(Notice: I will get around into reviewing Assassin’s Creed: Unity at some point.)
“For every mission, there is a right way and a wrong way. Barging thoughtlessly into combat is, more often than not, the latter.” ―Evie Frye, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate
Title: Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate
Alternative title: Assassin’s Creed: Victory, AC: S, Assassin’s Creed 6
Genre: Action-adventure, stealth
Format: PS4 (reviewed), X1, PC
Release: October 23, 2015
For all its convoluted storylines, confusing lore, insane amount of extended media, and annual releases, I loved the Assassin’s Creed series, perhaps more than I want to admit. I used to play every game, read every comic book and find every little bit of lore I could find. I was so much in love with this series, sometimes that this love blinded me from all the flaws and problems the games had.
Sure, the series had some downs here and there, but they were never deal-breakers to me and I continued to love almost each game to bits. There was something so rich and captivating in each and every entry that kept me coming back for more.
Then, Assassin’s Creed: Unity came out. It wasn’t a bad game, no, far from it, but it was the very solid first sign for me that the series I loved is no longer the same.
So now, let’s talk about the 2015 entry that made Ubisoft realize that maybe the series needs some rest: Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.
Story & Setting
The general background to the entire Assassin’s Creed series is a never-ending war between two semi-fictional factions called the Assassins and the Templars. The former supports free will and open minds whilst the latter wishes for order and law – both basically see their ideals as the true meaning of peace while disregarding the other as a delusional enemy that must be stopped before bringing destruction upon the world.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is set in 1868 Victorian London at the supposed height of the 1840s Industrial Revolution’s results. Templars possess a firm grasp on the city’s political and economical systems, while the English Assassins are a minor, powerless group headed by the English-Indian leader Henry Green.
This marks the arrival of the twins Jacob and Evie Frye, two trouble-makers from the small town of Crawley raised as Assassins by their father. And as soon as they arrive, Jacob quickly organizes a street gang by the name of the Rooks to fight against the Templars and their ruthless Grand Master, Crawford Starrick. In the meantime, Evie sets out to locate the Shroud of Eden, one of many ancient technological pieces created by an extinct civilization called The Ones who Came Before.
Unlike its predecessor Unity, Syndicate ditches melodramatic and tragic plot-lines in favor of a far more lighthearted and humorous story. Almost to a point of parodying the entire series.
For better and for worse.
Syndicate follows the typical story formula the series has been using since the second game: evil Templars rule a city or a country, a young Assassin rises to stop them, all hell breaks loose thanks to horrid misuse of near-godlike technology, etc etc.
Out of the entire series, Syndicate might be the most optimistic and cheerful entry thus far, with a far more black and white outlook on the Assassin-Templar conflict while staying away from any major historical events or situations.
London is yet another great location for the series, an always-working, densely populated city with multiple iconic (“Ubiconic”) landmarks and sites. It certainly lacks some of the charm and personality Florence and Rome had, but still holds its own well. Better than Paris, for sure.
Almost a shame it is spent on such a lackluster narrative.
Jacob and Evie are mostly stark images of each other; the former is a brush and reckless man who cares little for rules, while the latter is a strict and devout follower of the Creed. A common thing between them is their strong, independent and rebellious nature, going against general double-standards of the era.
But that’s about it. Neither gets any meaningful progression from their starting point, their respective character arcs follow a familiar pattern without much meat on it, and the supposed sibling rivalry between the two that was highlighted by so many critics as one of the best aspects of the story – is barebones of a subplot that gets several jarring lines thrown between the twins until a poor conclusion.
As avatars to explore the lovely London, Jacob and Evie are bearable; they are funny and charming enough to like and remember. But as main characters, they fall short of their predecessors.
I actually liked the majority of the supporting cast, which while still heavily underused and serve little more than side missions givers, are a rather lovely band of rogues. Particularly Henry; I’d love getting a game starring him rather than a mostly obscured novel prequel.
The historical characters, however, are a massive disappointment. Do you know why Assassin’s Creed II’s Da Vinci or Black Flag’s Blackbeard are so well regarded? Because they felt like a genuine piece of their respective games’ narratives and had a natural, strong connection and friendship with the main characters.
Here? They all appear in the story solely for the sake of it, rather than have any noticeable influence on the plot. They appear once, befriend the twins, then get kicked out the way for side missions. They are a cynical inclusion in attempt to make the game’s setting all that more authentic, and the dry reaction to them shows just how much this fails.
I also feel let down by Syndicate’s disappointing array of Assassinations Targets. A continuing trend from Unity, Jacob and Evie take down names, rather than actual threats. Names. With their own distinguishable appearances, yes, but lacking any memorable personality. Many of them appear moments before receiving the end of the blade from one of the Frye twins, with little depth or reason to their actions beyond moving the plot forward.
The original 2007 Assassin’s Creed and its 2009 sequel had multiple targets that, while often being encountered only during their respective assassination missions, still possessed a surprising amount of depth and realization to their motivations and goals, and by the end of the assassination, their words could make one feel uncertain about their inevitable disposal. Sadly, Syndicate lacks such depth.
Oh, and Evie is a bloody afterthought.
I forgot to mention this earlier, but I wanted to keep this problem to the end of my criticism; Evie feels like an afterthought to the entire game, a forced addition added only because of the fear of backlash after the controversies Ubisoft suffered in 2014.
For a supposed main co-protagonist with her brother, Evie gets generally sidelined and forgotten for the majority of the story, being driven to her own little quest – almost a damn side-story – to find a mysterious MacGuffin whose own existence only hurts the game’s conclusion. Like the game’s historical character’s, she feels like a cynical addition, solely there to apply to the masses who shouted at Ubisoft for the lack of female characters.
And that’s a shame, because Evie could be a great protagonist on her own if her developers cared more about her than what she symbolizes.
I’m not sure about other people, but I prefer that a game won’t force characters into its narrative if they end up feeling so fillery and unneeded.
I still think that the story has its moments here and there, ironically some of those moments are between Henry and Evie, or the small glimpses into Starrick’s increasing annoyance and rage with the Frye twins. There is definitely a good story hiding here, with some good humor and a charming sense of fun. But it is one buried under questionable pacing and directing choices.
I also appreciate the game’s lighter and more upbeat tone in comparison to Unity, which almost fell too deep into the dark and edgy routine more than once. Syndicate, if nothing else, feels like a fresh breath of fun after so many dark games and plots.
And as for the modern-day story, it is there, told through cutscenes that play between sequences. I greatly enjoy the return of Shaun Hastings and Rebecca Crane, although the modern-day narrative is confusing, convoluted and sparse. It’s essentially buried under lots and lots of side media, and I doubt it will ever evolve beyond misplaced cutscenes.
Still… Shaun is awesome.
Gameplay & Design
If you’ve played an Assassin’s Creed before, then you know what you’re into: a big city, multiple collectibles, tall buildings, free-running and a lot of stabbing.
Syndicate doesn’t do much to evolve this formula, but for the most part, it is a solid game.
London is a big playground, even more than Unity’s Paris or Brotherhood’s Rome. As with your typical Ubisoft game, it is filled up to the tip with multiple side missions, activities and collectibles.
A notable change in Syndicate over its predecessors is a slightly more aggressive, combo-based combat with increased focus on pace and timing. It’s still a mostly automatic, counter-based system, but thanks to elegant animations and brutal finishers, remains a very involving and fun experience that can escalate spectacularly. Enemies suffer from some AI hiccups, but overall they remain quite challenging and threatening enough to overlook this detail.
Weapons such as brass knuckles, kukris and cane swords make the most of the Frye twins’ arsenal, alongside powerful pistols (that hold more than just one bullet) and the typical bombs. Pieces of diverse clothing and armor are also available, increasing defense and other stats or abilities. It doesn’t add that much change to the combat, but it provides a decent range of variety and power, and upgrading said objects is pretty satisfying.
Similar to Unity, Syndicate employs several RPG-like elements to its gameplay, most notably leveling up and skill tree. The skill tree offers plenty of powerful and useful upgrades that ease up on Jacob and Evie in terms of combat or stealth, but doesn’t vary much between the two beyond three “unique” (but generally bland) abilities to each of the twins. And in addition, both characters play rather similar with or without the upgrades, with very little differences beyond gender-specific animations.
I might also add that the dual character design is somewhat lacking in here, coupled with a jarring and delaying character changing each time you wish to play as either Jacob or Evie. It also bears no major impact on the game, and seems to be merely here because Grand Theft Auto V did this and received much praise from it.
Here the mechanic offer nothing new or noticeable to the gameplay.
Probably the biggest addition to gameplay is the Frye twins’ new grappling hook, which bears much reminiscent of the Batman: Arkham games. The grappling hook in Syndicate is rather limited in its range, angle and stunts, but I actually prefer it that way; being used as an escalation tool mechanically limited akin to its time era, rather than being an advanced set of piece that breaks some of the tension and logic.
It’s far from a revolutionary idea – and more in line with trendy features – but the grappling is fun and can save a lot of time, especially with the somewhat taller architecture of London in comparison to previous entries. I don’t buy the “it reduces gameplay” argument people have been saying about it, because parkouring is still a suggestive option, for the most time.
It’s still mechanically the same: jumping, leaping, falling, climbing. Despite being the series that pretty much populated free-running mechanics, Assassin’s Creed didn’t bother to improve small hiccups and problems to the system. The “parkour down” feature that debuted in Unity has yet to be refined, as well, and can cause quite the frustration with the Frye twins getting stuck or accidentally falling due its unreliability.
One of the highlights Syndicate kept and improve upon from Unity are the assassination missions; Jacob and Evie get thrown into large, open-ended environments with several optional approaches in their quest to take down one of Starrick’s lieutenants.
There are multiple opportunities and options available such as bribing a captain or helping a maid, securing keys or allies to the rest of the mission. It remains a highly enjoyable aspect from recent games which I would love seeing returning with more options and varieties in the future.
I do wish stealth was less brutal than it is in Syndicate, now that the main protagonists’ stealth options are locked to their Hidden Blade rather than also having the ability to take down enemies unarmed. This generally clashes with the game’s more lighthearted tone and the Frye’s more playful personalities and softer motivations than either Connor’s or Arno’s.
That said, however, stealth here feels great and engaging, and as flexible as Unity‘s.
Side content can feel a bit repetitive as it (almost) always the case with a 2010s Ubisoft game, but I personally see it as a step-up from previous offerings, with a noticeable enough range of missions to pick up such as the always-fun gang wars or the ally missions with one of the twins’ associates which sees their strengthening grip on London. Still, I would wish them to reduce some of the collectibles in the series and at least further develop the backstories of their side content.
Overall, the main story would take about 15 hours to beat it give or take, which is the general length for a sandbox game nowadays. The side missions may add another 35 hours to the entire package, even though some of it is copy paste, but there is still some decent meat to chew on here.
Visuals & Audio
Syndicate looks pretty fantastic with London being probably the most graphically impressive setting of the series so far. Ubisoft seriously nailed the time period here, with the industrial London being populated by smoking skies, burning chimneys, lively crowds and familiar buildings and landmarks that will astonish people with their insane level to detail and design.
The visual upgrades are apparent here, and the game is a massive improvement over Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed: Unity, themselves already being visually gorgeous games.
Be warned, however, that this is a Ubisoft game, so bugs and glitches find their way into Syndicate despite being over a year old game; this include Jacob flying away to his death, or Evie’s carriage twists in place. None of the glitches or bugs I’ve encountered were severe enough to be game-breaking or screen-tearing, however, so that is good.
And of course, this being an Assassin’s Creed game, character animations are fluid and stunning, particularly during combat finishers which always provide a badass and stylish strike.
Voice acting is top-notch and the actors manage to bring their characters to life despite the problematic script. Paul Amos and Victoria Atkin give Jacob and Evie a refreshing sense of confidence and sarcasm and they work together well enough to create a believable relationship with each other. The rest of the cast is similarly solid and believable, and hey, at least this time the English accents are consistent with the setting.
And Danny Wallace is back as Shaun, and that’s awesome.
I love the soundtrack for Syndicate. It enjoys using piano and violin as the music’ main stars, merging wonderfully with the Victorian London setting and the more… “sophisticated” era of the game. Alongside that, it features similar tones with previous tracks in the series during combat and chasing segments, coupled with classic piano additions, of course.
I am so disappointed in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, not for its lack of quality, however. But for how much promise is locked from the game and how apathetic its publishers to their own product. It’s still a fairly decent game with the series’ clever level design, beautiful visuals, lovely soundtrack and addicting gameplay, alongside new toys here and there to spice things up.
But eventually, all this is almost undone by developers who are too afraid to break the cycle and bring up new changes, not to mention running away with the tail between legs at the sight of new controversies. Say all what you want on Assassin’s Creed: Unity but at least this game tried to change and improve upon its predecessors well-worn formula while also having to deal with the lack of the highly acclaimed naval combat of 2013’s Black Flag. It partly failed, yes, but at least it was trying.
I guess the best thing I can say about Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is that it’s another Assassin’s Creed game, and even the least remarkable AC games are still lots of fun with incredible amounts of richness to their worlds. Syndicate is okay; not a bad game by most means, but it struggles to be a good one, living in fear in a world where games such as Shadow of Mordor and Batman: Arkham City exist.
I will say that, honestly, with all my heart, I tried to love this game. In stead, I just don’t regret my time with it.
- Victorian London is a beautiful and memorable setting that showcases some impressive technical feats and features fun activities
- The rope launcher, while nothing new or revolutionary, provides a decent addition to free-running
- Assassinations missions remain as fun and open-ended as they were in Unity, giving players multiple options to complete the objective
- Lazily-written story with poorly realized characters and thin progression, Evie feels like a mere afterthought
- Gameplay in general doesn’t evolve that much further, with noticeable hiccups and issues in multiple departments
- Playable character design and their RPG-like elements are needlessly added with little impact on the whole game
& The Ugly:
- This game, The Order: 1886 and Bloodborne together; am I the only one who felt that 2015 was the year for weird Victorian adventures with a supernatural twist to them?