Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate

When I first began this venture to review all of the Assassin’s Creed games, I really didn’t imagine it would take me the best part of two years! There’s very little left now – in terms of games I own, it’s this one and the Jack the Ripper DLC and then we’re into new and unknown territory with Odyssey!

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Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])

Released Oct 2015 | Developed / Published: Ubisoft

It is 1868 and London is awash in the smoke and fires of industry. Assassin twins Jacob and Evie Frye arrive in a city squarely under the thumb of Templar oppression, and at the centre of not just the British Empire, but the Templars’ too. The only Assassin left in London is Henry Green, the son of Arbaaz Mir (yes, he of Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India, if you remember that travesty), who has been reduced to hiding in Whitechapel. Each branch of London society has a Templar placed in control, from the city’s transportation to the Bank of England itself. Above all else, the calculating Grand Master Crawford Starrick oversees from his offices in Westminster. Evie and Jacob both take different approaches on their arrival. Jacob decides to take the fight to the Templars by raising his own gang, called the Rooks, and striking down their key players, whereas Evie goes in search of the Piece of Eden that is rumoured to be hidden somewhere in Britain’s greatest city.

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The bickering from the Fryes is constant, and is the source of much of the drive in the narrative. In some ways the actions of Starrick and the Templars are an afterthought to the drama that the Frye twins bring. Jacob is impulsive and violent; he takes the mission of assassinating key Templars to heart and goes about this with ruthless abandon. While this might have worked for earlier Assassins in simpler times, unfortunately the British Empire and London are far more complex beasts and can’t be felled with a simple knife in the dark. Most of his work is followed up by missions with Evie as she frantically tries to fix what he has undone, such as establishing new supply lines of medicine after Jacob kills a prominent doctor. Often Jacob will even upset their allies, requiring Evie to step in and try and patch things over.

Evie, in contrast to her boisterous brother, is more contemplative and quiet. Her role in the story is built around her search for the local Piece of Eden, the Shroud. She is thwarted by Starrick’s second-in-command, Lucy Thorne, and so develops a focused enmity towards her. Henry helps her as much as he can, given as he’s more prone to research than fieldwork, and together they try to uncover the location of this powerful artifact before Thorne. The emotional difference between the twins is striking, and naturally causes plenty of consternation. It’s easy to sympathise with Evie and roll your eyes at Jacob’s willfully destructive idiocy, but at the same time Evie comes across as cold and calculating, often ignoring emotions and humans in her need to complete her quest, and you can’t help but agree with Jacob that finding the Piece of Eden is a bit useless without also weakening the Templar presence in London.

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London is controlled by a Templar-sponsored gang known as the Blighters. This is, of course, merely a justification for more map-clearing activities.  You may be jaded to this and who can blame you, though in its defence Syndicate has a nice variety of missions which the Fryes take to destabilise the Blighters’ hold on the districts of London. These include delivering Templar targets to the local police force, assassinating prominent members, and even rescuing child labourers from workhouses and unseating the business owners that perpetuate the system Each comes with optional objectives to complete, and for the first time in an Assassin’s Creed game these might actually be worth doing as they earn more XP for the various factions which support the Fryes. In turn, this unlocks more equipment or bonuses for the twins – the optional objectives for the main missions naturally remain pointless except for completionists. Once cleared the Rooks move in and the streets become safer to stroll in, with gangs of recruitable mooks hanging around for you to aid you on missions.

That is not the end to Syndicate’s veritable hoard of guff to do in London. Veterans of the franchise will know well Ubisoft’s lasting obsession with spattering collectibles haphazardly across a map and Syndicate is no exception. For those who can be bothered to look into them it becomes clear that some lessons have been learned from this game’s unfortunate predecessor, Unity. Where Arno collected cockades from the streets of Paris to unlock more colours for his outfits, the Fryes collect pressed flowers, but these are actually tied into a sweet burgeoning romance between Evie and Henry. It’s an ongoing theme that often there is an actual reason for clearing the map. Seeking out the hidden locked chests loads the players up with schematics and items to craft new and better gear, and the regular chests always contain generic crafting materials with which the player can upgrade the twins’ equipment or pour into upgrading the Rooks. There are still some pointless collectibles – I can’t think of any decent reason why anyone would bother to get the Helix glitches or beer bottles for example – but these are easily ignored, unless you’re shooting for total completion, in which case they’ll be a huge boring time sink. On top of all the collectibles, there are even chains of sidequests to do. Jacob and Evie meet a horde of contemporary figures who have missions for them – they can help Dickens conduct investigations into London’s ghost stories, aid Darwin in looking into some scientific sabotage, and even give Karl Marx a hand rallying London’s struggling workers into a unified force.

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Some holdovers from Unity make their return in Syndicate. The free run up and down system returns, making London an easy joy to climb around and descending at speed is as rapid and as useful as it was in Unity. Random events which crop up as you wander the streets, which are opportunities to help the citizens of London by stopping criminals, help to solidify London as a living world. This commitment to a world which feels alive was one of Unity’s biggest achievements, and it’s a boon to London as well. The shining star of the game is without a doubt the Thames, which is a thriving and vibrant waterway, lined with barges and ships which tear their way through England’s capital. Running across it without winding up submerged in the grimy waters is a recurring and wonderful challenge.

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Combat has been changed yet again, this time to a more refined and somewhat more forgiving version of Unity’s. Similar to the Batman: Arkham games, enemies can be countered to hurt them a bit, and bigger baddies must have their guard broken before you can wail on them. The Fryes can wield kukri knives, knuckle dusters or (naturally) cane swords in fights, and all come with a slew of brutal animations. They’re both competent gunslingers, though interestingly throwing knives seem to be far more effective – investing early into skills associated with them can turn stealth sections into borderline trivialities as you silently headshot everyone with perfect accuracy.

Completing objectives earns you experience points and with them eventually ability points. Both Fryes share an ability tree but progress up it separately, meaning you have to flick between characters and manually level them up. Skills are split between combat, stealth, and ecosystem paths, though if you start clearing London you’ll rapidly earn enough to cover all three. Each twin has a set of upgrades that only they can access. Evie can carry tonnes of knives and can also turn invisible when she stays still while in stealth; Jacob’s are paltry in comparison, as he can merely improve his combat prowess. The game wants players to try and see Evie as stealth-focused and Jacob as combat-based and you can play them that way but by and large it’s possible to use them interchangeably provided you put your points into the right skills and wear appropriate gear.

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Special mention must be made to the assassination missions which crop up in the story; I love the way in which they are formatted. Once again taking cues from and improving on Unity’s design, they typically offer the Fryes specific ways to interact with the mission. An early example lets you free a nurse locked up by orderlies in a hospital to gain a set of master keys which allows you access through every door in the building. Unique assassination opportunities are available every time, such as posing as a cadaver to get close to your target in the aforementioned hospital.

I’m also a big fan of Austin Wintory’s (of Journey fame) soundtrack. There’s an elegance to them that is often absent from major AAA games; for example, check out the string harmonies which frame the piano melody in Bloodlines. There’s a theme of refined melancholy at times during the soundtrack, as if to reflect on both the removal of the Assassins from London and the Frye twins’ fracturing relationship. Just as easily though it can give way to whimsy, such as the transition at the beginning of London is Waiting. Syndicate also has some of the flightiest fight themes in the franchise – The Dance Begins features little of the powerful bombast of usual AAA games, instead relying on the bouncing rhythm of the violin bow strokes and the industrial drums to impart weight. Wintory seems to have basked in the unorthodox when composing for this game; how many others like this feature a waltz designed for nightly knife fights, such as Danza alla Daggers? The play on leitmotif holds tracks like Waltzing on Rooftops and Cobblestones together in a deeply satisfying way; the interplay between the cello and the violin mimics the relationship and temperament of Evie and Jacob respectively and I adore it. Frankly, it’s almost as if the entire score is like a dance; there’s lots of variations on themes, and the technical skill on display is deeply impressive. And finally, as is of course standard, each new composer gets to take a crack at reprising Ezio’s Family, and Family is Wintory’s stunning version.

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Well now, what to make of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate? Have no doubt that I think this is definitely one of the good ones, as far as the franchise goes. Coming as it did after the disastrous release of Unity, it’s no surprise that it sold poorly and as a result seems to be a bit unremembered these days. That’s a bit of shame, I think. It’s no shining jewel for the series, but it’s a charming story, with a genuinely solid core cast and it marked another time when Ubisoft understood what it meant to make an engaging open-world game. It helps as well that the game has a sense of lightness about it at points, and straddles that balance between poe-faced solemnity and a bright joy quite well. If it stands out among the series it’s more because a number of entries are merely adequate rather than Syndicate being tremendous, but don’t let that overshadow the fact that this is definitely an enjoyable game.

5/7 – GREAT. Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.

 

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