Syndicate is the latest installment in the Assassin’s Creed franchise – Set in London of 1868, we’re introduced to the Frye twins Evie and Jacob as they fight to free London from under the Templars’ yoke. Like in all other Assassin’s Creed titles, the game is loaded with historical characters and references, as well as the usual mix of stealth and action gameplay. After the less-than-stellar performance of its predecessor, Unity, Syndicate is supposed to return the franchise back to its glory days as a must-play game in everyone’s collection.
The first stage of playing Syndicate is undoubtedly denial. I simply could not believe that the 9th installment in the franchise would still be burdened by the sins of its forefathers in almost every aspect. Traversal, for example, is still at times a controller-smashing mess of frustration – as my player character ended up stuck on a rail or in mid-air for the umpteenth time, I wondered if the series would ever have a free-running mode that was smooth or at the very least reliable. Having the parkour done via motion-capture does nothing to remedy the matter.
Fortunately, very early in the game I was given a grappling hook to assist in zipping around from rooftop to rooftop and from chimney to chimney. Apart from allowing me to practice my Batman impression, the hook solves the age-old traversal issue by sidestepping it. After all, there’s hardly a reason to climb on top of that wall when I can automatically launch myself up with the press of a button. Coupled with the descending free-run that make a return from Unity, getting around Syndicate’s vision of London is definitely easier now – as long as you don’t need to actually walk.
Slowly but surely, early denial turns into anger – of the aforementioned controller-shattering type. On a mission to kill a certain Templar villain, for example, I could not actually engage the target using a hidden blade backstab. The target and Evie (who I was playing at the time) gleefully ignored each other as I made several laps around the enemy before he deemed fit to notice me and allow me to plunge my Kukri deep into his throat. This was not an isolated incident, mind you, as several other multi-participant fights resulted in my character being unable to attack a single foe while my allies were being slaughtered towards an inevitable mission retry.
The Batclaw isn’t the only thing Syndicate takes from Batman – it also borrows heavily from the Arkham series’ combat system. Fortunately, this means the game’s combat is now both more fluid and more empowering, letting you take on multiple enemies at once if you so desire. But that doesn’t mean combat is now easier. The enemy level system has returned with a vengeance, with enemies even a couple of levels above yours posing a much greater danger than enemies your own level. Trying to take on even the most common variation of enemy can become a lesson in humility if he is one or two levels above you. It goes without saying that when dealing with enemies even a single level below mine, I am become death, destroyer of hordes, as I fell foes with nary a scratch. In both cases Syndicate does have some very streamlined and brutal moves – the multi-kill animations are some of my personal favorite in the series and they add a lot of panache to the fights.
My anger at Syndicate couldn’t last forever and the game is still quite playable more often than not – but I found myself bargaining with it far more than I care to admit. “Let this combat move trigger properly and I will never return here” was a common thought, when trying to deploy a smoke bomb or a tool-execution combo in a fight. Both the “quick tool use” and the “magically dodge a bullet” functions are mapped tp the same button. so just a single rooftop shooter could mess up an entire fight by jamming up my ability to defend myself properly – even without cleaver-wielding hooligans surrounding me.
After about 10 hours of gameplay, depression set in. It began slowly, when I realized that despite being the first Assassin’s Creed game to feature a female protagonist, if you’re not accounting for Liberation as it’s not considered to be a part of the main series, Evie is entirely and completely redundant. Of course, so is Jacob. Their story is so uninteresting and their interactions so predictable and cliché, that both of Syndicate’s firsts – the other being the ability to switch between characters – are marginalized and wasted. Evie has almost no personality to speak of, and Jacob is such a cartoonish meathead that I would swear him to be the result of a major wrestling franchise brainstorming session. The Frye twins are disconnected from the story even as they drive it forward, making the experience feel hollow. This is further emphasized by their respective skill trees – which are identical except for a couple skills exclusive to Jacob or Evie, none of them character-defining. Evie wears capes, Jacob wears belts. Evie has freckles, Jacob has scars. When Jacob messes up, Evie taunts him in a typical sisterly fashion and when Evie slips up Jacob takes a cheap-shot and laughs at her expense. If it wasn’t all so predictable and gauche, it could have been entertaining, but instead it feels like the squabbling of toddlers.
It’s a real shame, since London of 1868 is a perfect stage for the many Assassin’s Creed key story elements, like the constant conflict between the total freedom the Assassins believe in, and the oppressive guidance the Templar think is best for humanity. Unfortunately, the Frye twins simply aren’t engaging enough to carry the story as whole, nor their individual plot lines. Also, the outlandish roles the game assigns to some of history’s more famous thinkers feel completely out of place. For example, Alexander Graham Bell is the one designs your implements of death and Charles Dickens has you chasing ghosts instead of attending to the plight of the working class. It adds a bit of a fantastical element to the story, but takes away from atmosphere of Templar oppression Syndicate tries unsuccessfully to maintain.
By the end, I think I simply came to accept Syndicate’s many faults, mainly because it looks so good. Syndicate finally manages to drag Assassin’s Creed to the new generation, something Unity failed miserably at. Combat and parkour animations, while doing nothing to solve some of the series’ more notorious issues, look incredible and help make everything just a tiny bit smoother. The day-and-night cycles and the weather system help bring 19th century London to life in a way never seen in an Assassin’s Creed game before. After a frustrating fight, I could always use the rope launcher to climb to the nearest roof and enjoy a beautiful sunset over the smog-filled horizon.
Overall, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a mediocre action-adventure game that doesn’t make up for the sins of its predecessor. The uninteresting story and unrelatable protagonists don’t manage to distract the player from the many gameplay issues still plaguing this veteran franchise. By introducing the rope launcher, the developers pretty much admit that they are not going to fix these issues, so there’s no reason to forgiven the game for his faults just because the series used to be good. However, Syndicate does look amazing, London during the Industrial Revolution is probably the best settings Assassin’s Creed fans can ask for and the classic formula still works. If that’s all you need to have a good time – go for it. If you’re fed up with Assassin’s Creed, Syndicate will only antagonize you even further by how it simply refuses to get better.Some of our posts include links to online retail stores. We get a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Don't worry, it doesn't cost you anything extra.