Assassin’s Creed and I have a very turbulent relationship. Considering that I have every game, bar one, on my shelves at this very moment you could be forgiven for thinking I’m a pretty hardcore fan of the series. In truth I’m actually rather critical of the games, enjoying them all to some degree or other but finding their problems hard to ignore. I could write a series of essay on the problems these games suffer from, ranging from boring protagonists to gameplay changes that make your hardcore assassin feel like a wimp. It’s uneven is what I’m saying.
After the tremendous debacle that was Assassin’s Creed: Unity it was pretty important that the follow up games would recover some of the good will previous games had. With the drama surrounding some terribly worded remarks from the developers, controversy over the historical depiction of the revolution and how negatively viewed many of the gameplay changes were Syndicate really needed to pull a rabbit out of its dapper top hat.
Luckily it really manages this with some style.
Syndicate tells the story of Evie and Jacob Frye, twin Assassin’s as different as night and day. The pair make their way to London with the hope of overthrowing the Templar's who have made the slowly industrializing city their power base. Every aspect of the city is under their control whether it be the public transportation or the criminal underworld. Unseating the Templar's when they have so thoroughly dug their tentacles in so thoroughly isn’t going to be easy so it’s a good thing we have two very experienced Assassin’s doing this, right?
Well unfortunately no. Jacob is an hyperactive monkey of a man who has the impulse control of a magpie. Evie is more restrained and thoughtful but unfortunately she is so much so that she seems to have issues with not over thinking everything. These two together craft one barely functioning individual when working together so it’s really a shame that they seem to have a hard time putting up with each other. Really though, what else do you expect of two siblings who have such different personalities?
During the course of play you are free to swap between the two at any time by simply going into the menu and clicking a button. While the two play mostly the same there are a few differences, mostly in their equipment and purchased skills. Evie prefers to use Cane Swords, known for their lethality, and all of her unique skills are focused on extra stealth capabilities. Jacob conversely uses knuckle weapons, great for staggering your foes, and all of his skills are based on beating the ever loving crap out of everything in sight. For him stealth is that thing you do only until you know who needs to be punched in the face repeatedly.
While one could theoretically play Evie as a brawler and Jacob as a stealth assassin these skills help craft their play styles.Taking Evie, slapping her in some equipment that will let her carry extra daggers and then taking skills that do the same let her kill all of the enemies in an area silently, one dagger headshot at a time. Since the game will let you freely swap between characters it’s best to take advantage of this.
However there are some times when this option won’t be there, mostly during storyline missions. Each of the pair have a different mindset towards removing the Templar threat. Evie would prefer to hunt down a First Civilization relic hidden in London to deprive the Templar's of its power while Jacob would rather rampage around the city and tear down their power base. So the two go about the liberation of London in their own way during unique missions. These give a really good view of who these two really are, including their personal strengths and weaknesses. More than that this gives many of the missions a unique flavor to them as they are tuned to the character you must use for it.
Perhaps the most important thing other than a good protagonist are strong villains and Syndicate has probably the most charming villains in the series.The main bad guy, Crawford Starrick, takes a bit to enter the story but when he does he really leaves an impression. He swings between bombastic to thoughtful, thoughtful to vengeful. The man is so damn charming that its hard not to kind of love him and the handlebar mustache just makes him even more entertaining. His lackeys don’t leave quite the same impression but nonetheless each of them brings a bit more life to the role than most of the Templar's in previous games.
To take down the conspiracy ruling London the Frye twins come up with a great idea... or rather Jacob heckles Evie into agreeing with him. They will start up a street gang named the Rooks to help take back London for the people and break lots of stuff. Whoo! The gang will take the place of the Assassin recruits from previous titles so they can be sent to attack, harass or otherwise deal with enemies for you. They’re not quite as effective as the recruits, as they will quite often die in the fights they get into, but they are quite numerous and will often have carriages that you can “borrow” to help navigate the city while carrying your flunkies with you.
To start with neither the gang nor the assassin twins are all that impressive. As you gain experience from fighting and completing missions the twins gain a wide variety of skills ranging from improved combat skills, extra health or lockpicking. These are fine and dandy but more impressive are the gang upgrades. While the gang starts off as nothing more than expendable cannon fodder their skills will grant them lots more capability to the point that you can let them clear an enemy stronghold for you.
A more controversial addition to the series is liable to be the rope launcher. Very early on the pair get their hands on a grappling hook and get it attached to their gauntlet. This lets you, at the press of a button, grapple to the highest point of the building nearest to you then zip right to the top. It is awesome. While I will always love the way you have to find your path up a wall so you can climb to the top, giving you a feeling of accomplishment, this makes getting to synchronization viewpoints so much quicker and hassle free. Getting away from enemies when they notice you is even easier now than ever before. However it’s pretty obvious to see why some might feel that this negatively impacts the parkour aspect of the game.
But the second use of the launcher is the reason I love it so much - you can use it to cross from building to building without touching the ground. This horizontal movement makes it intensely satisfying when sneaking through enemy strongholds. The enemies can sometimes be pretty dense but using the rope launcher it’s easy to fully outmaneuver them. It’s pretty awesome to zip around taking out all of the snipers then maintaining the high ground to take out everyone else in the gang stronghold without anyone ever realizing what’s going on. When you add the horizontal and vertical maneuverability this provides you gain an unparalleled ability to move around the city that adds a sense of speed and fluidity to navigation.
Speaking of gang strongholds these are just one of a wide variety of missions in the game. Each of your allies will give you a few tasks you can complete around the city to earn reputation with them. The policeman wants you to bring back some wanted criminals, alive preferably. Your contact in the transit business wants you to interfere in the Templar run gang’s business endeavors. This involves hijacking enemy carts, trains and even smuggled goods. Your friend amongst the street urchins wants you to free kids from child labor around the city. All of these missions really provide a large around of variety to keep you busy around the city.
All of this is great and all but there are a few issues that, for me, are really holding the games back from greatness. Most notable is the fact that the modern day stuff really feels like the appendix at this point. It barely figures into the events of the game, you have no personal connection to what’s going on now that Desmond is long gone and it honestly feels like the storytelling is just getting more and more contrived in an effort to make it interesting. Being frank it feels more like its shoehorned in than anything else. This also extends to the First Civilization characters like Juno who figure in to such a small degree that they could be completely excised and impact nothing. At this point a straight retelling of the events of the time period just feel more interesting than bothering with a group of modern day people I could care less about. I guess if you care about Shaun or Rebecca you might feel differently but I truly, honestly don't. Nor do I care about characters introduced in side material.
The characters themselves can also be a source of division. While every character is written and voiced superbly, the characterization is going to be pretty polarizing. Jacob is a clever guy but he also acts intensely stupid and refuses to consider the ramifications of any of his actions. While he might be full of good intentions the guy just acts like an overgrown man-child. He’s kind of like a more charming version of Altair, all full of piss and vinegar and breaking just as much as he fixes.
However the game never really addresses the issue. It shows the events happening, shows people complaining about it and Jacob being mad at being called out on it. But then... it just stops. There’s no event where he’s forced to acknowledge what he’s done. The plot just says that he did near the end. It would have been nice to have him come face to face with one of the accidental victims of his negligence to give him a reason for this change but it doesn’t happen.
It’s a shame too since most of the other characters are written so well. For example, take Evie. She is a very well fleshed out character. She says and does a few stupid things over the course of the game but she grows out of it rather naturally. You can see her growth from the very first mission to the finale as she grows to realize that her strict mentality is just doing a disservice to both herself and those around her. It’s organic and quite well written.
There are also a few other issues with the way things are written that seem kind of headscratching.
First up is Ned Wynert. Ned is a transgender individual, a woman who is living her life as a man. That’s fine and dandy, I have no problem with characters like this in video games and it's fairly progressive to include them. Krem from Dragon Age: Inquisition was lots of fun after all. But the game seems to just ignore the nature of how insanely rare and controversial a character Ned would be in-universe. The game is set in 1868 just seven years after homosexuality was no longer punishable by death in England - something tells me that they weren’t just going to shrug and accept a woman who wanted to live as a man.
In game though this is never brought up nor commented on. As far as the world is concerned Ned is just another businessman. I can understand the Assassin and Templar groups not caring since they're often shown to be fairly all inclusive but the city at large ignoring it? No, that’s just so wrong I don’t even know where to start. If you weren’t going to do anything with the character, since he is indeed simply a minor side character, then don’t make him transgender. Don’t add in something this notable unless you’re going to do something with it from a story or character perspective. There's approximately one situation where Ned even figures into the plot and that's it. It makes the inclusion feel kind of useless.
Normally I’d just brush this off but it ends up standing out when you notice that there’s a bit of a homosexual vibe between two main characters. It’s a spoiler to get too deep into it but the way it’s written it feels kind of weird. This too is barely explored.
When putting these two together, alongside Evie being a main character, it feels less like Ubisoft was trying to be inclusive and more desperate for love. After the comments they made about animating women being hard it seems like now they’re trying to grab every under-represented group they can and put them in the game. However they don’t really do anything with any of these which kind of feels more insulting than not including them at all. Then again the way that these are included is so minor that it almost feels like complaining about it is wasting my breath.
These writing fumbles might be issues, sure, but they do nothing to really take away from the pleasant time I had with Syndicate. The Assassin's Creed series has had a bit of a bumpy road lately so it's nice to see the games taking a more solid turn again. Even if it doesn't redefine storytelling or even action-adventure gaming in general it's still a fine addition to any gamer's library. With the talk of Ubisoft taking a break from the yearly releases to drop their next game in 2017 instead, it sounds like more effort will be put into making these top-tier games once again. After Syndicate I have to admit that I'm looking forward to it. I just hope that it doesn't backslide into garbage historical revisionism like Unity did.