Much like with the series itself, to understand the present we must first look to the past. In this case, we need to briefly revisit the mess that was Assassin’s Creed: Unity. There were many flaws with that game, undoing anything of worth being able to shine, and the end result was the worst game in the series. The fact that Rogue – the last-gen effort – was more enjoyable just by sticking to a familiar formula proved that Ubisoft had a lot of thinking to do.
Thankfully, the lesson has sunk in and one year later we have a game that, while not perfect, rectifies many of its predecessor’s sins.
This time around, the player takes control of Jacob and Evie Frye – twin assassins whose aim is to liberate London from Templar control. Over the course of 9 sequences it’s up to the player to build up a gang to rival the oppressors, take back the city for the people, and stop the Templars from seizing a rumoured Piece of Eden. That’s of course on top of Jacob and Evie butting heads as siblings do over how to go about their objective, and it creates a rather interesting dynamic both in terms of the narrative and the gameplay.
For instance, Jacob is the hot-headed one, preferring to charge in and deal with the consequences later. He relies on his fists to do the talking most of the time, and as such gets unique perks that improve his ability to take more of a beating. Evie on the other hand tends to approach things with more delicacy, trying to think things through before jumping in. As a result she has unique perks that give her an edge performing stealth actions, although she’s more than capable of taking groups of enemies down when she has to.
That said, with the exception of Evie’s invisibility perk (which isn’t as overpowered as it sounds) I found that once I had unlocked all perks on both characters there wasn’t that much difference between them. That isn’t the case while levelling up, though, as I had to take different paths for each of them to ensure I had all the bases covered. It’s a good job then that you can switch between Jacob and Evie instantaneously outside of the main missions, as it meant I could use the twin best suited to the task at hand.
Of course, all the abilities in the world mean nothing if the player can’t control their character properly, but thankfully Ubisoft appear to have refined the best parts of Unity’s new traversal mechanics. It isn’t perfect, though, as there were still moments where I would overshoot a window I wanted to enter, and emerging out of cover while in stealth still makes you instantly detectable for some strange reason, but I certainly felt in control for the most part. Well, except for when I was trying to use a horse and cart at high speed, which had a hint of Watch Dog’s slippery car handling to it. I did have more control when the horse was going at a sensible pace, though, and maybe that was the point – drive like a lunatic and it will bite you in the ass.
Perhaps the best addition to traversal is a tool which acts in a similar manner to Batman’s grapple hook. Being able to use it to scale buildings quickly was a god-send, and the ability to use it as a zip line not only looked impressive, but provided unique opportunities to get the drop on enemies. It certainly made getting around London a much easier affair, as well as reaching objectives and especially synchronisation points, and considering how many things there are to do and collect, it's definitely a good thing too.
Fight clubs and horse races join the usual tasks like capturing cargo and assassinating targets, but what impressed me was that I could still do other things such as capturing territory while on a mission. No longer do missions feel like they are taking place in their own bubble, but in the world that continues to turn. For example, I was attempting to do one of the rather entertaining Murder Mystery side missions, when all of a sudden someone started yelling that they had been robbed. I was able to stop the thief and earn XP from the random encounter before heading to the next crime scene. A similar situation happened while on a main mission where I went past a Templar target that, once killed, liberated an area. It not only made the game feel more fluid, but the city of London feel alive.
Which conveniently brings me onto my next point. Much like with Unity’s Paris, the recreation of Victorian London is utterly breath-taking to experience. The busy streets were bustling with life as I moved through them thanks to the ridiculous number of NPCs. Be it the slums of Lambeth or outside the Houses of Parliament, I could have wandered the city for hours had I the time to do so. It’s the little things like the performers in the park and the idle conversations of passers-by that help make the setting so authentic and, more importantly, believable.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect was with the transport. Trains regularly run between stations, the many horses and carts are always in motion (to steal), and the boats on the Thames actually move. I realise that sounds like a weird thing to get excited about, but moving boats really add a new dynamic to crossing the water. It effectively turned the game in Frogger for assassins, which again is more fun than it sounds, but it also adds to the illusion of a living, breathing Victorian-age London.
Of course, all of this impressive world building means nothing if the assassination missions aren’t satisfying, so I’m happy to report that that the free-form aspect from Unity returns for Syndicate. As well being able to take out extra targets or gain advantages through recruiting allies, you can also activate unique kill opportunities as well. They’re effectively cutscenes of a fancy kill, but getting them was always satisfying to pull off. You can of course still just run up and kill your target if you wish, and as we always say at Dealspwn, choice is good.
So, I’ve been rather praise-worthy for most of this review, but that’s not to say that there aren’t faults, most of which are unfortunately technical ones. The frame rate would occasionally fall during certain moments, but it didn’t make the game unplayable. There were also camera angle issues during certain interaction sequences, meaning I couldn’t see the action in progress. While there weren’t any skinless models this time (for which my eyes are grateful) there were some scenes where characters didn’t move their mouths while talking. However, my biggest complaint was with the loading times, especially during mission failures or reloading a section.
There’s also the matter of how, from a narrative point of view, most of the main missions seem to focus on Jacob doing all the killing, and Evie cleaning up his mess. It’s a shame, then, that the game doesn’t utilise the fact there are two characters at the player’s disposal until the very end, but it’s a finale that is most satisfying. I just wish there had been more of that throughout the game. Oh, and there are microtransactions, but before you start reaching for your keyboard of rage, I should point out that I was able to unlock everything through normal play over the course of a week. All it offers is a timesaver via XP boosts and extra resources for crafting.
Those looking for any form of multiplayer will be left disappointed as Syndicate is a purely single player affair this time. That’s not to say there isn’t a reason to return to the game after the main story is over. On the contrary, after week of play I still haven’t liberated London or found all the secrets. Hell, a new set of memories opens up as well, and there’s a secret sequence available mid-way through the game that I won’t spoil the surprise for. There’s also special community mission and challenges that appear for a limited time, offering the most challenging missions in the game. In other words, there’s plenty to be getting on with.
I also couldn’t finish this review without mentioning Austion Wintory’s score. Not only does the delicacy of his chamber orchestra arrangements fit the time period, but it enhances the action on screen. The reactive soundtrack helps create sense of whimsy as you climb to a viewpoint, the panic as multiple enemies attack, and an ambience of wonder as you tour the city streets. In short, Wintory and the rest of the sound team should be proud of their work with this title.
- So. Much. Content.
- Victorian London is brilliantly crafted, and a wonder to explore.
- The dynamic between Jacob & Evie is entertaining to watch…
- … but the game fails to take advantage of the twin’s potential until the very end.
- Performance issues, while not game-breaking, are noticeable.
- Loading times, especially upon mission failures, can be fairly long.
The Short Version:
While there are still blemishes that stop it matching the heights of Brotherhood or even Black Flag, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate restores faith in the series by delivering a highly enjoyable open-world experience. Jacob & Evie make for entertaining characters in a beautifully crafted Victorian London filled with content that will keep you busy for weeks. So pick up your hidden blade - it's time to return to the creed.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.
Platform: PS4 (Tested) | Xbox One | PC