With Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, it’s abundantly clear that Ubisoft had to make some tough decisions. From, seemingly, Assassin’s Creed III and on, Ubisoft’s annual series has tried to cram far too many ideas into games that were quite literally glitching under the weight.
Assassin’s Creed Unity, then, was the title that did the most damage. It was nearly unplayable for players, sputtering out at slow framerates, sporting ridiculous glitches that rendered missions unplayable and featuring an online component that simply didn’t work.
Ubisoft needed to make the choice to scale back. They needed to introduce a new Assassin’s Creed title that brought the formula home while only changing up the parts that mattered. The game could be larger, sure, but it needed to be a little less ambitious with its systems and mechanics.
The title that results is Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Finally, the series is good again. Finally, it’s stable. I missed this far too much.
Sacrificed at the alter of stability.
I’ll start with the bit that most consumers are likely concerned with. This Assassin’s Creed actually works, but that comes because Ubisoft had to drop a bunch of things that were clogging up the fun pipes.
What do I mean by “works?” I played this game on the PlayStation 4. Now, I’m certain it hung around 30fps during play, though it did occasionally dip. It did not, however, pop and stutter like Unity. I saw far less in the way of crowd glitches, model clipping, texture popping and general bugginess. The game is smooth, and I can only count a handful of times when, say, an enemy would float a bit off the ground. We should expect that in open world titles. It comes with the genre. In Unity, it was appalling. Syndicate feels much more normal.
Stuff had to be dropped in order to make this work. Big companies always say that adding multiplayer doesn’t affect the quality of single player. They offer that it has nothing to do with the stability of the game thanks to the fact that it’s often done by a separate team. What Ubisoft must have done, then, was direct those teams that would have been working on extra stuff to simply make the game stable.
There’s no multiplayer in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. There’s no competitive mode, and there’s none of the online cooperative stuff that Unity promised but missed the mark on. This is a solo, story-driven adventure.
You won’t be helming any ships in this game, either. You can steer carriages, something I wound up using a lot more than I thought I would, but you won’t be cruising down the Thames while steering a massive freighter. That stuff was great in games like Black Flag, but it clearly didn’t make much sense in Syndicate.
You’ll still be able to enter buildings, but don’t expect as much of the running through them as we’ve had in previous games. They really aren’t lined up like they were in III or Unity. You’ll go inside for special missions, enter bars to meet folks or to buy stuff, but the interior content has been whittled down significantly.
Don’t expect any odd Tower Defense stuff. This game has no companion app, so you won’t run into chests that can’t be opened until you do things on a phone or tablet. It does offer Club Ubisoft, but all interaction with that occurs on console and can be entirely ignored.
The modern day stuff is handled in a really, really odd way here as well. Ubisoft took time to connect the two timelines, but it’s done through cutscenes instead of playable stuff. I’m fine with it since I never really dig the modern day stuff, but just don’t expect to be scaling a contemporary version of Big Ben here.
Point blank, it’s also not as pretty as Unity was at times. When you stopped all the sputtering and hanging, Unity was a gorgeous game. From character models to world textures, it looked really good. Syndicate still looks good, but I guarantee it will leave some folks disappointed. I implore you to ignore that. Thanks to this game’s stability and Ubisoft having to focus on what works, it’s actually quite fun.
With all that was cut, Ubisoft could focus on what makes Assassin’s Creed good.
You can imagine that dropping all of the extra baggage did Ubisoft some good. They had time to back up and explore what makes Assassin’s Creed actually fun as a series.
The best of the franchise is Brotherhood, if you ask me. It introduced the concept of playing as a group of Assassins rather than lone wolfing everything. It was still basic in its conquest of climbing towers, exploring the city, completing quests and activities and, eventually, pushing back Templar control. Syndicate returns to that same formula, dropping all of the unnecessary hullabaloo in the process.
This game, plainly, is about three things. It features playable twins, Jacob and Evie Frye. You can switch between them mostly at will, though they do have their own sequences that only they can play. Evie is looking for a piece of Eden, and Jacob is looking to break up the Templar in London. Those are two of the core paths here. The third is the simple conquering of the map. You’ll perform mini-quests in order to turn segments of London from Blighter control to your control.
That’s it, folks. It’s that simple. The story line is clear and concise, the characters are all likable (especially the historical figures like Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell and Florence Nightingale), the world is singular and connected and the side activities are actually fun.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate never feels like slogging through mud. When you pushed aside the glitches and framerate drops in Unity, you still had a game that was, at its core, rather boring. It featured a dull protagonist and activities that felt disjointed and annoying.
Syndicate‘s Jacob and Evie are fun together. Evie’s more stealthy, and Jacob is more brutal. They fight like siblings, but they’re also really fun when they interact. The game made me chuckle once or twice, something I don’t think I’ve ever done while play an Assassin’s Creed. I liked my time with it. I’m still doing sidequests simply because I’m having fun.
Mechanics that work. Mechanics that don’t.
I don’t want to make it seem like Ubisoft has ripped innovation from Assassin’s Creed entirely with Syndicate. They still introduced some new mechanics while brushing up the old ones.
Chief among the new stuff is Syndicate‘s Rope Launcher. Evie and Jacob can launch to the tops of buildings or across street gaps at the press of a button in this game. The Rope Launcher fires a hook and line to the target that’s indicated on screen, and the Assassin can streak up or across the gap. You can actually hang from a horizontal rope, too, opening up new opportunities for assassinations.
I did have some issues with the Rope Launcher, though. The icon that indicates when a ledge is reachable seemed finicky to me. More often than not, things at a reasonable distance could be Rope Launched, as it were. However, there were plenty of times when one ledge was clearly close enough but inaccessible to the mechanic with a mind of its own. It happens at annoying times, too. It’s hard to get absorbed in infiltrating enemy territory when you’re pacing back and forth while trying to latch on to one particular ledge.
Climbing, generally, feels improved. How many times in Unity did you climb back and forth over the same window while simply trying to get inside? It happened to me constantly in that game. Now, pushing L1 (on the PS4) while next to a window simply moves Evie or Jacob inside. Free running down is a little slower than I’d like it to be, but I also found myself taking random drops off of buildings far less than I did before.
London is large, too. I figured I’d stick to the rooftops throughout this game as my main means of travel, but that wasn’t really the case. When an objective was within 200 meters, I ran. Anything more than that would push me to hop into a carriage and roll that way. They’re fast, nimble and rather fun to drive.
Crafting and leveling both remain in the game, though the menu system is rather convoluted for the first few hours. Evie and Jacob have similar skill trees, but you spend the attribute points for each separately. They earn experience points at the same rate, regardless of who you’re playing as, but their skill points are spent separately.
Gear is crafted in one menu and equipped in another. I often crafted things that were a higher level than my character, resulting in spending materials and money on something I couldn’t use. The markings for when something is not your level in the crafting menu are unclear, though they make sense in the inventory.
The gang system is quite fun. As you conquer territories, more and more members will be added to your team of Rooks (Jacob came up with the name). You’ll level up gang members and make them better in combat, more abundant on streets and a source of income and crafting materials. It’s not quite as awesome as calling in Assassins in Brotherhood with the squeeze of a button, but you’ll eventually be able to request aid at a moment’s notice. That bit is fun.
After the blight that was Unity, Ubisoft elected to scale back with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. The result is a game that’s both fun and stable.
You have to understand that I, like so many other gamers, was infatuated with Assassin’s Creed from the beginning. The first game, while a bit of a letdown, was one that I obsessed over before release.
The second entry was so much better. Then came Brotherhood, the absolute best in the franchise. Back then, this series managed to improve with each iteration. Assassin’s Creed was unlike anything else. Until its annualization.
Year after year, Ubisoft seemed happy to bloat the experience with more concepts, more mechanics and, thus, more instability. That all culminated with Unity, a title that was almost unanimously hated.
Ubisoft walked things back. Assassin’s Creed is back on course with Syndicate. I just hope they keep things from getting bloated again, because they’ve landed on what makes this series fun.
You can wait to buy it, if you want. It’ll certainly be cheaper in the coming weeks. Don’t let Unity scare you, though. Syndicate is a solid game. It’s well worth a purchase.
Disclaimer: We received a retail copy of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate for the PlayStation 4 from Ubisoft for review.