The Assassin’s Creed series took the video game world by storm when it released back in 2007. For people like me, the idea and gameplay was so new and different that it was impossible not to get hooked. Joining Altair on his quest for redemption was one of the most exciting tales I’ve ever taken part in. Desmond’s exclamatory question at the end of the game (“Is…is that written in…blood?” [Or something to that extent, I’m writing from memory]) only left you wanting more. Then Assassin’s Creed 2 picked up right where the first one left off, only this time you joined the beloved Ezio Auditore. This game made the story even better than the first one (in fact, this may be my second favorite story in video games, second only to the Kingdom Hearts tale[shout out to my PlayStation friends]), and the franchise only grew in popularity. The next two titles, Brotherhood and Revelations, continued Ezio’s tale, sealing him as the primary face of the franchise. In my opinion, however, the third and fourth installments also saw a decrease in overall quality. The story became more complicated, controls grew overly complex, and certain elements were added that just made the games feel muddy (like the tower defense element). While the games remained incredibly fun and engaging, the next several installments continued this downward trend in quality (with the potential exception of Black Flag) So where does the 2015 release of Syndicate stand in this line? I’ve identified several categories that I think contribute to the quality of an Assassin’s Creed game: the world, the character(s), combat/controls, quests, and story. I will intentionally leave the story component short and at the end so that those who haven’t played the game can read and avoid spoilers. In general, though, I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum.
As you know, Syndicate takes place in an industrialized London in the 19th century. Having never been to London, I do not know how the map and locations correspond to the London we all know. But of note is the fact that you do not venture outside of London. Sure there are a couple missions where you travel elsewhere, but otherwise there are not different regions or cities that you travel to. This is a step away from the other Assassin Creed games. To my memory, every other game has different regions you can travel to with different types of people and quests in each region. To be fair, there are different boroughs within London that have slightly different feels to them, but there aren’t significant differences between them. This is not to say that Syndicate’s map is small; to run from one corner of the map to the other would take an incredibly long time and would be quite boring. In other words, the lack of different regions does not detract from the game at all. If anything, it provides a sense of continuity. This primarily has importance for the way one travels throughout the region.
Travel “issues” are present in every large open-world game. As is standard with any Assassin’s Creed game, throughout the city there are viewpoints that you can “synchronize” with to view various elements of the map, but these also provide you fast travel capabilities. There are enough viewpoints where you feel like every part of the map is accessible through fast travel but few enough where you still have to travel a decent distance to reach most quests and items. The main ways to accomplish this are running on foot, hopping on a carriage, and running on rooftops. The first is pretty self-explanatory, but the second is a new feature. London is filled to the brim with carriages, and you are capable of stealing or hijacking any carriage you see. There are big ones that can cause mayhem and small ones that offer speed and tight turning radiuses. The carriages were a fun addition to the game and were by far the quickest method of transportation outside of fast travel. The way the carriages function too is hilarious. Video games have a history of getting horse dynamics wrong (for example see this hilarious clip ), and this game is no exception. The horses act more like battering rams than live animals. You can hit another carriage head on at full speed, and nothing happens to the horses. They just stand there waiting to be led to another collision. It’s great. A quick note on roof top jumping is also in order. The middle Assassin’s Creed games put you in worlds where jumping rooftop to rooftop was not much of an option, and if it was it was certainly short lived. This was a shame because that was one of my favorite parts. This game reintroduces endless rows of buildings, and they even give you a zip line fairly early in the game to scale tall buildings quickly and span gaps too large to jump between. In other words, whether going for the scenic route, the quick route, or the over-the-top route, travel isn’t an issue in this game.
One final aspect of the world to mention is the presence of enemies. At the beginning of the game, getting into a fight is no problem at all. Turn one corner and there’s bound to be a few bad guys who need to be taught a lesson. As the game goes on and you assert more influence on the world, however, fights are harder to come by. Regardless, fights typically only entailed a handful of enemies at any given time, and the mass slaughters of earlier games is non-existent. I see this as a negative, because it makes roaming the world less satisfactory. If I didn’t have a goal in mind when I was walking the streets, I would probably be bored, whereas in earlier games there was always another fight just around the corner. There are “crowd events” that randomly pop up where you have to kill criminals, tackle thieves, or kill messengers, but these only add so much entertainment.
Overall World Grade: B+
Syndicate follows the story of two Assassin twins named Jacob and Evie Frye. Throughout the game you can switch between the two, with Jacob being a better outright fighter and Evie being a stealth specialist. Both have basically the same skills and weapons available to them, but there are unique skills and gear that are unique to each character and their approach to life. For example, Jacob is able to unlock a skill that grants him significantly more health, but Evie is able to unlock a skill that makes her invisible to all but the closest eyes. That said, you can approach the game in whatever way you fancy with either character, and the distinction between them seems somewhat arbitrary. Personally, I found myself more attracted to Evie as a character. Her Assassin’s philosophy, greater ability for stealth, and genuine care for others matched more with my personality than Jacob’s, and I found myself playing her whenever I could. That said, certain missions require you to play as one character or another, so you spend plenty of time playing as both.
The story of the game (minor spoilers here) revolves around the twins’ gradual distancing from each other as they approach the world in the way that they deem best. By the end of the game, you’re supposed to feel a tension between the characters, but this was lacking for me. Perhaps it’s because I took significant amount of time between story missions or because I only played a couple of hours at a time, but this tension I was supposed to feel was never that strong. This made a pretty significant impact on the way the end of the game felt. Additionally, while there was certainly some character development as time went along, it was generally a weak development. All of the development seemed to occur in the last mission or two, which leaves Jacob and Evie feeling like rather static characters by the end. This is quite different from the feelings I got from Altair and Ezio when I was playing their stories.
Several other characters make their mark on the game and are worth mentioning. First, several key historic figures (Darwin, Marx, Bell, Dickens) are present in the game, but their presence is more of a tip to the historical circumstances than any contribution to the development of the game as a hole. Second, there are a number of associates you meet and deal with throughout the game, but again, there presence is minimal. Finally, a word on the enemy characters. The portrayal of the main enemy Templar (Crawford Starrick) and his associates was fantastic. The brief cut scenes showing their reactions to your actions or even their off-screen actions that prompted Jacob and Evie to move presented the Templars as they are meant to be: almost always one step ahead, and if not, fantastic strategists when the plan goes awry. Starrick is probably my favorite Templar to date (though Haytham may still win that battle).
Overall Characters Grade: C+
Outside of its concept and story, the combat in Assassin’s Creed is one of its most distinguishing factors. Who could forget countering 1000 attacks in a row to leave a mass of bodies in your wake in the first couple games? The sheer power you exerted made stealth seem pretty unnecessary though. The middle games tried to address this problem, but your fighting prowess still seemed pretty overpowered. I think Syndicate addressed this problem and created a system where sheer combat dominance is possible, but only near the end of the game. Perhaps the most significant reason for this was reducing the power of the counter attack. Counter attacks were instant kills in earlier games, but now the counter may not even do a quarter of the damage necessary to kill an enemy. Once you’re stronger it can, but you can’t simply rely on that aspect of fighting anymore. Another aspect of fighting that made it more challenging is the fact that some enemies throw up a defensive stance. If you attack them while in this stance, your attack will do nothing and they will hit back. You have to use a special guard break in order to hit them. But as you’re doing that, someone else may pull out their pistol and try to shoot you. Now you have to hit a certain button to dodge the bullet or shoot them back first. You decide to go for that kill but now the first person is swinging again and you have to counter. In small encounters, getting the nuances right is no problem. In bigger fights, however, keeping track of everything can be difficult. Add to this the fact that enemies have varying degrees of competence and the fact that you have to increase your skills and equipment to compete with them, and you have a combat system that is simultaneously challenging and satisfying. If you pick a fight with a group of level 9s while you are still level 5, you will most likely die. Leveling skills and upgrading equipment is a must, which is a great improvement from other games. This system also made it imperative to stealth kill as many individuals as possible, providing stealth an important place in the game once again.
In general, the control are pretty similar to previous installments of the game. The “free run” trigger now has a dual option of being able to free run up or down. This was meant to provide more control over where you went so you did not randomly jump off a 50 foot building, but it honestly made the free run process more annoying. Other than that, the rest of the controls are almost the exact same, which in this case I think is a good thing.
Overall Controls/Combat Grade: A
Here I want to mention briefly my impression on some of the side quests (usually given by the historical figures mentioned above). Most of these missions were good breaks from the rest of the game and had something to do with the figure’s historical career. So you may help preserve Darwin’s reputation or quell a rebellion against Marx or help establish cable lines for Bell. That said, some did not add much to the game and felt more like nuisances than a fun side project. Still, the majority were entertaining. There is a long side quest that places you in the World War I era, but by the time I got to that point, I did not feel like continuing.
Overall Quests Grade: B+
Here I could analyze each aspect of the story and give my comments on them, but I think this review has gone on long enough and merely want to provide my overall impressions of the story. (Potential spoilers obviously) What I liked most about this game was the decrease in reference to any occurrences in the present day world. Sure, the main premise of the game is still that you’re an Assassin initiate tapping into your ancestor’s memories to locate a Piece of Eden, but I think there were a total of four or five cut-scenes about this (and most were short). So I didn’t feel like I was trying to keep up with two stories at once, and I didn’t feel bogged down by all of the Precursor nonsense. Instead, it felt like I was trying to liberate London from Templar control and that was it. And that felt great.
As I already mentioned, the character development was pretty minimal, and this did greatly detract from the story’s portrayal. But the story itself was just fine. From the very beginning there was a clear goal set in place, and it usually wasn’t hard to see how what you were doing got you to that point. So you didn’t feel the sense of shock and betrayal like you did in earlier games, but you also didn’t get confused by what the real objective was either. It wasn’t overly compelling, but it was a solid story.
Overall Story Grade: B
Syndicate didn’t change the video game world like the first couple Assassin’s Creeds did, but it also didn’t fall into some of the pitfalls that the middle games fell into. This was a great game that was fun to sit down and play. I would certainly recommend it to any Assassin’s Creed fans, but it also can serve as a decent entry point for those who haven’t played the first several games. You can spend a lot of time in the game finding all of the secrets, or you can play it for its elements and story. Both are available to you. Obviously there is much I left unsaid about the game that I could have talked about, but hopefully this gives a starting place to think of how you rank the game. My overall grade of the game is a solid B+, making it third in my list of Assassin’s Creed games, but first on my list of games release since 2009.
What are your thoughts on the game? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Were there essential elements that I left out? Let me know in the comments below! As always, thanks for reading. Stay average my lads and lasses!