Review: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, in which we meet the female assassin we were waiting for

If Unity left you feeling cold, don't immediately discount Syndicate... guvnor

If there’s one thing that’s always kept me coming back to the Assassin’s Creed series, it’s the promise of a new historical setting. Ubisoft somehow always manage to pick a place in history that at some point in my life I have feverishly read about and have an all-consuming need to see and explore in a way a book just won’t let me; it’s one of the greatest draws of the series and it’s also one of the reasons I was willing to overlook the obvious flaws of Assassin’s Creed Unity – I was going to soak up the atmosphere of revolutionary Paris and no bug was going to stop me, although they gave it their best shot. There’s no denying that despite all the bugs and glitches Ubisoft created a beautiful city in Unity. Actually, they create beautiful locations in all of the games and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is no different.

Taking us to London in the 1860s, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate showcases a city that feels alive. I’ll admit that living in London myself, recognising these places I was scrambling over, gave me more of a rush than any of the previous games and I definitely have to remember this bias when talking about how much I loved exploring this particular game world. The world is busy and interesting, the NPC population are more reactive to your actions than ever (perhaps overly so), the addition of the zip-line makes it a genuine joy to leap from roof to terraced roof. You don’t just see the beautiful side of the city from the top of Big Ben, either, you delve into the underbelly, the absolute shithole that London has the capacity to be with all its poverty, violence, and gloomy rain. It’s safe to say the London of 1868 is prettier when viewed from a distance. In the sun.

Now that I’m done fangirling over the continued joy I get from the time travelling these games make possible (seriously just make a walking simulator of every period in history I love, please), let’s get down to the nitty gritty.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate introduces a new relationship dynamic to the series with its twin protagonists Jacob and Evie Frye who roll into the big smoke looking to end the tyrannous reign of Crawford Starrick who, despite an admittedly wonderful name, is an evil Templar industrialist who controls the city through money and violent gangs. Jacob and Evie don’t just want to take apart the evil Templar organisation, they also want to free the oppressed masses of Victorian society.

Like in previous instalments you also have the frame story in which you are a character recruited by the modern Assassins to explore the memories of Jacob and Evie, but fortunately in Syndicate these moments are sparing and actually kind of manage to get the cogs moving in a plot that I’ve been losing interest in (and I think Ubisoft have been too) since Assassin’s Creed II.

Image © Ubisoft

I don’t really mind this decreased focus on the exterior story, because I enjoyed the game’s main story enough. The dynamic between Jacob and Evie was a nice change of pace for the series; their disagreements over what makes a good Assassin and the best route to take to achieve their goals made for good tension and often had actually funny dialogue, with Jacob’s obnoxious arrogance playing perfectly against Evie’s dry cool headedness.

I’ve been excited for Evie since E3. Of course I’m excited for Evie – she’s the first female assassin not relegated to a side release. And it’s an honest relief to say I like her. She’s intelligent, charismatic, and driven. Importantly Evie isn’t an object in the game; her clothing is not sexualised and she fights with the ferocity you would expect of any assassin. That said, you also get the impression that Evie isn’t just any assassin, that she’s an individual, distinct from her brother and from all the assassins of previous games.

Not only that, other female characters populate this game in roles we haven’t seen in the Assassin’s Creed universe before. That’s right, gone are the days of dancing prostitute powered circles of invisibility. There are a good number of female enemies in this game who have the same strength and willingness to take charge and engage in combat as their male comrades. Fighting these characters doesn’t feel disturbingly gendered because they’re competent and capable. These women and Evie are treated with respect; it’s just accepted that they have authority and power. Sure, you could argue that this is unlikely in the time period, ‘unrealistic’ even, but when you’re playing in a game world where you’re entering the memories of your ancestors through a machine and playing through their lives, I hardly think a woman being treated with respect is the greatest divergence from realism you’re facing, and it’s hardly the place to stop suspending your powers of disbelief. This kind of representation is definitely a positive turn for the series.

Image © Ubisoft

An element that hasn’t changed is the feeling that you have a choice of taking the stealthy approach or the more bull in a china shop approach. Well, I say choice. It is a choice, but one is much more difficult to achieve than the other. Taking a stealthy approach can be difficult in Assassin’s Creed, featuring little finesse and feeling a lot like chance. You’ll find yourself getting a good start, entering a location through the roof, eventually getting caught, running away to vanish from the sight of some frankly very stupid AI enemies, before returning and trying again. It could be that I’m very bad at stealth, but considering it’s the angle of combat I choose in every game where it’s an option, I refuse to admit that and instead I’m going to assert that it’s Assassin’s Creed that’s bad at stealth, not me. At the very least Syndicate does bring in some special stealth abilities specific to Evie which augment the stealth experience more than previous games, and I like the new addition of being able to kidnap people to infiltrate and escape locations.

If you take the more action-oriented approach that Jacob is known for, the combat in Syndicate is satisfying enough and very simple. It hasn’t changed much from previous games at all, involving a well-timed counter and a flurry of beatings for success. Main weapons range from inelegant knuckle dusters to a sword cane (a weapon addition I cannot sufficiently express my love for) and you still have your trusty throwing knives and hidden blade.

There’s also a nice balance of side missions and story missions. The story missions are, as always, the most interesting to play, and some of the main assassination missions in Syndicate are real shining and memorable moments for the series.

The side missions revolve around gaining territory from the Blighter gang who rule most of London. These side missions actually were enjoyable to play through, but sometimes I found that they all blended together slightly with a repetitiveness Assassin’s Creed does tend to fall victim to. Using these missions as breathers between the larger main story missions was the best way to go about avoiding this fatigue, I found, and it’s really easy to swing into one of the side missions between story missions, purely because the city is so easy to traverse even without fast travel.

The conquering of territory is actually handled very well in the game, and seeing Blighter red peel away from the map is immensely satisfying, effectively pulling at my usually latent completionist compulsions, making me want to keep going. “Just one more mission” is something I often found myself saying. You do have to question how much Jacob and Evie are actually helping these people by moving them from the rule of one gang to another, but they’re changing from evil red costumes to infinitely more positive green ones so that’s okay, right?

Image © Ubisoft

Another thing that hasn’t really changed is the persistence of the glitches and control issues. They’re not quite as extensive as Unity, which is great, but they’re present enough that I often found myself huffing in frustration, whether because a character had completely disappeared whilst I was fighting or talking to them, or because I’d pressed for one of the circle button’s many functions and gotten a different one. That said, the problems have noticably lessened and I’m happy with that.

If Unity left you feeling cold, don’t immediately disregard Syndicate because it’s definitely got a lot to offer. Great characters, enjoyable missions, horses and carts (that you will try and drift, I’m telling you now), and a world that’s a pleasure to explore. It’s definitely got its flaws, but this is the most satisfied I’ve felt with an Assassin’s Creed game in quite a while.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is available now on Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Our review copy was provided by Ubisoft for Playstation 4.

Main Image © Ubisoft