Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Review
My history with the Assassin’s Creed franchise is a rocky one; the first game was one of the first newer games I played when I built my first gaming PC in ~2010 (though it was a few years old by that time, I had been playing decades-old games because they were the only thing that worked on my laptop at the time), and I liked it. It was slow and kind of meandering, but it was an interesting concept and I really liked the characters. Then Assassin’s Creed 2 happened. It was my first experience with always-online DRM, and if that wasn’t enough to make me hate the game, I found Ezio to be endlessly annoying. I know that the games that focus on him are typically revered by fans—and even many detractors—as the highlights of the series, but I found him to be an infinitely less interesting character than Altair in the first game, and his story was just so consistently dumb that I only barely made it to the end of the second game. Five minutes into the third game, I was fed up with his presence and the series’ lack of innovation and I stopped playing. Until I received Assassin’s Creed Syndicate as a Christmas gift, I hadn’t played through any of the other games or paid any attention to the annoying yearly releases. After the atrocious reception of Assassin’s Creed Unity, that decision felt like the right one. However, I figured I might as well give Syndicate a shot to see what had changed since I quit the series, and I actually ended up liking the game overall despite several annoyances and “I can’t believe this is still a thing” moments.
The writing is almost universally abysmal
I’d love to start on a positive note, but I always start by talking about the writing and that’s really one of the weakest parts of the entire game. In fact, I flip-flopped on whether this would end up being a positive or negative review several times solely because of the writing. It’s a train wreck in so many ways that I can’t help but be embarrassed for Ubisoft, and I truly hope that everyone involved in writing this garbage never writes anything ever again. The basic setup is simple: assassin siblings Jacob and Evie decide to defy their handler (or higher-up or something—his specific identity isn’t really explored, and he becomes irrelevant minutes into the story) to go to the Templar-controlled London in a fit of caprice. I actually didn’t mind this; Evie’s focused on finding a piece of Eden (how are these annoying plot devices still a thing after all these years?) and Jacob wants to kill some Templars, so pile a feeling of being underutilized on top of that and they have enough of a reason to be reckless.
Before this, their personalities are explored a bit. Evie watches an innocent get taken by baddies and basically says, “oh well, but no distractions from the mission,” a bit of single-mindedness that I greatly enjoyed. Jacob starts the game basically running around and killing people as loudly as possible. Then they get to London and go looking for their contact, Henry Green, who turns up shortly afterward. The story goes downhill immediately afterward; Evie instantly turns into a lovestruck puppy (which is so much more annoying since Henry is literally the first new person she’s met in the game), and Jacob seems to want to prove to Henry just how much he loves bathing in Templar blood. I had expected Jacob’s beefheadedness to make him an insufferable character and Evie to be the standout given her early pragmatism, but the opposite actually ends up being the case; once the Evie-and-Henry dynamic begins to dominate her part of the story, she becomes a pathetic character lacking in characterization beyond “Henry makes me feel tingly and I want to make him luv me 4eva,” something that starts subtle enough but eventually spirals into something truly cringe-worthy. Contrast that with Jacob, who actually has some surprisingly interesting character development as his brashness leads to unexpected consequences. He suffers betrayals, half-betrayals, and generally has the more interesting character development of the two as the story progresses.
And the first thing Jacob and Evie do? They lie about having been sent by the other assassins, something that could reasonably be utilized as a moment of betrayal on the part of the playable characters toward their order, or at least Henry. It isn’t, though. In fact, no one ever finds out despite how mind-numbingly improbable that is. Most annoying of all, however, is that Ubisoft still insists on adding to their modern-day story. Apparently Desmond died at some point? He sucked, so I’m glad he’s gone, but I wish the modern-day stuff was removed entirely. Finishing a mission and having the game cut to a prerendered cutscene explaining what the inexplicably-still-present Shaun and Rebecca are up to—which is never anything particularly interesting—is annoying beyond reason. Just as in the other games I played, the modern-day part of the story gives you a few random tidbits and is otherwise just an insignificant, distracting fraction of a story that should have ended many years ago.
There’s some serious cringe in here
Evie and Henry are hardly the only cringe-worthy element of the game (though certainly the most ubiquitous, and it’s painful how obvious it is that Henry’s only purpose is for people to “ship” him with Evie). Historical figures being shoehorned in is clearly still a thing, and it’s still as awkward and forced as ever. Take the moment when Alexander Graham Bell is explaining his phonetic telegraph, and Evie tells him that it’s a mouthful and that he should just call it a telephone. This kind of stuff doesn’t come across anywhere near as cute as the writers probably envisioned, and the contributions of characters like Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens are such a complete waste of time that I can’t help but wonder why they were included at all. After awhile, I simply stopped taking missions from either of them because of how poor and incoherent the writing for both is, with some missions even managing to make ghosts boring. Seriously. There’s also cringe in the kind-of-secret area that unlocks midway through the game. Basically, you can get transported to a new era through animus magic (or something) by visiting a certain area on the edge of the map and end up playing as a descendant of one of the characters during World War 1. While I found this section really enjoyable from a “I really like the time period” point of view, the female main character outright declares to Winston Churchill that she wants the right to vote. It’s forced and fan-service-y, has nothing to do with anything that’s going on, and exists solely to score cheap points from activist game journalists. For the rest of us, it’s yet more cringe-inducing dialogue to endure.
Gameplay is better than early games, but still annoying at times
The first Assassin’s Creed games had terrible combat where enemies would attack you one at a time while the rest waited for you to murder them at your convenience, so saying that the combat is better than in the early games isn’t a very significant statement. I don’t know when combat moved away from that of the older games, but it’s definitely more interesting now, with the game taking a page from the Arkham games’ combat like so many others have. You can attack, stun attack to break a block (attacking while an enemy is blocking can cause them to counter you), and counter when an enemy is attacking you. You can also dodge bullets if you’re aware and quick enough, and the combination of all these elements lends an enjoyable fluidity to the whole thing that simply wasn’t there in the first few games. This is doubly so of finishers, which can be executed by attacking enemies when their health reaches a certain low point. More amusingly, getting several enemies to this point and then attacking one of them while the other is near causes a multi-enemy finisher animation, which I found to be surprisingly satisfying.
Climbing buildings, which is one of the elements of the series that had its novelty wear off quickly to become one of the more tedious and repetitive things you constantly have to do, is also improved thanks to the rope launcher. This is basically a steampunk-y grappling hook/zipline combo that can allow you to get around quickly and scale buildings with ease, and it speeds up traveling quite a bit in addition to granting you a kind of freedom of mobility that wasn’t really possible before it. For example, if an enemy isn’t close enough to a building ledge for you to be able to drop down and assassinate them, you can fire the rope launcher at an opposite building and hang above your target to assassinate them that way. It can occasionally be difficult to get the game to recognize that you can target certain areas, occasionally causing you to fire it at the lower part of a building instead of the upper part (or vice versa) because the camera wasn’t angled just so and the game got confused, but the rope launcher’s virtues far outweigh its flaws.
Horse-drawn carriages are also present as a method of transportation, and these are a bit of a mixed bag in terms of pros and cons. On the plus side, you can cause a horse to take off quickly by shooting it (though it’s sad and I didn’t really do that very much) and they’re pretty quick in addition to giving you a path to follow to get to your objective, a plus given the large size of the game world. On the other hand, they’re also a bit awkward to control, and some of the game’s more annoying portions require not taking too much damage while getting to an area as quickly as possible, such as when you’re transporting explosives. That kind of thing is annoying, but thankfully rare. That’s more than can be said for quests that require chasing someone through the streets and tackling/killing them, something I remember from earlier games and that’s never been fun. Even worse are the missions that require you to follow someone without being seen, especially since these were always the point where the context-sensitive controls would screw me by getting me stuck in a building or wasting a ton of time grappling to a building I didn’t actually want to move to. There are even several escort missions throughout the game where you lose if your ally dies, and they run ahead into danger without a second thought, forcing you to play recklessly instead of stealthily. It’s just sloppy, and there’s no excuse for including any of this stuff.
But with the bad comes equal good
For all the missions that had me throwing my hands in the air, wondering how anyone thought they were a good idea, there were an equal number of missions that had me giggling with glee as I slowly cut my way through swaths of guards and came up with creative ways of assassinating targets. There’s a giant map and you can slowly liberate each area by assassinating Templars, kidnapping Templars, freeing child slaves, and assassinating entire strongholds full of rival gang members. This is all side content that has nothing to do with the story, but it was so consistently enjoyable that I wound up liberating the entire map. Even better, once you’ve liberated enough of an area, the gang leader who runs the place will show up to antagonize you and send some of their people against you. If you let them go and continue liberating, you’ll eventually face them during the “gang war” where you take on them and their lackeys to fight for control of the area. However, you can also run after them and assassinate them early, causing the gang war part to be easier. The game even recognizes when you do this, which is a nice touch. As for the main missions, a few story missions play out kind of like the levels in Hitman games, giving you a small area to work within and unique methods of dispatching your target, but also allowing you to just run in and do things however you want. These were definitely a high point of the game, but the real standout moments were all in the Dreadful Crimes DLC. I should probably note that I played the game on a PS4 and this DLC is exclusive to that platform at the time of this writing, but I fully expect the content to find its way to other platforms in time, and that’ll be the perfect time to pick up this game. Put simply, the Dreadful Crimes DLC was the most fun I’ve ever had in an Assassin’s Creed game.
Basically, it gives you a handful of crimes that you solve by examining the area for clues and piecing them together to figure out what actually happened. The story doesn’t automatically resolve with the main character automatically divining what happened like in The Witcher 3, either—you actually have to interrogate suspects and use the clues you’ve discovered to accuse the right one. Accusing the wrong person lessens your reward somewhat, so you have to put on your detective hat and work things out for yourself, which is a refreshing change of pace. Not only is it refreshing, but the crimes are so consistently bizarre that I couldn’t help but actively seek them out. That having been said, there aren’t that many crimes to piece together, a few are easy, and the last case isn’t anywhere near as fulfilling as I had hoped, but none of this detracted from my enjoyment of piecing together the really good mysteries. In fact, if the negative consequences of accusing the wrong person were ratcheted up a notch to be more punishing, I think there’s enough of a solid base here for an entirely new game that revolves around these kinds of investigations.
Experience, leveling up, exclusive content, and microtransactions
Let’s start with the biggest, most vomit-inducing element of the game (and series as a whole), that being microtransactions. These are present, and they’re basically cheats. I didn’t touch them and I still maxed out my level and crafted a bunch of high-level gear, so they’re not necessary, but including them is still seriously shady behavior and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for speaking with their wallet and avoiding the game because of their presence. Then there’s the exclusive content. I’m not talking about the Dreadful Crimes DLC, either, but the Ubisoft Club-only items and costumes and stuff. I unlocked some stuff, and I hate it. The whole setup is basically “do achievement stuff while online and unlock new stuff,” and it just feels wrong for a game that lacks any kind of multiplayer to require unlocking stuff online.
Syndicate has a level-up system that’s vaguely RPG-ish where all characters are between levels 1 and 10, and certain types of perks can be unlocked by spending skill points. You get 1 skill per for every 1,000 experience points you receive, and reaching level 10 means putting points into every upgrade available for your character (Evie gets some unique stealthy upgrades, while Jacob gets unique murdery ones). Experience is shared between your characters, so you can play as whoever you want when you’re running around the city liberating areas. You just have to remember to go in and spend points when you finally do the main story missions, because those require you to be either Jacob or Evie instead of allowing you to tackle them as whoever you want. As a whole, I thought the upgrade system worked fine, though some skills definitely prove to be far more useful than others.
Lockpicking, for example, which was almost entirely worthless for three-quarters of the game, only allowing you to unlock special gold locked chests that have unique crafting ingredients in them. It wasn’t until I was around the end of the game that lockpicking actually allowed me to skip rooms of enemies by taking a different route, so investing in it early didn’t do me any good at all. Contrast that with one of the upgrades that increases the number of throwing knives you can carry, which is invaluable because of how useful they are for silent ranged assassinations when you can’t afford to jump out and reveal your position. Another skill that proved to be a good upgrade was the one that promised to keep kidnapped enemies from escaping from you, forcing you to chase them down. I put points into that one before this ever happened to me, and was glad for it since kidnapping (occasionally required as part of the story) was a breeze from then on out. I can’t even imagine how annoying it would have been if enemies were constantly running away and forcing me to run after them, alerting a ton of guards in the process.
Then there are the gang upgrades, which affect your friendly gang members’ abilities and allows you to do various cool things. I found it worthwhile to invest in the upgrades that leveled up all my gang members to level 9-10, as well as one that allowed me to summon a carriage full of them to my location whenever I wanted. Since you can direct them from afar and their kills don’t count against you, this allows you to slaughter groups of police who you need to avoid in later missions without having the violence end the mission. They’re also great for causing a distraction if you need to sneak through an area without being seen and can’t figure out a way to get past a group of enemies, and I found their usefulness in situations like this especially interesting having come from the earlier games that didn’t allow anything like this.
Bugs! Bugs everywhere!
Syndicate is allegedly in a better state than previous game Unity was, but that speaks more to the disaster that was Unity than the bug situation in Syndicate. To be blunt, I came across a staggering number of bugs, many of which I recognized from gameplay videos of Unity. Some of them were cosmetic, while others were so bad that I had to force-close the game and start the mission over again. The video below is an example of the latter, where I was suddenly in some kind of weird tutorial loop teaching me how to use the gun that I couldn’t escape from. The menu wouldn’t open, and none of the buttons did anything except for the buttons to aim and shoot. Meanwhile, NPCs teleported around me. Oh, and the mission? It was a timed one where I had to run around and disarm a bunch of bombs. Not exactly an ideal time to be unable to move.
That’s hardly it, either. I came across police in invisible carriages. Enemies getting stuck and swimming through walls (which, incidentally, made it really hard to kill them, something that was mandatory for liberating the area). Immortal police officers during some of the Dreadful Crimes missions. All of this was annoying, but I put up with it because I’m primarily a PC gamer and I’m used to dealing with weirdness like this. The point where I lost it, however, was when Playstation Network or whatever was undergoing unexpected maintenance and this caused the game to freeze randomly. Not once. Not twice. No, this happened three times in less than 15 minutes, and it was only when I figured out that it was the maintenance causing the problem and turned off the internet that the problem was finally resolved. I can’t put into words just how irritating this is. In what universe is it acceptable for a game to freeze over and over and over again because it can’t establish a connection? If it works offline, then you’d think that the game would recognize that it can’t connect and would just… not. Instead, I had to put up with several lockups lasting anywhere from 15 seconds to 2 minutes. Oh, and while not technically a bug, the game has completely random “mash the button” QTE sections that have no reason for being present. They’re easy, but including QTEs, escort missions, chase sections, timed sections, and other stupidity? Come on, Ubisoft. You know gamers hate this crap.
The graphics are decent, but the music is the standout here
Ubisoft is really good at creating distinctive character faces. Not for the NPCs, who repeat a hilarious amount and sometimes stand around next to their identical twins, but the main characters are all incredibly distinctive. Beyond that, as someone who loves steampunk (the game is kind-of-but-not-really steampunk, veering just enough into it with tech like the rope launcher to make me happy without it seeming out of place given all of the historical figures present), the areas are a joy to travel through. Character hair is a bit hit-or-miss, though, with some characters having really detailed hair and others like Evie having a weird quality to certain strands of their hair that just doesn’t look quite right. Then again, I played on a console and it’s entirely possible that this is better on a PC.
The music is really where this game shines, with cello sections (see the end of the embedded rope launcher video for an example, or the embedded bug video just above) and other distinctly steampunk things filling up the soundtrack. It’s not always glorious like that, but when it is, it’s reminiscent of Arcanum, and that’s a very, very good thing. Whoever did the music for this game should feel very good about themselves for nailing the soundtrack.