Last year Ubisoft released Assassin’s Creed Unity, which was widely considered the lowest point in the historical, open-word, stealth-adventure series. Its launch was marred by a plethora of technical bugs and glitches and for some it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, as fans became fed up with AAA titles being released in an unfinished state. Although Ubisoft eventually rectified and patched Unity’s issues, many gamers still hold reservations about Ubisoft’s flagship series. Thankfully you can rest assured no such game-breaking issues are present in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, the latest offering in the franchise. While Ubisoft Quebec haven’t attempted to reinvent the wheel, they tick a lot of boxes, which will go a long way to restoring the faith lost by those that have become disgruntled with the annual releases.
Do you want Fryes with that?
Set during the Victorian era in London, England, your initiate takes control of the memories of extremely likeable twin brother and sister, Jacob and Evie Frye. Naturally they have polarising personalities, which gives them a different approach to their missions. Jacob is more brazen and brash and prefers to take the head on approach. While Evie on the other hand prefers the stealth approach, catching her targets by surprise and eliminating them that way. This is reflected in the skills upgrade system where a few skills are character specific. Jacob has skills that are related to his brawler methods such as taking less damage and bringing enemies to near death more swiftly, while Evie has skills that tailor to her stealth approach with the ability to carry more throwing knives or allowing her to become invisible while stationary. Both are equally adept at handling weaponry, and all weapons unlocked in the game can be used by both Jacob and Evie, only clothing items such as outfits are character specific items. I’m sure those with siblings will find similarities between themselves and the bickering Frye twins, laying the foundations for a relatable journey.
Your assassins’ task is to find the Piece of Eden, a powerful device that gives the holder unique abilities. Your hunt leads you to London, much to the pleasure of Henry Green, an old friend of the Frye twins’ father. Green had earlier issued a distress call to the Assassin Brotherhood requesting help as London has fallen into the hands of Templar Grand Master, Crawford Starrick.
The Grand ‘Stache
You better run
Combining an apposite soundtrack with cobbled streets, terrace houses, chimneys spewing smoke into the sky as the industrial revolution is in full flight and well replicated landmarks (such as Big Ben), a rich authentic world that is littered with detail is brought to life.
Starrick’s character is portrayed excellently, your first encounter shows a calm and eloquent man who sees the bigger picture and has a wealth of resources at his disposal to get what he wants. As the story progresses, a darker more sadistic side of Starrick is revealed and it is at these moments where I felt I was witnessing one of the best developed antagonists of recent times. As the game’s story wore on and Starrick’s demeanour shifted, I hankered for a bigger focus on scenes involving the Templar Grand Master. The delivery of his dialogue was exceptional and not because he screamed at every opportune moment, but because you could hear the power in his voice and the fear his words etched in those around him. Most impressively this was done by being articulate, he didn’t need to curse or threaten everyone and this gave his character an authenticity that matched that of the outstanding Vass from Far Cry 3.
Jacob and Evie have a great presence as their bloodline rivalry brings out some quality banter. The dialogue between the two is for the most part well executed, and the family connection to their cause creates an emotionally charged journey. I was a little disappointed that there weren’t many joint missions, with sequences mostly predetermining which sibling you’re in control of. The reason this was a disappointment is because the backstory gives you a sense of just how close the twins are, but you’re not really given an in-game experience of this bond, instead within missions the Frye twins rely more on their Rook recruits than one another. It becomes more about the individual’s accomplishments, rather than theirs as a collective. The twins only come together in the cutscenes or in their train hideout, which is the hub of their operations.
Ubisoft Quebec’s take on London is beautifully reminiscent of the Victorian era. Combining an apposite soundtrack with cobbled streets, terrace houses, chimneys spewing smoke into the sky as the industrial revolution is in full flight and well replicated landmarks (such as Big Ben), a rich authentic world that is littered with detail is created. There are seven boroughs that make up the city: Whitechapel, Lambeth, Southwark, the Strand, the City of London, The Thames and Westminster. Each borough contains various side-quests and is controlled by a high-ranking officer in a Templar controlled street gang known as The Blighters. By completing the side-quests within a borough you take control of those areas. As you commandeer more of London from the Templars, Starrick becomes more driven to find the Piece of Eden. The side-quests are the same for each borough and they usually come in four flavours: Templar Hunt- hunt down and assassinate a high-value target, Bounty Hunt- kidnap a high-value target and deliver them to your Police contact, Frederick Aberline (a real historical figure) for questioning, Child Liberation- free the children working in Starrick’s warehouses and Gang Stronghold- defeat all the Blighters at a location to take control of it.
London 1868: The idyllic Victorian locale
To help curb the Blighter’s influence in London’s boroughs Jacob forms his own gang, ‘The Rooks’, much to the displeasure of Evie. Once you’ve completed all the side-quests within a borough you must face-off against and eliminate the gang leader from that area to take full control of that borough. The gang aspect of Syndicate can play a big part of the game if you choose it to, any mission or side-quest can be completed with up to five Rook members at a time. You also have the option to upgrade your gang throughout the course of the journey. Upgrades vary from having your gang members carry weapons, bribing the police to turn a blind eye to your murderous ways or receiving discounts on future purchases. Although the added element of having your own street gang is a novel idea and they make for handy back-up, the execution is rather poor. Several times while I was attempting to sneak my way into an area to liberate some children or kidnap a target, I’d notice my Rook gang mates going in through the front door and alerting the Blighters to our presence. The Rooks were only useful when you needed a decoy or cannon fodder.
The gameplay predominantly follows the same recipe as the previous entries, however a couple of new features have been included. The greatest boon by far is the addition of the rope launcher, which makes traversing the open-world from its rooftops much less of a chore. Assassin’s Creed also finally has a crouch button in the form of entering and exiting Sneak mode by pressing X. Your characters can also navigate the streets of London via horse and carriage, which is surprisingly fun given its unrealistic handling. A number of missions and side-quests require your character to be a chauffeur and you also have the ability to hijack other carriages. This is where some of the game’s humorous moments occur as high-speed equine chases ensue, resulting in a Victorian era Destruction Derby as you ram and knock other carriages sending the carriage and its passengers flying in the air. If you are an aspiring jockey then your thirst for horse racing will be quenched as you can compete in carriage race meets held around the city. Rewards such as money, resources and XP are up for grabs. The running, climbing and jumping mechanics feel the same as previous entries; they’re smooth and make navigation satisfying.
To increase the games appeal there are several smaller activities to do throughout London such as the horse racing. All of these give you money and resources for upgrades, and XP towards more skill points. There is a fight club where if you participate you must survive five waves of enemies. For every round survived your rewards increase. You can also hijack cargo carriages and deliver the goods to certain location to gain your rewards.
The combat has also been refined to create smoother and faster encounters, and although it is repetitive in nature, the brutal finishers break it up just enough to make it enjoyable rather than tedious. The finishers somewhat remind me of those in Ryse: Son of Rome, kicking a victim back against a wall and throwing your knife into their head, or stabbing a Blighter in the chest, removing the knife and stabbing another Blighter in the throat. All this while the London public watch on in horror but act lackadaisically towards you as a threat (naturally if you do this in front of the Bobby, you’ll become London’s most wanted). There have been vicious takedowns in previous iterations, but the tone of the combat in Syndicate feels a lot more violent, and in doing so gives the player an unfamiliar satisfaction seldom found in Assassin’s Creed’s combat.
Meet the Rooks
Assassins need no spider bite to traverse the rooftops
Sirs, start your equines
The combat has also been refined to create smoother and faster encounters, and although it is repetitive in nature, the brutal finishers break it up just enough to make it enjoyable rather than tedious.
There is a skills system that helps you level up throughout the game, the highest level achievable is 10. Each mission or side-quest has a recommended level that you should be before undertaking such assignments, however the difficulty of the game was on the easy side as I found myself effortlessly taking down 10-15 guards and taking damage usually resulted from an act of carelessness. With no difficulty selector for the game, the only real way to challenge yourself is to go into missions or quests deliberately underskilled.
A crafting system also exists, and as you complete missions or unlock chests throughout the city you obtain schematics for higher graded items, such as weaponry, belts and outfits. These can increase your stats and abilities depending on the level of the gear you’ve crafted. You can also upgrade gear, increasing the amount of a certain item (bombs, darts etc.) you can carry, the radius in which an item affects an enemy and the amount of health regenerated from medicines. You can also complete challenges (perform a combo using a gun or a knife 75 times etc.) that give you perks that slightly increase your stats.
Skills get the kills
Give your the Rooks the edge by upgrading them
Syndicate’s story contains nine sequences and takes roughly fifteen hours to complete. The plot is compelling and it is well paced, so it never feels drawn out like some open-world games. Even if you have a fleeting interest in history, the story is quite engaging. The one major letdown is the final boss fight, which is a shallow and frustrating experience. Boss fights are usually glorified finales, with most bosses being damage sponges that are simply that way to extend the climax and/or to showcase how a high ranking villain is not some mere mortal. A good number of boss fights suffer because of this and it is no different in Syndicate. While I won’t spoil the scenario, be prepared for an underwhelming showdown. They’ve also kept the present-day aspect to a minimum, which helps keep the story of Jacob and Evie Frye free-flowing.
The history buffs among us will be sure to experience tremendous satisfaction as it contains a handful of guest appearances by some of history’s most prominent figures. Charles Dickens, Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Queen Victoria and others all play apart in Syndicate’s vast London experience. While some play an integral part, such as Bell, who is the mastermind behind the inventions you use (like the rope launcher and hallucinogenic darts), others are merely there for side-quests. The Charles Dickens memories mostly see you investigating the supernatural side of London, Charles Darwin sends you on escapades to clear his name, rid the city’s supply of a particular product and other missions, while Karl Marx enlists your help to aid him with several of his concerns he has throughout London. While the majority of information garnered from these missions doesn’t correlate to the main story, they are still fun to complete and it rarely feels like you’re doing them simply for the sake of ticking off a To Do list. There’s also more memories for you to complete once you’ve finished the main campaign, one in particular that takes you back to World War I.
Charles Darwin isn’t the only historical old mate to make an appearance
Ubisoft Quebec haven’t forgotten all of you collectors and there’s plenty of collectables scattered throughout the boroughs to get your fix. Obtaining these items gives minor XP to your levelling system and not much else. If you’re a hoarder then by all means collect the whole set, but if you’re not, seeking all of these items out will make the game become monotonous. I recommend collecting the items in your vicinity and nothing more.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is the series’ return to form and Victorian London has a wealth of detail and activities to keep you occupied for a long time. Despite its lacklustre finale, the refined combat mechanics and the fun improvements made to the traversal system, coupled with impressive storytelling and excellently executed lead characters, will give those that have recently found the franchise stale a reason to return.
Reviewed on PS4.