Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Review

My London, London Bridge, is awkward to climb.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

What’s Good:

  • Very pretty.
  • London faithfully recreated.
  • Combat is challenging enough.
  • Crime scenes are excellent.
  • Removed the worst mission types from previous games.

What’s Bad:

  • Occassional control issues.
  • Shallow missions.
  • Navigating London on foot feels very slow.
  • Predictable story.

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.

Score: 7/10

Version tested: PlayStation 4

39 Comments

  1. Is it on a par with Black Flag or does it bare more similarity to Unity? That is the million dollar question for me. Loved 1,2,BrotherHood and Black Flag. Was not a big fan of 3(though gameplay was ok) , Revelations or Unity.

    • It’s more Unity than Black Flag. I liked Unity, it was a step in the right direction with the difficult combat shifting the focus towards stealth. If you’re looking for swashbuckling the closest you’ll is side missions robbing trains and boats on the Thames.

  2. A Fergie reference? Fair play sir.

  3. Is there any of that horrible ship battle crap in it? Obviously being set in London doesn’t give much opportunity for that (like Paris), but I’ve still not recovered from that.

    So that would instantly make it better than Black Flag, and the lack of bugs and all those stupid chests suggests it’s better than Unity.

    Unfortunately, there’s so many other things being released lately that I’ll wait a few months. We’re at that point with the PS4 now that rushing out to buy things early is silly. Wait 6 months and buy twice as many games.

    Of course, there might be all sorts of offers available in a month or so.

    • I don’t think it’s sea based due to the fact that it’s Victorian London, I’m guessing train battles maybe, horse carriages etc

      • Train battles? Don’t give them ideas! They could make those really tedious and hard to steer ;)

    • Qué? Black Flag is the best one.

      • No! It’s got those crap naval battles. I hated that stuff.

      • I loved the naval battles. Just sailing in general even. I felt so authentic. Like I was actually sailing the high seas. It was a feeling of adventure that I haven’t felt in a game before.

    • There are no ship battles but that is generally considered a con.

      • You can travel by ships up and down the thames and there are templar vessels travelling that you can board and cause a little mischief

  4. What is the story with bugs and issues in this version? I was lucky enough to not get Unity until it had been out a while so I missed all the day one issues, does this one feel buggy and problematic?

    I read a review this morning that said it was a buggy mess that looked terrible, I am not sure if that is to be believed though.

    • I have experienced exactly 3 frame rate stutters in well over 30 hours of gameplay and the only graphical bugs I’ve seen are just as rare, and don’t affect gameplay.

  5. They spoiled us with Black Flag imo. Scrapping the sailing and going back to one location with Unity felt like ten steps backwards.

    I know they couldn’t have sailing in every AC game but they failed to replace it with anything better or even on the same level.

    One thing I hoped they’d improve upon in Syndicate is the story which it doesn’t seem like they have from this review.

    Still, I will give Syndicate a chance in a few months, once the inevitable bugs have been ironed out. Pre-Unity, I would pre-order and look forward to getting my hands on the next instalment. I couldn’t wait to play it. I don’t look forward to the next instalment anymore.

    I’ll never not play any AC game because I do enjoy them but I’m starting to realise that I want more than a re-skinned location and a half-assed story year-in, year out.

    Oh, can anyone confirm if you can whistle to attract guards in this one? I hated that they removed that ability from Unity.

    • Did you play AC Rogue? I enjoyed that and it had plenty of sailing like the others. I hope they continue the story from it sometime.

      • Yeah, I thought Rogue was great. It was interesting to see things from the other perspective. For the last few games I’ve found myself siding with the Templars rather than the Assassins.

        I enjoyed Freedom Cry too.

    • Yes you can attract guards by whistling so ambushing from hay piles and hay carts is back – Yeah!!!!!

  6. Gonna grab a copy tomorrow. Won’t be going down in price any time soon. Love an AC game. Had Unity from day 1 and thought it played absolutely fine. Certainly nowhere near as glitchy or buggy as constantly reported. In fact I found Far Cry 4 to be worse, but there was next to nothing said about that. It’s no surprise that Syndicate is scoring ok/average scores, but I’m certain I’ll absolutely love it.

    • The AC games always drop down in price quickly. Give it a month and it’ll be £25 online.

      • That’s not what I’ve found. AC games stay high priced for a good 6 months.

      • I think Unity dropped quickly because of the huge backlash and media coverage of the various bugs/issues. I picked it up for £20 a few weeks after it was released if I remember right.

  7. This game could be so much more, had high hopes for the AC series. Oh well, plenty of other games to play thankfully.

  8. Don’t know whether it was just me but I felt a real undercurrent of apathy throughout the entire review. Not a criticism of the review by the way, it pretty much reflects my feelings towards the series as a whole. After playing it religiously and gobbling up every do it of information I could after AC3 I was done. Black flag went a long way to repairing the damage done but and good will was lost by Unity.

    • Yes I think the shine has gone off Assassin’s Creed. It needs a few years off to get people excited again.

      • It would be nice if they had a proper redesign of the engine they use, it still looks like one of the early PS3 games to me but with slightly better graphics. They come out with a few extra gimmicks each year but it hasn’t moved forward properly and evolved how it could have considering we are on next gen consoles now and have been for a while.

  9. Is there any co-op or general multiplayer in this?

    • No, it is single player only. There are community missions but as far as I can tell there aren’t even any kind of leaderboards for them.

      • Thanks, that’s useful to know.

        (I didn’t play Unity until months after everyone else I knew who was interested – so I had no-one to play the co-op missions with, and never did get round to them. So if this had them, I’d probably get it sooner.)

      • The co-op was actually the best thing about Unity. And I’m someone who usually hates anything online/MP/co-op.

        The heists were great. I accidentally jumped off a roof after completing a co-op heist and died just as the timer was running out. Everyone else cleared the dead zone but I was dead and there wasn’t enough time for anyone to reach me to revive me so the game reset and no one got any cash. One guy had a meltdown over the speaker. It was hilarious. I actually got pretty good at it after that and went on to earn the Legend rank mostly from co-op.

      • Well, I still have it, and I haven’t given up yet. Maybe I can persuade someone to play with my some day!

  10. Have they returned the present day story to this game? It was non existent in the last one.

    • There is a present day story but it’s very bare, just a few cutscenes throughout the game.

      • Damn! I was hoping they would continue the main story of Juno and the First Civilisation. That story just came to a screeching halt. Thanks for the reply.

      • That was one of the things I didn’t like about the original AC games. I think they wanted it to be mysterious but I don’t think they knew where they were going with it or what to do with it in the end (like LOST). They were just making it up as each new game came along.

      • I won’t say anything further but the threadbare modern story does involve the first civilisation.

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