Assassin’s Creed Syndicate PC Review
No videogame franchise can keep its momentum going forever, a truth that is becoming more evident lately when even the mighty Call of Duty is starting to straggle in sales after countless yearly entries. Even the mightiest of critically acclaimed juggernauts know when to take a break here and there, or at least change the formula up to keep the series from feeling repetitive and stale.
Yet Ubisoft continues to stubbornly dish out a new Assassin’s Creed every year, sometimes two at a time, and the stagnation could already be felt from last year due to the negative reception of their new console generation debut, Assassin’s Creed Unity. The criticisms of its poor technical performance and otherwise unremarkable singleplayer campaign did not fall upon deaf ears at Ubisoft, but the multi-studio publisher was already working on its next yearly follow-up with the series, codenamed Victory. That game is now officially known as Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, featuring yet another historical time period and another assassin tasked with taking down the Templars and recovering yet another Piece of Eden, the magical McGuffin that is more plentiful than Dragonballs at this point. The most unique feature this time around is the ability to play as two assassins, twin siblings Jacob and Evie Frye, the latter being the second playable female assassin (not counting the quickly forgotten spin-off Assassin’s Creed Chronicles), though this decision was made long before the foot-in-mouth comments regarding the cost of animating female characters that only sullied Unity’s reception even further.
The setting this time is London, 1868, where gangs litter the streets and orphans are forced to work in coal mines, and everyone is singing and drinking their misery away as the Templars keep their iron grip tightened around the city’s neck in the shadows. Hot-headed and determined to make a difference, Jacob and Evie ditch their mentor to make a difference in the London opposition, each of them using their own methods to bring down their enemy. As the more level-headed of the two, Evie believes that retrieving the Piece of Eden should be their priority, while Jacob prefers a more direct approach utilizing all the gangs and guns at his disposal. The two siblings have a good dynamic that doesn’t result in too much bickering nor too much snark, though Evie is certainly the cooler of the two and can do everything that Jacob can do, even engage in sweaty fist fights against the burliest of men. Along the way the two will come across many allies taken straight from the history books, including Charles Darwin and Alexander Graham Bell, though at this point these cameos are becoming more and more nonsensical. The story on the Animus side of things also continues to be utterly underwhelming, as players assume the role of yet another faceless, silent protagonist who sits back and lets Rebecca and Shawn do all the work (sick of those two yet? Too bad).
On a gameplay sense, AC has become a series that has changed so much since its debut title and yet changed so little; the core gameplay is pretty much the same it’s always been, with players attempting to move around crowds incognito while stealthily taking out their Templar targets using a hidden blade or other means. Should things go south, as they often do, there is always the option to go for a louder and bloodier approach that usually results in dozens of bodies and a crowd of panicky onlookers. There are also the usual activities such as climbing up huge structures to synchronize the surroundings, diving into haystacks from impossible heights, tackling pickpockets, bribing authorities, and collecting every shiny collectible that drives you mad with its glittering sound.
As a series with nearly a dozen titles under its belt, it would be easier to highlight the most important features of Syndicate, which are both taken from previous games and invented for this latest excursion; chief among them is the ability to recruit gangs, a concept borne from Brotherhood, one of the most celebrated of AC titles. After liberating parts of the map by taking out the Templar in charge of that territory, players will be able to recruit local gang members to follow them and assist with a multitude of Templar-killing tactics that tend to lead to shootouts and stabbings in the streets. The skills of your fodder allies can also be improved upon by spending cash on their traits as well as discounting various items in stores, while also expanding on unlocked territory to increase the overall cash flow of your income.
Another big change is the ability to switch between the two assassins on the fly when outside missions. Both Jacob and Evie have story-specific missions that they are tied down to, but all other activities and sidequests can be played fully with either character. While neither character has any advantages or disadvantages that separate them, they both have separate skill trees that can be unlocked through shared experience points; players have the freedom to focus more on making Evie stealthy and silent, or turn Jacob into a combo-heavy brawler who can link attacks more effectively. Eventually, both characters can max out their skill trees, closing whatever custom gaps separate them early on.
Rounding out the last of the major gameplay revisions is the inclusion of an Arkham-style grappling hook, which allows players to instantly reach the highest heights of even the largest buildings throughout London. This single mechanic may be the most major change seen yet in the series, as previous games relied on gravity and the strategic placement of ledges to create a hazardous climb to the next synchronization point. With the grappling hook as well as a significantly more lax climbing animation, it is now possible to soar to the very top with virtually no fear of falling to the bottom due to a misstep. As liberating as this new accessory feels, it does trivialize what was originally a major staple of the Assassin’s Creed series, and those who enjoyed accomplishing the more difficult climbing of tall structures may be put off by the streamlined scaling, though the grappling hook also doubles as a zip-line between buildings that can result in faster traversal across the map (and also can be used to pull off some sick air assassinations).
Combat has also undergone a makeover that may prove divisive among longtime fans; originally a simple counter-and-kill mechanic that led to instantly killing several waves of foes at once, Syndicate now gives enemies much more health and many more required hits to bring them down. Once again taking a cue from the Arkham games, enemies are no longer manually locked-on but instead require players to attack and defend from specific directions. The three components to battle are hitting enemies with combos, countering incoming attacks, and breaking an enemy’s guard with a stun grab. While this new mechanic does make enemies a bit more resilient, the extra amount of button mashing required to bring an enemy’s health down feels excessive, even if the end result is some rather impressive (and often gruesome) finishing animations.
Speaking of which, the good news is that Syndicate’s graphical performance is a far cry above Unity’s bug-riddled, face-melting embarrassment of technical prowess. The bad news is that in their attempt to ensure that the new game would not require a dozen extra patches, the overall visual quality is a few notches below what Unity managed to pull off when it wasn’t tripping over itself. While certainly no slouch in the looks department, the smaller outdoor crowds and lighting effects are a noticeable (yet still necessary) sacrifice. PC owners get a few additional notches over the current consoles for a much more vivid image, but a lack of optimization means many instances of slowdown and inconsistent framerates even when played on the beefiest of rigs.
But even then, the biggest problem with Syndicate is just how antiquated the current AC engine is starting to feel, especially compared to recent additions to the Action genre like Rise of the Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Solid V. Controls continue to feel clunkier with each game, with only minimal improvements to actions such as free running up and down platforms and arbitrary changes such as a dedicated stealth button that does little to smooth out the experience. NPC passersby will still react in odd ways such as abruptly dropping items they are carrying or just plain taking no notice of the sudden pile of corpses littered about their feet. Enemy encounters are also at an all-time annoyance, with opposing gang members frequently stopping to pick a fight with you when making eye contact. This is especially frustrating during bounty hunts, a new (and entirely unenjoyable) sidequest where players must forcibly escort captured enemies to the nearest authorities; much of the level design is built around giving players as little space as possible so that aggro enemies can squeeze right in to cause more frustration.
In the end, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a far more competent entry than the much maligned Unity, but it does not entirely restore faith in the aging franchise. While Ubisoft continues to stubbornly hold onto making yearly entries with minimal changes to the core gameplay, other titles continue to evolve with more streamlined controls and visuals. If the next title doesn’t take an even bigger leap forward, the AC franchise may end up lost to history in more ways than one.