So it’s that time of year again, as regular as Christmas, as reliable as the Easter bunny and as predictable as certain famous Premier League managers having hissy-fit meltdowns. It’s time to put on that hood, strap a big knife to your wrist and climb up some of the most famous buildings from the past. Yes that’s right it’s Assassin’s Creed time.
This year’s adventure is set in Victorian London, which is very exciting for me because it’s my home town. Even though pick pocket street urchins, random acts of murder and strange clothed men with ridiculous beards are common place down my road in modern times, I couldn’t wait to see how the series tackles the capital city from the past.
After last year’s problems with buggy Unity issues, with its melting faces and all, the hopes were high for this installment. I loved Unity, found the bugs were not a problem and that they didn’t really get in the way of my enjoyment of the game. This game is really the repackaged Unity engine, but in a new location and time. So if you hated Unity, will you hate Syndicate? Well…I think you might be pleasantly surprised.
The story this time focuses on two characters instead of the regular singular hero. Twins siblings Jacob and Evie Frye are the main assassins in this adventure. They head into London town with different objectives, but they work together to achieve the common goal…kill all templars. Evie is very much the thoughtful one who wants to work for the order, by gathering secrets from the tombs and finding the missing pieces of Eden. Jacob really just wants a good fight, a bit of a laugh and to instigate gang warfare. Just like an uncle of mine actually, who by the way is now serving time in prison.
Along the way they get involved with famous Victorians, such as Charles Dickins, Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell and the great Queen Victoria herself. This is one of Syndicate’s biggest strengths; the story, characters and voice work are some of the best the series has to offer, easily on a par with the brilliant Assassin’s Creed 2. The dialogue is quick and funny, and the main characters interact really well together with the direction sharp and focused. Even the modern day sections, which really have lost their way now for a while I think, seem exciting and well crafted. It even made me interested in the Assassin’s Creed lore again, urging me to go back to read up on a few things in order to catch up.
So gameplay wise what is different? Well it’s still the same Assassin’s Creed you love or hate. Breaking it down into bite sized chunks, you have climbing first. Tackling tall buildings and running across roof tops has been the staple diet of all Assassin’s Creed since it’s birth. Here the mechanic works very well, as it should by now, you can clamber up a building in a few tics. The angle of where you want them to jump sometimes becomes confusing and your selected Assassin won’t sometimes go in the direction you want him to go, but mostly it works fine. But now the new trick is the grappling hook, which you strap to your wrist and fire towards the top of building with the LB button…hey presto you’re there. You can even grapple across buildings, climbing up across the rope or sliding down it. This really is a nice welcome feature that makes traversing the large world easier and also makes quick escapes even swifter.
Next up – stealth and fighting! The Stealth ability is more aimed at Evie and the fighting ability for Jacob, but to be honest both are as good as each other at these skills. The stealth part is pretty much the same as it always is, hiding in shadows or behind objects. A little hud comes up if a guard notices you and/or if you are making to much noise, which is a helpful feature. You can whistle for an enemy to come over, then kill them and hide them in a cart of hay. The cart of hay is that most recurring character from all the games so far and deserves it own lifetime achievement award I think.
The fighting itself is the most changed aspect in Syndicate; gone are the sword fights we have grown accustomed to in the past. You see they were too polite to do that sort of thing in those times – this is England god damn it. So instead you fight dirty, in the streets, with knifes and knuckle dusters that you buy or create in the crafting section. These fights are fast and furious, with counters and defense breaking moves being the most useful device to winning. The enemy’s are usually rival gang members and gang leaders who will attack you on sight. You can start a gang war in a borough and kill the leader which then sees you control that borough and build your own gang of super thugs called the Rooks. The other people you might get into a fight with are the Police. The boys in blue will beat you to a pulp with their truncheons if they see you doing anything illegal, so be careful.
London is split into boroughs; starting in the slums of Whitechapel and then moving your way up the food chain to Westminster. The enemies in the posh areas are of a higher calibre and will flatten you in a heartbeat, so you have to pick your fights very carefully. To get to a point where you can feel safe to walk the streets without fear, you upgrade your skills, level and gear like Unity with experience points from doing the main story, side missions or finding secrets. There is quite frankly loads to do and the doing of it is really good fun.
Now that Assassin’s Creed has moved into the nineteenth century for the first time, trains and horse carriages have been added. The train itself is not drivable, but you have battles on them and it is now your own constantly on-the-move hideout, driving across London town as you plan your next scheme to bring down the Templars. The horse drawn carriages are available to drive and steal if needs be. Like a famous game which has Grand and Auto in its title, you press a button steal a carriage and horse before racing across the city. There’s even a little route finder on the screen that guides you to your location. At first this feels strange in a game like this, but it works really well and when you have fights with other carriages chasing you through the street it’s really very thrilling.
The graphical design of London itself is superb and the life that lays within it is brilliantly rendered by Ubisoft Quebec. The locations are all vivid from Big Ben right down to the slums. The Thames itself is bubbling with boats, life and trouble. You just happen upon things all the time on your journey, like a man having a shave in an alleyway, or a street fighting ring on a gas tank. You will spend many hours, just wandering and getting lost in the city without even touching a mission. I never grew bored of climbing a tall building and looking down at the people below wondering where to go next. Syndicate’s London may look like Unity’s Paris, but I feel it’s a big step up in quality.
The soundtrack is worthy of a big mention. Austin Wintroy (Journey) does a brilliant job of composing a heap of material that feels never trite or useless, but perfect for the world and story. I don’t try to purchase many game soundtracks after I’ve played something for a while, but this I will.
So what are the downsides? Well if you’re an Assassin’s Creed fan this is a high point in the series and a must play game for your collection. If you are new, this is a good a point as any to start the journey. I do think it’s needs a refresh at some point, as it’s at the edge of getting stale. Maybe a year off Ubisoft? Also I really enjoyed the online co-op missions from Unity last year and now that feature has gone completely and it’s a real shame not to expand on that element.
For now though the experience is fantastic and with some Jack the Ripper DLC to come, there are no more excuses to not journey down to the big smoke.