Canes, Trains, and Carriages
Here’s the good news – Black Flag wasn’t a fluke. At least part of Ubisoft still knows how to make an Assassin’s Creed game that is both true to its era and entertaining to play. I knew we were on to something good when I was having fist fights atop a moving train just a few moments into the game, and the fun didn’t stop there. Packed full of colorful characters, great set-pieces, and lots of room for creative play, Syndicate gets its series back on the right track.
While Unity utterly wasted its French Revolution setting in favor of a convoluted, dull revenge story, Syndicate really gets into London at the dawn of the Industrual Revolution. While trying to wrest control of the city from an evil industrialist, our heroes get to pull of train heists, rescue child factory workers, and get to know famous figures from Karl Marx to Florence Nightengale. There’s a strong theme of change rushing through the entire game, from the inventions that are rapidly changing society to the brash young Assassins who arrive to break the century-old hold the Templars have on the city.
Yes, it’s plural Assassins, and this new main character dynamic helps Syndicate feel fresh. Twins Jacob and Evie Frye have a great rapport and are both fun in their own way. Jacob is a hot-headed brawler who seems more interested in making an awesome street gang than in bettering the world. Evie, on the other hand, is a more traditional assassin who is focused on finding artifacts when she’s not busy cleaning up Jacob’s messes. I’m not sure the writers quite intended Jacob to come off as much of a nincompoop as he does, but he makes Evie’s level head and scholarly determination look all the better. She’s not all serious business, however, as she’s got some great snarky retorts and an excellent shit-eating grin on her. You can play either Assassin outside of character-specific missions, so go ahead. Defy the game’s marketers and embrace the fact that Evie is the real hero of this age.
Those heroics are better than ever, as Syndicate makes great strides with the many improvements that Unity introduced half-baked. There’s finally a real stealth system, and characters auto-stick to cover so you don’t have to futz around with the system. The new traversal system is much improved as well – I found myself scaling up and down buildings with ease, and only occasionally ended up doing the “no, no, that’s not where I meant to go” dance. Most importantly, Syndicate fully realizes the creative problem-solving possibilities that Unity attempted to introduce. Missions and even mini-quests are full of options, from using the new rope launcher to orchestrate inventive air assassinations to hijacking carriages and playing Grand Theft Horse and Buggy. A few missions return to the stodgy old “do this specific thing quickly or fail” formula, but generally there are lots of possibilities to delight creative assassins.
I’m happy to report that Syndicate isn’t as buggy as I’d feared, but it can be a bit wobbly around the edges from time to time. I had a couple missions bug out on me, but quitting and restarting the game cleared it up. There are, of course, the occasional oddities you expect from a newly released open-world game, like seeing a random bloke fly off into space out of the corner of your eye or getting stuck in combat for no apparent reason, but there’s certainly nothing on the level of Unity ‘s faceless ghouls and mission-breaking glitches. Syndicate is perfectly playable now, and should be nearly bug-free after another patch or two, leaving only obnoxious load times as a major technical complaint.
Without all the bugs, it’s easier to appreciate the excellent audio and visual work that brings Nineteenth Century London to life. At first things seem rather drab, as you’re dropped into London’s lowest-rent district, but the city is actually quite diverse and vibrant. Animations are nice and smooth, and character expressions convey nuance in a way that the series hasn’t quite nailed previously. Hearing the colorful slang of a variety of British accents is quite fun, as is listening to the variety of British tunes from an operatic aria to a salty oldster singing Old King Cole. Even more so than in Revolutionary France, it’s fun to look around the city and see what its inhabitants are up to.
This attention to detail makes London more than an interesting historical city to explore, it makes it your playground. Whether ziplining down from the top of Big Ben or jumping across speeding steamboats on the Thames (don’t drink the water!), there’s more urban adventure available than you can shake a tuppence at – and that’s before you even get to the official missions. At one point I accidentally re-enacted Keystone Cops, fleeing through a narrow marketplace while being chased by half the bobbies in central London. I laughed aloud as I leaped across stalls and dodged bullets, causing civilians and merchandise to scatter in all directions. It was like being in a movie scene – a great moment of emergent gameplay thanks to a well-designed open world.
When it’s time to stop playing around with the environment, combat is the best it’s been in the series. It’s still not quite on par with the best action-adventures, but Ubisoft has taken a few pages from the Batman Arkham playbook and created smoother, more aggressive fights (some of the animations are just brutal, too, no matter which protagonist you play). Once you get good at Syndicate’s combo system, you can dispatch groups of foes with relative ease – though it takes some skill and timing to do so. Of course, you can also abuse smoke bombs and throwing knives in order to avoid melee exchanges, but I found getting into dustups to be cathartic from time to time. Maybe Jacob is rubbing off on me.
I’m so happy that Ubisoft remembered to put the fun back in Assassin’s Creed . The series just turns out so much better with witty protagonists and lots of room for creativity. If you enjoyed Assassin’s Creed II/Brotherhood and Black Flag , Syndicate will be right up your alley. It doesn’t deviate enough from the formula to pull in players who don’t enjoy the series in general, but it does evolve and polish the base systems considerably. The fun times greatly outweigh the occasional frustrations, and I can only hope that Ubisoft can be convinced to spread out series entries a bit more so that every Assassin’s Creed game can be as good as Syndicate .
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
London looks fantastic, as do its inhabitants – except for the awful plastic hair. 4.0 Control
Not perfect yet, but far better than previous games – traversal and combat are close to feeling perfectly smooth. 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
I do miss the sea shanties and silly French songs, but London is fun to listen to in its own way. 4.5 Play Value
It’s enjoyable to fully explore this huge open city thanks to all the entertaining adventures it contains. 4.5 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best