Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Review (PlayStation 4)
After the underwhelming reception the masses had to Assassin's Creed Unity and its Titanic-sized glitches, Ubisoft has decided to take the franchise to the Industrial Revolution and turn the Templar war into Gangs of New York. All DiCaprio references aside, Assassin's Creed Syndicate is a proper return to form which makes amends for Unity's shortcomings while establishing itself as one of the finer entries of the franchise. The series last two solid entries, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and Assassin's Creed Rogue, took us across the Atlantic to the open seas of the new world, but Syndicate takes us to London as it's growing from the boom of the 19th century technology.
The setting of an Assassin's Creed game is often one of its most important characters, and Ubisoft is known for trying to make its locales true to the times and brimming with life. Instead of Paris' giant, old world metropolis filled with guillotines and people rebelling against an oppressive government, we get to explore Britain in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. One of the major problems facing Assassin's Creed Unity was that most of the city was filled with repetitive content: you could turn one block and see hundreds of people protesting in the street, turn a corner and find the same exact thing, just slightly shuffled around. By the time you ran from one end of Paris to another, everything started to bleed together. This time around, Ubisoft took a very different approach to London's overall design.
The areas of Lambeth, Southwark, Whitechapel, the Strand, Westminster and the City of London are all diverse and feel like intricate, evolving pieces of a land going through some dynamic changes. There are rich areas of London where you see street performers asking for coins and young chimney sweeps heading off to their next house full of black lung. After reaching another area, you'll find crammed houses falling apart where people are sulking in desperation or trotting off to work in a smoke-filled factory. Snaking its way through London's boroughs are numerous railroads and locomotives, whistling and churning the whole way around. While there are still plenty of assets being reused, there's certainly much more diversity in Syndicate's world when compared to the series' previous entries.
Whether you're climbing up a clock tower, fist-fighting in a basement, scaling a factory wall, jumping from a shanty or just walking through town with your cronies, London looks gorgeous. The twin protagonists of Syndicate, Jacob and Evie Frye, are two of the most detailed characters Ubisoft have ever created. Likewise, the supporting cast, including Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Charles Dickins and Alexander Graham Bell, all look superb. The townsfolk, baddies, guards and other NPCs you'll regularly bump into on the streets also reflect a high degree of polish from Ubisoft... for the most part. As you're running through town and causing all kinds of Assassin and gang-related chaos, you'll occasionally encounter some seriously dated textures and a recurring face or two in the crowd that look like they were pulled straight from the original Assassin's Creed in terms of quality. Of course, there are bound to be a few errors when trying to synchronize to something so massive in scope, but it's better to have these small graphical fallacies as opposed to characters without faces talking in cutscenes.
Syndicate is quite beautiful to listen to as well. Paul Amos and Victoria Atkin made their voice acting debuts as Jacob and Evie Frye and did a superb job. The two bicker back and forth in the natural way that most siblings do. While the Frye siblings are twins, Evie acts more like the older sister and there are plenty of times where Jacob showcases Little Brother Syndrome. Hearing the range of emotions in their voices while speaking to or about one another felt true to the characters. Likewise, the rest of the game's voice acting felt authentic to the times and never inferred the cliche or stereotypical types of English accents that we've come to see so many times in the media. Toss in a breathtaking soundtrack that often matches the pacing of what you're doing, whether it's fighting or climbing, and Assassin's Creed Syndicate reflects Ubisoft's greatest products from an auditory standpoint.
Unfortunately, there are still a few momentary pauses and frame rate hiccups that happen during specific actions or times when there are a ton of activities going on at once. The plus side is that most of these small instances of lag happen outside of combat (but almost always happen when you hit the water), which makes a world of difference since Syndicate has the best combat system of the series to date. There are a few world design choices that make little sense as well. Instead of haystacks being placed at the base of tall building (despite horses still being heavily relied upon), there are bundles of leaves, which don't look like they're ready to cushion the fall of a fully grown adult leaping from over 500+ feet in the air.
Assassin's Creed's gameplay has become incredibly polished and refined going into Syndicate. At its core, things are still quite the same. You'll still be blending into crowds (utilizing a Metal Gear Solid IV-esque listening system), using parkour throughout the streets, climbing buildings and stabbing people with pointy objects, but Syndicate adds so much more to the usual mix. As recently mentioned, the horse carriage system is a big new feature that adds a ton of diversity to the world. You're able to Grand Theft Buggy any carriage on the street and ride it around. This leads to all kinds of new action and stealth mechanics, as you can leave bodies in carriages as well.
Some of my favorite parts of Syndicate were the giant carriage chase scenes, where you could shoot enemy carriage drivers (or their horses) to cause all kinds of disarray throughout London. The horse carriage system is an excellent new mechanic, but all you see are hundreds of connected horse carriage systems throughout London. You never see any carriages or horses left by their lonesome, which would make sense to occasionally find at the side of a road. Controlling the carriages are fun, even though the horses themselves feel almost invincible to whatever you're crashing them into throughout your joyrides, which certainly took away from the realism in order to make the gameplay smoother. You're also able to sideswipe into other carriages Sleeping Dogs-style, which again is quite fun, but felt very unnatural as to how these vehicles were supposed to handle.
The biggest change to the overall Assassin's Creed gameplay design is the Rope Launcher. This lets you get your Batman and Spider-Man on throughout London as Evie and Jacob are able to use this new travel method in amazing ways. You can instantly shoot up to the roofs of buildings from ground level, which drastically changes the traditional Assassin's Creed experience. You're also able to bridge and zipline yourself across a massive gap in a speedy way. These two Rope Launcher actions are a godsend. While Assassin's Creed's regular climbing system remains solid, it's easy to start getting tired of scaling building after building. Now, you're able to instantly reach a high point and go from one tall building to another without having to drop down to ground level and climb back up. You're able to use this to your advantage and create your own air assassination drop-off points. It also helps escape from combat. Some of the best fun I had with the Assassin's Creed series involved Rope Launching from a high point, air assassinating a rival gang member, using my Cane Sword to kill his cohorts and zipping to a rooftop to escape the guards.
The twin-protagonist system of Assassin's Creed Unity allows for a variety of combat and stealth options. Jacob's gameplay style adheres to direct combat, and Evie's focuses on stealth. You'll obviously want to take Evie out when you know you need to do something stealthy or Jacob if you're planning for some fisticuffs, but they're each still able and encouraged to do both. Both Frye siblings will each have to utilize plenty of stealth and combat, but it's nice to have variety as they have some different skill sets that'll encourage you to get plenty of millage out of them both. The gang mechanics are a nice touch and a definite step up from the limited possibilities you had in Brotherhood.
As Unity was slammed for simply having far too many repetitive quests to do on its overloaded map, Syndicate offers more of the same. You're still going to be synchronizing from high points, liberating zones (this time you're freeing child laborers) and unlocking all kinds of extra missions and side quests to do, but they're all much more fun to do this time around. Charles Dickens will want you to go ghost hunting with him (I'm not making this up), Florence Nightingale will need your help saving the sick, Alexander Graham Bell is your gear-maker and Karl Marx will be spouting off about philosophy as you protect him from those who didn't agree with The Communist Manifesto.
Assassin's Creed Syndicate offers the quality experience that we should've gotten in Paris last year. London is a smog-breathing city of grime and glamour that is filled with a ton of bladed fun to be had. Syndicate's level system leaves much to be desired, as enemies have designated levels above their head that determine whether or not you can survive against them. This makes little sense as the enemies all look the same, use the same weapons but have a higher damage capacity based on the number hanging over their head. It's meant as a way of keeping you out of the specific areas, but I would've rather just had areas that were simply blocked off by the Animus instead of having this enemy level feature.
The changes brought on by Syndicate were much needed, as the combat system has no kinks in it and is smooth as ever. The Rope Launcher makes exploring less of a chore and much more enjoyable. The game's high production values were a bit diminished by the series' longstanding fallacies, such as random lag and instances of poor texturing, but London remains a gorgeous place to visit. Jacob and Evie remained strong protagonists whose interactions helped hide the underlying hokey story of the Templar gangs and the brains behind Abstergo in the modern era. I'm not sure where the Assassin's Creed series will go next (Feudal Japan or Ancient China please), but the bar has certainly been raised back to impressive standards the series was known for once again.
This review was completed with a purchased, retail copy of Assassin's Creed Syndicate for PlayStation 4.