There’s something alarmingly fresh about Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (played on PS4 for this review), the latest entry in Ubisoft’s powerhouse franchise, which may come as a surprise following last year’s largely disappointing Unity. While there’s no longer a seamless cooperative multiplayer or record breaking on-screen characters, what remains is an incredibly streamlined experience devoid of serious technical flaws.
Some, including this reviewer, may consider that a win for a series known for its bugs and technical flaws. If last year’s Unity was the lowest point in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Syndicate marks the biggest turnaround in video game history and reminds you how good Assassin’s Creed can truly be. Syndicate isn’t perfect by any means, but it thrives in its simplicity, offering a compelling package that will keep you interested throughout your time with the game.
“WHAT REMAINS IS AN INCREDIBLY STREAMLINED EXPERIENCE DEVOID OF SERIOUS TECHNICAL FLAWS.”
I’ll admit, I was fairly skeptical during my first hour with the game. I hadn’t quite grasped the new control scheme introduced in last year’s title, and the setting seemed about as bland as it could get: Dull lighting, cookie-cutter assets, unimaginative gameplay. I figured I was about to play the same “sneak around and stab” Assassin’s Creed I’d played for the past 8 years. Over time, however, this experience progressed and grew into something I didn’t expect from the product of nine separate developers. Too many cooks in the kitchen? Forget about that. This is a darn good soup.
Assassin’s Creed games have largely had uninspiring stories, built around an old and modern age mechanic that grew tired several iterations ago. Thankfully, the modern-day storyline largely ended games ago, with the focus solely on what makes each iteration unique: the timely setting. For Syndicate, this means an adventure through 1860’s London, controlling one of the Frye siblings in their attempt at conquering the overlords of the underground (see: Templars) and establishing their presence in a “Robin Hood meets Gangs of New York” sort of way. There’s still some present day segments, but they’re few and far between. Included more as a way to set up the premise of your adventure rather than a supplement to it.
Following the first hour of the game, the two Frye twins, Jacob and Evie, set out to London in order to take down the kingpin, Crawford Starrick, wresting control from the Templars once and for all. Syndicate’s story is full of unique Fictional and Historic characters, such as Charles Dickinson and Alexander Bell. Historic characters aren’t new to the series, but this is the first time to my memory that they’ve felt unique and necessary for the story, rather than sideshow exhibits to remind you that you’re playing in a certain time period.
The twins play off of each other perfectly, fueled by a strong script and the actors unique personalities. Jacob is facetious, unabashed, and reckless. Evie, a more cool and collected than her brother, takes over as one of the strongest female leads in a video game that I’ve ever played. Ubisoft have even gone so far as to allow the player to choose whichever twin to control for their playthrough. Each has their advantages and unique skillsets, but I found myself enjoying my time with Evie much more than her counterpart. Whereas Jacob relies on physical strength and skill, Evie’s controls tend to lean more towards the careful stealth that sets the Assassin’s Creed series apart from other titles.
Unity wowed the fans and media alike last year largely due to the enormous jump in graphical fidelity, especially when compared to the cross-gen Black Flag. Ubisoft’s ambition may have come at the cost of a solid gameplay experience, but few would argue that the game looked incredible. Syndicate, a good-looking game in its own right, fails to capture that same sense of amazement, while still delivering a strong sense that you’re in the 1800’s London. While standing on the famous Big Ben clocktower, picturesque factory smoke stacks line the horizon, barge ships travel briskly down the Thames River, and horse-drawn carts line the streets of Englands most famous city. Syndicate rarely looks sterile in its art direction, but oftentimes feels empty due to the major cutback in NPCS populating the game. There are no longer impossibly large crowds lining the streets, rather, a handful of pedestrians struggle to fill the nearly empty streets. It makes you wonder if Ubisoft will find a happy medium during this generation of home consoles, and almost makes you wish that they’d tried to push the envelope again rather than shooting for solid console performance (not really).
Some environments, and specifically the lighting, look bland and uninspired. This is due in part to the implementation day-and-night cycle that prevents the use of “pre-baked” lighting, where developers create pre-lit textures and geometry to simulate the appearance realistic lighting. It may be a greater technical accomplishment given the size and scope of the world, but overall the game looks worse as a result. That said, I will gladly take parred back graphics in favor of a better-performing game, and Syndicate delivers, especially when the package still looks like it belongs with the current generation of games. It’s no Witcher 3, but it’s not too far off in many regards.
Gameplay is largely unchanged from previous titles, but the more monotonous missions and objectives are relegated to the tasks required for expanding your gang’s territory. Story missions are now longer, more thought-out, and fun to play. No more tailing an individual for 20 minutes, only to start the mission over after getting mistakenly seen. Additionally, your arsenal now includes a grappling hook, which works both vertically and horizontally, that allows you to reach the top of buildings immediately, not unlike the one found in the recent Batman: Akrham games. This quick traversal system makes the game feel faster than it’s ever been. You’re no longer required to climb up the face of the same buildings hour after hour, eliminating a nuisance that grew more stale as each iteration of the franchise was released.
“It’s hard to complain when Ubisoft has delivered the greatest single player experience since 2008’s Assassin’s Creed II.“
Syndicate is not without its faults, however. Combat is still fairly simplistic, and I found the enemies to be more aggressive to a fault. I’m not a big fan of how these gang fights are handled. Specifically, the amount of time you’re given to counter an enemy attack is wildly inconsistent, and led to more deaths than I’m proud of. Though, this can all be avoided if you play Syndicate like the stealth game it’s meant to be, picking off your foes from a distance, sneaking around groups of baddies, or dropping from the roof-tops for a quick assassination.
If you played last year’s Unity, you might be surprised to find that exclusion of the seamless cooperative multiplayer. This may come as a disappointment, but it feels like a necessary evil when you consider how well Syndicate runs on PS4. There aren’t the major framerate issues or game-breaking bugs that were abundant in last year’s title. It’s also hard to complain when Ubisoft has delivered the greatest single-player experience since 2008’s Assassin’s Creed II. Overall, I found Assassin’s Creed Syndicate to be a vastly improved experience over previous titles, specifically in regards to the cohesiveness of the story, gameplay, and presentation. It may not be as ambitious as last year’s AC title, but it’s definitely worth your time and money.
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