Assassin’s Creed is stuck.
There have been three moments, I’d argue, of significance in the AC series to date. The first is the debut, where the original Assassin’s Creed pretty much created the adventure sandbox genre that has dominated the marketplace alongside shooters for the last decade or so. It was the rise of what is now unaffectionately known as “the Ubisoft game” with vision-granting towers, wide open maps, and endless minigames, sidequests and collectibles. At the time, however, Assassin’s Creed was something of a revolution.
The initial sequel was the second moment, a rare example of a follow-up game improving on what came before it in almost every way. It cemented the idea that Assassin’s Creed was a franchise that was here to stay, with practically limitless potential for growth and improvement.
Black Flag was the third defining moment, as Ubisoft showed they could break the traditional bonds of the series and create fantastic genre games within the framework. Almost by accident, they gave us a bad assassination game, but probably the best pirate game the industry has ever seen.
But now, Assassin’s Creed is stuck.
For two installments now, AC seems like it’s going nowhere. Unity was a technical disaster at launch, which essentially became the game’s legacy, but there was nothing fundamentally unique under the surface once the game did start to work. And now, I’m sad to report, that Syndicate is more of the same (minus the pervasive technical glitches), and is another generic-feeling title in the series. The franchise refuses to move forward, relying on a decaying formula that may placate die-hard fans of the series, but for those wanting a reason to have their passion for Assassin’s Creed reignited, Syndicate will produce no such flame.
We’re now in 19th century London playing as a pair of twins, Jacob and Evie Frye, who remain the major point of difference between this game and all the others before it. The twins are bored, and on a whim decide to sail to the UK on an unsanctioned Assassin mission to rid the city of Templar, as it’s long been a stronghold for their corrupt counterparts. This delights the beleaguered Assassin caretaker of the city, Mr. Green, who spins a yarn about how an industrialist named Crawford Starrick is grinding the city into dust, selling drugs, enslaving children and twirling his impressively villainous handlebar mustache.
Jacob and Evie diverge in their tactics when it comes to taking on Starrick and his employed gang, the Blighters. Jacob immediately starts his own gang, the Rooks, and mostly concentrates on stabbing Templar leaders to death. Meanwhile, Evie focuses on snatching back Pieces of Eden, that old Assassin’s Creed MacGuffin, but she stabs a lot of Templar as well during the process.
The twins are likable leads, and Jacob in particular has a few laugh out loud lines that draw constant eye-rolls from his more serious sister. The two are supposed to diverge in their style of play as well, not just their personalities. You’ll prefer Jacob if you’re done with this whole “stealth assassination” thing that AC has been flirting with ditching for years now. On many of his missions, you’ll kick the door in with a posse of gang members at your back, and murder everyone in the room with your banana blade or brass knuckles. Evie, meanwhile, is the stealthier sibling, and if you want to go back to the golden days where AC was actually about sneaking around and slitting throats, she’s happy to oblige.
You can switch between the siblings most of the time, but some missions are only for one or the other. In practice, their “separation” of styles isn’t really all that separate at all, for the most part. Both twins have the same skill tree, so in the beginning you just sink points into Evie’s stealth and Jacob’s fighting skills because you feel like you’re supposed to. By the middle of the game, you’ll have so many skill points that both siblings will be pretty good at both tactics. Closer to the end, you’ll finally start unlocking sibling-specific perks, like that Evie can turn practically invisible while motionless, or Jacob can take immense amounts of damage. But in a skill tree of a few dozen nodes, the siblings only have two or three unique ones.
The shared tree is a little odd, and really doesn’t do enough to differentiate the two. The twin split feels more like a way to allow players to play as both genders (which is great), but it doesn’t do anything inherently interesting with the concept. I don’t really see the point in trying to split open combat and stealth play between two different characters, as most missions are usually some mix of both. You sneak around to thin the herd as best you can, and something inevitably goes wrong and you fight your way out. When missions play out like this, it really doesn’t matter who you are, as the only difference between the two is a handful of perks. The game doesn’t seem to care much either, throwing Evie into combat-heavy missions or making Jacob be stealthy whenever it feels like it.
With the emphasis on building a gang and taking over territory, Syndicate can feel like Ye Olde Saints Row sometimes. You do one major activity to clear a portion of the map (destroy hideouts, kill leaders, rescue child laborers) and when you do enough in a borough, you and your gang will have a Gangs of New York-style battle royale where both sides charge each other swinging weapons and shooting pistols in a clearing, which is a little more anticlimactic than it sounds, and close to impossible to lose. There are sometimes boss battles attached to these events, but the game gives you an opportunity to kill each boss early when they show up to taunt you about after 80% of the area is cleared. Kill them then, and they won’t be a bigger threat at the final showdown. It’s kind of a weird system, and once I understood it, I just filled every gang leader full of lead when they first started talking trash, and never had to face them again.
The story mission structure is exactly what you’d expect from Assassin’s Creed, to a fault. You kill sub-bosses around the map, all in the pursuit of one grand enemy. Along the way you meet various historical figures from the era who will give you quests that are barely related to their real-life history. This time around, we meet Alexander Graham Bell, Florence Nightingale, Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin and others. This concept has been stretched impossibly thin over the years, as I maybe understood Leonardo Da Vinci supplying Assassins with inventions he did actually attempt to make in real life, but now we’re at the point where I’m running around the city busting up drug rings with the father of the Theory of Evolution. For a series that seems to love history so much, this is getting kind of ridiculous.
The new mission types introduced in Syndicate mostly fall flat. I absolutely hate kidnapping, which requires you to grab a person, wrench their arm behind them, and escort them to a waiting carriage. You’re supposed to keep them alive during this process, but given how easy it is to be spotted by police and rival gang members, you’ll want to just murder everyone around and haul their corpse home, though some story missions don’t let you do this, of course. I encountered one of my most significant glitches when I was trying to escort a criminal into a police station, and once inside…the police beat me senseless for witnessing a kidnapping and I failed.
The other most prominent addition to the game over past entries is the inclusion of carriages, which involve races, chases and the like. Carriages handle about as well as you would expect a horse-drawn carriage might handle in a video game (exceedingly poorly), and the trailer-ready moments of you fighting on top of a carriage aren’t exactly how things work in the game. Most of my carriage chases ended in me either awkwardly falling off as I tried to board a rival vehicle, or doing a drive-by shooting with my revolver to murder the driver next to me. The whole system isn’t as cinematic as it wants to be, and feels clumsy most of the time. Carriages are, however, the fastest way to get around the city besides fast travel, and you’ll need them because London is ridiculously huge.
Traversal in general has changed quite a bit with Syndicate, and I’d argue for the better. The new grappling hook allows you to avoid lengthy up and down climbs, as you can zip straight up to eagle perches, or across buildings from one chimney to another. It makes traversal much, much faster, and you no longer have to spend half the game climbing (though some probably did enjoy what amounted to “climbing puzzles” in past games which essentially no longer exist). It all feels very Arkham-ish, but minus the ability to glide around with a cape, it’s not quite as fluid a system as it is in those games. Freerunning has been refined to the point where I literally never fell off a building or ledge once by accident. Hell, I don’t even think I took any fall damage the whole game. The sticky system of up/down freerunning carried over from Unity has fixed one of the biggest issues with past games, and shouldn’t be messed with any further.
Combat has been simplified substantially, with just a few weapon types and tools, and really only three moves, attack, counter and guard break. Sometimes you’ll get a prompt to dodge bullets, but that’s it. The system is so simple that later in the game, the most efficient way to complete practically any mission is to run straight in, blades flashing and guns blazing. With higher-end upgrades, it’s basically impossible for Jacob especially to die in open combat with solid countering skills. It also helps that enemies no longer have the ability to whistle once and send fifty of their closest friends crashing down on your head. It’s much easier to simply take out pockets of 3-6 enemies without alerting the entire earth to your murderous presence, which is another point in the column for open combat.
It’s certainly more “rewarding” to play stealthily, but if I’m being frank, if I restarted a mission every time I flubbed my silent infiltration, I’d have never beaten the game in time to write this review. I like the stealth circle which shows you enemy positions and alertness levels, but Eagle Vision needs to be toned down a bit. It paints targets so bright, you often have no actual context of whether a person is behind three walls, or is going to spot you across an open space as soon as you turn the corner. This kind of frustration will often lead to “screw it I’m killing everything” moments, and it’s a little lame that there are relatively few penalties for this style of play.
Maybe they don’t want to force players into stealth tactics, but you’re essentially handicapping yourself for no good reason if you try and play some of the tougher missions that way. And this isn’t Deus Ex where you’ll always get a bazillion bonus points for not being seen, so there’s little in-game incentive to play like this outside of the challenge itself and a sprinkling of XP and cash from optional objectives that require stealth kills. But hilariously, even missions that seem to have stealth objectives can be beaten with a bloodbath. For example, I invaded a child slave labor warehouse and was told not to set off any alarms. To do this, I stood under the bell and murdered eight guards in open combat, who all took turns trying to reach the bell with no luck. Mission accomplished?
This is a trend of many missions appearing more complicated than they actually are. In another encounter, I came across a heavily guarded warehouse with a guy inside I need to steal from. I shot one guard in the face, and the guy inside got scared and sprinted so fast to the door he beat all his other henchman. I shot him in the face too, took his stuff, and left. I even completed the “optional” objective because he didn’t make it out of the building. I played quite a few missions like this where these elaborately designed areas could be beaten with a scarce handful of kills and a bullet to the face, even many of the sub-boss assassinations.
I do recommend playing with the optional objectives in mind, as for the most part they do make the missions more engaging outside of the ones I’ve just mentioned. They create more of a challenge because if you ignore them, most missions are almost painfully easy if you throw stealth to the wind and just kill everyone on sight. Past games had pretty steep penalties for going Rambo like that, but here in Syndicate, they’re few and far between except for maybe the absolutely hardest missions near the end.
There’s just no spark of life in Syndicate. Everything is so by the book it feels like it was made in a factory by the child laborers I’m trying to free. They have refined the combat, stealth and traversal systems to a point where they’re as close to perfect as they’re ever going to get, but the actual content of the game itself refuses to evolve. The story is generic “Assassins kill bad guys for alien doo-dads” nonsense the series has had for ages now, and the missions feel like things we’ve done a hundred different times before, the difference being now we’re playing as twins and there are poorly-handling carriages everywhere. The map full of icons to clear and the inventory full of items to craft is a completionist’s dream, but more and more this series feels like it’s for people that find innate joy in 100% clearing open world maps, rather than those who want a game with a great story, amazing action sequences and original ideas.
Black Flag should have been the wake-up call for Assassin’s Creed. After that, Ubisoft should have realized that they could do anything with the concept. Unity should have been a Samurai simulator. Syndicate should have been a Viking game. Instead we’re back to tightly packed cities and crowds for two years running now, like we’ve warped all the way back to the Assassin’s Creed II trilogy. And no matter how pretty the games get and how tight the mechanics are, it never feels fresh anymore.
For a game whose concept allows it to literally go anywhere on earth or in time, Ubisoft seems determined to keep the series stuck in one place as of late. It may be their comfort zone, but it’s becoming decidedly uncomfortable for fans who want the series to evolve. I would say that the pressure to be a yearly franchise is stifling creativity, but looking at Ubisoft’s other games like Far Cry and Watch Dogs, their addiction to the same open world formula is more pervasive than that. Something needs to fundamentally change within their culture, or they will become irrelevant as others press forward with new and interesting ideas instead.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Released: October 23, 2015
Ubisoft provided me with a copy of this game for review.