would fucking love this game. That’s what I kept thinking whenever Assassin’s Creed Syndicate frustrated me. It’s hard not to be reminded of my late friend and fellow AusGamers contributor, Naren, while playing through the latest entry in the yearly iterating franchise. Naren and I used to argue a bit which, for friends who overheard us at our worst (read: best), would say is the understatement of the century. To put it into perspective, we once had a yelling match at a wedding over the merits of a particular classic movie. That fight lasted for hours. Literally.
At a birthday party, we spent our entire attendance on a tiny balcony, while the party raged on inside. For us, stubbornly raging for and against the merits of Assassin’s Creed III -- a game that he loved and I loathed -- was infinitely more important than being social. Some people see arguments and conflict as inherently negative, but for me, and I believe Naren, it was a passionate form or expression that’s part and parcel with who I am and who he was: unstoppable forces encountering immovable objects. The catch is we were both unstoppable and immovable simultaneously, which should paint the picture of who was the victor of that Assassin’s Creed III debate. (Spoilers: no-one.)
It’s not that Assassin’s Creed is a particularly divisive series, either. Aside from the rocky launch of last year’s Assassin’s Creed Unity, it’s not a franchise that’s prominently split its fan base in terms of the addition or removal of features, or changing up the gameplay style in such a way that certain fans respect it and others hate it. I’ve been a fan of the series from the original game: an interest that originally stemmed from looking for a then current-gen fix for my Prince of Persia itch. That itch wasn’t ever scratched in a satisfying way, but the Assassin’s Creed series found a special place in my dark gaming heart.
I used to play through all of the games religiously, desperate to hit the end credits of the core storyline because the science-fantasy storytelling grabbed me in a way that never really made sense in terms of the lack of narrative satisfaction I was receiving. Then franchise fatigue started to set in. By the time Assassin’s Creed III rolled around, I thought I was done with the series. Then Black Flag sailed into the mix and blew me away. I loved Assassin’s Creed IV so much, in fact, I felt obliged to avoid Unity at launch and wait until it was patched so as not to taint the potential of the intended experience.
As is the trend with putting a game on the backburner for too long: I never went back to it, and only played a couple of hours yesterday for comparison’s sake. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate wastes little time throwing players into the real story, this time set in Industrial Revolution-era London. The city is beautifully and faithfully recreated to the point that it’s almost a con: London, after all, isn’t as beautiful as Paris, visually diverse as the many islands of Black Flag, or foreign as the Third Crusade-era of the original game.
This faithful recreation of London actually adds to the overall tone of Syndicate, in that twin Assassin protagonists Jacob and Evie Frye are bent on ending a hundred years of Templar dominance. Gangs seemingly run everything behind the scenes, child labour is an everyday occurrence and thugs are a more common appearance on the streets than the patrolling bobbies. In gameplay terms, it means there are plenty of viable distractions from the main path, and franchise newcomers Ubisoft Quebec (well, first time as lead developer on an Assassin’s Creed game) deserve kudos for the sheer diversity of tasks on offer, both during the campaign and outside of it.
If you’re a main-quester, though, you’re at a distinct disadvantage. Fair warning: there’s an off-the-main-path requirement before you can complete the second-last sequence. It’s not quite in the same ballpark as the Codex controversy of Assassin’s Creed II, but it’s flirting with the same league. You’ll be forced to take control of three boroughs (two atop the one you take over early in the game) before you can get back to the story, so it’s worth tackling regions as you go when you’re in the neighbourhood.
The other challenge for main-questers is the reality that London is massive. You’ll feel the epicness more so if you’re shifting from main mission to main mission, as I was. There are fast travel points in the usual viewpoints that have to be scaled to activate, and also a mobile train hideout. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and the train will happen to be near your next objective, but there’s no way to get the train to fast travel to points along the track that would be more convenient.
Normally, this isn’t as much of a concern in an Assassin’s Creed game because free-running is part of the fun: plotting your way from point A to B on the fly, as you vault across rooftops. The first challenge for Syndicate is there are huge gaps between buildings to facilitate the wide roads for driveable carriages. Second, there’s giant dirty river in the middle of London that necessitates mixing things up in terms of travel planning.
That being said, the Thames is a heap of fun to free-run across, if you get your timing right. It’s like playing a game of non-threatening anti-Frogger where, instead of avoiding incoming traffic, you use it to stay out of the water and maintain momentum (the twins can swim, though, so that’s an option, too). To combat the distance problem, Ubisoft Quebec has added horse-drawn carriages for travelling long distances. The problem is their handling is questionable and, on my experience with the PS4 version, it also sporadically dips the frames.
It doesn’t help that travelling at speed also makes old Assassin’s Creed pop-in and obvious texture rendering issues rear their ugly conjoined heads. The other option for faster travel is to use the all-new rope launcher. It’s a multipurpose device that can pull you up to the top of a building or zipline you to a lower rooftop. When it works, it’s great, but when used in automated mode (which you’ll do most of the time to maintain momentum), it has questionable prediction of player movement intention. By contrast, earlier this year Dying Light offered a grappling hook option that’s both intuitive and brilliantly complementary to the free-running mechanics.
It’s a shame because the free running is the best in series in Syndicate. Sure, there are odd moments where you’ll encounter an invisible wall or gameplay execution won’t match movement intention but, for the vast majority of the time, Ubisoft Quebec nails it. Borrowing the movement up/down logic from Unity, Ubisoft Quebec evolves the system to the point that it treats parkour momentum as threefold. Up and down are the most obvious options, but there’s also respect for a horizontal plane, which equates to automated vaulting across waist-high obstacles.
The result is a semi-intuitive/semi-manual control system that requires some initial mental rewiring for returning fans, but ultimately pays off in terms of preserving forward momentum and, basically, getting your character where you want them to go in the way you want them to get there. This philosophy of tweaking the core mechanics of the series carries over into other areas, too, albeit with mixed results.
On the positive front is the approach to assassinations, which now edge closer to Hitman in terms of depth (albeit without as many options), while maintain an appropriate Assassin’s Creed point of difference. You can still sneak your way in and stab someone in the back, or run in and slice them to death, but there’s now the option for unique assassination opportunities that are worth the time investment. These are flagged from the beginning, and after some initial Eagle Vision upgrades, plotting a path to them and around (or through) enemies is a cinch (especially because Eagle Vision can be upgraded to tag through walls).
On the not-so-positive front is Syndicate’s handling of combat. Enemy AI isn’t particularly bright to begin with, but they still mostly fall into the habit of encircling the player and attacking one at a time. This isn’t new for fans of the series, but Ubisoft Quebec has made changes to the combat that force players to be more offensive. Dodge has been removed, but players can now avoid incoming shots if they press the same button at the right time.
Forcing players to be more aggressive and removing an overreliance on counter-based combat is great on paper, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The biggest problem is that enemies take way too many hits to die, particularly early on. Once you get past the first half of the weapon unlocks and have some combat-based upgrades in your arsenal, things get a bit quicker; but it means that fights, particularly one on one, descend into repetitive boringness when they stretch on for too long.
The bigger problem, though, is there’s no reward, incentive or even training for mastering the mysterious combo system. Sometimes pressing the attack button results in an automatic two-hit combo, other times a single. It means you can keep your combo meter alive by mashing attack, but it’s a bit hit or miss in terms of pre-registering controller input, which sometimes means a counter or stun animation doesn’t occur when you’ve hit the button. The result: the best intentions of measured button pressing quickly flip into button mashing when input commands aren’t registered.
Once again, third-person melee combat has been handled better in other games: the Arkham games are obvious examples, and Shadow of Mordor nailed it with swordplay. If there weren’t better examples of combat systems in the gaming world, it wouldn’t be as frustrating. Worse still, the culmination of the combat mechanics in Syndicate is a woeful final boss fight that’s almost entirely reliant on a player’s ability to alternate between attacking, stunning and countering (the latter, at points, with perfect timing).
While it’s nowhere near the same state as Unity at launch, Syndicate still has its fair share of bugs. There were times when looted bodies remained, while un-looted bodies disappeared from the game world. A mission glitched out a couple of times to the point I had to reset, and there was the time when, without warning, the game reset to the nearest checkpoint. More than ever before, and despite the presence of a police force, the population seems to give zero shits about random acts of assassination or even over-the-top butchery.
Gripes aside, I still had a heap of fun with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Usually when reviewing longer games that have problems to a tight deadline, I’m trying to rush through and don’t necessarily want to go back to the game world after the campaign is done and dusted. With Syndicate, I’m done with the main quest, but still want to go back to the game world and take on some of the side quests. There’s a thread of murder investigations, for instance, that are so left-field in terms of the Assassin’s Creed formula but so well executed that it’s like playing a different game.
It’s little details like these off-track side missions that make Syndicate such a joy to play when it’s getting things right. The city, the pitch-perfect period recreation, the larger-than-life characters and the believable sibling banter between protagonists are all top notch, with an overall lighter tone that’s welcome relief from the darker themes that’s been the trend of the series of late.
What’s odd is that upgrade points, currency, as well as weapon and kit upgrades seem to be shared, but the actual progression unlocks are individualised to each twin. It feels a bit redundant, especially in light of the reality that you can switch characters at almost any time (except for core memories), and the same upgrade tree shows both character-specific upgrades. Some of the upgrades are clever and feel organic, such as the Eagle Vision stuff, but some of the upgrades feel like lazy placeholders for old series features that were once immediately accessible.
There’s a solid 15+ hours of gameplay on just the main quest, and goodness knows how many more dozens of hours completing the side missions out in the open-world. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate gets more right than it gets wrong, but in trying to amend some of the sins of the series, it exacerbates the issues instead of offering a cure. Despite that rather lengthy list of cons at the bottom of my review, one thing’s for sure: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is still a hell of a lot of fun.
I can’t help but feel that if Naren was still with us, we’d be arguing over my score. He’d probably tell me that I’ve laboured the point on too many of the negatives, and the fact that I had fun should have held more weight. I’d counter that you can still really enjoy something and provide a balanced opinion about what didn’t work, which should be reflected in the score. We’d argue for hours to the nth degree and neither of us would have any hope of changing the other’s opinion. And that’s okay.
This review is dedicated to my friend Naren. I hate that I can’t argue with you anymore, mate.