‘Cor blimey, guv’nor! An Assassin’s Creed game set in good ‘ol Blighty? Who’d have thunk it? Yep,Ubisoft has finally bowed down to fan pressure with the latest entry in its multi-million selling stab-happy franchise, as Assassin’s Creed has finally made the jump to one of the most requested settings to date: Victorian London. And with it, comes a freshly revamped combat system, a wealth of jubilant, cockney accents, and two protagonists who almost rival the legendary lothario, Ezio Auditore de Firenze, in the likeability factor. Most importantly, it is devoid of the horrendous, game-breaking bugs that plagued last year’s underrated Assassin’s Creed Unity, though curiously, eschews the multiplayer elements that have remained a staple of the franchise since 2010’s Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. But how does Assassin’s Creed Syndicate stand out in the grand scheme of things, in a world where Metal Gear Solid 5 has reinvigorated the open-world market?
Set in the midst of the Industrial Revolution under Queen Victoria’s reign at the throne, Syndicate’s core narrative is centered on oppression and greed, with assassin siblings Evie and Jacob Frye attempting to liberate the cobbled streets and murky Thames from the corrupt Templars and their gangs of Blighters. The notion of gang warfare has been brewing since Brotherhood’s days, although the concept has undeniably reached its peak here; you fight with the Rooks, a band of Londoners sympathetic to the assassin cause who will aid you both on the streets and the greater good of subverting the Templar’s grip on the city. It has to be said that the Frye twins are among the best heroes the series has seen. Jacob is the typical muscle-bound hero who loves to crack some heads, while his level-headed sister, Evie, prefers a more stealthy approach and adheres more strictly to the core assassin philosophies that have been handed down over hundreds of years. The juxtaposition between both characters’ personalities makes for a some compelling banter, and there’s a warmth and realism to both twins, who obviously love the bones off each other despite frequently butting heads.
Syndicate doesn’t exactly represent a paradigm shift for the series, although there’s definitely ways Ubisoft has improved the experience over previous instalments. Chief among these is the rope launcher. Unlocked early on, this great piece of kit allows you to reach rooftops in just a few seconds and glide across a zipline, making you act like a kind of Victorian Spider-Man. It’s an indispensible tool for navigation that not only makes travelling a real thrill, but eliminates the need to fast-travel most of the time and cuts out any laborious footwork to reach your objective. Furthermore, the cobbled streets are packed with horse and carts befitting of the time period, which you can pinch for your own use—providing the local plod isn’t looking in your direction, naturally. Typically of Assassin’s Creed, the controls aren’t perfect; I still kept bumping into things on occasion and kept leaping about the place when I was simply trying to move downwards, and the fact Circle is assigned to multiple, context-sensitive tasks doesn’t help matters. Thankfully, it doesn’t become a major issue in the grand scheme of things despite being quite irritating in the heat of battle, for example.
The bread-and-butter of Creed series’ throat-slitting antics remains in tact here, although there’s a more open-ended structure to missions. I felt more like an Assassin in this game than, say, Assassin’s Creed III or even Black Flag, and enjoyed planning my attack by marking targets with Eagle Vision and working out the best way to dispatch my target unseen. It feels there’s more opportunity this time around to approach missions as you see fit; you can go for the classic Hidden Blade kill, use pieces of the environment, hire fellow Rooks to fight off the guards for you, or go in guns blazing yourself. Sure, some ways work better than others, but it’s nice to have the choice, and Syndicate is all the better for it. Stealth is the best means of going about things, and definitely the most satisfying; using throwing knives, whistling to foes to drag them around a corner to meet their maker, or sticking a knife in someone’s back unnoticed carries a palpable sense of accomplishment, and definitely feels like you are playing as an assassin. You’ll also find yourself pinching cargo from Templar cargo ships, racing carriages through the streets, and stopping thugs from terrorising the locals by pulling your guns on them; this all helps flesh out the regular missions and ensures you are never hard up on things to do.
Less effective is Ubisoft’s attempt to spice up the combat system. Syndicate attempts to adopt a grittier system similar to the Arkham series’ in-your-face-brawling, which sees you duffing up baddies with knuckledusters, canes, knives, and other such weapons. The problem is, the game wants you to take on multiple foes at one time, leading to some messy encounters as you batter foes dozens of times, then move on to the next one and repeat the process. Yes, you can dodge attacks and an enemy’s defense, but it tends to blend together, and becomes almost a button-mashing affair as you relentlessly pummel foes until they lie a crumpled heap on the floor. Assassin’s Creed’s combat was always polarising, but I enjoy the more refined, block-and-counter affair of past games, plus the fact you could opt to take down foes in a non-lethal manner or even turn their own weapons against them. There’s nothing like that here; in fact, you can’t even block attacks outright. On the plus side, it’s a visceral, bloody experience, as Jacob and Evie execute some particularly gruesome finishing moves, and one-on-one encounters can prove quite enthralling. However, bosses and groups just become a laborious experience, which isn’t entirely uncommon as you progress through the game.
While the overall objective of the twins’ adventure is to assassinate the aristocratic Templar overlord, Starrick, there’s copious amounts of activities to steal your attention from the main quest. The backbone of Syndicate is liberating the various districts of London—Whitechapel, Westminster, Thames, City of London, Southwark, and Lambeth—-from the Blighters grasp, which is done by completing various tasks including hunting Templars, putting the kibosh on child labour in the area, or bounty hunting. There’s also gang hideouts to conquer, and once you’ve whittled down the Blighters’ grip on a specific borough, the Rooks and their enemies gather for a massive ruck in the street for control of the area. Each Borough has a gang leader who joins in the fight, although if you’re sneaky you can dispatch them earlier on and tip the odds further in your favor. Furthermore, each task you complete is associated with a specific character and increases your rep with them; for example, Child Liberation is linked to Clara ‘O Dea, a teenage girl working to improve the lives of poverty-stricken families in her borough. Each time you liberate a group of child slaves, you’ll earn standing with her, with rewarding offered as you level up. As such, you don’t strictly have to take over every single Borough or do every task, but the rewards are usually more than worth the effort.
Speaking of rewards, Jacob and Evie can be upgraded to the nines. You’ll earn XP for pretty much everything you do, which rewards you with Assassin Points to unlock various perks, from increasing your prowess in battle to boosting your health. There’s also gauntlets, outfits, and weapons to buff your character, plus the chance to upgrade your gear and cobble together bigger pouches to store more knives, bombs, and other weapons. The twins share weapons but can be upgraded separately; Jacob is more suited to outright brawling, while Evie prefers a more stealthy approach, though to be honest I found both equally as competent regardless of their roles. Still, it’s fun to tinker with their perks as individuals to craft them in a way you see fit, and aside from the core story missions, you can switch instantaneously between Jacob and Evie by hitting R3 on the options menu. The Rooks can also be improved with advanced training and their presence on the streets can be increased to help you out, although I didn’t really find them all that useful in large skirmishes and prefered to stick to the shadows and rooftops to handle any problems myself.
The real star of the show is the city of London itself, which may as well be Syndicate’s third character. From the immaculately crafted Victorian architecture, filth-ridden Thames river, to the almost patriarchal glow of Big Ben set against the moonlight, Ubisoft has created easily the most believable game world in the franchise to date, with 1868 London brimming with intrigue, atmosphere, and life. Cockney geezers chatter boorishly in the streets, rambunctious children scamper around amidst the poverty of the slums, and the hoofs of horses clatter on the cobbles just as you’d expect from the era. Syndicate is certainly a looker in terms of visuals, though it’s more impressive from an artistic perspective than raw graphical prowess; the scale of the whole affair is definitely something to be applauded. Fortunately, the excellent performances of the game’s cockney rabble complement the setting, whether it’s the lovable twin protagonists, the everyday Londoners lining the streets, to the slightly caricatural representations of historical figures such as Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens that punctuate the core narrative—solving ghost mysteries with the latter is particularly enjoyable.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s depiction of London is among its greatest strengths, and while the gameplay itself has its flaws, there’s no reason why aficionados of the series shouldn’t enjoy this latest outing. That said, there’s a lingering feeling that Ubisoft should probably give the franchise a break for at least a year to reinvent the brand; the more modern the series becomes, the further away from its roots it strays, and that might end up becoming a problem later down the line. For now though, Syndicate is worth a spin in your PS4.