Ubisoft's historical franchise rebounds better than ever.
After the whole debacle with Assassin's Creed Unity, it's been trendy to hate on the Assassin's Creed franchise. Gamers lost sight of the benefit of the series' willingness to take risks, and instead focused on the lack of quality control that comes with experiments that weren't quite ready for prime time. I think Unity suffered from just being too damned big in scale and scope, and it did lack polish.
But that being said, the story broke ground in gaming as far as I was concerned, and for those that played Unity all the way through for the end, Syndicate will uniquely hit you in the feels. Syndicate juxtaposes the fraternal bond of its playable characters, Jacob and Evie Frye, against the Romeo and Juliet-style romantic angst of Unity, and in doing so tells a story about love that is both deeper and lighter than what Unity managed. Syndicate is the Shakespearean comedy to Unity's tragedy, but it's still an exciting, albeit less complex, ride.
Ubisoft's historical-tourism-with-killing franchise takes us to Victorian England in this game, introducing Jacob and Evie to famous faces from that period like Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, and Florence Nightingale, among others. Jacob and Evie are Assassins looking to liberate London from the iron grip of their sworn enemies, the Templars. They're aided by a multicultural cast that includes a nod to Britain's colonial activities of the time.
Jacob and Evie are well-developed, likeable co-protagonists, and their banter, even when they're angry at each other, is fantastic. The development team obviously spent a lot of time and effort getting their relationship right, and it shows.
Hands down, the best of the supporting characters is Indian immigrant Henry Green. Henry is a breath of fresh air as a character, because he's a non-white character who doesn't hinge on how not white he is. When his Indian background is relevant, it's relevant, but he's far more than just the brown guy in the game. He's a distinct, deliberately designed character who doesn't have Jacob and Evie's knack for field work – franchise fans will likely compare him to Achilles Davenport -- but while he's in a similar role structurally, he's a completely different kind of character. And he's freaking sexy. Points to Ubisoft for taking back South Asians in geekdom from Raj's sterotypical sexual haplessness on the Big Bang Theory.
There are also plus-sized and older female characters. Yay!
Syndicate seems to be designed as a jump on point for new players. It's full of references to past games, but they aren't essential to understanding the plot. Returning modern day characters like Shaun, Rebecca, and Otso Berg are reintroduced for new players, and Black Flag and Assassin's Creed II are referenced more directly than Unity.
Jacob Frye, however, serves as the new player proxy, because at times the bloke is thick as a brick. He has little knowledge of Assassin history -- nor interest in it -- so he needs everything explained to him, which is great for new players. Jacob likes to mix it up with his fists, and he's most at home in melee combat and street brawls. He's competent at stealth, but he's the character you use when you want to take a fair bit of damage.
Evie, meanwhile, is the more "classic" Assassin's Creed character -- stealth based, not very bullet proof, but more adept at driving carriages... which actually works in this game. It's a nice change from both the hellish horse mechanics in Assassin's Creed III, and the terrible driving in Watch_Dogs. Evie knows all the Assassin lore an experienced player does, and she's very devoted to the cause and philosophies of the Assassins, passed down to her through her late father. This isn't always a good thing for her, but it is vital to the story. Evie's desire to slip into London quietly to locate and secure a precursor artifact is at odds with Jacob's goal of conquering London with his gang, the Rooks. Jacob's methods are more in line with traditional "video game" solutions to problems, and Ubisoft uses this fact to show how destabilizing these tactics would be in the real world. The Assassin's Creed franchise continues to explore the delicate balance between freedom and control, and while Syndicate is way more "Team Assassin" than the last few games have been, it still manages to be a cautionary tale against extremes.
I don't know if the branches that sprouted out of this anti-extremist core were deliberately intended to speak to the issues the gaming community has been dealing with for over a year, but oh wow every ideological faction in gaming gets spanked down in some way and supported in others. Conservatives get a somewhat gentler ride because of the historical popularity of Bejamin Disraeli. Socialists, meanwhile, have Karl Marx as their standard bearer, but Marx is depicted as a somewhat out-of-touch ideologue who doesn't seem to fully grasp the body count piling up around his "party meetings". He's... nice, but he doesn't seem to really care about the real lives of real people. I found this balance worked well.
Charles Dickens, meanwhile, is used to facilitate a stripped down version of the murder mysteries from Unity, as well as crack some literary nerd jokes I laughed at far too much. A great deal of the comedy hinges around his last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and his membership in the "Ghost Club" paranormal society.
Charles Darwin provides the last main group of side quests, and I think these missions are going to be the most controversial. The game draws on the way Darwin's rivals used anonymous letters and the propaganda press to slander him and his ideas, and the dialogue dishes out more than a few kidney punches to journalists along the way. Since, however, it's all based on 100% real history, I laughed my ass off at these scenes, and I want to praise Ubisoft for its cheek and guts for keeping this storyline in the game in the wake of both extremes of the Gamergate uproar. A developer less committed to its artistic vision would have cut this plot for the sake of political safety. These risks are what make Ubisoft a great company.
Of course, destabilizing "grassroots" revolts of the proletariat didn't come out unscathed either. As I mentioned before, the game makes clear that you can't just go around destroying existing structures without major consequences, and Jacob's "burn it all down" attitude gets him and the Assassins into major trouble.
But these are all narrative elements, and I want to make it clear that the game also plays beautifully. It's a simpler game, with fewer weapons choices -- no rope dart or sleep darts this time around -- and a faster pace of play. Instead of a greater selection of ranged weapons, Jacob and Evie are outfitted with the rope launcher, a grappling hook gadget that speeds up navigation through the city and creates new air assassination opportunities. In a fun twist, this gadget, and the new voltaic bomb item, are given to the twins by Alexander Graham Bell.
Combat is also sped up, and the guard break function works much better now. And getting into above-ground doors and windows is now done via a context sensitive L1 prompt because going through windows sucked in Unity. Eagle vision is suped up, and the campaign assassination missions are fun, relevant, and stylish, often involving a unique part of the map for a visual thrill as well. The various controls refinements make the game an elegant joy to play, and yes, it runs smooth. No performance issues on the PS4 version, and level load times are greatly reduced... although if you fail a mission those reset loads are somewhat lengthy. Fortunately there are very few hard fails until very late in the game.
It should be no surprise that the game is beautiful. The smoke and mist that hangs around London is elegantly rendered, and the use of color and light is incredible. The textures are glorious, the various costumes are mesmerizing -- the way the art team balanced all the garish, synthetic fashion colors of the time is an amazing achievement.
Sound is equally good. The changes in footfalls, the different sounds based on what type of materials you're climbing, and the overall ambient sounds are glorious. I loved the hallucinogenic dart dialogue bits they added too. The eavesdrop feature is a casual thing now, allowing players to overhear conversations while in stealth mode that just add to lore and character details. It's not an artificial thing you have to use at certain times to progress. The music selections are good -- extra points for the sea shanty on the Thames that harkens back to Black Flag. But the thing I found the most compelling from a sound design perspective were the various music box collectables scattered throughout the game. Nothing says Victoriana to me like a music box.
- Keep an eye on the levels your characters are at and match your mission selections to them. If you're punching above your weight class, it's going to be frustrating.
- For some reason, the drift feature in the carriage races isn't clearly shown in game. You drift by pressing L2 while holding down R2 while you turn a corner.
- Focus your early character points when levelling on Jacob's and Evie's special skills. Jacob likes fighting. Evie excels at stealth.
- Do a healthy amount of side missions, but don't feel the need to be a completionist. You can go back and finish anything you want after you complete the campaign.
- Ignore the microtransactions. You don't need them. The Ubisoft Club suits can be useful early on, but they are quickly replaced by earned loot.
- The dialogue references to a letter for Jacob refer to the sequence 8 missions. They can be accessed through the assassinations board.
Now that I've spent numerous paragraphs praising the game, I'm sure you're asking "okay, what's wrong with it?" Well, there are some (at times comical) nuisance level bugs that crop up at the damnedest times. But there are some artistic issues with the game as well, notably a surprising number of completely cardboard characters for an Assassin's Creed game. The biggest disappointment by far is the transman character, Ned Wynert, who appears in precisely two scenes and has absolutely nothing to him. In fairness, no matter what a game does with a trans character, someone thinks it's wrong, but since Dragon Age already put Krem in Inquisition, Ned Wynert adds nothing from a social progress standpoint other than a cosplay opportunity. Ned looks cool, but we learn absolutely zero about him. All the other quest hub characters -- police officer Freddie Abberline, urchin Clara O'Dea, and the aformentioned Henry Green -- have a lot more personality. Some other allies based on historical figures are an absolute hoot, but I'm not going to talk about them because it's better to just discover them as you play.
But the Templars are as flat and overdone as the Assassins are interesting. Very few of the Templars make any impact whatsoever, and the ones that do are moustache twirling, overacted Snidely Whiplash-style villains. The main Templar enemy, Crawford Starrick, is a failed attempt at a funny villain. He's awful. The bright side is that by the end of the game, you're raring to go for that boss fight. Worse, however, is Maxwell Roth, an annoying, predictable villain who is part of a weird add-on sequence that sounds a false note because it seems to be seeking to score political points more than tell a good story.
The women Templars are better, but that doesn't mean they're good. Lucy Thorne and Pearl Attaway look cool, but they're very similar in demeanor. Lucy might be a bit colder, Pearl might be a bit snarkier, but they're there to fill the same purpose in different parts of the game. The rest of the Templars, meanwhile, are just forgettable. They're marks to murder, and nothing more. There are no Templars that hold a candle to great characters like Elise de la Serre or Haytham Kenway from past games.
Disappointingly, Syndicate also has moments of clear ludonarrative dissonance linked to the ability to swap between Jacob and Evie in between chapters of the Dickens missions. I'm not sure why this happened, because it was easily avoidable with a simple conditional dialogue tweak.
And my PS4 exclusive download code didn't work, so I can't tell you anything about those missions. I don't know if that's because the game isn't officially live yet, but I can't review what I can't play. And for those who care, Syndicate is strictly a single player game.
That being said, a game doesn't have to be perfect to be a crazy amount of fun, and the gameplay improvements decidedly overcome the weaknesses in character and narrative. Assassin's Creed Syndicate is a rousing, riveting, romp of a game, and despite its faults it's decidedly fun to play. In the end, that's what matters.
This game was reviewed with a digital copy of the PlayStation 4 version provided by Ubisoft.
Images courtesy of Ubisoft.