Finally the cockney accents can leave revolutionary France and return home to industrialised London. AC has made the long awaited jump to an industrial era and frankly one of the coolest and most atmospheric periods in history. Technology is moving forward along with attitudes and civilization closer to the present day Assassin’s Creed game that will likely never be made. But we can always hope.
During the first few hours Syndicate surprised me by fixing and refining almost all of AC’s usual faults and niggles. The free-run up/down system returns and is stronger than ever essentially requiring you to hold either up or down on your travels now. Movements are therefore more deliberate and a lot of those frustrating moments jumping up the same wall and sliding back down again are pleasingly absent.
The combat system has also recovered from the dismal display in Unity. A few basic changes make the most noticeable difference like the fact that you can once again avoid gunfire. As with previous titles when an enemy takes a shot a counter icon will appear above your head, rather than off screen or not at all. Counter responses actually work and enemies tend not to charge in from off screen giving you no option to evade or counter. Once again you actually have the ability to win fights based on more than how lucky you are, if the enemy decides to repeatedly shoot you and how much medicine you’re carrying. Admittedly most of the changes to combat are features from previous games but it’s far and away the best combat in AC for a long time, possibly ever.
The same goes for the free-running which is better than ever especially when considering the addition of a grappling hook. The grapple allows you to zip to the top of tall buildings very quickly or create a zip line between two points to move between. It’s an important game changer and the first we’ve seen since Ezio. Sure there have been cool new gadgets or weapons but the entire landscape and the way you can scale and move around the city is totally changed by this now vital piece of kit. So much so that it’s going to be difficult to live without it for future titles especially as buildings keep getting taller the closer to the present we get.
Health regeneration outside of battles is finally included which significantly reduces completely unnecessary trips to the doctor to buy medicine. A sneak mode is included which brings up a detection ring around your character showing vaguely where enemies are making stealth section much more interactive. And the Assassin’s have once again discovered the ancient art of whistling to lure enemies. I actually didn’t find myself creating piles of bodies luring guard after guard with incessant whistling but it does add another consideration when stealthing an area.
Upgrades are plentiful and meaningful too. There are even a few that we’ve never seen before and progressing through levels is rewarding. Syndicate offers two characters to play as and as such there are two upgrade trees. Well actually both characters use the same one and there are three unique abilities for both Evie and Jacob Frye. There is ultimately little point in there being two characters to play as and likelihood is you will have a favourite. I preferred Evie as she isn’t a complete jerk like Jacob. Her three unique abilities are stealth oriented too which are, for me at least, more useful generally. Playing as one character would have provided the same experience as would having to decide between abilities instead of having all but three for each character.
Of course with this being essentially ‘Gangs of England: The Game’ you will have a gang. Members can be recruited on the street to help you in fights but zipping across the roof tops isn’t something they can keep up with, and honestly you often won’t need them anyway. The upgrades for your gang however are well thought out and a few really change up the game so at least the gang mechanic offers more upgrades to earn.
Outside of gameplay the characters are pretty generic. The twins ambitiously move to London early in the game to regain control from the Templars. Jacob is supposedly a lovable rogue but yet again Ubisoft have missed the mark. He really is irritating and basically acts like a small time villain for the majority of the game. But at least he isn’t as forgettable as Syndicate’s main villain – who has a moustache. There’s no plot or character development worth anything in Syndicate at all. There are also only 3 or 4 present day cut scenes and most are pointless except the ending which finally shows some much needed present day Assassin action. Shortly before leaving you high and dry with a terrible and unfinished ending. Always dragging things out just to get another release next year got old a while ago but now it’s just totally transparent.
As has become almost expected of AC the map is incredible. London is every bit as faithfully recreated as France was for Unity. The Thames forms a bustling hive of industrial activity running through the heart of the city powered by coal. Smoking chimneys and iconic landmarks cover the skyline in a beautifully recreated Victorian London. Bright sunshine with rain is such an English ‘tradition’ and it’s great to see that glorious English weather makes an appearance to drive home the atmosphere. After all it wouldn’t be Victorian without a layer of incredibly thick fog between you and the horizon.
The myths and mysteries that surround Victorian London however and almost completely ignored. You meet a few of the iconic figures of the time but it feels like a lot of the era is completely looked over. This isn’t helped by some of the most forgettable mission design I’ve ever seen. There’s the usual huge amount of activities to do on the map but when it comes to main missions you get the feeling you may as well not have bothered. This time it isn’t tailing that will be constantly forced on you but riding in carriages and kidnapping people to bring them back alive. While neither is particular poor but they are totally over used in almost every mission.
Missions that include imposters dressed as guards give you a guilt free excuse to kill innocents on more than one occasion. And the section set in WW1 sees you openly killing British soldiers for no reason. More than a couple of times I had to stop and wonder if the Frye twins were the real villains in Syndicate.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is mechanically a huge leap forward and was a pleasure to play in every way that Unity was a pain. The free-running is the most refined it’s ever been and the grappling hook really takes the chore out of taller buildings and those tedious gaps that are slightly too big to jump. The fighting looks a little jerky and there is regular clipping but to play it’s finally fun again. Counter prompts are responsive and multi kills are satisfyingly violent. Plus the map button no longer opens the sluggish database if you passed by a landmark in the last 20 minutes.
The only mechanical problem is the insistence on using the ‘circle’ button for everything. On one occasion I was picking up and dropping bodies all over the place. I was trying to hide a body in a carriage but drop body, pick up body, hide body, hijack carriage, get in carriage and counter were all on circle. Which one will it do next? Another bounty sees a kidnap target surrounded by boxes of explosives. Circle is used for both kidnapping targets and picking up explosives so this irritation is even used intentionally to create an objective. Thanks so much for that one.
But by far the biggest let down is the plot taking a smaller and smaller role with each new release. If you play AC just for the historical free roam gameplay then that won’t be a problem but I’d like just a little characterization and plot development. Does anybody actually know what’s going on in the present anymore? I’m not even sure Ubisoft do. It seems they don’t much care either. Besides there’s always next year to think about.