Week 2 of the #52Games52Weeks Challenge sees Sean tackle Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.
Game: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
Developer: Ubisoft Quebec
I think I was probably one of the few people who were sad to hear the rumour that the Assassin’s Creed series would be taking a yearlong “hiatus” in 2016 in order to reboot the series as a “Witcher” type game. I’ve come to love my yearly dose of Assassin’s Creed, wart’s ‘n’ all. It’s like a cosy blanket of familiarity I can swan dive into whenever I have a spare hour or so. I know exactly what I’m getting – a free running, knife throwing, gun firing, a little glitch and occasionally pretty adventure in a historical setting. I spent months with Black Flag, sailing, pirating and treasure hunting and, eventually, unlocked the Platinum trophy. Even Unity, which I played after the vast majority of the bugs had been fixed, kept me occupied for weeks. I unlocked the Platinum trophy for that too. And so comes Syndicate. The latest (and probably last) familiar Assassin’s Creed game set in my own capital city – and it’s bloody brilliant.
It’s always the little things that impress me with Assassin’s Creed games and Syndicate is full of them. An example – I’d just slaughtered a group of Templars in Green Park and decided to take a stroll, y’know, like you do after committing mass murder. I walked by a Band Stand and there, on the stage in the middle of a park, is a band.
They are playing some bombastic tune to a gathering crowd of NPC onlookers, one of whom looks to have had a bit too much to drink. I had zipped by this band stand twice before but hadn’t stopped – I had Templars to kill – but this time, I stood and took it all in. It probably took days, maybe weeks of work to add this band stand and it’s band to the game – the character models, the programming, recording the band playing, etc, etc – and it was so easy to run by and miss, but for those that stopped, it was there. A band playing on a band stand. A free gig for passers-by. Something that was popular in Victorian Era Britain. Walk a few paces passed the band stand is a group of children playing “Tag” and a little further off in the distance is a boy playing “Wallie” – both quintessentially British pastimes for children of the time period. With so many moving parts, the NPC’s can and invariably do end up doing something insane or physics defying in Assassin’s Creed games – but when they all work, the culmination of these world building snippets give the impression of a living, breathing world to explore. It has always impressed me how Ubisoft spend so much time and effort adding the flesh to the bones and Syndicate is the best example to date.
The little things aside, Syndicate is the first Assassin’s Creed since Brotherhood to get the bigger, more important things right too.
Let’s start with the main improvement in Syndicate compared to Assassins Creed III, Black Flag and Unity – the Characters. Jacob and Evie. The Assassin twins pack in more personality and personal development into their game than Edward Kenway and Arno Dorian did combined, predominantly because they go through this blood soaked journey together, bouncing off of one another. They’re complimenting and contrasting sides of a brother-sister relationship that will be familiar to many who grew up with siblings who you were often at odds with. At the start of the game, Evie is trying desperately to be the textbook Assassin – stealthy, patient, focused – like he father would have wanted while Jacob is a brash, foolhardy good-time boy who’s belief in the Assassin’s Creed seems only skin (and training) deep. They bicker and bitch at each other like only a brother and sister can. It’s a fun dynamic that runs much deeper than the surface gags and jabs at each other suggest.
They both take intertwining but distinctly different arcs through Syndicate. Jacob, determined to rid London of the Templars and the villainous gang of Blighters in the only way he knows how, raises his own gang of Rooks and cuts a bloody swathe through the city paying no mind to the consequences of his actions. He’s reckless, bolting into action, accidentally helping a Templar get rid of her omnibus competition, almost causing the Bank of England to collapse and, because of his over-confidence, biting off more than he can chew with Maxwell Roth and costing the life of a lot of innocent people in the process. Everything about Jacob is rushed and off the cuff. Even the way he talks to many of the supporting cast of characters, swinging into their carriages to impart a few flirty one-liners before springing out to kill more people, is imprudent.
Evie’s plot is more complex and I agree with Ross with his estimation that she is the more important thing in Syndicate, but for different reasons. Evie is a dedicated Assassin and she is as determined to removing the Templars from London as Jacob is but she sees the bigger picture. That bigger picture is the Shroud. The Piece of Eden. In between cleaning up the messes that her brother makes, Evie focuses on finding the Shroud before the Templars do, working with the well-meaning but out-of-his-depth Mr Green. It’s here that Evie’s story becomes my favourite Assassin’s Creed Story to date. Evie doesn’t need a man’s help to get the job done. She’s a total bad ass. When Henry Green pulls some chivalrous heroics and gets himself kidnapped, she tells him in no uncertain terms that she doesn’t need his help. “Your place is not in the field” she states remembering what her father taught her about relationships, that they are a distraction. The men in her life – Henry Green and Jacob – are becoming more of a hindrance than a help and she decides to go it alone. It’s here that the change in all the main characters becomes most apparent – The women of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate don’t need any help and the Men of this game are beginning to understand that – a theme prudent to Victorian era Britain. Some of you might read that and think “Great, it’s Feminist propaganda”, but this aspect isn’t shoehorned in like it so often is in vidyagames. It’s natural. It flows. Evie is more than capable of looking after herself – she is a highly skilled killing machine – and she doesn’t need her would-be love interest trying to be gallant and getting himself killed. She plays against the masculinity that is so prevalent in almost every other Assassin’s Creed game to become the most likable, most caring but also, most deadly and most self-assured character in the game. The James Bond-esque dance with Starrick towards the end of the game, when she comes face to face with her Templar nemesis and he totally underestimates her, is perfect. Everything is on her terms and it was wonderful to play as a strong, independent female character that felt natural (to my white, straight, CIS mentality), rather than forced into the game to appeal to a certain demographic.
At the end of the game, having killed Starrick and his cast of colourful cronies and recovered the Shroud, we find a very different set of twin Assassins. Evie, taking a leaf out of Jacobs book and letting go a little, allowed herself to fall in love with Henry Green – not because she needed him but because she wanted him. And Jacob. Jacob had learnt the value of patience, even turning down the offer of wearing the Shroud. He seems to accept that being part of the Assassin’s isn’t all about killing but about doing it in the right way for the right reasons and that it’s the use of their power that differentiates the Assassins and the Templars – an odd lesson to learn but one that he acknowledges during his time with Maxwell Roth.
To say I liked the characters and setting of Syndicate would be an understatement. I’ve loved my week with Jacob, Evie, Henry and even Starrick (who I believe grew into a decent, cold and driven villain) and apart from a few moments of bland game play – the final battle being the biggest of them – Syndicate would have replaced Brotherhood as my favourite Assassin’s Creed game. The trains, playing Frogger across the Thames, The grappling hook, WWI and Lydia Frye, Churchill, the revamped and brutal combat finishers, flirting with Graham Bell – there was just so many positives in Syndicate that for the first time since Ezio, I feel like I want to see more of these characters in this type of a setting. It’s a shame that the rumours of the next game heading to Ancient Egypt make it unlikely that we will see the deadly twins in anything other than DLC. A real shame.
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