Review update: I’ve since given the game a few hours of play exclusively via the PS Vita’s remote play. I’m happy to say that Ubisoft has once again done a fine job at implementing workable controls. Unity’s remote play was pretty good last year, but with the minor changes in Syndicate’s controls, it’s now even better on the PS Vita. Highly recommend giving it a go if you enjoy the intimacy of handheld gaming.
Last year’s Assassin’s Creed Unity didn’t go down too well with some people. Alright, that’s a bit of an understatement, but I genuinely feel that the game received a bit too much stick. Granted, the bugs and glitches (if you encountered them) were a pain in the neck, but the overall experience was truly next-gen.
It goes without saying then, Ubisoft really does have its work cut out in trying to pull old fans back in, as well as entice new customers to the franchise.
Set to the beat of the drizzling rain in a murky London, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate takes you back in time to the 1860’s of Victorian England. There’s geezers on the streets, there are pubs littered around the city, not yet touched by the unwelcome capitalist hand of JD Wetherspoon’s. It’s pretty authentic, then.
At its core, the game plays more or less like last year’s game, though there are some minor changes as well as major additions. The first big change you’ll notice is that Assassin’s Creed Syndicate has ripped a leaf from GTA V’s playbook by having two playable characters for the first time in the series’ history. It’s not the game-change we were hoping for, but the less time spent with that smirking bellend Jacon, the better. Evie is by far the more interesting of the lethal siblings. She’s a real character and isn’t overly-sexualised a la Street Fighter, Metal Gear Solid V, Dead or Alive etc.
Jacob, however, is a prat. I’m sorry Ubisoft, but I just couldn’t relate to him, partly because his accent was all over the cobbles like a drunken piss-head on a Friday night, secondly, he’s just a bit of an arrogant knob.
Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh on bugger grips, but personally, I couldn’t stand the lad. Others may find his charms to be humourous, but to me they were nowt but a reminder that Ezio Auditore is dead and buried and this guy is just a shadow of the Italian stallion.
The main issue with both playable characters is that they’re just so cliché. The interaction between the twins never goes any further than the usual sibling banter. They’re also a bit of a mystery; from the word go Evie and Jacob are assassins, but it’s never explained how they came to be a part of the secretive organisation. Sure, it’s referenced that their father was some big-shot within the Brotherhood, but we don’t even get to find out anything about him so we’re left wondering why these two brats are running around London stabbing people in the neck. At least with every past playable character we had a sense of why they were donning the hood. This time around it feels like character-arch just didn’t really matter that much.
Character whingeing aside, the story isn’t half bad; the problem is that the other half isn’t great, either. In typical Ubisoft fashion, you’re presented with a ginormous open-world to explore, a world that lends itself so well to great gameplay, but instead of focussing on a core narrative that actually keeps you hooked with the promise of a payoff, you’re left running around a big-arse map with a 1001 things to do. That’s not a terrible thing, but when it gets in the way of the game’s narrative, it becomes a problem.
The main issue I did have with the narrative is that after a while I just couldn’t keep track of what the hell was going on, nor did I fully understand why I was killing people. The game makes it clear that London is going through some big changes and money is moving across the city due to the industrial happenings. Obviously, the Templars (that rowdy lot that the Assassins are in a row with) have got their finger in every pie being cooked.
Jacob and Evie look to take over from the Templars, but to get to the ‘big boss’ you need to take out his cronies first. It’s very, very simple stuff, though at least the twins have their own agendas. Evie, the smart and thoughtful of two is eager to track down the Piece of Eden that the Templars are chasing down, whereas head-strong bellend Jacob just wants to live out his fantasy of running a London gang. Unfortunately the differing objectives don’t help the story push along any better; there’s no intrigue in who these characters are and even the historical figures are a bit of a wet flannel in their cameo appearances, and when the end credits did roll I was genuinely left wondering what I’d achieved. As for the present-day stuff: nada. There’s a few cut scenes, but they’re uninformative and I was left seething by the end as they were a massively missed opportunity. Why are we even bothering with the visiting the past if not for a reason in the present? Like him or loath him, Desmond did at least tie everything together into a cohesive narrative that gave a plausible reason for us to run around killing people for fun.
That’s not my only gripe either. As in Assassin’s Creed Unity, you’re able to ‘level-up’ and improve your characters. It’s essential for making progress as without the right skills and upgrades you’re basically asking to get your teeth kicked in at every fight. So, to get the required upgrades you’re encouraged to either spend real-life money to buy in-game currency, or go around doing menial tasks that you’ve done a thousand times before. [For the record, I despise microtransactions being shoved into a single-player game and as such, I would never buy these so-called ‘time-saver packs.’ I’d rather crap in my hands and clap.]
What you need to know is that it’s a grind, and it’s not something I particularly enjoyed. At least the upgrade menus are more accessible, so once you have chugged away at earning some cash, it’s easy enough to spend your dough. Come to think of it, the menus were actually really nicely done. Remember the simplistic and easy to use menus from Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood? Syndicate takes heavily from it, so much so that there’s more than a sense of familiarity. That’s not a criticism by the way, it’s actually a compliment. Unity’s menus, while functional, were a bit of a nuisance and it was always a chore to go from getting your gear sorted to upping your abilities.
The side-missions that you’ll need to take on in order to beef the twins up are well off-key and seem random at best. There’s no connection (for the majority anyway) to the main story being told, and it really hurts the experience. If the side-missions were interconnected with the main progression, maybe I’d have found them a bit more worthy of my time – even if they are the same old tasks, though a handful were actually quite fun. I didn’t mind the kidnapping (maybe that says something about me as a person) but the AI was terrible. I’d have my target, then it’d go either one of two ways: I’d either walk straight past any guards and go unchallenged, or I’d end up getting the crap kicked out of me, and seeing as I preferred to play as Evie, that was doubly sad. She’s lovely.
You can probably guess that unlocking such tasks, locations and the like is done by – yes, of course: climbing up high. Wow. So surprised. Alright, I’ll admit that looking upon Victorian London was quite impressive the first couple of times, but it does lose its appeal. Some new ideas, perhaps?
At least the act of actually getting to the high points isn’t a totally tedious task in itself, thanks mostly to the well designed buildings that make up London’s dirty skyline, and the smooth climbing system that makes a return. It’s pretty much the same deal as last time around; run at a wall, hold the appropriate button depending on your controller and move the left stick in the desired climbing direction. It works well and there’s no faults there.
Another nice addition is that you’re now the leader of a London gang called ‘The Rooks’. It’s a bit like how in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood you had all those folks who you could call upon in a pinch, but it’s not quite as deep. Plus, they all seem to be related. Seriously, could Ubisoft not have thrown in a couple of extra character models for the gang members? That aside, it’s a nice addition and it does help out enormously when you’re outnumbered, plus you’ll need all the hands (and knives) you can get when you take over rival factions’ outpo- erm, gang territories. Yes. It’s all very familiar…
Something else that’ll seem familiar is the new Batman-style zipline tool. Victorian London didn’t have the narrow streets that we’ve been hopping over in the last few games, so it’s a welcome addition and it works nicely, too. In fact, it’s probably the thing I’m most grateful for, otherwise I’d be hopping up and down to street level every couple of minutes. Not that the street level is dull, of course. There’s always lots going on, though nowhere near as much as we saw in Unity. This is probably a design choice by the developers in order to keep the game running at a nice frame-rate. I’m not overly sensitive when it comes to frame-rates and such, but even I can tell that Syndicate is a massive improvement over last year’s killing simulator. Then again, the fact that I was running around Whitechapel without bumping into some cockney geezer every other second seemed a tad unrealistic. Even back in those days the streets would have been chock full of charlatans, coppers, criminals, and all the rest.
You’ll spend a lot of time kicking around the city, beating up enemies and the like, so the combat needs to be on-form, right? Unfortunately (or not) it’s all a bit too easy. I genuinely enjoyed Unity’s challenging combat; the need to think before going into an encounter with a handful of enemies, but Syndicate feels like it’s taken a couple of steps back by reducing the difficulty. Pair this with the laughable A.I and you can just hit a high-spot and wait for each of your pursuing foes to climb up one-by-one to receive a whooping. Where’s the sense of ‘oh lord, I’m about to be killed, I hate checkpoints‘? That said, it’s still rather satisfying and the game does a great job at making you feel like a bad arse, though the ease with which I could take down groups of foes did mean I didn’t really feel the threat of death, but I did feel the threat of detection where stealth was required.
As with its predecessor, Syndicate presents us with big areas that basically allow you to plan your own assassination. It’s more or less the same as what we saw in Unity, but there are some minor refinements. This is where I had my most fun – and at times – most rage inducing moments.
I’ve always liked the old Hitman games for giving you the freedom to kill your target as you please, so having that same style of play when it comes to taking out some bloke works well on paper, but not always in practice. One assassination mission took me the best part of two hours to finish. Normally I’d chalk this down to me being a) rubbish at said game or b) intoxicated by the finest Welsh whiskey, Penderyn. On this occasion I was of sober mind, so I attributed it to the former – for the first half-hour. After that I decided to rethink my plan of attack and go full-frontal assault. No good, I was killed within seconds. Ok, try going back and sneaking my way over the building, killing the rooftop guard, then dropping into the small crow- nope, shot by some bastard with better eagle vision that Altair. Honestly, the guy was a mile away.
I should note that it was only a couple of the main assassination missions that had me throwing a tantrum, the rest were pretty fun to play in all fairness, though a bit of brainwork is still required to pull of the perfect execution, but even a dimwitted dork like myself can manage to scrape by on a whim. Throw enough attempts at a mission and you’ll eventually come up golden.
And that’s what Ubisoft seems to be doing with the Assassin’s Creed games lately; throw enough hours of gameplay into yet another bloated open-world and hope it brings in some money.
Gone are the intriguing plots, the deep characters (personally, I’m a big fan of the Kenways) and the modern-day anchor points. Instead we’re given a big map to run around it and a million collectibles that clutter up the map. I used to be proud to say that I 100% completed Assassin’s Creed, Assassin’s Creed II and even Brotherhood, but then Ubisoft decided to bulk out the gameplay with pointless collectibles. Since Brotherhood, I’ve not even given them a second look, they’re simply too time-consuming and, ultimately, pointless endeavours, a bit like this game to be honest.
Disclaimer: Review conducted on PS4 with a retail copy purchased by the reviewer.
You can buy Assassin’s Creed Syndicate from here from Amazon.