Rain falls on the soot black heart of the industrial revolution; in the distance a clock tower bell chimes. London, 1868. With the ambition and vigor of a much younger game, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate aims to be the best in the series since Brotherhood. Taking seriously the bruising reviews for the previous title “Unity”, the teams at Ubisoft would not be satisfied to just put a fresh coat of paint on the sixth release. Every aspect of the controls were reinvented from basic movement, traversal, and stealth along with a massive overhaul to melee combat. The result looks and feels enough like our free-running, building scaling heroes of the past to pass as Assassin’s Creed but is far more fluid and ready to tackle the toughest urban playground ever featured in the series.
One could list out every new feature of combat and traversal in Syndicate, but it is easier to describe them in how a scene might play out. Your twin assassin of choice, be it stealth and dagger Evie Frye or her brawler brother Jacob, is aiding the Scotland Yard in the live capture of a criminal out of laws reach whose thugs are terrorizing the slums. Moving quickly on the rooftops from street to street with the help of a quick-firing rope launcher, you carefully take down a lookout and survey the alley where the gang is roughing up the locals. Spotting just two guarded ground escapes from the alley, you plan to quickly and quietly clear a path to one exit and escort the uncooperative high value target out to the street where a horse and carriage is waiting. Everything goes well, until just within feet of the carriage a second set of thugs happens to wander by and disrupts capture attempt. Breaking free the target runs to the streets and leaps into another carriage, raising a ruckus and attracting all manner of trouble as he speeds away. Having only seconds to close the gap to the escapee, the assassin takes the reigns of the first carriage and a high speed chase begins. Crashing through the cobbled streets of London, you manage to catch up, avoiding other carts and obstacles while trying match speed to line up your next move. Trusting the horse and cart’s current trajectory, you abandon the reigns and climb to the carriage roof, creating a split second opportunity to leap to the other carriage roof just before the carts separate or the road turns. Kicking the getaway driver out of his seat, you steer it back to the drop off point with the police – assuming thugs weren’t waiting for you there as well. None of this is scripted or plays out in “quick time”, it’s raw combat engine combined with the innovative carriage system that is integral to nearly every part of the game. A similar scene might have played out in and on top of a train, or across dozens of boats on the busy River Thames. It’s as if Ubisoft looked at groundbreaking naval combat in AC Black Flag and said “Let’s make the whole city feel like that”. It’s that good, but it gets even better.
While well-executed stealth puzzles are still the cornerstone of Assassin’s Creed, sooner or later an honest-to-goodness fight is going to break out. Thankfully, this no longer feels like just a punishment for failing a stealth objective. Totally re-imagined, the smoother feeling melee combo system is pure bliss to play and will leave you looking forward to your next knock-down brawl. Nine tough guys patrolling the illegal child-labor employing factory? Take out the foreman and free the children without anyone ringing the alarm bell? Maybe, or I could just pop my knuckles and ring the damn bell myself.
This duality is mirrored precisely in the twin heroes Evie and Jacob Frye: stealth and brawn. Or more accurately, refined discipline and brash style – as you’d be sorely mistaken to believe Evie was in any way less tough than her brother. It’s not just in the mechanics, but also through brilliant character writing. Their personalities and both complimentary and in contrast. This dynamic plays out beautifully between them as the story unfolds, adding another rich layer to an expertly crafted tale.
On story, allow me first me step back. I really enjoyed AC Unity, perhaps not as much as pirate-themed Black Flag but I argue most of the criticism Unity received was undeserved. Unity had very strong main characters, a wonderful story and a drop-dead gorgeous backdrop in revolution-era France. It’s lack of a key villain and inconsistent pacing is shared by almost every Assassin’s Creed before it, almost by design. Breaking with tradition, Syndicate establishes a strong villain right away to drive a solid narrative of corruption and intrigue without needlessly knocking off token bad guys just to turn a page. What follows is not one but several believable – and likable – bad guys that prop up one of the best plots I’ve played in a very long time.
I was a little sad when I heard there would be no co-op play in Syndicate as the main characters would be perfect for it, but I respect Ubisoft’s decision to focus on making the single player experience the best it could be. The same can be said for a companion app, which was amazing in Unity. In all, Syndicate stands on its own without them as one of the best in the franchise, raising my hopes that Assassin’s Creed will continue to defy odds, raising the bar even higher for a genre it invented.
In a final passing note – one other thing Syndicate players may not notice is missing: senseless misogynist tropes. No comically low unlaced v-neck tops as armor, no prostitutes in distress, no crimes against women as contextual backdrop. Don’t miss them, don’t need them back. Thank you Ubisoft.