Video Games Review: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (Xbox One, 2015)

With many fans of the series still wary after last year’s disastrous Assassin’s Creed Unity, Ubisoft are aware that they need to stick the landing with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. The good news is that Syndicate, though it has problems of its own, is never weighed down by them and constitutes a welcome return to form.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is set in Industrial Revolution-era London. The year is 1868, the wealthy upper class is blatantly subjugating the lower classes. Naturally, a life of crime is the order of the day, and the Templars, thanks to Grand Master Starrick, have a corrupt finger in every proverbial pie. They’ve forged significant ties with Maxwell Roth and the Blighters, his well-armed gang of thugs. Together, they hold all seven of London’s boroughs by the throat. It’s here that the Assassins have found their in. As twins Jacob and Evie Frye, its up to you to run the Blighters out of town, building and improving a gang of your own called the Rooks, and take London back piece by bloody piece.

You may remember that when I reviewed Assassin’s Creed Unity on our parent site The AU Review about this time last year, I was not especially kind to it. Its simulated Paris was beautiful but flawed, to say the very least. It suffered from a truly staggering number of bugs and optimisation problems that persisted even after Ubisoft released patch after patch to alleviate them. It felt like the beginning of the end for the franchise, the inevitable product of a gruelling annual release cycle. Syndicate then, by dint of its place in line, has the onerous task of getting the series back on track.

The thing is, that’s exactly what it does.

Unity’s influence can be felt all over this game, mostly in terms of what isn’t here. Gone is the promising-but-undercooked four player multiplayer from Unity, as well as the more traditional game of “Hide-and-Seek with knives” that made up Assassin’s Creed’s main multiplayer mode in order to better focus on an improved single-player campaign. Evie and Jacob are possibly Syndicate’s strongest suit – you’re able to pick between them at the top of every new quest and each offers a particular suite of skills to suit a particular play style.

Jacob is headstrong and a brawler, making him the guy for anyone who prefers “the direct approach”. Evie (the first playable female character in a main Assassin’s Creed game rather than a spin-off or handheld title, and clear reaction to criticism of the four male Assassins in Unity) is a quick thinker and light on her feet, making her far better for anyone who prefers to take their time and sneak about. These differences carry over into their personalities and it allows Ubisoft to build a pair of characters you actually care about. You’ll find yourself wishing that Jacob could control his impulses and stop punching people for just a minute, but by the same token you’ll wish that Evie could just relax and stop obsessing over every little detail. Bring them together, though, and you’ll find that complement each other perfectly – she keeps Jacob’s love of violence from ruining their lives and he’s willing to shove Evie out of her comfort zone when she needs it.

This dynamic is highlighted in the first two missions in the game, a pair of assassinations that let you get a taste of either character and the way they play. With these missions complete, the twins go off-book, taking London’s Templar problem into their own hands. The main quests are usually built for one specific twin or the other, and you can switch between them whenever you’re not in a mission. You can also pick whichever one you’d rather use when clearing out borough missions and side-quests. This mechanic is handled cleverly and moving between characters never makes you feel like you’re missing out on whatever the other is getting up to.

For all the strides in makes in terms of narrative and player diversity, Syndicate’s real drawcard is the city of London. Like Unity’s Paris, Syndicate’s London has been built with not only an obsessive eye for detail but with an atmosphere that feels different and more engaging than any other city the series has had. London is as grimy and dirty as the people living in it and each borough has its own look and feel that keeps the city feeling like a vibrant, thriving metropolis – Westminster, for instance, is a gleaming, upper class area full of spotless architecture and well dressed citizens, while Whitechapel is a complete ghetto. The Thames is clogged with boats, the streets are clogged with horses and carriages, the sky is thick with factory smog and there’s mud everywhere.

Controls-wise, there’s a lot to like about Syndicate. They’re more responsive now than ever and the combat is lightning fast. It’s now possible to alternate your battles with ease, popping off shots from your pistol before moving back into a counter or punch flurry. Any favourite items can be activated with a tap of the D-pad which means you never have to stop moving.

Having said all of that, and as fun as punching-on has become, there’s plenty of times where kicking in the door is going to get you killed immediately. This is still a game in which stealth is a major mechanic, after all, and it’s the stealth sections that are perhaps the most fun. New moves include kidnapping, which is great because it forces you to play true stealth, get close and grab your target before frog-marching them quietly from the building. While Jacob likes little else than strong-arming people, Evie is the better bet here, particularly once you get her chameleon perk working for you and become invisible whenever you aren’t moving. Load her up with gadgets, especially smoke bombs, and there isn’t much Evie can’t deal with.

Other new mechanics come in the form of traversal. Driveable vehicles – the aforementioned horse-and-carriages – can be hijacked off the street, get you from one side of the city to the other quickly and allow you to participate in chases and races, as well as being convenient mobile hiding places when on the lam. I’ve seen some complain that the carriages are too difficult to maneuver but I actually quite like them. It’s a big heavy wooden ball on wheels being dragged by a horse, of course it handles like a sack of crap.

As enjoyable as fangin’ around the city at breakneck speed is, there’s an even better way to get around. The rope launcher is the latest gadget in your assassin’s arsenal and oh my god, you guys, I legitimately don’t know how I lived without it. Functionally similar to the grapnel from Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games, the rope launcher allows you to climb tall buildings in a single bound and create ziplines for moving between towers with ease. The coolest use for the rope launcher, however? You can kill people with it. Create a zipline above your target, scoot along the line and drop off it above them and complete your assassination.

This is all just the stuff I like, though. Let’s talk a little bit about the stuff that bugged me.

To answer the most pressing questions first, yes, the frame still jitters here and there, a holdover from Assassin’s Creed Unity, but it’s nowhere near as horrific as the stutter that game suffered from. While the parkour up/parkour down climbing mechanics return, you’ll still find yourself fighting against the controls on occasion, your character enthusiastically wriggling their way across a building in the wrong direction even though you’re telling them to stop.

A handful of the quests didn’t feel as polished or important as others and were a bit of a chore to get through as well, and more than a few that forced you to repeat certain actions in different parts of the city like the child liberation jobs. I get the sense that you’re supposed to take a certain amount of pride in freeing these kids but your impetus for doing so isn’t quite there and once you get it done, that’s really the end of it.

There’s also a lot of these quests we’ve seen in other games before – follow the target and don’t be spotted, chase this jerk and shake them down for information, sabotage these three things – and they feel pretty stale by now. Components like these remind you that this is still a series that releases a new game annually and (and this might feel like a bit of a kick in the ribs after I’ve been so nice to the game in this review) it does highlight the degree to which the Assassin’s Creed series needs an injection of fresh ideas at this point.

The point is, despite these minor gripes – and they are most definitely minor – Assassin’s Creed Syndicate makes good on many of the promises Unity made. There’s a more interesting story, a pair of enjoyable, diverse protagonists, great new gadgets and an immersive, bustling city to explore. Assassin’s Creed is back to doing what it does best, and I am relieved.

Review Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Single player focus; Jake and Evie are great; That Austin Wintory soundtrack!
Lowlights: Still needs to take a year or two off and come up with some truly new ideas
Developer: Ubisoft Quebec
Publisher: Ubisoft
Released: October 23, 2015
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC (coming soon)

Reviewed on Xbox One


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David Smith

David Smith is the former games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.