Assassin's Creed Syndicate: The Kotaku Review

Assassin's Creed Syndicate: The Kotaku Review

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.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate: The Kotaku Review

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.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate: The Kotaku Review

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.

Chris Suellentrop is the critic at large for Kotaku and a host of the podcast Shall We Play a Game? Contact him by writing [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @suellentrop.


Comments

    Good thing they got those glitches out of the game.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Mdn5Tn1zBo

      Ubisoft confuses me. I literally read an article today talking about the lengths they go for historical accuracy in the assassin creed games, right from the start. They employ historians to help, not only concentrating on historical figures but making sure the fabric textures look right for the time... They apparently contact university professors who are well versed in a certain period. Using online records and even travel around the world to dig through archives.

      Then I remember how buggy the games are and how bad unity was, and immediately thought, "Man... They really need to fire the guy who allocates the budget".

      Last edited 26/10/15 2:33 am

    The more pressing question is, did they learn anything from Unity's god-awful launch? In other words, does the game actually run smoothly? Minor glitches are acceptable provided they're infrequent, but if there's whole sections of the game that run at 20fps like last time, that's just pathetic.

      Actually those major ass slowdown bug has been fixed in Unity like 6-8 months after released with major patch 4-6 i think. Syndicate runs on the same engine so I believe those bug fixes contribute to stability in Syndicate as well.

      Assassin's Creed Syndicate doesn't have any framerate stutters as far as I have seen. The only two noticeable bugs I've come across is when the controls become completely unresponsive, or NPC character clothing starts flying all over the place. However, any other bugs like faces completely missing, water stuttering, NPCs popping in and out have been resolved.

    I confess I am intrigued by the setting, but no, I'm done with this franchise.

      I am in your boat. London seems like a really cool setting, however there is a lot of other games hitting just around the corner and I don't know if this is the right option. The big thing keeping me on the fence with this is that co-op multiplayer was taken out. I did not get into Unity until I started the online missions with other players. They were a nice change of pace, working in teams to achieve a mission, and a good distraction to level up in the game.

      Im with you. I don't hate the series and I'm not bitter, but it's like I've finished a full meal and I've over-eaten and I couldn't eat another bite. I kinda wish they came out every 2 or 3 years cause I'm pretty fatigued at this point, I have no appetite left.

      Last edited 23/10/15 1:45 pm

        I haven't reached that stage yet bu t I've been playing them ever 2-3 years. Currently working my way through AC:III

    I waited to pay $30 for Unity and liked it. This looks so good, I might just wait until it's $40!

    Can you explain how the twins fit into the 'genetic memory' plot device of the AC franchise? How can you have access to both genetic memories of siblings without incest?

      The story from 4 onwards has been that Abstergo has refined the animus system to the degree that direct genetic links between operator and historic figure are no longer necessary. I didn't play enough of 5 (which I hated) to figure out if it is still necessary to have genetic samples from carved-up direct descendants, though, which is what they were using in AC4.

        In black flag, through the exterior play computer hacks, you learn that Abstergo acquires the remains of Desmond after his sacrifice to save the Earth at the end of AC3

          Yeah, that was the carved-up descendants thing I was talking about. That whole thing was pretty sad, really, to see him treated that way. But it explained how we could have non-descendant operators viewing the memory - they were accessing genetic material.

          What I'm NOT as sure of in AC5 is if they needed to have those same kind of creepy human chop-shop samples for these other historic figures, or if they were using something else.

            i kind of expecting some sort of "out-of-nowhere" story-line reviving the original specimen when the series really starts to fail; but such a plot device seems unlikely from Ubisoft .... oh wait...

      The other aspect is that when you take the Desmond arc and life at the farm many assassin families living together in a compound you are going to get some level of cross breeding between different branches of the family tree. It is around 7 generations between Desmond and Evie/Jacob so being distantly related both (one from fathers side and one from mothers) is distinctly possible in a close knit community.

    Don't be fooled lads! Bargain bin for $15 at best.

      Good to know. I assume you're speaking authoritatively in your capacity as someone who has played the game to completion, so you'll be able to elaborate on that somehow.

        Ubisoft create amazing worlds, unfortunately there's nothing interesting to do in them.

        Climb tower, collect weeds, follow NPC, mash square in combat til opponents die, repeat.

        Unless the story is amazing, (they never are) these games are fun for an hour or two a best before it becomes the same old slog we see year after year.

          Which means you have not played the game and made a conclusion based on the Ubisoft's ability and their previous titles that is unrelated to this game except sharing the same name and engine?

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