Assassin's Creed: Syndicate is -- wait for it -- an Assassin's Creed game, with all that that implies.
It's a really good Assassin's Creed game, mind you, my favourite since Assassin's Creed II took us to Renaissance Italy way back in 2009. We're in Victorian London this time, in 1868. As with most games in the series, Syndicate shifts between the present and the past to follow the convoluted and conspiratorial struggle between the Assassins and the Templars, who are fighting over … something, that's for sure. You climb famous and not-famous buildings, use your magic Eagle Vision to identify targets in a crowd, and kill them.
In keeping with series tradition, the historical setting mixes painstakingly accurate architectural renderings of things like Big Ben and Westminster Abbey with entertainingly campy and counterfactual cameos from figures like Darwin and Dickens. One series of side quests is dubbed, simply, "Karl Marx's Memories." There's an Edwin Drood joke. A late-game mission is titled "Driving Mrs. Disraeli."
Honouring another Assassin's Creed convention, those missions are wildly uneven, with exhilarating set pieces like a clamber across London's Tower Bridge juxtaposed with unimaginative pixel-hunting, during segments in which the player is asked to do little more than make sure the avatar hits its marks.
The voice work is similarly mixed. The lead actors are strong. I was especially charmed by Victoria Atkin as Evie Frye, the twin sister to fellow assassin Jacob Frye and one of the game's two main playable characters. Crawford Starrick, the villainous Templar industrialist and mobster whom the Frye twins want to bring down, looks a lot like Daniel Day-Lewis's Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, but Kris Holden-Ried's menacing performance is admirably restrained. A few of the game's minor characters, on the other hand, sound more like something you might run across during a night of high-calibre community theatre, or that you might overhear while glimpsing a meeting of the Society for Creative Anachronism during an amble across a campus quad.
This is a mixed bag, interactively and narratively. So what makes this game worth playing?
The cornerstone of any open-world game is traversal, and the London of Assassin's Creed: Syndicate is a joy to move around in. Layered atop the usual clambering and running and leaping and stabbing is a new tool called a rope line, an anachronistic grappling hook that Batman seemingly left behind after a time-travelling mishap. Evie and Jacob do not move as fast as I would like when they slide along it, nor are they always quick to find an available ledge when they point it skyward. But the rope line was my travel method of choice in Victorian London, even though it was slower than the horse-drawn carriages that can be hijacked on the streets without much consequence.
You'll never want to climb in Assassin's Creed like this:
When you can climb like this instead:
The game has a light, almost comic, tone, underscored by the playful fiddles in Austin Wintory's score. The plot -- involving ancient civilizations, magical shrouds, cutscenes from the present day about the actions of Abstergo and characters from the Desmond/Ezio era -- seems like it would be basically incomprehensible to players who aren't steeped in Assassin's Creed lore. But it doesn't matter: The moment-to-moment motivations of the Frye twins are clear enough.
The twins themselves are fine companions for the dozens of hours it takes to play through this game, maybe the most likeable assassins yet. Jacob Frye is the rakish (maybe a little Nathan Drakish) one who's slightly better in a fight, while Evie is both a little more earnest and marginally stronger in stealth.
For a while, this two-character structure works almost as well as the similar division in Grand Theft Auto V, with the game assigning different facets of Assassin's Creed play to the two protagonists. Evie is the curio hunter who searches for powerful artifacts, while Jacob is happier doing some straightforward killing. (It's almost a sibling rivalry as workplace rom-com: She wants a Piece of Eden! He wants to start a gang!) I tried to use the RPG tree in the game to emphasise Evie's stealthiness and Jacob's strength. You're forced to use each character often enough in situations that run contrary to their best attributes, however, so near the end you end up levelling them to be virtually indistinguishable -- until, even later, Evie alone can purchase an extremely powerful stealth ability that makes her nearly invisible when stationary.
Beyond the non-interactive present-day flash-forwards, there is a reasonably large section of Syndicate that is hidden on the map and takes place during an entirely different timeline. It's optional. When you see the entry portal appear on the map, don't miss it (although it's not urgent -- it won't go anywhere). I would say more, but the surprise is part of the delight. I may have already said too much.
After Metal Gear Solid V, which makes failure in stealth an opportunity for improvisation between player and game, the less-frequent-but-still-too-frequent insta-fail moments in Assassin's Creed feel more tired and frustrating than ever. Even with improvements like the rope line, I wish this game were more systemic, less reliant on printed on-screen instructions in lieu of trusting the player to come up with solutions for the challenges it presents.
Then again, Big Boss can't climb to the top of the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral and leap off.
Each "memory sequence" (a bit of genetically encoded history that the player is reliving through a virtual machine called the -- oh, never mind) climaxes with an assassination that does afford the player some room for creativity. The boring way to play these -- which the game allows for -- is to barge in and kill everyone in a straight-up fight, which pretty much lets you get away with mashing square (or X on an Xbox controller) to win.
The more rewarding method -- the way the game wants you to play -- is to explore each space to find people who can assist you. Maybe you kidnap one to get past some guards, or steal someone's keys, or talk to someone who will tell you where to hide for what the game calls a "unique kill" (a cutscene that plays after you Press Square to Assassinate, but it's usually better than that sounds). Your options are still prescribed, chosen from a very limited menu that the game presents. It's not Dishonored, but it's closer than this series usually gets.
Unity, the most recent Assassin's Creed game before Syndicate, was riddled with bugs. I experienced very few during my time with Syndicate, nothing too unusual for a large, open-world game with a release-day patch. Also: Sophisticated critics aren't supposed to gripe about loading screens, but watch enough 45-second loading screens after failing a few insta-kill missions in quick order, and you'll start to wonder why not.
I'll stop complaining. I've spent about 30 hours in London with Jacob and Evie, and I'm eager for more. I like playing Frogger on the Thames, leaping from moving boat to moving boat. I like listening for the tinkling of music boxes that contain discs that will eventually unlock the vault beneath the city. I like stopping at a pub to nab a collectible beer bottle; picking up a book to find the newest pressed flower; doing a little prize fighting or carriage racing for easy cash; and just cleaning up the gang war on the streets -- dropping from a rope line for a double kill and then creeping past corners to liberate Dickensian child laborers in a factory.
But not the bounty hunts, Ubisoft. I hated those. Please take them out.