Right then guv’nor, what’s goin’ on ere’ then? (Or something……)
When Assassin’s Creed Unity lauched last year, you could argue that there was every chance the series was absolutely done for good. Arriving on PS4 here in the UK on November 14th, 2014, it was pretty clear from the off that something was very, very wrong. Within its pretty terrible launch window, with complaints citing the weak storyline, the gameplay being unrefined (read: broken) and fact the game was a tragic buggy mess, Ubisoft had to issue an apology, suspend season pass sales, offer free games to season pass holders as compensation and offer the first batch of DLC at no extra cost. It was beyond any reasonable doubt, an absolute car crash. A mammoth 7GB patch followed, but by then the damage had been done and many fans of the series had moved on.
Not only that, the game had received attention from the French Left Party. Its frontman, Jean-Luc Mélenchon criticised the content, citing the depiction of Robespierre as a ‘blood thirsty monster’ and Marie-Antoinette as a ‘poor little girl’. National secretary of the Left Party, Alexis Corbière, said that “the game was conveying all the counter-revolutionary clichés that have been forged for two centuries. To everyone who’s gonna buy Assassin’s Creed Unity, I wish you a nice time. But I also tell you that having fun doesn’t prevent you from thinking. Just play it, but don’t let yourself be manipulated by the propaganda”.
Cripes, Ubisoft responded by saying they attempt to be ‘as factually accurate as possible’ but that, in the end, Assassin’s Creed Unity is ‘a video game. Not a history lesson’. Quite.
Suffice to say, there’s every chance that would have never played another Assassin’s Creed if Ubisoft didn’t turn it around quite dramatically. In an unexpected move, they very quickly announced the follow-up, Assassin’s Creed Victory, and that is was to be set in London. Very early on, that’s all we knew for a while. It wasn’t until a trailer finally dropped that Assassin’s Creed Syndicate came to be. This was Ubisoft’s make or break title. If this one has a bad of a launch as Unity did, it could well be game over for the Creed. So, with that in mind…how is it?
It’s bloody great.
I’m so damn deliriously happy that Assassin’s Creed is back on form. After the misery that was Assassin’s Creed III, the brilliance of Black Flag and the disastrous Unity, the pattern was emerging that this should be a brilliant adventure, along the lines of the series’ heights of Brotherhood. It’s joyous and frustrating, with the typical AC niggles that we all seem to just grin and bear because there’s nothing else we can really do now. You are either in or out with the series. If you’ve been burned too hard by III or Unity this may not do enough differently to draw you back in, but what it does do is please the long term fans (ie, me) by giving the characters a real purpose again.
I wanna start with Evie. Booting up Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, there was a somewhat exciting feeling that rushed over me. Having listened to well, everyone regarding Unity and avoiding it like a ex-prisoner who broke parole avoids Javert, I was ready for my fix of jumping recklessly into stacks of leaves and miraculously surviving all over again. I had missed the thrill and the joy of a new Assassin’s Creed, something I hadn’t felt since I first booted up the joyous Black Flag way back when I had my heroic Xbox 360.
The incessant positivity I had found Syndicate drowning in was put to my own personal rigour when I played Syndicate for the first in September at EGX in Birmingham. Granted, I only had around ten minutes with the game but in that time I had played through a level and though I didn’t have time to make it through to the end, I knew in my heart that this brand new story set in the glorious Victorian days of London town was going to reignite my interest in the flagging franchise. Not a single thing seemed out of place. Eagle vision was still working as well as it always had, the game looked astonishing on their flatscreen preview televisions and tearing it up and down walls and using the brand new line launcher to get around felt freeing and exciting. There was one thing though that peaked my curiosity more than anything. That was Evie.
In the small section I played, you take control of a female assassin known as Evie Frye, twin sister of male protagonist Jacob. Evie felt light, nimble, fresh. She had the same abilities as any other Assassin we’ve played as, something though made her a lot more accessible. Like a cross between Lara Croft and Catwoman. Her movements felt precise and I felt like I could move her around a lot more swiftly (something which since playing the game at home I feel like it was all in my head as Jacob and Evie more or less move the same). Evie as a character was curious. Would a dual team Assassin’s game work? Can it really be pulled off? How much game time will I get with Evie in comparison to her male counterpart? All my fears were put to rest once Assassin’s Creed Syndicate dropped through our letter box and I got to play it for myself.
So what makes her so interesting? That you can switch between the two at any time – outside of the missions, you’re locked to playing as a certain twin for particular missions – makes you notice the difference in the missions they are assigned. Out of the two, Evie feels more like the Assassin we’re used to in the franchise. Her missions are primarily stealth, sneaking around London without being detected, cutting down fools who are dumb enough to get in her way. She’s the one who takes the business of being an Assassin a little more seriously than Jacob. Evie plays her cards closer to the order and legacy of her father, being fascinated by the artifacts collected by a certain enemy that used to belong to a certain Pirate Assassin. Her interest in the history of the Creed connects her to the earlier stories, whilst Jacob is far more gun-ho in his approach and is all about taking down the Templars that run amok in 19th Century London building up his own army, known as the Rooks.
Then there’s the fact that Evie is well, an absolute badass. It’s pretty clear she wears the trousers in this brother and sister crime-fighting duo. Whilst Jacob is running around causing all kids of hell Evie will kick ass his into place, reminding him of the mission at hand, which is always hilarious. They fight for the same cause but do it in very different ways, which makes the duo work and utilise their individual skills well. Evie’s skills are fully stealth, allowing her to even disappear whilst in sneak mode, which is delightfully handy. To aid her in her sneaky sneaky skills is the fact she can carry more throwing knives than Jacob, with her individual upgrades connected to stealth over power. She’s the Assassin’s you want on your side sneaking through Westminster Abbey picking locks and climbing Big Ben – which, FYI, gave me a serious case of vertigo the first time I ascended the famous bell. I felt like I was doing it -.
The differences between the two are more noticeable the more you further you get in the game, and benefits it as a whole having two characters you can use. If you want the genuine Assassin’s Creed experience though, you’re going to want Evie under your control.
The next point is just how likeable Evie is – and Jacob, to an extent. Evie is sweet but serious when necessary. She can liberate the poor by brutally murdering Blighters and Templars one minute, then chase down a thief and help pick up the papers someone has dropped by bumping into her the next. She’s certainly got the older head on her shoulders, despite being the same age as Jacob (because they’re TWINS), she’s bossy and deriding all the way under the mission to fulfill the oath she took when she became a part of the order. She’s overtly friendly, helpful to anyone who needs it and believes in ghosts – which is just awesome. Evie is flirty (look out for the tensions building between herself and Alexander Graham Bell. Ding dong) and is fully aware of her fantastic abilities. The instant chemistry between Evie and Jacob is vastly evident, with the banter between them being very relatable to someone who has siblings they’re stuck with but love anyway. Evie has the brains and the brawn whilst Jacob just has the brawn. Their conversations can range from angry to hysterical in equal measure and it’s a joy to watch, seemingly because it just reminds me of my relationship with my sisters. Evie would be a great sister, even if she could kill me in a split millisecond without me even noticing before it’s too late and I’ve already been looted and thrown in the Thames.
What’s so striking about this version of Assassin’s Creed is that, it’s almost as if the developers started all over again. It felt almost as if this is the first Assassin’s game I’ve played. After the public horror show that was Unity, Ubisoft had panic stations going like wildfire and almost immediately announced Syndicate right over the horrific Unity launch (which was then known as Assassin’s Creed Victory). We knew it was going to be set in London and that was almost an instantaneous improvement on what the fans were currently having to put up with through Unity. The possibilities were mind-boggling.
I can defiantly say something about Syndicate that I haven’t said about an Assassin’s Creed game in a long while. More so than even Black Flag, the game has consumed me. Whenever I had a spare 20 minutes I would jump into the game and tackle a Templar post, a Gang Stronghold or a Bounty Hunt. I’d leave the missions until I had the proper time to delve into them, instead focusing on the magnitude of side quests which are available, in order to bring about some kind of peace within our great Capital. I’ve ziplined absolutely everywhere and jumped off Big Ben more times than I could realistically survive but what the hell, it’s really good fun. Jacob and Evie are what makes you stay, but dammit if the Syndicate gameplay doesn’t just keep you intrigued just that little bit more than it has done in the recent past. Assassin’s Creed has got hold of me again, after remembering that tearing through classic historical moments as freakin’ Assassin is actually a brilliant idea for a game – education / stabbing motherfuckers – I jumped into Syndicate with both feet and I’m so glad I did. The fact is Assassin’s Creed has become yearly popcorn entertainment, akin to Call of Duty but with a cohesive narrative (kinda).
Every year we take control of a guy (or a girl. Or in this case, a guy and a girl) in a different period of historical upheaval who have to take over factions to reclaim a land taken over by ne’er do wells who know of nothing better. From the very beginning, that’s the Creed mantra and well, that ain’t ever gon’ change. Ubisoft found themselves with a game that was unexpectedly brilliant and successful, with its sequel being even better. And so, much like Michael Bay doing all but shooting Optimus Prime in the head before our childhood selves we get yet another iteration of that story with new characters in a new location that has a big bad that needs to be offed for the good of the poor. Smashing. 33% of time it’s awesome (I, II, Brotherhood), 33% it’s piss (Revelations, III, Unity), 33% it’s downright tremendous (Black Flag), so where does Syndicate lie? They say a good story is only as good as its villain and well, that just isn’t the case here. Syndicate falls in that first 33%, standing alongside them honourably. It’s a shame the villain is such a twad of nothingness.
The Templars, the primary antagonists in the entire AC legacy are reduced to gang dwelling jokes of themselves in Syndicate. Their head – your main source of evilness that you must crush with your bare hands save London become a cesspit of monstrous Templars chanting and smoking and whatever it is that Templars do together that isn’t getting stabbed by men and women in cloaks – is rubbish. He’s one hair short of just becoming a moustache twirling Scooby Doo villain. Their desire is power and very little else. Their lack of range is now getting a little comical, and here they are just portrayed as bullies, rather than a secret society of Mason-esque critical thinkers. Perhaps I’m missing something in the timeline but I don’t remember the Templars being this weak and unevolved. There is very little here that makes me think they have anything really to offer the series anymore, and perhaps it’s time Ubi moved on and created a villain worthy of the series.
There’s the owners of the factories, for example. They have names, they have nothing else about them. On the aforementioned sidequests it’s up to you to go and rip their necks apart for employing children and abusing them. He’s your target. Reason enough to kill him? Perhaps, but that’s all you get. He’s just a bad guy and those above you want him dead so it’s up to you to take him out. More or less every single one plays out this way and you’re left wondering why on earth you’re going to so much trouble purely to take out the trash.
The aforementioned zipline launcher (line launcher, shall we say) is a welcome addition to the madness of proceedings. Ripped directly from the Arkham series – but not quite as good as the Caped Crusader’s, so you think it’s not a huge ripoff – the launcher allows our Assassin twins to tear it up and across rooftops and buildings and monuments and pretty much anything it can connect to. It’s brilliantly useful when wanting to get away from folks who’d rather you didn’t disappear up a building in a few seconds, and it’s certainly added some much needed speed to the overall gameplay, even if it is still just as fun to tear it across rooftops with your bare hands. The line launcher becomes very handy very quickly and eventually becomes an essential item in your arsenal. It’s a wonder – in an adventure series which has already gone on as long as this one – it’s taken so long to see something like it. Be thankful it’s here now. Creative wiggle room for the win! Kind of. For this series, at least.
Assassin’s Creed does one thing very well, mixing historical accuracy with archaic fantasy. Not only are we master Assassins that can climb a house in a single bound and kill anyone without a second glance, we’re also tourists walking through these gorgeously rendered cities from yesteryear, giving us a look at these worlds Ubisoft are capable of creating and fill them with living breathing citizens who all have lives to lead themselves. One minute you can be tearing it through Westminster Abbey hearing the cats scoff about how much money a former partner didn’t make this year, the next you’re under the bridges of the Thames strolling past a homeless mother and her two children, sat on the cold floor next to the famous river, huddling in as tight as they can to keep warm. You see the reality of 19th Century London town, whilst you’re throwing electrical smoke bombs in Blighters faces. Syndicate wants to be everything all at once and for the most part, it succeeds. Early on we see modern day London (all in cut-scenes, we never go hands on in 2015) and it looks amazing, then we walk the streets of Whitechapel and it looks even better. It’s the very best looking Creed game since well, Black Flag but looks have never really been an issue for the series, which is able to get the best out each system it found itself upon.
Syndicate is unified. At least, it’s as close as the vision has ever come to. Was this iteration of Creed going to be more focused on the tragedy of 1800’s London? Would it focus on the heavy dreams of those who slept on its streets? Perhaps that was too much to ask, we know now that whilst it’s really fun to meet Charles Dickens, Florence Nightingale, Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell and more and it’s fun to be pally with these historical figures that forged the world we know it today, Syndicate again doesn’t dare to tread deeper into how complex it was for the town to get there. How difficult and unrelenting the struggle really was for the poor of the city. You see the downtrodden everywhere but you never get to know their stories. You use the orphaned children as a network of thievery rather than truly caring for them or being made aware of their plight. It’s Oliver Twist rather than a heartbreaking workforce. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing to an extent, I was surprised to even see children roaming the streets of an 18 rated game when I had to power to slaughter them all mercilessly (turns out you don’t. Not really, they’re quick and small enough to dodge oncoming carriages. NOT THAT I TRIED), you just wish you could fall that little bit harder. The game assumes you know all about how monumentally crap it was for the poor growing up in an age when nobody gave a shit about you and quite literally let you die in the streets while the rich got richer. Huh, maybe we should have known after all. Still, you are the hero that London needs. Forget about the wickedness of the 19th Century, get on with killing fools and save them all. Because why? Just because my friend. Just because.
The side quests are all good fun, save the sodding Bounty Hunting. Oh lord, the Bounty Hunts.
Bounty Hunting in Syndicate required sneaking into a Templar fortress and removing the leader from the area by way of a kidnapping. Now, written down it’s simple enough, right? Sure.
Then you enter that ‘restricted area’ and suddenly, Bounty Hunt’s become an absolute chore of the most incremental degree. You’re tasked with moving into this area and removing a particular individual (normally a Templar leader) without the awareness of the Blighter presence surrounding you. Now, it’s not easy on whatever level you do it on. What I have found, which is delightful is that if your target notices you he’ll just run away and set all the Blighters on you almost immediately. Regardless of where they are they’ll swarm on you, so you’ve got to run after your target whilst being chased by Blighters. Thus, you need to tackle your target to the ground and then start taking down the Blighters one at a time. What really helps? Once your target is tackled he/she will just stand there and wait for you to kill every redcoat heading your way. Yes. At no point once tackled do they get up and try and make a run for it. This indeed makes the whole process significantly easier, but it’s bullshit in the sense that well, why are they just standing there? It doesn’t make any sense and whilst it’s good for the fact that you have to keep them alive in order to get full sync on the mission, it’s all just a bit off. I found this out further down the line whilst I was doing the Level 7 plus Bounty Hunts. Before that I was super stealth and taking my time over them, and they were a pain in the ass. It got to a point that once I levelled up my Rooks I would have them distract the Blighters whilst I chased down the target. It’s pretty much working every time, and yes it’s a technique I recommend to get through it as quickly as possible. The really boring aspect comes when you have to walk with your captured target to a carriage. You can’t go any faster than walking pace and as such, if you’re nowhere near an open carriage you can find yourself walking very far indeed, very slowly. Even if you accidently kill your target they need to be dragged to a carriage and then delivered. Ugh. I’m a big fan of the side quests in Syndicate (liberating children from slave labour is always fun, you feel so heroic), the Bounty Hunts, no matter how many times my technique works for me, will always feel labourious, dull and make a huge dent in the pacing of the game as a whole. Across the breadth of London each side quest such as the Child Liberation of Templar Hunts are in alleyways, houses, torn down areas (particularly the Gang Strongholds) and are all designed individually so each one gives you the option to use different vantage points and different stealth techniques.
So on the whole, yes. I’m having a storming time with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. It feels like an apology directly from Ubisoft after the absolute stone cold trainwreck that was Unity. It’s improved upon that game in almost every single area and Ubi must be commended for taking the time to actually create a living breathing version of London that really bloody feels like you’re there. Yes I definitely encountered the odd bug here and there (people walking through walls, someone walking into the Thames and back again. Then doing it again) and the ever-present Creed gameplay annoyances (NO I DIDN’T WANT TO JUMP THERE, I WANTED TO JUMP THERE!) are still here, and naturally probably won’t ever go away no matter how much we wish death upon them in the hopes that in the inevitable next entry will finally let us control the parkour movement and not have it guessed for us. There were times where the clingy-ness of the Assassin’s had me fail missions because they just wouldn’t move down when I wanted them to, instead opting to go left and as such, desynchronising for whatever reason. It’s a huge pain in the ass and the series has always been guilty of providing glorious, beautiful moments with serious polish, without really thinking about the nitty-gritty of actually moving your characters in a direct, obvious way. I’m splitting hairs though, Syndicate gets so much more right than it does wrong and thank goodness. Two complete technical catastrophes in a row could have seen the end of this franchise for good. Fortunately for Ubisoft the car managed to stay on the road, even if it can be a bumpy ride at times.
It’s goofy. It’s ludicrous and it’s also terrific. Throwing people off the top of trains in Victorian London has never been this much fun. Good lord do they try to create poignancy in a game series that just cannot do them as well as they think the can. You’re hero, not the messiah. You don’t have to think about the implications of child labour or the crippling poor, you just have to kick the ass of those whole bring ill to those less fortunate and be paraded as a legend of the industrial age. It’s a wonderful setting for Assassin’s Creed to go to, in an era where so many important aspects of our lives that we take for granted now began. How meeting Florence Nightingale after sharing jokes with Charles Darwin can teach you in touch with a sense that once these historical figures we all learned about at school were just people like us, walking the streets of London with a dream and the hope that those around them with lesser minds would take to their crazy new contraptions and ideas. The entertainment comes from literally running into Charles Dickens, sharing creative moments with Alexander Graham Bell and so many others.
It’s a perfect era to face corruption and to get completely lost in. To enjoy the novelty of exploring this truly beautiful recreation of London and enjoy recognising landmarks and wonder those moments when you walked past them in real life and now being able to walk them in 1865. It’s fascinating, astonishingly recreated and a time that deserved a revisit from us lot here in the modern day, greedily enjoying the fruits of the labour of that era from the pioneers you get to rub shoulders with.
Evidently, Ubisoft felt the same and such, this is why we have Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.
Look out for our full review coming soon to PSGamer and our YouTube Channel.