Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a game without purpose. It abandons the self-serious tone of previous titles, but in doing so also loses much of its intensity. Despite a few promising developments, this franchise continues to evoke a sense of emptiness and exhaustion.
Syndicate relates the tale of Jacob and Evie Frye, twin assassins raised by their assassin father, who abandon the orders of their assassin handler to go and do assassin things in London (did I mention this game features assassins?). Along the way, they are thwarted by all manner of hand-wringing villain caricatures, pulled straight from the days where people were tied to railroad tracks during sinister monologues. If my description of the setting seems trite, it is because the game itself portrays these situations as such.
Jacob and Evie are two sides of the same coin, two vessels presumably meant to tell a tale more expansive than one could alone. Unfortunately, the characters that you meet in the first moment of the story are virtually identical to those you guide through the end. You get smirks and quips from Jacob, quiet intensity from Evie, but neither is able to do much than serve up bland one-liners about their general disposition toward murdering thousands of people in the streets of London. It’s the ultimate storytelling sin; Jacob and Evie are unnecessary, and even the story seems intent on getting past them, rather than letting you care about them in any significant way. The writing varies between generic wit and hamfisted drama that simply isn’t earned.
Those streets are rendered beautifully, and it is the atmosphere of the city itself that elevates the game from the emptiness of its narrative. Historic landmarks are present and suitably grand, and let’s face it — you’re never going to get a legitimate excuse to scale Big Ben outside of a video game, so you can thank Syndicate for that opportunity. The day-night cycle makes a welcome return to the series, and the city manages to look just as beautiful under the sun as it looks threatening in the darkness. Unfortunately, this city is much less populated that Assassin’s Creed Unity’s Paris. Horse-drawn cart traffic makes up for this somewhat, but the sense of a bustling industrial city is lost when there are more thugs on the corners than pedestrians on the sidewalks.
Navigating the city will come naturally to veterans of the franchise — nothing about the core free-running mechanics has changed, save for the continued presence of Unity’s consistently unpredictable “up” and “down” button indications. Sometimes you’ll need to parkour “up” a fence to get over it, other times you’ll simply perch upon its edge unless you are parkouring “down”. There doesn’t seem to be any discernible basis for this inconsistency in the height or width of the object itself nor the surrounding terrain. It isn’t always a problem, but it’s enough of one to reliably break the flow of movement. This constant stop-go pacing makes you feel as if the assassins have inexplicably decided on iron footwear.
As you pursue your goals, Jacob and Evie will increase in level. Rather than being solely tied to the equipment they wear, skills and their upgrades are available through a separate interface. Completing activities in the city rewards you with skill points, and spending those skill points in turn raises your level. With a half-dozen exceptions, the skills of the sibling protagonists are identical. Those differences are, in practice, very minor.
Instead of offering intelligent difficulty, Syndicate bars your passage through its world with a smothering leveling system. At first glance, the system should allow you opportunities to grow and evolve. All too soon, however, you realize that all of the skills will be unlocked in the course of the game, and that your leveling is merely a progression of potency that is gated off. It succeeds at nothing more than artificially impeding gameplay and making you feel less like an elite assassin than any other game in the series. It’s a dramatic misstep, hemming you in if you ever take a wrong turn and narrowing your experience through most of the game. It turns a massive city into a series of artificial zones, and in doing so robs you of the open urban atmosphere that has so characterized the franchise thus far.
Enemies, like you, are leveled. Don’t bother trying to take on anyone of significant level higher than your own. Never mind that you’re a lifelong trained assassin — even a drunk on the corner can turn you into a smear across the cobblestone if you haven’t done enough grinding for experience and cash. Progression is stingier than any game in the series so far, strongly “encouraging” you to participate in the various activities around the gameworld. This would be forgivable if the activities themselves were not intensely repetitive; hijacking a coach or freeing orphans happens by exactly the same process in settings that are very nearly identical, from the first to the last.
You can always skip the grind, but you’ll need to keep your wallet handy. Assassin’s Creed goes in hard on microtransactions, offering you a way around the sluggish progression if you’re willing to pay for the privilege. Once your characters reach their maximum potential, they finally catch up to where every other assassin in the franchise began. I can’t help but think that the game would have been much more fun if — like earlier games in the series — difficulty had been dependent on scenario and level design rather than level grinding. What saddens me is that the game oozes potential, and the available environments practically beg to be used more creatively than they are.
Combat animations are quicker but no more responsive. It still feels as if you’re instructing your character to do something, then waiting — sometimes several seconds — before it happens. The finishing moves are needlessly elaborate and just long enough that their repetition becomes grating. If you weren’t slowly chipping away at enemy health bars, this might have been more tolerable. As it stands, you’ll begin to actively avoid combat. Not because you are a stealthy assassin, but because getting locked into those encounters is mind-numbingly dull.
The Rooks, your band of personal lackeys, are a faceless mass. Gang upgrades are superfluous, and in no way affect tactics. Your “choices” are once again simply a linear path of increasing strength. Once again, your only choice is the order, to some extent, in which you acquire the various upgrades to their functionality. Nothing about them is customizable, and — most unforgivably — they all share the SAME DAMN FACES. So do the enemies, for that matter. In fact, whether the gang members are friends or foes, you’re going to get some awfully familiar looks. And when the gangs inevitably clash? It looks like a herd of clones in different colored shirts bumping into one another, until a “boss” with the same face as half the participants of the brawl shows up in slightly fancier garb.
Multiplayer isn’t much to talk about, mostly because it isn’t there. It was the only aspect of Assassin’s Creed Unity that was consistently enjoyable, and its absence from Syndicate is conspicuous. If the rest of the game had benefitted from the time not spent on multiplayer, it would be excusable. As it stands, the potential for massive group gang wars is simply squandered.
What puzzles me most is that the majority of the flaws in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate had already been addressed in previous games. This doesn’t feel like a rehash so much as a conscious regression. There is fun to be had, but it is muted by an increasingly soulless depiction of an amazing time in history.
Something is wrong in the house that Altair built, and no piece of Eden will correct it. It’s time to exit the Animus for a little while, before a franchise that made history becomes doomed to repeat it.
Nate Church is @Get2Church on Twitter, and he can’t become a wildly overhyped internet celebrity without your help. Follow, then retweet and favorite everything he says. It’s the Right Thing To Do™!