Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate Review
By Ryan Kosinski
“Whoever controls London, controls the world.” A statement that both sets the tone and envelopes the central theme of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, Ubisoft’s 2015 entry into the acclaimed Assassin’s Creed franchise. Syndicate is the follow up to 2014’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity, a polarizing release, met with criticism due to many launch-day bugs, a less-than-engaging story, and a disappointing protagonist. Syndicate has addressed the issues that plagued it’s predecessor, and the experience is reminiscent of what I felt playing through Ubisoft’s original Assassin’s Creed (2007). Syndicate places renewed emphasis on both visual and mechanical elements that have long made Assassin’s Creed a successful franchise.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate places gamers in 1868 London, and in control of two playable protagonists: twins Jacob and Evie Frye. Immediately setting Syndicate apart from recent Assassin’s Creed games are its charming and likeable main characters. Both are quick-witted and engage in frequent exchanges of banter reflective of their sibling rivalry. Jacob is brash, carries himself with a seeming air of invincibility, eager to lead (The Rooks in particular). Evie is more cunning, contemplative, and calculated in her actions. These characteristics are also inherent in each character’s play-style. Syndicate allows the player to swap between Evie and Jacob to accommodate the skillsets required by a particular task. Jacob is the brawler, more physically imposing and strong for combat-heavy missions or tasks. Evie’s strengths are her quickness and using stealth to elude her adversaries. Evie is great for infiltration and kidnapping targets. The main characters compliment each other brilliantly. The use of dual-protagonists in Syndicate was a genius maneuver by Ubisoft to add depth to the overall story and to engage the player in strategizing their character choice as they attempt to proceed through the game.
Syndicate’s central plot pits the Frye twins against Templar Grand Master Crawford Starrick, and the reaches of his influence, which include Maxwell Roth and his gang, the Blighters. Gamers are tasked with utilizing the Frye twins to free each London borough of Blighter control. In doing so, the Frye’s also foster the growth of their own London gang – The Rooks – in an attempt to overthrow Templar influence.
With strong protagonists in place, and an engaging story as the backdrop, Syndicate truly shines with its beautiful reimagining of London circa 1868. Although the story and characters both are strengths in this release, the London backdrop was the reason I kept going back for more. Free-running through the boroughs I am consistently enamored with the black-smoke-heavy skyline. Factories churn out the industrial revolution while the Frye’s catalog mission objectives through viewpoint synchronizations; (‘synching’ a viewpoint places location markers on your map for important tasks). The NPC’s have a reasonable and bearable degree of exuberance. I found the groups of young children playing on street corners and roadsides to be a charming occurrence representative of the game’s chosen setting. Conversely, attention is called to child labor practices, and many side missions call for the rescue of imprisoned groups of children. Horse and carriages are littered throughout the London streets. Hooves trot over reflective rain puddles on stone sidewalks.
Essential to any Assassin’s Creed game are the accurate depictions of significant geographical landmarks. There is no shortage of those in Syndicate. Buckingham Palace, Houses of Parliament, Victoria Station, the Monument to the Great Fire, and London Bridge Station are all represented, among many more. I was especially impressed with the landscape at night. The city glistens against a starry backdrop, lighting and visual effects are gorgeous, and the dynamic weather conditions enhance how real the experience of traversing through 19th century London feels.
It should not be understated how fun simply free-running through London can be. Syndicate’s free-run mechanics add a degree of control to the player by incorporating specific controls for running upwards and downwards. Although these mechanics are counter-intuitive on occasion, overall they are smooth and I experienced minimal hiccups when free-running. A welcome addition to the free-running mechanics is a zip-line, which allows Jacob or Evie to efficiently travel between distant rooftops. The zip-line is a much-needed addition, and I found myself drifting from area to area without the desire to fast travel, although fast traveling is an option upon synching with a viewpoint. Leaps of faith are still exhilarating.
Grammy-nominated composer Austin Wintory’s score is thoughtful, serene, and underscores the moral conflicts at hand throughout the game. The music changes as you wander from borough to borough and compliment an artfully crafted environment.
The core game-play and combat mechanics are all vastly improved from previous Assassin’s Creed titles. I consistently found myself playing “fight club” side-missions repeatedly, where Evie or Jacob can take on challenge-waves of Blighters. Fluid combat allows for stringing together a multitude of attacks, and chaining lengthy combos – complete with devastating multi-kill finishing moves. Bringing opponents “near death (indicated by a the opposing fighters hunched over highlighted in white) allows for one-button finishers, which can be used on one, or multiple opponents at a time. These added maneuvers make the combat presentation continuously versatile. Utilizing weapon enhancements mid-combo can make for some truly spectacular combo-chains. You will utilize specialized brass-knuckles, swords, revolvers, knives, and hallucinogenic darts as you upgrade your characters’ respective skill-tree. I found the combat in Syndicate to be the most satisfying of any Assassin’s Creed release.
Syndicate provides players a variety of types of tasks to complete as you conquer London’s boroughs. The game contains no multiplayer, a direction that aided Ubisoft in returning Assassin’s Creed to top form. Sequenced missions feature a variety of influential historical figures. Syndicate offers players a chance to cross paths with Charles Dickens, Alexander Graham Bell, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin, among many others. For the purposes of income and resource gains, side missions are available at every turn. Eliminating Gang-leaders in Blighter strongholds is a great tactical exercise. Mix things up in kidnapping missions where you abduct targets, place them into a carriage, and escape by riding the horse-and-carriage at high speeds through the highly-populated London streets as Blighter carriages attempt to swarm and attack. Hijacking carriages is fun, you can leap from roof to roof at high speeds and follow up with a ruthless execution of the driver.
I’ve played most of the Assassin’s Creed releases, and Syndicate is, without question, my favorite entry into the franchise. It’s emphasis is firmly placed on what makes the Assassin’s Creed games so enjoyable: an immersive, rich landscape serving as catalyst to a strong criminal industrial complex narrative, fluid free-run controls allowing the player to engage with the environment in varied ways, and an enhanced combat system that can both test your strategic acumen through high-difficulty combo strings, or can be equally satisfying slashing-and-mashing your way through hoards of Blighters. Syndicate unequivocally breaths new life into a previously stagnant franchise. Ubisoft wisely went back to basics with Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, and the result is the finest installment in the franchise’s storied history.
I received this game for review courtesy of Ubisoft. All opinions are my own and reflect my own game play experience.