It's clear enough that a lot of us here at Kotaku liked Assassin's Creed Syndicate. The game earned a positive review and a spot on our best of 2015 list. All the same, our three biggest Assassin's Creed nerds had yet to sit down and talk it out. As we did with Assassin's Creed III, Assassin's Creed Rogue and Assassin's Creed Unity, Luke, Stephen and I all got together yesterday to go back through the highs and lows of Jacob and Evie's Big London Adventure.
Kirk Hamilton: Mr Plunkett; Mr Totilo. It's been a while, but the three of us are finally gathered once more to discuss an Assassin's Creed game. This time, Assassin's Creed Syndicate, which I just finished a few days ago. London gangs! Grappling hooks! Twin protagonists! A dog named Desmond! None of us wrote the official Kotaku review, but I gather that the two of you liked it. Fair to say?
Luke Plunkett: Very fair to say.
Stephen Totilo: Yes indeed. It was better than I expected it to be, though I must say it was beginning to wear out its welcome by the time I was finishing the final act. Good mission variety, but could've been a share better. I wanted to upgrade that train more!
Kirk: I did get a little worn out near the end, though that always happens to me in these games. For the most part, the game really held together, which was interesting because it felt similar to Unity in some ways, but that game didn't hold together well at all. Like Unity, it was another game that pared back the oceanic extravagances of AC IV and AC Rogue and focused on a single city. They just did everything so much better this time around. That point of comparison interests me, though — in a lot of ways Syndicate felt like Unity done right.
Stephen: The Jack The Ripper DLC takes you outside of the city a little more and helped me realise that my ideal Assassin's Creed does have some non-urban sections. Brotherhood turns out to have been my favourite single-city AC because it has just enough outskirts to make the game feel geographically diverse.
Luke: See, I think Syndicate's London is my favourite. It feels more alive than any other city in terms of its design and architecture. It's not just an endless flat landscape littered with climbing objects, it's full of these little alleys and nooks that are't just behind buildings, but above and below them as well. It's a small thing, but those little elevations make the whole place seem more believable.
Stephen: Maybe that's why I liked the Thames so much in Syndicate. It's the best parkour and assassination playground in Syndicate, and it looks — and sounds! — so distinct.
Kirk: The Thames! Yeah, the Thames is probably Syndicate's version of a "non-city" area. I love the Thames.
Luke: The Thames was a great surprise. Well, the whole thing with getting on and off moving objects (the trains as well) was great, but the way they made the Thames a kind of Frogger minigame was excellent.
Kirk: It helped that the water looked so frickin nasty. I would do anything to keep from falling in. I really feel for that one NPC dude who keeps taking a dive.
Stephen: I enjoyed discovering that I could slip into the doors in the side of some of those chugging boats. And I loved trying to figure out how to grapple from one side of the river to the other without dropping into the water. Man, I wonder if I'm going to be ok with any future AC games that don't have the zipline. It freshened up navigation so much.
Kirk: I've wondered that, too. It will be hard to go back. I felt similarly about Ezio's hookline in Revelations? But the Syndicate grappling hook is much more of a game-changer. I can't imagine playing without one, unless the game is set in the wilderness or something.
Luke: Ezio's hook has stuck around. Not specifically as an object, but the player can jump much higher than they used to be able to in older games. And surely they will keep the grappling hook , at least for games set in the relevant time periods. It was just so good, not just for traversal, but stealth/combat as well (I LOVED using it to glide across a target then dropping down to kill them).
Kirk: Yeah! I loved dangling way above a target, waiting for him to glow red so I could drop down. It's great to be able to set your own vantage points in a game where vantage points are kind of the end-all-be-all. I also liked the Animus fragments that you could only get by carefully placing the grappling line. Pretty fun way to make me want to take the time to get a collectable.
Stephen: And the train was a good touch. I've played so many open-world games and was prepared for Syndicate to feel similar to, say, GTA, but with carriages replacing cars. But the idea of having a mobile base that moves through the city felt entirely fresh. I haven't encountered that in an open-world game and liked it.
I'm glad they didn't force you to have to catch the train to do more stuff at the base, but I loved how it kept circling its way through the map. If nothing else, it added the surprise of where you'd find yourself in the world when you were done with whatever you were doing in the train and were ready to jump off. I can see the grappling hook coming back before I can see the train returning, though. It seemed very Industrial Age-era London.
Kirk: The train is probably a one-off, but I did like having a mobile command post. Maybe that will be a new trend in games like these? I sort of wish there'd been more to customising the train, but it was still fun to watch it get nicer and nicer as I went.
I also loved catching up to the train in real time and hopping on - I think I even put that in our tips post. Really cool to seamlessly go from city to headquarters like that, and to see Jacob sitting there idling, wondering if I was ever going to decide to play as him. (I wasn't.)
Luke: I actually thought the train was a big disappointment. We've had mobile command posts in the sailing games and they were actually mobile...the novelty of the train moving was almost entirely lost, since every time you went to start a mission the train was nowhere near your start point. It was too slow to make it worthwhile to use it as transport and it was never used for something cool like a getaway.
Stephen: Maybe I'm just a sucker for things in open-world games that create the feeling that the world is moving even while you're doing other stuff. It's why I also loved that thing in GTA V where you'd switch characters and the guy you took control of was always in the middle of some other thing. Makes these games feel more alive.
Kirk: Right, that's what I like about the train too. It's cool when your vehicle is your base, like in ACIV, but I like the idea of a base that moves independently of you.
Stephen: Now, what a shame those detective missions were so hidden. Did you guys find them and do any?
Luke: I did one of them, it was blergh. Glad they fixed it up a little for Jack the Ripper, where you use them more extensively, but they still feel under-baked and out of place in this series.
Kirk: I only did a few, because I don't think I found them in the PC version. I did a couple of the exclusive Penny Dreadful missions on PS4. I liked them? I liked that there was an actual mystery to solve, and that you could accuse the wrong person - something actually lost in other similar games like Arkham Knight and (most of) The Witcher 3.
Stephen: They were a good improvement over the detective missions in AC Unity, which takes us back to that earlier point of this being Unity done right — which is to say a single-city game that doesn't mess with co-op and instead focuses on a couple of great playable lead characters in an interesting city.
Kirk: Right. No co-op, which was never all that fun in Unity to begin with — instead, multiple protagonists! I really liked the split-character setup in Syndicate, and not just because I'm a little bit in love with Evie Frye. (I am, though. Evie. Sigh.) I thought it worked for the same reasons it worked in GTA V - games this big just benefit from some variety, and stories this sprawling benefit from having a broader cast. What did you guys think of the two-protagonist approach?
Luke: I felt that it could have been executed much better. You can tell in parts, especially towards the end, that Evie's inclusion feels almost like an afterthought, and that much of the story was built around Jacob's adventures (to the point of giving Evie her own separate quest). I feel like if this game had been designed with both characters in mind from the start we'd have got more cool missions like the last one, which sadly is the only one that has you swapping between them in the same stage (and is awesome because of it).
THAT SAID. I love them both dearly. Evie especially, but Jacob is also great.
Stephen: Including the DLC, there are four playable characters in this game, and, Kirk, you're right, games set in worlds this big benefit from having an ensemble cast. Open-world design demands a certain stasis to the game world itself that then forces the game's writers to give each protagonist a certain immutability of attitude. Having multiple playable characters helps get around that and gives the collective lead character(s) more flavour.
Kirk: I agree it felt patched together — nothing near as slick as Michael sniping the jumbo jet while Trevor chases it on a motorcycle in GTA V. One thing I liked about their interplay was the way that Jacob was kind of a real prick to Evie, especially toward the end. Their disagreements weren't played for laughs — a lot of the story was about him realising the flaws in his approach and deciding to do better. I was glad they didn't gloss over the rift that grew between them, even though they still tied it up pretty neatly at the end.
Stephen: What'd you guys make of Evie's daughter Lydia? Too little to get a feel for her? She was pretty blank to me. I wanted more of her story, but I guess these games have to come out quickly enough that they couldn't do that much with her.
Kirk: I liked her outfit?
Luke: She was cool in a sense that she kinda served as part of Evie's story. It would have been nice to learn more about her (maybe we will!), but it was cooler just having her in there as a way of saying, "Yeah, OK, tumblr fanfic types. Evie and Henry definitely knocked boots."
Kirk: The whole WWI section was peculiar, for me. It felt kind of like DLC that somehow had made it into the main game, I guess. But it also had some future-lore stuff that tied in with the future timeline twist at the very end of the story. It was odd. I liked that it existed, and like the way this game and Unity both let us explore their cities during a different time period. But it also felt tacked on and insubstantial. Particularly from a character perspective — Lydia seemed cool but I didn't get much of a feel for her. She sure did kill a lot of British soldiers, though, which seemed kind of uncool?
Luke: A common theme in the game. You sure do kill a lot of cops and soldiers in the main timeline as well. Sometimes the game doesn't want you to! Others times it's like, eh, do what you gotta do.
Kirk: I didn't kill that many cops! Only a few. Cops in this game are super OP, man. I avoided them at all costs.
Luke: Which is a decent strategy, given the game's new combat system. I know they'd dialed things down in Unity from the Arkham-esque insanity of III and Black Flag, but still, it was nice to see combat in an Assassin's Creed game tweaked to be a slower, more thoughtful affair, encouraging players to maybe try a little harder with their sneaking than just relying on some OP combo moves. What did you guys think of the new way they handled stuff like "near death" and combo breaking, etc.?
Kirk: Honestly, I still felt like combat was too easy. Between the juiced-up DLC weapons I had equipped, the big-arse window on the yellow counter notification, and the fact that I could carry around so much medicine, I never had trouble slaughtering a couple dozen enemies unless they were 4-5 levels higher than I was. The best combat challenges were the fight clubs, since you had to survive for so long on a single health bar. I probably would have had more fun if I'd made it a rule that I couldn't use medicine.
Luke: Or, like you say, if you hadn't equipped the game-breaking DLC gear. Which, well, breaks the game's combat, giving you access to end-game tech hours earlier than it should.
Kirk: True, but even with regular weapons on my PS4 playthrough… I played a lot of Arkham Knight at the same time as I was playing Syndicate, and while Syndicate's combat is a marked improvement over past AC games, Arkham's combat shreds it. Ubisoft's AC teams still have a ways to go.
Stephen: They did a better job of designing areas for the mechanics they have. The factories where you had to rescue children, for example, were laid out fairly well, and I enjoyed trying to go through them without raising the alarm. That said, you could cheese those areas by dropping down on a guy from above then immediately grappling back to the rafters. I guess Batman does the same in Arkham, but the enemies here felt stupider. I could sneak behind stuff better, though, which is a big improvement.
Kirk: Definitely — the level design on interior areas was pretty solid. The AI was a bit dim, but if it'd been any sharper it might've made the game too frustrating; probably another case of AC having to design around the fact that it's still fundamentally kinda awkward to play. I did find that the whistle didn't work that well in the enclosed spaces — I'd always alert too many enemies!
Stephen: I'd like to see them put effort into building up the ally AI systems. Somehow that stuff was still best the first time out, back in Brotherhood. You could summon some assassins to kill guys without Ezio getting his hands dirty, but they rationed how much you could use them. They were swift and lethal, if memory serves, which worked. Bringing in some street gang buddies in Syndicate felt sloppier and less satisfying, also less assassin-y, if that makes sense. Maybe they could explore another thing from the Arkham games and borrow from the under-used but excellent Batman-Robin systems in Arkham Knight.
Kirk: I only used the street thugs once — on that dreadful mission where you have to sneak under the obelisk while that lady is giving a speech, and there are cops everywhere. They got the job done, but man, that mission was such a drag.
Stephen: Oh, I botched that mission barely. I was in the wrong place and wound up having to fight too many people. But I did enjoy getting to the top of that obelisk!
Kirk: It did lead to the great screenshot atop this post.
Luke: What did you guys think of the driving? It's a first for the series, and while it doesn't get spoken about as much as the grappling hook, I thought it was one of the biggest factors in me enjoying my time in London. One of my worst memories from Unity was having to just run everywhere, so being able to jack a carriage and race through the streets to cut down on time was cool.
Kirk: I didn't love it, didn't mind it. Sometimes the chase sequences could be annoying, but most of the time I had fun and appreciated that the horses were basically just cars. Crash 'em into a wall, hit reverse, that sort of thing. I did have trouble stuffing guys I'd kidnapped into the backs of a few of the carriages, though. I'd wind up in a loop where the same button grabbed the guy, stuffed the guy and grabbed the reins, so I'd do things all out of order and chaos would ensue. Wacky, but annoying.
Luke: That's So Assassin's Creed.
Kirk: Grab the damn guy! No! Evie! GRAB THE DAMN GUY OH MY GOD!
Stephen: Didn't you briefly drive a wagon in the first AC?
Kirk: I think that was in AC II, on the trip between cities.
Stephen: But, yeah, this was the first game to have it as a system. The driving was better than I thought it would be. Fighting on the top of moving carriages and leaping from one to the next were all pretty good. In a world without Pursuit Force 3, I'll take it.
Luke: For me, a bunch of that stuff comes together to paint a picture of where the series might be heading. We've talked about the Egyptian game obviously, but so many of the new (or newish) systems in Syndicate feel like they're a dress rehearsal for a game set in even more modern times. Six-shooters, driving wagons, grappling hooks, barges, telegrams...Assassin's Creed Revolver?
Kirk: Hah yeah — it does feel like Ubisoft is slowly but surely designing every possible system you'd need to make a game in basically any time period. Eventually they will be able to do anything! Cars, horses, boats, planes, spacecraft, hoverboards…
Luke: One other thing I really liked about Syndicate was — and this is the opposite of the fears I'd gotten from the pre-game marketing — its tone with the way it handled its history. Most games have tended to skew either too serious or too comedic with the way they integrate famous/important figures from history, but I felt like Syndicate got it just right. Darwin in particular...he's a weird and funny character, but the game doesn't shy away from touching on the more heated and controversial aspects of his work (and person). Abbeline was also a great sidekick.
Kirk: I liked that, too. It didn't feel… like, it didn't feel like a weird Americanized version of 19th century London? It was a caricature, but it was an honest caricature. For all the stereotypes and goofiness, I felt an abiding love of the city coming from the game. Austin Wintory's score helped with that too, I thought. He was smart to base it around so many well-known English hymns — for example, "Abide With Me", which my high school marching band actually used to use as a warm-up, was threaded throughout the score.
The result was a mix of original composition and period/region-appropriate hymns and chorales. It was subtle and really nice.
Luke: That's kind of the feeling about the whole game, isn't it? That everything's....just right.
Kirk: When it so easily could've been not right! And despite the fact that there's still a lot of mechanical stuff that doesn't work well. It's a funny thing, how a game can fit together despite the various ways that it could still be improved. But Syndicate pulls it off, yeah.
Luke: I think because the pillars of Assassin's Creed, the things we've either grown to love or just accept over the years, came together better than they ever have, for better or worse.
Stephen: I'm curious how you guys feel about the continued marginalization of the modern day. This and Unity had no playable modern day. I miss it, but I don't recall either of you being fans. Do you want it to come back or do you prefer it as a cutscene/audio-log/text-file kind of thing?
Kirk: I think… I'm torn. I think they either need to cut it completely, or figure out some better way to develop it. It felt way too perfunctory in Syndicate. It was weird.
Luke: I wish it was gone entirely. I have 0% interest in the game's wider lore and story outside of the fact I need an excuse to keep jumping between time periods killing dudes. Until, that is, they make a game set 100% in the present/future, where the "story" bits become the main game. A playable Shawn with a dash of cyberpunk hacking stuff would be cool.
Kirk: It really did feel silly this time around. I could imagine people playing Syndicate as their first AC game, or maybe their first in a few years, and just being like, "What the fuck?" This weird cyber lady is talking all this shit about her cyber-god friends and the end of the world, and it's all just bizarre. Syndicate's in-game ending, with Evie and Jacob gleefully running away from the camera, was perfect. Then there's this weird cutscene with modern characters in a dramatic fight with templars, and yeah. Lose it or do something cool with it.
Stephen: I vote for "Do something cool with it"!
Kirk: Maybe take it out of the game and make it into a web ARG? Or make a separate game that's all modern-day shit like Luke suggested? Or just put it all in Watch Dogs 2? I guess time will tell. Speaking of time, it's running low, though I know we could probably talk about this game for another 3,000 words. Any final thoughts?
Stephen: Jack The Ripper was good DLC! Twisting the core systems, touching on verboten subject matter. I like when AC is being bold. It was AC being bold. I also like when we get smaller chunks of AC, so, yeah, good stuff. It is weird that there's yet more single-player DLC coming, and just a mission pack. Weird way to close out the game, but I have high hopes it will be cool.
Kirk: I still have to finish that. I def will, it seemed cool from the small bit I played.
Luke: Please do. The way it acts as an epilogue to the main story is very cool. I'm as hooked on Evie and Jacob (and Henry's!) story after 1.5 games as I was with Ezio after three.
Kirk: Yeah! I'd so play another dual-protagonist game starring Evie and Henry. Every time you switch from one character to the other, they meet up and smile super adorably at each other.
Come on Ubisoft, make it happen.