Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate might just win the hearts of fans who feel burned by last fall’s lackluster releases in the stealth-action series.
It offers a number of solutions to problems that plagued Assassin’s Creed: Unity and Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, some bang-up new additions including carriages and a strong playable woman and zip lines, and a wonderful — and huge — setting.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate launches tomorrow from Ubisoft and its Quebec studio on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (reviewed) for $60 and November 19 on PC. A $90 Gold edition includes a Season Pass, and various other editions include physical art and items. Pre-orders get the Darwin & Dickens conspiracy mission, and PS4 players get 10 bonus missions, “The Dreadful Crimes.”
If you were one of the players that felt last fall’s chapters left the series bruised and bleeding, think of Syndicate as being like one of the series’ many assassin heroes, who can recover even when things look bleak. It picks the series up, patches up the worst of its wounds as best it can, and gets back to doing what it knows best.
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What you’ll like
Victorian London is big, beautiful setting
Compared to some earlier AC landscapes, Syndicate is huge, and a good amount of side missions fill the neighborhoods. Ubisoft depicts London with a vaguely steampunk Victorian aesthetic, which it follows consistently around the city. The neighborhoods vary in the character of their buildings — warehouses versus gothic churches, and so on — but the people who fill them are largely the same.
The views go on for miles. In a map this large, you have good incentive to get up to those tiny-high-up-needlepoints that assassins always seem to like to perch on. Many of those spots in Syndicate mark spaces where, once visited, you can fast travel to from the map later on.
You also have your own train, which I would have liked to use more to get around. Still, it’s fun watching the city from the train cars, the moving horse-drawn carriages (more on that in a minute) and the boats on the Thames.
Those assassins really are twins
Syndicate offers the first playable female character in the series, and she’s fabulous. Jacob and Evie Frye are twins, and while some missions require you to play one or the other, most offer the chance to pick your favorite. And trust me, your favorite is going to be Evie.
The characters function nearly the same. Ubisoft nudges you to consider Evie as a more stealth-oriented character. It reinforces this with her outfits, which give bonus cane-sword damage, and then orients you toward lethality as a stat (since that’s what comes on those swords.) But if you really wanted to, you could just ignore those hints, equip yourself a dandy pair of brass knuckles, take all the fighting talents, and away you go. Jacob and Evie feel nearly the same in combat.
The one place where I noticed a difference between the two characters was when climbing and getting around the city. I don’t know whether it was the particular sequences where I was playing Jacob that just made things slightly more difficult to climb and parkour, or whether Ubisoft gimped him to emphasize the quick, slick movements of his sister — which would seem an odd choice. But all the problems I had in the game with movement and climbing only appeared with Jacob. Evie always moved smoothly, and I ended up relying on her just about every time I had a choice.
She also dresses and acts like an assassin, is tough without being an in-your-face bruiser, and really provides the perfect complement for her hotheaded brother. Evie comes across as likable and competent. After all the complaints Assassin’s Creed has generated in its treatment of female characters (unplayable, helpless, scantily clad, bitchy, and so on), Evie shows how it should have been done all along.
Framerates were consistently good throughout my game on the Xbox One, and Ubisoft appears to have resolved many of the issues with bad A.I. and just flat-out bugginess of the last versions. When in combat with multiple enemies, they don’t line up, helpfully waiting to attack you one at a time. I didn’t see many display bugs, and those that showed up were exceptionally minor.
I had none of the issues reported by some others: no crashes, no NPCs floating in air, no wacky glitches. Ubisoft pushed two day-one patches (both under a gigabyte) that you’ll install before playing, which I had during my review tests. All the issues I’ve seen reported were on PS4, which may also have been a factor.
After last fall’s at-launch performance of Unity and Rogue, I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of problems I encountered in Syndicate. Gameplay felt smooth, and cut scenes rendered perfectly.
The only frustrating points in the game where places where Jacob — not Evie, mind you — refused to climb up a wall or structure that clearly was in front of his face and had the handholds he needed. One of my few deaths was from failing to climb a simple metal structure to get out of danger after filling a warehouse with poison gas (oops, my bad.)
Oh, zip lines, how I love thee
Some streets in Syndicate’s London sprawl, and jumping from house to house would start to look pretty silly. But reaching the end of a building, looking around, and realizing that you have to descend to the street, walk across the cobbles, then climb another building to keep going feels terrible.
Fortunately, you only have to do that for a sequence or so before you obtain the very best accessory you’ll get: your zip line gun.
You aim your zip line at specified tether points, so it’s not truly open-world. But they are legion. As a result, if you get good with timing, you start to feel like a Victorian Spider-Man — if Spider-Man could stop in mid-swing, target two bad guys underneath him, and drop down to perform a sweet double-assassination move.
With the zip line, carriages, fast travel, and other shortcuts, London’s streets feel huge and still incredibly quick to navigate. It’s a fun combination.
Grand Theft Equus
Syndicate adds vehicles to Assassin’s Creed (no, your pirate ship didn’t count), and they offer a Grand Theft Auto-lite feel to the streets. You can hijack any vehicle, ram it into enemies and other carriages, hide bodies inside them, and use them to race through the streets.
One of your upgrades for the Rooks, your crew of gang members, gives them vehicles, which means you can hitch a friendly ride from many streetcorners. If you steal a cart, bad guys will alert as you ride by, as will the police. Or perhaps that was just my poor driving skills. I spent a lot of time riding down pedestrians, lampposts, and other carriages.
Steering is loosey-goosey (think early GTA) but fun. One enjoyable mission from Charles Darwin has you shake down someone for information by hijacking their carriage and then deliberately destroying it by ramming it into things. I ruled at that mission.
Damage shows up dynamically on the carriages as you destroy them, and it’s worth noting that one of the more amusing minor display glitches shows up here. If your carriage is drawn by a single horse, and you scrape that horse against a stone wall or another carriage — during a turn, say — the horse will throw off sparks, as if it were a carriage. Perhaps their harnesses are made of flint?
You can get away from Syndicate London’s bobbies in a stolen carriage much more easily than GTA’s police, but that’s really true throughout the game. When I got myself into trouble with too many enemies, it was almost always easy to scale a building and lose them or zip line away. Both your enemies and your gang members are terrible at climbing, so by the time they scale the stairs in the building and pop out a skylight, you’ve zip lined halfway across the neighborhood.
In carriages, you can bail out while they’re still moving, disappearing into the crowd or onto a roof before your pursuers know where you’ve gone.
What you won’t like
About that story …
The evil Templars are attempting to take over London, and they have at least one Piece of Eden (powerful items that might help them control the city). The Creed wants the Frye twins to wait for instructions, or reinforcements, or something. But they’re impetuous! Instructions be damned! Which pretty much boils down to all the motivation these two seem to have for most of the things they do.
So they perform some pretty fun scenes on a train and then end up in London, where they meet Henry Green, who brings the smolder this time around. After that, they run around the city, chasing down signs of Eden things and doing favors for people to gain the opportunity to fight gang leaders for control of London’s neighborhoods.
Evie’s the “We should stop the Templars from using Pieces of Eden!” one and Jacob’s the “We should build the Rooks and rule London!” one, but it takes forever to develop anything that could be considered drama. The characters themselves are likable enough, and you’ll probably enjoy spending time with them. But they don’t seem to care much about what they’re doing for a very long time, so neither will you.
Also, pet peeve: I’m delighted to have historical figures like Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens and Alexander Graham Bell show up in games like Syndicate, even if they’re shown doing silly things not at all related to their real lives. But just because someone is a famous scientist doesn’t make him a chemist or an engineer or a developer of hallucinogenic darts. Or able to build and repair zip line guns.
Side missions often bring the meh
Side missions are a mainstay of Assassin’s Creed, since they often offer more content than the main sequence storyline missions. In Syndicate, you can progress through the game doing almost nothing but sequence missions if you choose; the leveling process is fairly smooth, so it works out fine.
But side missions offer some nifty gear, recipes, faction points with people you want to be friends with, and the like. Syndicate does try to offer some variety: You’ll be sent out to knock someone off, spy on them, chase them down and tackle them, take them hostage, collect things, or the like. But it does start to feel a little similar after a while.
You might save children from a factory for a particular group of über-powerful urchins, and then you turn around and save adults in another factory for someone else. The bonus objectives (special conditions you have to meet) might be different, but a lot of those overlap as well.
Crafting is thin and largely unnecessary
Crafting supplies pop up everywhere, and pounds (Syndicate’s currency) steadily pile up as well. You can make gear upgrades, but they generally offer middle of the road power or stats and are soon replaced. I ended up using most materials to just upgrade pieces of armor or weapons I obtained through missions or along the way.
Ubisoft’s store is gently present here: You can buy additional resources to level through the game faster, buy upgrades faster, and the like. Because Syndicate is a single-player affair — no multiplayer or online play at all — these feel a little like trading real cash for cheat codes, a time-honored tradition in gaming. You do not need, nor will you likely feel too tempted, to spend actual money to complete this.
If you must have in-game transactions, these feel unobtrusive, and not like anyone is putting parts of the game behind a paywall.
So our framerates purr, but we gave up our pretty people
Sometimes the scenery in Syndicate catches my eye, the hazy smog of London hanging over the rooftops and the sun reflecting just so on the leather edges of Evie’s cape in front of me, and it just makes me smile. The dynamic shadows and lighting combine to give the place a subtle realism that sometimes grabs you.
And then you see a person up close.
This is one area where Assassin’s Creed: Unity spoiled us a bit. That delicately rendered hair, the subtle texture of skin, is largely missing from Syndicate. The graphics aren’t godawful, though lip-synching sometimes appears crude. But they lack the more-realistic human rendering that sometimes made Unity’s characters appear more like flesh and blood.
Did we give up that graphical step forward to get Syndicate’s steady performance? Probably. Do I miss it? Yes. If I had an incredible story to distract me, it wouldn’t pose as much of a problem.
Combat is simplistic
You’ll still rack up combos in Syndicate, but you’ll never need them. Generally speaking, the new combat system looks something like this on Xbox One: X-X-X-X-X-X-crap, he’s blocking-A-X-X-X-X. Most of the time, you’ll win by being constantly on the attack, with only the occasional counter needed when someone turtles.
If you have a gun equipped and someone takes a bead on you at range, you can quick-tap Y to try to shoot him first. If you have a bomb equipped, you can use Y to toss it in the group and make your escape, or toss it at someone at range to make them unable to hit you.
I’ll confess that I’ve never been a fan of “now hit these 16 buttons and you’ll do something fabulous” fighting, but high and low weren’t that hard to understand, were they? Combat in Syndicate isn’t unsatisfying, and it looks reasonably good, but you won’t need a lot of skill to control it.
Multi-enemy moves are rare unless they occur automatically when you have several at very low health (or you’re going for a stealth assassination and have taken the two-at-once talent.) That way-cool spin-duck-multi-kill I loved from some of the previous games never happened for me here.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is a solid entry in the series, with a great setting and two likable protagonists. It gets its badass female character just right, and it nails the fun with carriages and zip lines. The Victorian London cityscape offers a huge gameplay map, but many ways to get around easily. The amount of fun, if mindless, gameplay Syndicate offers bumps up the score quite a bit.
Storyline missions (and famous-character side missions) generally don’t disappoint, but nothing here poses too much of a challenge. The puzzles stay relatively simple, the combat takes simple button-mashing to master, and if you keep an eye out for trouble, you’ll rarely die. Even the graphics appear to have simplified in many ways.
The storyline itself takes too long to wind up and feels a little milquetoast compared to the grand drama of previous installments. Syndicate is a good, solid game, one of the better in the series recently when it comes to its mechanics, with some nice surprises.
It just contains a little too much filler, both in story and in side missions, to be truly great.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate launches Friday, October 23, for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a physical copy of the Limited Edition for this review.