Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is the best Assassin’s Creed yet. There, I’ve said it. It feels like quite a statement, but it isn't, taken in the grand scheme of things. The original was terrible. Assassin’s Creed 2 was fairly good. Its pseudo-sequels were fillers. Assassin’s Creed 3 was a let-down. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was great. And we all know about Assassin’s Creed Unity’s laundry list of problems. Still, putting it in the esteemed company of the grog-gulping, sea-shantying company of Black Flag is no bad thing.
Part of this is aided by going in with pretty low expectations. I enjoyed Assassin’s Creed Unity, for what it’s worth, but it didn’t exactly set the world on fire. I wasn’t sure I was ready for more of the same just 12 short months later. It was with some trepidation I booted up Assassin’s Creed Syndicate then, but Ubisoft has managed to pull a rabbit out its hat here. This is to Unity what Black Flag was to AC3.
From the off it’s clear a lot has been done to streamline Syndicate. You’re thrown into dangerous situations with Evie and Jacob Frye right from the off, and it trusts you to work your way through its systems rather than taking on you on an over-wrought tutorial detailing every button press. There’s a cinematic panache to it that’s been lacking in the series, and by the time you get to London proper you’re going to be raring to go.
The main story itself is where you’re going to spend the bulk of your time in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, and if you can avoid all the little side oddities it moves along at a steady clip. Story missions determine whether you’ll be playing as Jacob or Evie, with Jacob taking the lion’s share. It’s here where Ubisoft gets a chance to stretch its cinematic muscles, much like in the intro sections, and it results in some great set-pieces that extend far beyond the ‘follow at a distance and eavesdrop on a bench’ formula we've grown tired of. As always you'll be working through a list of Templars, with the aim of working up to head honcho Crawford Starrick.
Having two playable characters is a stroke of genius, with each bringing something a little different to the table - both in gameplay and personality. Evie’s certainly the more likeable of the two; Jacob’s one-liners can get a little heavy handed at times, but they’re a charismatic pair that are certainly some of Assassin’s Creed’s stronger offerings. Jacob's a street fighter at heart and always out for the nearest scrap, while Evie is more restrained, wanting to think through situations and take in the bigger pictures. This mindset even feeds through to their abilities.
Each of them has their own unique skill tree, despite earning experience synchronously. So you could play as Jacob for several hours and switch to Evie to find a big stack of skill points to spend, which reduces the need to grind or play as a particular character. Evie’s got the upper hand when it comes to stealth, with her Chameleon invisibility move in particular being a winner. Break out the fisticuffs and Jacob’s the stronger choice. He can withstand a lot of knocks and he can definitely give out as good as he gets.
Combat's been given a once over and it's much quicker than you may be used to. Fights feel like they operate at double speed, often-times coupled with narrow counter windows that add an additional layer of challenge to Assassin's Creed's often easy fights.
London then. I know there are factors at play here from actually knowing my way around the area at a base level, but it’s really quite surreal leaping around somewhere so recognisable. I’m sure French GD'ers will have felt it to some degree with Unity, but the fact Syndicate is only 150 years removed from the modern day makes it a very identifiable place, in a way I haven’t experienced with this series before. I wanted to hop atop a tower and spot Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, ogle St Paul’s Cathedral, or count the Thames Bridges, and I could do all this and more.
It’s all been stitched together studiously by Ubisoft, and it feels like one of their best attempts yet at stepping into a slice of history. It’s by no means steeped in authenticity, but it makes the world more involving to actually see Victorian London come alive. The Thames is bustling with activity as hundreds of boats meander up and down, which makes a change from the odd or tourist ferry and amphibious buses. Horse and carts trot up and down the roads. It's bustling and feels more than just a bunch of NPCs wandering around a map.
Actually getting about now is also far, far easier in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. For once it doesn’t feel as if an Assassin’s Creed game is wasting your time while traversing. Running down a building, across the street, and up a building the other side was a massive time sink in Unity, but the addition of a grappling hook makes everything so much slicker. It can be used from ground level to sling yourself up to the top of a building, or it can be used from on high as a zip line. The crucial thing here is it’s got some distance. There aren’t many gaps too big to be zip-lined across, and it means you can cross busy streets in a matter of seconds.
To some degree this has taken away from the parkour aspects. For example one grapple can get you not too far off the top of Big Ben, with only a tiny bit of tidy footwork needed to reach its summit. The parkour element was novel for the first game, but it can be a chore now, so I can’t really hold this against AC Syndicate. The benefit it brings far outweighs the cost, and it’s the closest thing to a game changer that Syndicate brings to the table.
Everything else is Assassin’s Creed as you know it. Ubisoft hasn’t exactly changed up the formula much ever, with the exception of the glorious ship battles, so you likely know where you stand here. There’s a number of memories to work through, stemming from a hastily slapped together modern day plot. It takes you on the usual Assassins vs Templars jaunt, this time through the seedy belly of London’s underworld. Compared to other Assassin’s Creed titles Syndicate never take itself too seriously. Which is refreshing, honestly, because the majority of their stories have been a load of baloney. Once they killed off Desmond Miles it confirmed they’d lost sight of what they were doing, so I’m glad of this shift, and it makes it an all the more enjoyable tale for it.
Spread out over London’s suburbs there’s heaps of activities and missions to take on. Associate Activities are pretty much a must, with completion of each of these taking over a small section of the map for your gang. These tasks range from Templar hunts to kidnappings, freeing child laborers, and gang fights. You’ll get a nice chunk of experience for each, as well as unique unlockables as you gain influence with your contacts.
Secondary to these are London Stories. Similar to the Paris Stories in Unity, these have you meeting up and helping famous faces like Charles Dickens, Darwin, and Karl Marx. There’s also Dreadful Crimes murder investigations but these are a timed exclusive for PlayStation 4 players, so I didn’t get the chance to mess around with these.
Lastly you’ve got all the collectibles, which is a pretty exhaustive list of chests, beer bottles, press flowers, Animus helixes and assorted odds and ends. The total number of collectibles is in the hundreds, and my standing on these is that they have no place in the game. There’s no joy to be found from opening your 300th chest. It's just feeding on addictive compulsions. There’s nothing uniquely interesting about marking a spot on your map and heading to it. Repeatedly. All this for the sake of screaming ‘content’. I'm in no doubt it would be a better experience without all this. Ultimately however it’s all optional, so it’s down to you whether you can resist their overwhelming presence on your HUD.
In terms of gear, you earn plenty through missions and find some in chests, but the majority needs to be crafted. Each can upgraded with enough cash, although this time your level isn’t linked to your gear but number of skill points spent. It’s still important to have decent kit though, and if you don’t upgrade your weapons regularly you can find yourself in a world of hurt during the early game.
As ever I found a few glitches in my time with Assassin's Creed Syndicate. There were moments where enemies got caught on ledges. One cut-scene saw Evie turn invisible, while another saw an NPC get trapped on a door. In fact I probably saw more glitches than I did on the PS4 version of Unity, but there weren't enough to have a genuine impact on my enjoyment. I found it a little disappointing visually at first, but once ACS opens up and you can explore London in all its glory, it truly does rival any other open-world game there. Performance was fantastic for the most part on my GTX 970. I didn't experience any noticeable frame rate dips other than the occasional random momentary freeze, although this only happened four or five times during my playthrough.
So while Assassin's Creed Syndicate is light on novelty, it feels like enough fat has been trimmed that this is a more enjoyable experience than any in the series before it. Traversal is once more a joy; the world is massive and believable; the cast of characters roguish and likeable; and for the first time in an age, Assassin's Creed feels like it has some genuine personality to it.