Flat, bland, safe and yes, sexist.
I’ve been a huge fan of the Assassin’s Creed series since the beginning. I’ve played every game except the PSP game and the side-scrolling spin-off, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China, which I do plan to. I’ve seen it go from flawed but promising beginnings to the annualised blockbuster it is now. It’s had plenty of peaks and valleys but I also think it’s brought with it more large scale innovations and experimentation than we’ve seen in almost any AAA franchise. I have a whole other blog post I’m going to write about that but today, we’re here to talk about 2015’s entry, Syndicate, the first main series game not led by Ubisoft Montreal but instead Ubisoft Quebec City, a studio with little AAA history. Given the disaster that was Assassin’s Creed: Unity from last year, I was encouraged by the many positive reviews this one was getting and jumped in at launch. After finishing it over a week, I have to wonder what many of those reviewers were smoking. This is far from the worst Assassin’s Creed game but it’s also far from the best and while Unity may have been a technical disaster, I think it was a better game than this.
Assassin’s Creed began by straddling two different storylines, the reliving of your ancestor’s memories through the Animus, which makes up the bulk of your experience, and the modern day setting where you are doing that to serve the continuing war between the Templars and Assassins. It’s become clear in recent years that Ubisoft really has no idea what to do with the modern stuff and starting with Black Flag, it was minimised to the point of irrelevance. In Syndicate, it’s basically a few non-interactive cutscenes that provide only a tiny smidge of intrigue for series veterans and will make absolutely no sense to newcomers. They’re almost entirely pointless and might as well not even be there at all. I understand that this is a hook the core narrative of the series is shackled to but if this is the best they can do, they might as well do away with it entirely. For a company that prides itself on having an entire studio dedicated to editorial and scriptwriting, it’s amazing how much they’ve botched this aspect of the series.
Syndicate takes place in late 1800s Victorian London, a city ripping itself apart through classism, gang warfare and exploitation of the poor, all being led by psychotic Templar mastermind who intends to make the metropolis the base from which he will rule the world. This time, you relive two memories simultaneously, kind of. You play as twins Jacob and Evie Frye, two expert criminals and followers of the Assassins who do things both for their own benefit but often in service of the greater good as well. They come to London looking for yet another Piece of Eden because that’s apparently the only motivational plot device they can come up with and when they see how oppressed the city is, decide to create the own street gang with greater principals to retake London for the people. Sure, why not?
These characters portrayals are one of my first big problems with Syndicate. Evie is smart, strategic, thoughtful, devoted to her cause and careful to not get too close to anyone because she’s so fiercely independent. Jacob is charismatic but also brash, impulsive, bull-headed and frequently, the actions you’re forced to take as him through the story end up undermining things and causing more problems than they solve. It’s a lazy, unoriginal and yes, sexist method of portraying genders that might as well be ripped out of almost any sitcom or commercial from the last 15 years. The outrage brigade lost its mind when Unity didn’t have female models in its co-op mode but it’s apparently fine to portray men as bumbling, selfish idiots who would only make things worse if the women weren’t there to save them from themselves. Sexism can and does go both ways and the double standards are on full display here.
Horrid writing aside, having two protagonists is used in some clever ways. Except for certain required missions, you can switch between Jacob and Evie at will and while they share tools and can use all the same weapons, each has their own skill tree and you can choose to spec them differently if you want. Upgrade points are earned for both characters simultaneously so by the end of the game, they will both be fairly close to skill parity but it’s not possible to earn all of the highest end skills for both players so you’ll have to make some choices. It’s also wise to select and upgrade different weapons for each sibling and they have different styles and abilities and it’s good to have more options.
The story missions are mostly standard Assassin’s Creed fare, for better or worse, but the main assassination missions are some of the best in the series yet. The venues for the assassinations are large with multiple points of ingress and you can just run in stabbing if you want or you can take one or more alternative approaches to do things more stealthily. You’re presented with all these options right from the beginning so there’s no real exploration or organic discovery which I think is a shame but doing the side objectives does still require more skill and can be rewarding for that alone. I won’t spoil anything but suffice it to say, the ending is predictable and basically just goes “Thanks for playing again. Wait for the next one where we’ll figure out something else maybe.”
If you’re anything like me though, the story isn’t really what you’re here for. I love big, expansive worlds with lots to see and do and this series has always excelled at that. The sense of scale you got from syncing your first viewpoints in Assassin’s Creed I was incredible and gave you a feeling that there’s so much you’d experience. Victorian London isn’t the least interesting place in this series (that still goes to Assassin’s Creed III by a country mile) but it’s far from my favourite. It’s presumably modelled with some accuracy as they try to do with the cities in these games but there are few tall structures to climb and aside from some key locations, everything feels very samey and just lacking in minute details. These worlds aren’t like Bethesda RPGs or the Witcher series where the worlds are populated with real NPCs living their lives but somehow, the city in Syndicate feels much more like just fancy set dressing then the others did. It also didn’t feel as big as the locations in some of the other games but that could just be me.
Your side objective is to liberate the city from the main gang in control of it and to supplant it with your own. A lot of this is optional but if you want the meat of the game, you should do it. You take over sections of the city by doing quick missions that will kick your rivals out once completed. There’s only about a half dozen types of these and they get old and boring well before you’ll be done with them. After a seemingly random number of completions in a given district, you’ll be warped to an encounter where you’ll be taunted by the local gang leader who then promptly flees but if you can catch and kill them before they escape, you’ll weaken the gang for that district. This part is jarring and never made sense to me. It feels like it was supposed to be tied to something else that ended up getting cut before the game shipped. Once a district has been emptied out, you’ll have a big gang battle and this will be easier if you managed to kill the leader beforehand. Once you’ve won that, the district is yours, which really just means a bunch of gang members now have green jackets instead of red and won’t attack you on sight. Of course, you also earn experience and money from the side missions but there isn’t much more to it than that.
The combat is probably the best the series has ever had, though that’s not saying much. It’s much faster and fluid now, taking clear and heavy inspiration from the recent Batman games. Not a bad system to ape but Assassin’s Creed has never had super responsive controls and they still aren’t up to par with Batman. Far too often, dodges and counters I knew I timed correctly didn’t register and the rhythm just isn’t quite right sometimes. Also, half the gang members are women which is completely historically inaccurate. I don’t personally care but for a series that’s supposedly about reliving history, shoehorning this in to stem the wrath of the perpetually offended induced particularly strong eyerolls from me.
There are also a number of “wink and nod” side missions involving real life historical figures. You can earn more money, experience and upgrades for these but there’s nothing special or unique about them other than the characters themselves. When this was Leonardo Da Vinci in Assassin’s Creed II, it was neat because he was a well developed character with a fleshed out history that really meant something in Ezio’s own tale. In Syndicate, they’ve crammed in so many of them that they feel like filler more than anything. The whole idea of “Hey, remember these people? Well guess what, your ancestor knew them too!” was neat and funny the first time but it’s getting pretty tired now.
Tons of collectibles are strewn throughout town as is custom in this series but in much more sensible quantities. Unity was overwhelming with the numbers of things to collect and it’s nice to see that toned down in Syndicate. However, these collectibles also are largely meaningless and none of them provide rewards great enough to justify the effort needed to get them all. Unless this is the only game you’ll have to play for a while or you really love collecting stuff, there’s no reason to pay much attention to them.
Traversal is where Syndicate really breaks the Assassin’s Creed mold. You can climb structures with impressive and somehow faultless parkour skills as always but you also are given early access to a grapple device that lets you very quickly scale the side of buildings and also make your own ziplines between them. There’s no better way to get to a roof fast but for getting between buildings, I found this to be kind of cumbersome. If there’s any kind of upward angle to the ziplines, Jacob or Evie will try to propel themselves along them with small spurts of momentum that don’t feel much faster than just jumping down and running across. Aiming your zipline anchor is also frustrating and there are a number of structures you just can’t latch to for no particular reason. You’ll get used to how they expect you to get around but it frequently feels like the controls are fighting you and not doing what you ask. There are also horses and buggies which you can freely use and will have to a lot during missions and these are almost comically unrealistic. I’m pretty sure you can’t U-turn a horse and buggy in place or repeatedly ram into one you’re chasing without the horse freaking out.
Unity was a shameful technical disaster and it seems Ubisoft finally got their act together with Syndicate. Unity’s massive crowds have been thinned out a bit but things run much better now. The PC version ran fantastic on my machine, better than Unity did even after months of patching and while it crashed once in a while, it was largely solid. I haven’t played the console versions but aside from the long load times that seem to be standard now, it runs well there too, albeit locked to 30 frames per second.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is still a huge and interesting world that will likely take you 20-30 hours to beat and much more if you choose to 100% it. There’s no shortage of content here but I still think it’s far from the best entry in the series, which to me is a tie between Brotherhood and Black Flag, for different reasons. There’s little variety in stuff to do, the writing and character designs are abysmal, the traversal innovations feel half-baked and there’s no co-op or multiplayer. Worst of all, there’s barely any thread left tying all of this to the modern day narrative that’s supposed to be the reason you’re reliving all this stuff to begin with.
I’ve given Assassin’s Creed lots of props over the years for finding small and interesting ways to innovate in a series that was probably never supposed to be annualised but was forced to be by corporate realities. Syndicate feels like now more than ever, this is a series that’s really stuck not knowing where it’s going, only that it has to keep going there. There were a lot of legitimate reasons for Unity to review as poorly as it did and many of those are repeated here. But of course, it has a female protagonist and after last year’s manufactured outrage, the gender politics victory the gaming press thinks they won is enough reason to score it highly. After all, to many of them, whether a game is good is secondary to how politically correct it is these days.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate isn’t one to be avoided if you like the series as I do but it’s probably worth waiting for a sale.