Sibling rivalries, a glowing scarf, and a damn good mustache.
To preface my thoughts on this game, let me say that I have historically been a huge fan of the Assassin’s Creed series since its inception. I’ve purchased every single Assassin’s Creed game on its launch day, and hell, I even have an Ezio statue floating around somewhere in my apartment. But in a post Witcher 3 (and now post Breath of the Wild) gaming environment, Assassin’s Creed’s take on an open-world has begun to grow tiresome. Go to this point, climb this tower, find these missions and objects on the map. Go to that point, climb that tower, do the same missions in that region.
If there’s any game series that needed to take a pause, it was Assassin’s Creed. With 9 main games in the series currently released, it’s clear that the formula has been narrowed down to a science. Each year a new protagonist and region are introduced but it feels as though the same base game has remained since 2007. After Unity launched to a high level of scrutiny, Ubisoft was looking for a course correction, and they’ve mostly found it.
You take on the role of two twin Assassins, Jacob and Evie Frye, each with their own skill trees, equipment, and specialties. While Evie serves as the stealthier, silent Assassin, Jacob is the loud and boisterous bruiser. It’s simple to switch between Jacob and Evie with the click of a button in the menu and throughout the game, I found myself having good reasons to do so based on each twin having their exclusive missions. The two bicker, they joke, they quarrel, and they bring a great deal of liveliness to the narrative of the game. Watching these two interact is some of the most entertaining character development and dialogue in the last few years of Assassin’s Creed by far. Coupled with the excellent voice acting of nearly every major character in the game, there’s a great deal to enjoy in the character department.
As opposed to a great deal of games in the Assassin’s Creed catalog, this game thankfully doesn’t start with a particularly long introduction period. The game starts pretty quickly with the Frye twins making their way to London to help out a fellow Assassin in need. From there, the story does follow the typical Assassin’s Creed structure. There’s a big bad who needs to be taken down, and in order to do so, his lieutenants must be brutally assassinated. The big bad in this case is a curly mustached man who oozes charisma and charm. Unfortunately, it’s almost criminal how small his parts were in this game, given how entertaining he was as a villain.
Speaking of the assassinations, I found this game’s structuring of them to be vastly improved over the series’ past entries. Rather than simply direct you to the location of the target, these missions play out more like a puzzle. There are typically two to three unique interactions with NPCs around the target that can get you access to secret routes, make your target easier to track down, or net you a unique assassination. The unique assassinations, by the way, are excellent. My favorite one, by far, was pretending to be a corpse so I could be carted in to a public operating room to assassinate a maniacal scientist. Good, brutal fun.
Combat has actually been reworked a tad since Assassin’s Creed Unity. Foregoing the swords of the typical Assassin’s Creed game, Syndicate relies more on hand-to-hand combat, still taking some cues from the Arkham games along the way. Counters, combos, guard-breaks, stuns, etc., they’re all there. And while I did mostly enjoy the combat, I did sometimes find it to be a bit finicky and unresponsive on occasion. Not only that, but I found myself sort of unsatisfied with the punch-kick style of combat in most encounters. I am happy to say though that the finishing moves are just as thrilling as ever.
Free-running and traversal has always been a core part of Assassin’s Creed, ever since Altair was climbing up mosques and diving into piles of hay. For me, traversal in this game was a mixed bag. While London is pretty awe-inspiring from a high vantage point, the streets are wide, the city is massive, and getting from one point to another is sometimes a serious chore. There are carriages to speed things up, but riding in these just felt sort of tedious and often unruly on the controls. There is, however, one excellent addition to traversal with the addition of the rope launcher. Earned pretty early on, this hidden blade tool allows you to string a zip-line from one building to the next or to grapple your way straight up to the top of a building. I found myself using this tool constantly to avoid having to climb down from a building to cross the street or having to slowly climb my way to the top of a viewpoint. I have a feeling I’ll sorely miss this addition in subsequent games.
With regards to the story, unfortunately Syndicate really doesn’t offer a lot of innovation over the standard Assassin’s Creed narrative. The Templars are here and they’re trying to get one of the many Pieces of Eden scattered around the world. This one just happens to be some sort of glowing scarf referred to as The Shroud. In order to stop them, you operate as a nameless “Initiate” in the modern day who is tasked with playing through this London simulation to track down where the Piece of Eden is located. Yeah, remember that Assassin’s Creed is technically set in the modern day? Well, apparently it still is. The Assassin’s Creed games are still holding on to the modern day narrative without providing any sense of important character development or story progression within it. While I truly enjoyed the modern day story up to Assassin’s Creed III, since then it has continually floundered and taken time away from the core gameplay experience for no discernible reasons. I’m hopeful this can be fixed in future games and reeled back in, so to speak, but we’ll have to see.
In the Frye twins’ story, you are working to track down The Shroud while simultaneously trying to take down the charming Templar tyrant who is forcing oppression and despair down London’s throat. While Evie is more focused on the Piece of Eden, Jacob is more concerned with the streets of London. Your goal is to take down the leader’s henchmen while liberating the London neighborhoods of rival gang influences by clearing out the map of checklisted tasks and objectives. You operate out of a working train, moving around the map in constant locomotion, which is possibly one of the coolest headquarters I can think of in a video game. Though it isn’t the most exciting or captivating narrative, it did at least offer a bit of motivation for the characters’ actions and tie the main quests and side quests together quite nicely. The real star of the story mode is the characters themselves; they are all excellent, villains and allies alike. Each of the nine core sequences have their own major target with their own bits of character development and the typical assassination monologue finisher, which are usually pretty entertaining. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in the opener, it’s all fairly familiar and there really aren’t many surprises to be had along the way. I did, however, find the ending to be particularly rewarding for the Fryes and I ultimately ended the game with a smile on my face as the credits rolled.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is an excellent game, but it’s hard to shake that feeling that I’ve done this all before; and to me, that’s its greatest flaw. While the gameplay is as smooth here as it ever has been in the franchise, there are still issues. Traversal can still be a chore, combat has its finicky moments, the open-world is bloated with tedious checklists, and the game’s overall sequence structure has become a bit dull after so many years. However, the character development, the voice acting, the deeper assassination missions, and the overall humorous tone of the game help it shine even among the polluted skies of London. It almost feels like a game that’s only hampered by its namesake. Were this not another Assassin’s Creed game, it might feel unique and inspired. But with so many games in this now 10-year-old franchise, Syndicate feels more like just another pretty good game in a long-running franchise of pretty good games.