Another year, another Assassin’s Creed set in yet another city. This time Ubisoft takes us to London during the reign of Queen Victoria, in the midst of the industrial revolution. We have not one but two pairs of boots to fill, with Evie and Jacob Frye being the twin assassin protagonists bent on liberating London from the Templars.
London is under the control of Crawford Starrick, head of The Order (i.e. Templars), and not in some small way either. His name is on signs all over the city, as he and his Templars dominate the more pervasive businesses, effectively controlling everything from buses to the Bank of England. Naturally, the Frye twins don’t take too kindly to this and make their way over to the capital for a spot of tea (and assassination).
The Fryes are exactly what you might expect them to be, if you have been keeping up with the game. Jacob is the scrappy, brash one, while Evie is calmer and more collected. The former is focused on fighting, while the latter is focused on stealth, but despite the clichéd dynamic, they both feel pretty much identical when you’re actually controlling them. They do both have their own skill trees, but only three skills are unique to each character, while the rest of the tree is identical. You earn experience and points for both as you play, but can level up each twin separately, so if you want to give Jacob the fighting skills sooner than Evie you can, but by the end you are going to have all the skills anyway.
They do have those handful of differences though. Evie will eventually gain the ability to turn invisible when sneaking and stood still, but it takes a second to kick in and just didn’t seem to come in particularly useful in AC’s brand of stealth. Conversely, her ability to carry double the amount of throwing knives is, while useful, a very boring skill. Jacob can deal more damage with his unique skills, but when playing as a fully levelled Evie the difference is negligible. It seems Ubisoft Quebec wanted to have two main characters who were both interesting and more specialised, but failed in the realisation of both. They’re not bad, it’s just that their differences don’t affect the gameplay.
This rift between the developer’s intention for the characters isn’t helped by the story missions being in no way tailored to the character you have to play. Evie spends most of her time hunting for a Piece of Eden, while Jacob is busy taking back London from the Templars. You have assassination missions all around London but most of them are played with Jacob, so if you keep putting your skill points into his combat skills you may find yourself lacking necessary or useful skills during an assassination. You might manage to fight your way into Buckingham Palace but it’s not very assassin-like to do so, and you would be missing out on Syndicate’s stronger aspects.
Large, sandbox-style assassinations return from last year’s instalment, presenting you with a large environment and all sorts of ways of doing things. Unique kills return where, with a little legwork, you can assassinate your target in a way that is unique to the environment and/or the target, so that I actually stabbed a guy through a painting while he was admiring it. They are distinctive, but seem to be missing a little flair – they are not quite as interesting as, for example, the Notre Dame confession booth in AC Unity.
The city of London is faithfully recreated, Big Ben looks like Big Ben and all that, but as a setting it doesn’t feel like it fits an Assassin’s Creed game. The poorer parts of the city are better suited to the gameplay, but as you get into the wealthier areas the city’s streets get wider and traversal begins to feel slower, and by the time you’re working your way around Westminster, the streets are wider than any you’ve seen in an AC game.
It is no coincidence that the grappling hook has made its first appearance in the series, as traversing the city without it would be akin to pulling teeth. You could technically make your way around in classic Assassin’s Creed style, climbing the buildings one handhold at a time, but with taller buildings and wider streets it would be utterly tedious. The grappling hook lets you reach the top of a building in seconds, run to the other side, zipline across and avoid colliding with a passing horse-drawn carriage. Of course, with London being as large as it is, if you’re travelling quite a distance you can always hijack one of those carriages and ride to your destination.
Teetering on the edge of controlled chaos, driving a horse-drawn carriage is a bit hectic at the best of times, but when enemies join in it turns into a wild chase as you attempt to weave your way through oncoming traffic, ram enemy carriages, shoot at enemy drivers, jump between carriages, and fight on the back of them. It’s brilliant fun a lot of the time, and when it isn’t is because you found yourself stuck in a corner because of the series’ infamous control issues, which return once again to ruin your innovative assassination plans.
Most of the movement issues involve finer movement, where you need to accurately take cover against a particular wall, but accidentally climb up and present yourself to the guards, or perhaps one of the guards you were about to pounce on turned slightly as you pressed the button, resulting in you only killing the one guard and watching helplessly as the other one calls the alarm and ruins your wonderfully stealthy machinations. Things like this happen often enough to be annoying, and they usually happen in more confined places more often, such as indoors. Being caught because you messed up is fine because you messed up, but there are few things more annoying than failing because the game decided on a context sensitive move other than the one you wanted.
Whilst freerunning you will find yourself sticking to bits of scenery you didn’t intend to, much like every other Assassin’s Creed, but at least you have a grappling hook, right? But awkward controls stretch even to grappling, as a seemingly obvious grappling point just doesn’t give you the prompt, leaving you stood on a roof nonplussed as to why you can’t go that way. It also likes to suddenly target a platform half way up a building instead of the roof, so when you get there you still have to climb further or grapple again. The controls are certainly not terrible, but like the other AC games they’re a minor annoyance that persists throughout the game, and seems destined to continue plaguing the series.
Despite its issues, Syndicate still manages to be an enjoyable experience. It’s a beautiful game, and while I personally found Paris to be more interesting, the history and folklore of Victorian London is an excellent background. The appearance of Alexander Graham Bell, Karl Marx, Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin are part of a broad cast of historical characters that you will meet. They’ll often be handing you missions and, even though the missions themselves sometimes turn out to be a little shallow, they fill the roles well enough.
As ever, climbing over landmarks is quite oddly entertaining. It turns out that Big Ben isn’t quite as big as I recall, but Buckingham Palace is so large it must be difficult to live in. There are missions that take place inside many of these landmarks, though once you are inside, AC loses its wall-scaling and turns into a stealth game that its mechanics have difficulty supporting.
Whilst recapturing London from the Templars’ gang, The Blighters, you will repeat the same side missions over and over to capture segments of each borough, then kill the leader in the borough, and finally fight alongside your own gang in a gang war to capture it in the name of The Rooks. If you are not predisposed to enjoying AC’s gameplay already, these will quickly grow repetitive. Kidnapping people in particular is dull, as the kidnapping mechanic – sneak up behind someone and press circle, then slowly walk them past guards while keeping your distance – is not very engaging, and mostly serves to frustrate when it inevitably goes wrong.
The deepest missions are those that have you solving crimes. There are crime scenes to investigate, where you gather information using evidence at the crime scene, interviewing witnesses, and then deciding who committed the crime based on the evidence you have gathered. Each one has a short story unfold as you figure things out, sometimes branching in unexpected directions. These are perhaps the most interesting stories in the game, as the main storyline serves to be quite predictable. Evie cleaning up after Jacob’s reckless assassinations may briefly touch upon the power vacuum left behind when killing public figures, but it is quickly forgotten. The missions that come of it are still just that bit familiar.
Ultimately, Syndicate comes off as another Assassin’s Creed game with a handful of improvements. London is beautiful if a bit laborious to travel around, and the missions are repetitive, but this doesn’t make Syndicate bad by any stretch of the imagination. It’s still a good game, it just hasn’t made a significant step up over the previous instalment. If you are a fan of Assassin’s Creed, or you think you might be, then Syndicate comes as recommended as any other AC. It likely won’t convert people who dislike the series, but it won’t lose any who are still interested in it, either.
Version tested: PlayStation 4