really about technological competence: landing “tool combos” (there is a combo counter now), finding the right grapple point, pouring experience points into perks.”
“Stealth too has had a major, not to mention welcome, overhaul. No longer mapped to a shoulder button, tapping x will switch out your top hat for a hood and put you into a crouch. While in sneak mode, cover is now automatic so you’ll finally stick to objects (in a good way this time) and it means infiltration is a far more slick experience. Whether you’re entering one of the child liberation missions from a skylight or sneaking into a gang stronghold through a window, this is the first Creed that feels like not getting detected is a real possibility.
“Add in the new freedom of movement offered up by the rope launcher and, despite the inevitable descent into chaos at any minute, Jacob and Evie have enough tricks up their sleeves (hello return of the whistle) to make sneaky slaughter an absolute pleasure. There’s an increased emphasis on unique kill opportunities, multiple entry points into missions, or the chance to go in all guns blazing – but more importantly, these opportunities are better signposted than ever.”
“Side missions are a mainstay of Assassin’s Creed, since they often offer more content than the main sequence storyline missions. In Syndicate, you can progress through the game doing almost nothing but sequence missions if you choose; the leveling process is fairly smooth, so it works out fine.
“But side missions offer some nifty gear, recipes, faction points with people you want to be friends with, and the like. Syndicate does try to offer some variety: You’ll be sent out to knock someone off, spy on them, chase them down and tackle them, take them hostage, collect things, or the like. But it does start to feel a little similar after a while.
“You might save children from a factory for a particular group of über-powerful urchins, and then you turn around and save adults in another factory for someone else. The bonus objectives (special conditions you have to meet) might be different, but a lot of those overlap as well.”
“All of this would be easier to swallow if the simple act of playing didn’t feel so broken. The controls are a relic of the crusades (literally, as this is where the series began), and have become unsatisfying and woefully imprecise. All contextual actions are mapped to the same three buttons, which makes it the luck of the draw as to whether you do the action you want to, or the one the game thinks you want to. Firing your gun is the same button as dodging enemy bullets under timed prompts; opening boxes next to ledges is the same as jumping down off ledges if you’re accidentally holding the action button at the same time, as you often are; and bundling kidnapped targets into carriages is the same button as getting on to that carriage and driving off.”
“It all sounds rather serious, but Syndicate is also the silliest Assassin’s installment in quite some time. It shows a real delight in ransacking its rich Victorian setting for fun stuff to do. There are so many amusing missions, from tracking down hallucinogenic orchids for Charles Darwin to retrieving the lapdog of Benjamin Disraeli’s wife in the Devil’s Acre, the most dangerous part of London. Early on, you can dress up Jacob as Sherlock Holmes, don Cthulhu-inspired tentacular brass knuckles, and hunt down occultists with Charles Dickens. What’s not to love about that sentence?”
“London feels alive. Towers breathe smoke into the sky, stations bustle with passengers and passing trains, the homeless burn fires in trash cans in alleys, and stray cats pause to look at you while you lie in wait for your target. Bystander AI can be overdramatic at times, cowering in fear indefinitely after witnessing you murder someone in front of them, but those visceral reactions are what make starting fights in public such a delight. You throw a punch in a marketplace and crowds immediately vacate the area, fleeing from your wrath. Little boys and women run and scream as you sink your blade in someone’s throat. NPCs also yell at you when you loot bodies, bid you good-day as you walk by, and make whispered comments to companions about your looks. And piled on top of it all is a brilliant soundtrack, a seamless sea of tunes that capture the sadness of the poor and the determination of the Fryes.”
“Once you move away from the hard stealth idea, then you can appreciate Assassin’s for what it is. It’s a playground. That’s why Syndicate is at its best when it gives you an objective and lets you go wild. The Assassination missions are the heights of this, featuring a variety of entry points, opportunities for stealth and special kills, and more freedom in how you achieve your objective. I found the same was true of the missions you do for Jacob and Evie’s associates. Whether it’s diving into a factory to free children or simply killing a Templar lackey, the regular open world missions are a lot more fun once you have all your toys.”
Exploration is identical to Unity, as in: it is mostly automated and does its best to guess what you want to do, often getting it horribly wrong. As with the combat, the developers have seen fit to give you a tool that skips all that in the grappling hook. Now to get to a viewpoint, instead of figuring out the climbing puzzles of old, you just look at the top and pull yourself up, hoping that the game puts you where you intended. While making movement less of a chore, it is as imprecise as the game’s free-running system.
“Everything just feels slightly off, and it ruins the overall experience. Take the horse-drawn carts for an example: driving them feels like you are driving a bus with shopping trolley wheels, on ice. You can ram other carts, but the cart just flails wildly, most of the time not shunting in the direction you were hoping for. It is as if everything is made out of magnets.”