It has become a yearly tradition now, Assassin’s Creed is released around the same time every 12 months, but this time it’s different, as Montreal is not leading the charge that honor falls to Toronto, so does a new leader mean new things for the long running series?
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s biggest departure for a story is it now features 2 playable protagonists, Jacob and Evie Frye, twins from the English countryside who are determined to help London regain its freedom from the Templars and the man leading them Crawford Starrick. While the story is pretty safe in terms of what happens, there are one or two interesting moments that help it take steps above the recent entries, but what is more exciting is the banter between the two leads. Jacob is the more rash of the two, preferring to settle things with his fists and he plans to free London by creating a new gang to take control of the city away from the Blighters, who current rule over London and then there is Evie, who at first glance appears to be more level headed and prone to rational thoughts, but there are times when she gets overly excited about things as well and while Jacob is all set to fight for control of London, Evie is determined to stop the Templars from acquiring any more Pieces of Eden.
While Jacob and Evie both attend about their business in their own ways, it is the people of both the Assassin Brotherhood and the Templar Order that make the story work, Agnes is the woman who runs the train that is the hideout of the Assassin’s in London, Henry Green is their information and connection man and both offer more character to the story than either of the Twins do, similarly on the Templar side, Lucy Thorne is more of a character and perceived threat than Crawford Starrick or any of the other people who work for him. Thankfully, they are all given time to help build their characters properly, so by the end you will know who they were. There is of course another story happening here and that is the modern day one, which is also set in London, you are once again an unnamed, faceless player who is being roped into the modern day war between the Assassins and the Templars and you get to experience a story through cutscenes and voice over. Since Desmond died at the end of Assassin’s Creed 3, I have had no interest in the outside story and it seems neither has the developer, nothing about it made me want to watch or learn about the characters, in fact I wanted to skip them all so I could return to London.
The biggest departure for the series now is that the game is set in a more modern setting, the streets of London are now filled with horse drawn carriages, trains make their way around the city at any given time and the people are more used to things in a certain way. The biggest change to this is how you fight, around this time the only people who walked around with swords dangling from their hips were military men and only on occasion, anyone else doing so would be arrested. So when getting into a fight, you will be using smaller blades or blades hidden within walking canes, which means the fights are more up close than they have been in years past. Side items like pistols, throwing knives and smoke bombs all return and do help keep things fresh, but by far and away the biggest addition is the rope launcher. With this you can scale buildings with little effort and go from roof top to roof top without the need to touch the ground. While, you can’t use it in combat directly, it is really great and helping you escape when the need arises, what you also have access to are the carriages that roam the city streets. You can take control over any carriage you see, if its empty you will just climb in and start off, if there is already someone driving you can hijack and then take off, but doing that will call attention to yourself. While speeding around London sounds fun, the carriages are very difficult to control, with sharps turns being especially difficult to pull off and it gets even more crazy when you are being chased around by members of the enemy gang.
Speaking of the gang, the Blighters are a real pain, at any point you come near one they will cross the street and harass you, which is all well and good, but after the first few times it becomes more of an irritant than anything else. There were times when I had to interact with something, but I was being watched by a close by Blighter, which meant I was unable to continue, which meant I needed to take care of them first, which would result in a fight. You can select an option in the gang menu to purchase notoriety, which stops them going after you, but it still boggles my mind how if I emerge on the street in a brand new outfit that I only just equipped, how someone across the street can know who I am already, even more so when the members of the Blighters are shown not to be especially bright. The other side of the gang coin is your gang, The Rooks.
The Rooks are the gang that Jacob started in order to help bring control back to London by removing it from the Blighters, while the speed at which they get the gang going is hard to believe, the keeping it going is actually quite fun. As you progress through the game, you can upgrade the members of your gang, giving them more training makes them better in combat, having them work in pubs and race tracks, lets you earn more money and such. But the best use of the gang is when you enter into Brawls with the Blighters, who are in charge of a specific section of the map. In order to have one of these brawls, you need to draw the attention of the gang leader in that section of the city, to do this you must release control from the Blighters are various points, this can be as simple as taking out a Templar leader in a set area, or freeing children from factories. These missions are fun the first few times, but they quickly wear out fast, none more so than the bounties, which are missions that have you hunting down one Blighter from the crowd and escorting them to the police. The first two areas I cleared and brawls I won were fun, but by the time I was onto my forth area to clear, I ended up just moving on as I did not want to keep doing the same side missions.
That is where the game falls apart the most, each of the main story missions you undertake are the same as in games past, locate someone, kill said someone and escape. You now have the option to attempt this is more varied ways, like what was done with Unity, but here it feels more rounded, offering up different options depending on how you play. The side missions are also interesting, but it’s the gang missions and hidden collectables that are not, which is something the series has struggled with since day one. One example I can give is a vault hidden under London contains some very cool Assassin gear, but in order to unlock the vault, which is not protected at all, is by finding all 32 music boxes located around the city. You will know when you are near one as you will hear some music playing and it gets louder as you get closer. Some of these are located on benches and ledges, the problem is that if they were left playing in the public space, someone would have taken then, the other issue is that some of them are so out of the way, that unless you just happen to be wandering through that space you would never have thought to look for it there and yes I am talking about the music box that is atop the giant smoke stack. The side missions become more of a chore than fun as the game progresses and if you did not need resources, they would be something you could skip entirely.
Resources play a large part in the game, no longer do you have to hunt for items to upgrade your gear, but you will need to steal them, as London is a city that was built upon industry, the river Themes is a central part of that and the game looks the part for it as well. At any time of day, boats can be seen heading up and down river, offering up some missions along the way, the water is a murky brown, with the occasional clear water coming through. The locations are banked by large brown and red brick buildings, which extend into almost every aspect of the city, except for Westminster where trees still live. The city of London can best be described by being large and brown, which sadly is a very bad thing, we have experienced cities and locations in games past that have been wonderfully colourful, in both setting and people, but here the game just fails to deliver anything past brown. In Unity last year, the city evolved over time, with flags appearing throughout as the people fought back, this time London looks the same at the start as it does at the end, bland and mucky.
The citizens that inhabit the world are just as bland, with the same character models repeating so often throughout the world. What makes it even stranger is the AI is randomly attached to character models and more than once did I see a man who was dressed up in the most dapper of wear, rob someone or get into a fight on the street or the reverse a character who looked like they were from the slums talking it up big with fancy looking people. The city does get some personality when the rain sets in, but people don’t dash for cover, they just continue on, ignoring it and there was one mission where I had to chase after a carriage but the dense fog, which London was known for, hampered efforts, but it was the only time I had to deal with it. Hearing the various slang from the citizens of London did help make the city feel alive, but that was overshadowed by the same lines be uttered by the Twins time and time again. Almost everytime I had to capture a bounty, they would said the lines once through and then repeat them in order until I got to the carriage and then when controlling he carriage, hearing who’s a good horse countless times just wore on.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a game of ambition, it strived to make things fresh by bringing it into the modern age and for some part that works, but as the game is still filled with countless repeating fetch quests and the pointless modern day story, it feels more restrained. This has set some strong foundations for moving the series forward, but it’s not the game capable of doing itself.