History repeats itself in a good way.
The Assassin’s Creed series has had a spotty record since the franchise’s high points, Assassin’s Creed 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, with each iteration of the core games adding fun elements that would metastasize into gameplay bloat in the next game. Case in point? 2014’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity, which for all its architectural grandeur, was saddled with bloated systems, nonsensical collectibles, and spotty, at times aimless, writing both in its historical story and a modern metaplot that, despite its finer moments, never quite paid off.
With Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, Ubisoft seems to have learned its lesson, jettisoning unnecessary companion apps and multiplayer to renew their focus on Assassin’s Creed‘s most appealing draws: a fun single-player campaign, campy historical tourism, and a gorgeous virtual parkour course for players to explore.
It’s the Industrial Revolution, and Assassin twins Evie and Jacob Frye have come to fog-shrouded London to wrest it from the hidden hand of the Templar Order’s latest Grand Master, industrialist Crawford Starrick. The thing is, the twins can’t agree on how to take down the Templars. Bold, brash, and cocksure, Jacob wants to jump right into the fray bycobbling together a gang called the Rooks to oppose the Blighter criminal syndicate and their Templar overlords. The shrewd, cool-headed Evie chooses to wage a shadow war against the Templars in order to beat them to an artifact called the Shroud of Eden, all while cleaning up the many unintended consequences of Jacob’s cavalier shanking of Templars and Blighters. The twins are each endearing in their own way and their opposed personalities play off perfectly against each other, making the Fryes among the most likable protagonists in the franchise’s recent history.
Syndicate wisely leaves players with the freedom to easily shift between the twins for much of the game. Jacob’s slightly brawnier in a straight fight, and Evie’s top tier skills make her a ghostly infiltrator, but the twins share a broad range of Assassin moves, tricks and tools, and unless you’re playing one of the core story missions, you’re free to explore London with whichever twin suits your fancy.
Most of the game falls under two categories: freeform territorial control and a variety of open-world side missions and collectibles used to establish the Rooks and undermine the Blighters, and set-piece story missions focused on Jacob’s takedowns of high-profile Templars and Evie’s investigations into the Shroud of Eden. Along the way, you get to explore a vibrantly realized London and hang out with many of the quest-giving luminaries of the age, from a slightly doddering labor activist by the name of Karl Marx, the ghost-debunking novelist Charles Dickens, or the up and coming police officer Sgt. Frederick Abberline.
Syndicate’s set-piece assassinations are a blast, letting players romp around in famous landmarks like the Tower of London or the halls of Parliament, free to aggressively cut your way to your target, take a stealthier route, or work towards achieving unique mission-based opportunities. It’s in the side missions, gang warfare elements, and collectibles that much of the familiar open-world bloat still resides. New elements like nerve-wracking abductions, and chases and shootouts on top of trains and horse-drawn carriages add some cool new spice to an otherwise familiar (and debatably stale) sidequest mix of assassination challenges, escort missions, and straight up gang brawls as you tear through the many boroughs of London.
And boy, what a London we get to explore. Syndicate’s London may have more in common with Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes or the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen rather than a novel by Dickens or Hardy, but dang if it isn’t a gorgeously rendered virtual playground. Each borough has a distinct visual identity, from the teeming slums of Whitechapel, the industrial clamour of Southwark, to the genteel civility of Westminster.
The addition of a fast-scaling rope gun combine with the new horse-drawn carriages and general refinements to the parkour controls to make movement feel much more dynamic, restoring the fun to traversing the city. Combat is more dynamic, possibly pushback from the enforced vulnerability of Unity. There are still occasional moments of clumsiness in movement, but far less stop-go frustration than in previous games.
Still, if Syndicate was simply iterative refinement and a partial chipping away at the crud that has collected from 8 years of Assassin’s Creed games, then my verdict would just be an emphatic “MEH.” What really brings things together is that Syndicate isn’t afraid to have a lot of campy fun. Recent installments have been on the dour side, from the slow-motion train wreck of Edward Kenway’s personal life in Black Flag to the doomed romance of Arno and Elise in Unity. When contrasted with Jacob’s brash stylings and Evie’s sly barbs, the campy historical cameos and an amusing cast of secondary characters, Syndicate serves up something refreshing for franchise devotees like myself. Add in a lively, waltz-inspired soundtrack and the black humor of the ‘murder ballads’ by Austin Wintory and the Tripods, and Syndicate delivers a much more playful atmosphere then its recent predecessors.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is the best the series has seen in years. It’s bold, and brash, and sly, like the Frye twins. Does it get repetitive? Heck yes, even with the attempts at pruning the bloat. Historical accuracy? Please, this is a series that had you punching out the Pope. Does it break new ground? Not much. Iterative improvements at best. But Syndicate does excel at what Unity struggled with: good old fashioned fun and style. Assassin’s Creed hasn’t dared to be such fun since Ezio Auditore.
John Philip Corpuz flip-flopped between Computer Science and Creative Writing courses before finding a happy medium writing about computer and tabletop gaming and other geekery. He is a full-time writer and part-time game master. Or is that the other way around?