After last year’s entry Unity was derided for its glitch-laden launch, can a romp through Victorian London help put this much-loved series back where it belongs?
It has been a while but at last I’m back. Firstly you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce by the title of this review that I’m finally in possession of a current gen console meaning I’m no longer woefully behind the times. Anyway enough of this introduction, lets jump to it.
It’s Assassins Creed, But Not As We Know It
I don’t consider myself an AC veteran, but I’m not exactly new to the party, I’ve played to completion AC: IV Black Flag and I’ve watched a great deal of AC 2 gameplay. The point is I’d like to think I know what to expect with the series. So imagine my surprise when I repeatedly came across elements and systems that one would normally find in RPGs, AC is supposed to be action-stealth what is happening? To elaborate, completing actions and missions within Syndicate earns you XP which you then spend on different skills which in turn allow you to level up. Furthermore there’s even a crafting system, with materials to be found in chests spread around the game. Now I won’t lie my first response to this was the rather standard, what is this doing in this sort of game? However as I progressed I became more of a fan of these elements, it gave the game as a whole more depth allowing you to tweak your character’s skills to suit your style. In addition it gave some incentive to do the side missions as they too give XP. Previously this being an element of AC games that many people found tedious and just an example of padding a game. Now I’m not saying it’ll make you want to collect every chest in the game but nonetheless a step in the right direction.
Two Can Play At That Game
In a first for the series, there is now two playable characters (there’s actually a third but I won’t spoil that here). Throughout the game you follow twin brother and sister Jacob and Evie Frye. Yes you read that correctly an AC game with a female protagonist. Now this is a bigger step forward than it seems, players have often wanted a female assassin and Ubisoft have seemingly dodged the issue. They then made things a hundred times worse by saying the reason there was no female protagonist in Unity, was that female characters are too complex to animate and implement in the game. This response wasn’t met well with many experts pointing out that what Ubisoft said wasn’t strictly true as any female character would likely share animations with their male counterpart. Anyway learning the error of their ways Ubisoft created Evie, however they haven’t wholly solved the problem. While one can explore the overworld as whichever character they like, however when it comes to story missions in only around a quarter of them can you actually play as Evie in the rest you have to play as Jacob. While this is a step forward of sorts, I feel Ubisoft rather missed a trick by underusing Evie as she is one of the better AC protagonists of recent years. In many of the games the protagonist is driven by an immensely clichéd idea, such as the Batman-esque ‘avenging the death of their family’ seen in AC 2 and Unity. Or even Edward Kenway in Black Flag whose core motivation is seemingly money. Jacob seemingly does fall into this trap as he is seemingly motivated by the death of his father, a fact which the game feels it must remind us every 5 minutes. Whereas Evie possesses a touch more depth being presented as an academic of sorts who still wishes to stop the Templars but with a more measured approached compared to her more reckless brother. The game very much acknowledges this fact, which Jacob being more geared to combat, while Evie is more stealthy, it goes as to far as to limit some of the later available skills to just one of the characters. In an ideal world it would have been nice to give the player complete freedom on how to set up and upgrade each character, but at the very least it means there are two styles of approach to master.
London Bridge is Burning Down
As previously mentioned this entry in the series takes place in London in the mid to late 1800s, otherwise known as the Victorian era. Now this could be down to a combination of my love of this time period and it being my first experience of current gen graphics. But as cliché as it sounds it felt like Ubisoft had created a city that truly felt alive and busy, the streets packed with people and horse drawn carriages. The attention to detail is somewhat breath-taking, I was taken aback while scaling Big Ben at just how accurate it seemed. A staple of the AC series that returns in Syndicate is the presence of virtual versions of real life figures. However instead of them acting as the villain of the story, the likes of Charles Dickens and Karl Marx are there just to give side missions, although Queen Victorian and others do appear in the story itself. There is actually a reason for this, Ubisoft explained they were reluctant to place a real life figure as the villain as the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these figures are still alive today and did not wish to cause offence. Thus in their place the villain is played by the entirely fictional Templar, Crawford Starrick. The quality of the world was another motivating factor in my desire to actually go and explore and complete side missions in much the way Black Flag did. The size and scale of Victorian London compared to previously explored areas in AC led Ubisoft to introduce a new item and mechanic into the game, a rope launcher. In essence a grappling hook that also acts as a zip line allowing you to quickly scale up and across buildings and reach your targets. Now when this concept was first revealed many people weren’t happy, arguing that the parkour and climbing was a core part of the AC series which was being removed. This is a perfectly valid argument and in some ways I agree with it. But when you actually start playing you realise it was a very necessary inclusion, due to the scale of the landscape. It gets to a point that if you deliberately attempt to get from A to B by climbing manually it would take so long that you’d get bored and the flow of the game would be gone. In short this inclusion hasn’t ruined a key part of the game as many feared it would, there are still countless opportunities to climb and it’s still very enjoyable.
Tell Me A Story
After this many entries in the series I think it’s safe to assume you aren’t playing AC for its story. They are broadly similar, you’re target is a senior Templar but you must get through their lieutenants first. Within that will be a sub-plot involving the mythical Pieces of Eden. In addition you have the modern day elements, there is a general consensus that these have always been a weak element since the end of the Desmond Myles arc in AC. Syndicate doesn’t offer anything great in this area, but thankfully they are just brief and infrequent cut scenes as opposed to the tedious walking around Abstergo seen in Black Flag. Moving on to the story missions, as with most AC games they aren’t massively varied the likes of tail then assassinate or steal this item. There are a few that attempt to use some of the new features such as escort missions involving the horse drawn carriages. One big plus in this area is that the terrible eavesdropping missions that I remember from Black Flag have been done away with, which get a major thumbs up from me.
If It’s Broke, Fix It.
In the very beginning of this I alluded to the now infamous launch of Unity, which was riddled with glitches and bugs. This ranged from somewhat terrifying but harmless visual glitches where character’s skin wouldn’t appear but their eyes and mouths would, to actually game breaking glitches. Now I would argue it’s unfair to expect a game to be a 100% glitch free simply owing to how complex modern games are, however in the case of Syndicate I felt it needed to be mentioned. If I was writing this review just a couple of days ago, all I would say is that while playing I’ve experienced some visual glitches, like characters getting stuck. In addition to some slightly more frustrating glitches that led me to restart missions, such as one instance where the game believed I had one target left to kill but the target location was in the ground and thus inaccessible. Nothing game breaking just a little annoying, however I am currently at the game’s final mission. When I attempted to finish that mission the game would crash as soon as it tried to boot, now the reason for this actually turned out to be a PSN outage. Yes modern video games are stupid enough that they basically can’t work without an internet connection, but that’s a discussion for another day. So on the day I am writing this I was happy to hear that PSN was back up, the game seemingly booted perfectly but as soon as I attempt to continue my game after a few seconds the whole thing freezes, multiple attempts, no luck. So I’ve been left unable to finish the game currently, I will be watching for any patches in the coming days. You may argue as a reviewer things like glitches shouldn’t weigh too heavily on my opinion of a game, but given that in this case it is currently impossible to finish and give me closure it’s a tough fact to ignore.
Many people have attributed the glitches of recent AC games to the fact Ubisoft now releases a new game every year, fans are now becoming more and more away this seemingly isn’t enough time to develop it and hence we are seeing a drop in overall quality. In the last couple of days it would seem that Ubisoft is conceding this fact. They announced that the next main series AC game, currently titled Empire will not be out until 2017 and specifically sighted the reason for this being so that the game is of the best possible quality. It would appear that Ubisoft has finally realised the way to keep fans loyal to a series is to release a well-made, polished game every few years and not a rushed and broken game year in and year out.
So the question is, where does the AC series stand after Syndicate? Well in all honesty it does little to the core Assassins Creed formula, it is at least a little more than just Unity with a Victorian London skin. If you’re an Assassin’s fan I’d still recommend picking it up as it’s pretty polished with just the odd crack. If you’re new to series, I’d give it a try, even if it is to merely see what current gen consoles can do. Furthermore if like me you don’t consider yourself a huge stealth fan, I always consider AC as being hybrid-stealth. Meaning that you can be stealthy but in most cases being detected isn’t an instant fail, instead you can fight your way out if you’re good enough. Let’s just hope that extra year of polish on Empire will make all the difference.
Syndicate doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s an enjoyable adventure through Victorian London, if you’re an action-stealth fan, you can’t go wrong with this.
+ Victorian London looks stunning
+ Evie Frye is a great protagonist
+ Side missions finally feel more worthwhile
+ Greater depth thanks to RPG mechanics
-Does little to the core formula
-Story is somewhat bland and unexciting