You could say in no uncertain terms that last year’s Assassin’s Creed Unity was an unmitigated catastrophe for Ubisoft.
Many who picked up the game at launch found it riddled with horrific bugs, a woefully inconsistent framerate and a whole heap of content locked behind a companion app and meta-game that simply did not work. After a pretty severe public backlash, Ubisoft pledged to fix the title and give away a free downloadable expansion, but it was too late – with the experience soured and stilted, the Assassin’s Creed franchise was tarnished for a whole host of fans. It was a shame too, as anyone who plays the title now – heavily patched and with all content unlocked – will find that it’s actually a good game that tried hard to develop the Assassin’s Creed gameplay whilst also being visually stunning.
Leaked mere months after Assassin’s Creed Unity’s release, it was unsurprising then that the announcement of its follow-up, then known as Assassin’s Creed Victory was met with derision. Set in London in 1868, it promised a story with both male and female protagonists, improved combat with a faster pace, and also an enthralling new game world for us to explore that was more advanced than ever. Additionally, by dropping the online co-op of Assassin’s Creed Unity and any other companion apps or services, it streamlined development in the hope that it would be much more solid and robust at launch. Somehow between then and now Ubisoft saw fit to change the name to Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, and whilst the new name may be more fitting given the game’s gang and business related nature, maybe they should have stuck with the Victory moniker after all, as the game is nothing less than a triumphant return to form.
One of the first things you notice when you take control of Jacob and Evie Frye, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s brother and sister protagonists, is how much the controls have improved. Right from the very beginning of the introductory missions, in which you are introduced to the two new charismatic protagonists, the controls are responsive and intuitive, with our intrepid duo moving with the grace and finesse of Arno from Assassin’s Creed Unity but without the troublesome sluggishness. Sure, they are still sometimes a little unruly when trying to do some more precise tasks, but nevertheless it’s safe to say that this is a highpoint for the series in terms of movement and control. It also helps that you gain two new ways to quickly negotiate your environment shortly after arriving in London, in the form of a grappling hook and horse drawn carriages.
Before playing the game, I wondered if the grappling hook would feel out of place or make the parkour redundant, but I’m very pleased to say that it does neither. Allowing you to quickly scale buildings or cross large gaps, the grappling hook is undoubtedly convenient, but its usefulness is limited by its range and the situations in which you can use it, and so it never quite feels overpowered. Similarly, the horse drawn carriages are also extremely convenient and perhaps more fun than they should be to drive around. I found myself enjoying the carriage combat way more than I thought I would, jumping from carriage to carriage and causing bedlam along the way. The crux of it all though, is that with a map that dwarfs that of Assassin’s Creed Unity you’ll be glad of these new traversal methods and the speed at which they allow to get around, as well as the new assassination opportunities they provide.
The controls and traversal aren’t the only things that have been improved either, as the combat has also been heavily modified to the point where it’s the best it’s ever been. Jacob and Evie strike with speed and ferocity that would make all prior Assassin’s Creed protagonists weep, and the introduction of a combo counter like the one seen in the Batman: Arkham games rewards offensive rather than defensive play. Gone are the days where you pensively wait for your opponents to attack before countering them with an insta-kill, as now, you have to take the fight to the enemy, mixing up stun attacks, counters, bullet evasions and tool combos as you go, with more options available as you level up Jacob and Evie.
Like a role playing game, XP is awarded for a varied range of actions such as finding collectibles, performing well in combat, and completing all types of missions and activities. Every time 1000XP is accumulated Jacob and Evie gain a skill point which can be used to purchase a wide range of skills across three skill trees. From increasing your health or stealth capabilities, to allowing you to drive carriages faster or auto-loot enemies when you kill them with stealth, you can choose how you want to upgrade Jacob and Evie, and whilst there are a few skills that are exclusive to each character they can both be turned into fearsome fighting machines. As you spend skill points, you’ll also level up at set intervals, allowing you equip deadlier weapons and more effective armour that you can either obtain as rewards, craft or purchase. With enemies within missions and various areas of the map all having their own levels too, you’ll need to no manage your character development and equipment effectively to remain a threat, although the stealth option is always viable. Players that complete a large chunk of the side missions early on in the game however, will undoubtedly find themselves overpowered as a result, making the majority of missions a breeze.
Along with Jacob and Evie’s skill trees, there are also three further skill trees for your gang, called the “Rooks”. Unlike the development of Jacob and Evie, the skills on these trees are bought with cold hard cash and a handful of materials, and although many of the benefits they provide are useful, I found they were largely unnecessary to make progress in the game. If you do want to increase your gang members fighting abilities, as well as grow the range of vehicles available in the environment and invest your money in order to create a steady income however, you can, as long as you’ve got the cash and materials spare to do so. In fact, many players may find upgrading the Rooks’ combat skills particularly useful, as you can recruit up to five gang members to follow you around with the push of a button when out on the streets, before commanding them to pick a fight with any target you see fit in order to kill them or cause a diversion. Truly an ability that’s useful for many missions.
Speaking of missions, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate spares no time in introducing you to its new Borough takeover mission structure that forms a large basis of the game’s side missions. You see, each Borough of London is split into segments, with each one containing a mission linked to one of your newfound affiliates within the city. Whether you’re rescuing child workers from a factory, kidnapping a wanted criminal from the midst’s of a rival gang or simply assassinating a notorious Templar in a restricted area, these missions are surprisingly engaging, with varying sub-objectives to be completed for extra rewards. Completing any given Takeover mission frees up the area it was in from rival gang or Templar control, and once all segments of a Borough have been freed you can finally face the gang leader in charge of it in a final battle for control. Whilst you’re not required to take over all of the Boroughs in the game to complete its lengthy campaign, it is beneficial, as in addition to the rewards you obtain by completing the missions and building relationships with your associates, it also means there’ll be less enemy presence in your controlled areas which makes traversing them that bit less troublesome.
As well as the takeover missions, there are also many more side missions to complete provided to you by historical figures such as Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin and even Queen Victoria. These missions vary in nature, and whilst one or two are fairly duff, they are mostly entertaining and pose a nice diversion from the main story as well as endowing you with lucrative rewards. The truly engaging and time-consuming missions however are unsurprisingly the campaign missions, which are the most varied and challenging of the lot. Past Assassin’s Creed players will rejoice at the fact that there are no longer any eavesdropping missions, which I believe we can all agree were awful. With missions split between Jacob and Evie, you’re quite often given a little freedom as to which order you tackle them this time around, with new missions opening up for each character as you complete them. Each sequence of missions tends to culminate in a final assassination mission, which, like Assassin’s Creed Unity, provides you with a target and multiple opportunities for you to capitalise upon if choose to do so, including a unique kill opportunity. Of course, you don’t have to use them, you’re free to kill the target in any way should you have the means or skill. While some may meticulously stake out an area and wait for the perfect stealth kill opportunity, others may rush in to obliterate the target with brute force.
The story at the heart of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate isn’t anything special, but thanks to its likeable characters and dastardly villains it keeps you hooked from beginning to end. Jacob and Evie Frye are perhaps some of the most grounded and likeable protagonists in the series yet, with Jacob’s brash hot-headedness playing off Evie’s cool, calm and meticulous nature rather well. The humour added by Jacob and some of the supporting characters, such as Mrs Disraeli with her handbag-bound dog named Desmond, also injects some much-needed light heartedness to the game. Ultimately, I found that one particular sequence was definitely weaker than the others in terms of narrative and missions, but in the grand scheme of things it was still decent and managed to carry the game onto a thrilling finale. Long-term fans of the series may also be pleased to find that the modern day story also continues in a somewhat limited fashion, with Shaun and Rebecca actually doing some fieldwork. There are no playable modern world segments however; just well produced CGI videos.
What many will really want to know after the many technical problems with Assassin’s Creed Unity is how the game performs, and I’m glad to say that there is definitely a marked improvement. During the time spent playing the title for review on PS4, there were never any noticeable framerate drops, and even more impressively I encountered only one or two glitches that were very minor in nature. As a trade-off for the improved framerate the streets are never quite as busy in London as they were in Assassin’s Creed Unity’s Paris and there aren’t as many explorable interiors, but it’s a price well worth paying. Some may argue that the graphics have also been downgraded as they seem to be a little less detailed in places, but with the inclusion of a real-time lighting system that allows for day and night cycles it could just be a case of artistic choice, which in my opinion pays off. The characters and environments are simply beautiful to look at, and with a game world as vast as Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s, that quite an achievement. Whether you’re driving a carriage by day or skulking in the shadows at night, London feels alive, and the accompanying dynamic soundtrack by Austin Wintory – which is sensational, might I add – succinctly complements it.
Without any shadow of a doubt, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is one of the best entries in the series. For me it’s probably the best since the masterpiece that was Assassin’s Creed 2. The controls are tighter, the combat is vastly improved, and the side missions complement the main campaign as well as being interesting in their own rights. On top of that, performance is great despite its fantastic visuals and huge game world, with very few technical hitches on display. There’s nothing revolutionary here, so it’s probably not going to convert non-fans to the Creed, but it’s a great evolution of the tried and tested formula that will keep you enthralled and entertained for hours. Many will be cautious about picking up Assassin’s Creed Syndicate this year due to Unity’s issues – some may even outright dismiss it – but they’d be foolish to do so. This is an essential open-world adventure that fans of the genre or Assassin’s Creed should not miss.