Friday, October 30, 2015

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate review

    Assassin's Creed: Syndicate is not the best Assassin's Creed game.

    It's not the worst either.

    Really, I'm inclined to think this is squarely in the middle of the road for games of the franchise. It's a serious improvement over Assassin's Creed: Unity but that's not saying much and doesn't take much in the way of risks compared to other titles. The plotline is cookie cutter but the gameplay is fun, the side-activities are always entertaining, and the leads are engagingly fun. The Assassin's Creed franchise has been accused of being the gamer McDonalds, tasty but bad for you. This is, in my opinion, a very good hamburger and fries.

London is beautifully rendered as always. A magnificent recreation of the past.
    The premise of the game is Jacob and Evie Frie are a pair of fraternal twins living in 19th century Croyden and like everyone ever born there from then til now, they're eager to get out (as told to me by several friends from there). Hearing there's only a single assassin in London and the British Empire almost completely under the control of the Templars, the pair decide to go against the will of the Assassin Council to help overthrow the new Templar Grandmaster, Crawford Starrick's, control. Along the way, they'll create a street gang called the Rooks to take over the city's Burroughs by seizing power from the Templar-aligned Blighters. It's a 19th century Steampunk version of Saints Row basically.

    Which is pretty damn awesome in some places.

    Less so in others.
I'd rank Evie up there with Shay, Edward, and Ezio.

    The positives first! This is probably one of the most singularly fun Assassins Creeds in terms of gameplay in the series. Unlike the majority of games where there was usually something not particularly entertaining, just about everything you do in the game is amusing.

    Child Liberation, Cargo Hijacking, Train Robberies, Assassination Missions, Boat Robberies, Gang Headquarters assaults, and even carriage chases are all fun. I've never been a completitionist with this franchise as I've never felt there was any incentive to do so. Here, however, there's side activities which tie directly to the plot and allow you to make use of your Assassin skills over and over again.

    Evie and Jacob Frye are also entertaining characters who manage to get the two kinds of protagonists in the series down pat: Evie is the studious social-justice orientated one like Altair, Adult Ezio, and Connor while Jacob is the lovable rogue we get in Edward or Young Ezio. The fact you can play 75% of the missions as your favorite of the siblings means you have a great opportunity to play as you want, too. I, myself, spent the vast majority of the game as Evie and had a splendid time doing so.

    Speaking of Evie, she's the kind of character who other franchises could take notes on. Evie is dressed appropriately for climbing rooftops, brawls, as well as leading a criminal organization. She's cute without being sexualized and has a distinct personality separate from her male counterpart.

Darwin helps you blow up a drug lab. I **** you not.
    There's a lot more variety in the representation of women, closer to Assassins Creed 2 than other entries in the series. We have nurses, gang bosses, train engineers, thugs, wives, queens, and occultists. The game doesn't do a very good job in representing the cosmopolitan nature of the city in terms of ethnicity, though, which is a shame. Still, this is marked improvement over Unity where Elise is seemingly the only significant woman in Paris.

    I've got to say the game also made itself more flexible in terms of how to use various tools. In previous games, I rarely used anything but my hidden blade and sword. Here, I made ample use of every tool in my arsenal including throwing knives and electrical bombs. I love the addition of the grapple gun which, while not something I would want in other time periods, fits the steampunk aesthetic the game seems to be going for.

    I even enjoyed the historical characters this time around as Evie and Jacob do the usual Assassin's Creed Forest Gump thing but it feels more organic to the plot than usual. It's a little strange wondering why Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Alexander Graham Bell, Karl Marx, THE QUEEN and PRIME MINISTER OF BRITAIN are hanging around with two of London's most notorious gangsters but I've made more allowances for worse. The fact a lot of these characters were just living in London and could be visited by their fans makes the integration a trifle more believable.

The Boss fights are some of the most fun and unbelievable parts of the game.
    Now for the negative. First of all, the game makes a large stink in advertising about how Jacob and Evie Frye are going to be waking up the working classes. The thing is, the Industrial Revolution plays almost no role in the actual storyline. Yes, you rescue a bunch of child laborers (I'm not sure where you're rescuing them to, however), but the focus is on the Rooks replacing the Blighters are the predominate street gang of London. Previous games highlighted the Assassins working hand-in-pocket with criminals but it's kind of disturbing seeing our heroes just replace one gang with another (especially when the membership of the Rooks is composed almost completely of Ex-Blighters).

    Next, there's the suspension of disbelief I'm having with London being overrun with a massive street gang which controls every Burrough. 19th century London was the Rome of its age and one of the most settled and controlled cities in the world. I don't have a problem with taking out the Blighters in Whitechapel or the Industrial Districts but I have difficulty buying they have a stranglehold on the areas just outside Parliament and Buckingham Palace. This is a small complaint in the grand scheme of things but something I've noticed.

Weirdly, one of my favorite parts of the game is parkor across the Thames.
    Third, and this is the big one, the plot is of no consequence whatsoever. Much like Unity, the Modern Day plot is vaguely related to finding some Precursor artifacts with Bishop but doesn't have anything resembling a "true" player character. Likewise, the Frye twins are against a scene-chewingly evil Templar Grandmaster who wants the same Precursor artifacts. This is the most paint-by-the-numbers Assassin's Creed plot you could possibly come up with. There's some hints at moral ambiguity like the fact the Templars are what's keeping the trains running on time in Britain (sometimes literally) but every one of them is introduced as mustache-twirling evil.

    There's some silly parts to the gameplay as well too. For example, the game introduces a leveling system which blows suspension of disbelief out the water. If you're not sufficiently leveled in terms of weapons you can wail upon an opponent with a knife all day without doing much damage. Likewise, the game introduces bosses which can and do take forever to kill if, again, you're not sufficiently leveled. On the plus aside, all of these characters are still vulnerable to air assassinations as well as head-shots. Still, I can't help but remember one particular boss fight where I shot them ten times with a revolver before managing to kill them. You'll also be fighting the same three Blighter character models several hundred times.

The creed says to stay your blade from the innocent. It doesn't say anything about running them over with carriages.
    The graphics in the game are, of course, great. London is amazingly well-designed and you can see where the city of yesterday becomes the city of the present. Several British friends have used the landmarks they found in the game to retrace their daily routine. We're finally getting to the point that it's a little too large of an environment to just run around but the game will hopefully go back in time rather than continue to increase in size at this point. As much as I loved the grapple gun, to get around the city, I either used fast travel or carriages for the most part. Traveling around the city on foot, rooftops or not, just wasn't practical for me.

    In conclusion, this is a fun game but it's not going to win anyone's award for their favorite Assassin's Creed game. It doesn't have the oomph of the Ezio games, the metaplot of the Desmond storyline, the charm of Edward Kenway, or even the novelty of playing a Templar. Still, it's a fun game and one I recommend. The fact I don't want to punch the hell out of the protagonist like I did with Arno makes it something I gladly have played for forty hours or more.



  1. I am just confused by the complete lack of Freemasons which would kind of be a synthesis of Templar and Assassin beliefs.

    1. If I remember correctly I think the Freemasons had a minor role in Assassin's Creed III. They ran a set of tunnels underneath the major cities.

    2. An interesting twist is this is an AC game without prostitutes. Which is weird because prostitution was a period-appropriate obsession with Victorian England. A lot of women were wrongly imprisoned during this time for being prostitutes and harshly so (many were also merely sexually promiscuous). A good adventure would have been Evie shiving some guys and freeing them.

  2. Your thoughts on Syndicate match my very own, I debated a lot on getting this game after unity left me jaded of Ubisoft's ability of keeping AC going, though the chance to upgrade my ps4 to a 1TB for less than £100 was too much to miss.

    Plus AC fulfils my love of exploring history and time periods along with Victoria England being always a period I love going into made my decision for me.

    Syndicate feels overall okay it's average, in that it doesn't do anything bad but nothing excellent, it's just there. Evie and Jacob in general were mostly likeable but not interesting for me. The game didn't make anywhere enough effort for me to invest myself in their story, the game never goes into their background, their dad despite numerous mentions of him and one mention of their mother by Singh. The game never explains why the Templars and starrick are in control of London, they just are and overall we don't see the Templars doing anything that wasn't really that evil for it's time period. Sure by todays values they come off as evil, but it isn't like the assassin's were doing better either.

    The game's plot really suffers for adding no tension and real reason to hate Starrick than that he's a "Templar". AC 2 made us hate Rodrigo for killing Ezio's family, his son for killing Mario, AC 3 had us play Haythem for three chapters and had him fight his own son. This created tension and personal investment for the players and for the PC, but in Syndicate there's none of that.

    I mean the game has you save children from the factories to put them to be used as spies? That doesn't seem all that ethical or enhancing their lives. The game overall shows Evie and Jacob helping better who aren't working class people as Karl Marx told them at one point. They never rectify that in the game at any real point and get to meet queen Vic and get knighted at the end, which was hard to find believable considering they are running a gang.

    Granted Vic, Darwin etc. seem to not know that, but the game has a bit of dissonance to the twins actions overall. It calls us Jacob's actions at times but never lets him suffer personally for his mistakes or show us the consequences really, they just tell us and Evie just fixes it.

    Which for me affected the story's beats and character moments. It didn't help that the VA's part from Roth didn't really invest much passion into their lines. The henry and Evie romance was so stilted to the point that there was no chemistry at all and it was impossible for me to invest myself in that.

    Plus as you mentioned the game leaves out a lot of what Victoria London had at the time, leaving the setting feeling very theme park like, not to mention how Marx had no ties to the main plot or exploration of his views and philosophy considering how many people in the 20 century would twist his views to their own version, this includes Lenin whom the Russian assassins would work with.

    Though I found the side activity quite good for the most part and enjoyable, plus the perk system and getting items and awards for side missions actually gives you a reason to indulge them instead of just feeling like filler like so many side activities in Ubisoft open world games do.

    I would have liked to have more of Maxwell roth in the game, he would have been a great character for Jacob to contrast with as he runned the gang and had to deal with his way of doing things. Like how Bartholomew Roberts was a dark version of Edward Kenway and how their relationship was throughout AC4.

  3. More stuff to discuss since my last post got quite long.

    The game also suffers from some glitches and bugs that if more polishment time would have been caught I feel, nothing like unity's bugs but bugs that did annoy me playing the game, and the game still has the problem of controls not matching what's on screen at times. flaws that Ubisoft need to fix for the series that have been there for far too long.

    I also found it very strange how the game is set in Victoria England, but puts very little focus on the British empire, part from Singh and Evie mentioning to Vic to stop imperial desires. Also the game seem to mention stuff and never follow up on it like George at the start mentioning a council and then him and this council never appearing, overall I never see any consequences to Evie and Jacob's actions. They seem to just be awarded for all there actions despite how really they don't seem to be improving London all that much and the game never shows how their own gang runs things once the breakers are gone.

    You don't create power vacuums without some negatives coming up. But as I said before the game tells us Jacob's actions cause harm but never show it in proper detail, nor does the game ever show Evie trying to rein Jacob in al that much, plus Evie seems blind to the fact her actions are reckless at points as well. They are minor quibbles but they did affect how I view the Fyres, whom I just couldn't invest myself in very much due to their story lacking the background and the details that Ezio, Connor and Edward had.

    Which is a major shame as I think their story really could have been excellent if it had more effort and time put into it, I get the sense that the upcoming novel on henry will hold all the details I want to know.

    On a gameplay level I liked AC syndicate but overall felt the plot leave much to be desired and needed a lot more passion and detail put into it. It relied too much on telling and not showing the players characterization and plot points.

    I like the game, but I wanted to love it and the problems mentioned above prevented me form doing so.

    PS loved the Kenway mansion level, some really nice continuity and call-backs there.

    1. I agree with you, Oliver, almost completely.

      The Templars are kind of cariactures of themselves and Ubisoft is always see-sawing on moral ambiguity and maintaining them as their stock villains in the franchise. The Templars are in charge of London, control the medicine, control the railways, control countless factories, and control the bank of England but they STILL find time to run a street gang, have a bunch of children used as slave labor, deal drugs, and rob their own bank.

      A lot of this stuff is also values dissonance as it wasn't illegal for children over 8 years old to work in factories (meaning their parents were probably behind it) and things like cocaine as well as other drugs were legal in the British Empire--so people being upset about their tonic being like liquid heroin is kind of bizarre. In short, you can't really do a game about fighting tyranny in the Victorian Age without acknowledging that's as close a time when EVERYBODY in charge was a Templar as you're going to get.

      In a very real way, this game is, as you say, the theme park version of Victorian England. It's a game which doesn't take any risks with history or characterization or the overall plot. The best part of it, for me at least, was the WW1 segment which I felt should have been part of the main plot as I nearly didn't discover it in my first playthrough.

      I can't help but think a more interesting game would be Karl Marx as an Assassin (which other Assassins disagree with), The Templars including much of the British upper crust, more focus on the immigrant experience, and maybe having Jacob try to infiltrate the lower classes while Evie works with the upper to give a broader view of the whole thing. You could even make the colonialist element center stage with the racism and imperialism contrasted against the fact the people the British took it from were dictators and monarchs themselves.

      Oh well.

    2. Agree that would have made for a great game. but alas it was not to be.