Is Assassin’s Creed Syndicate an “off year” release?

By Brenna Hillier, Wednesday, 4 November 2015 08:10 GMT

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is the first in the series to be helmed outside Ubisoft Montreal. Does that make it skippable?

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Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, like Unity and Black Flag, presents a standalone narrative. Although there are ties to the ongoing meta-narrative (including lots of intriguing detail for those hardcore enough to sort through audio files and database entries), you can think of it as a “monster of the week” episode.

Some fans are getting a bit tired of this and want another proper multi-game story with a Desmond-like playable modern assassin. I think we can probably expect that kind of narrative to come back eventually, but in the meantime, Syndicate is kind of a filler entry – but so were the excellent Black Flag and under-appreciated Unity. If you’re going to skip Syndicate, you probably need a better reason than “not enough nonsensical sci-fi guff”, right?

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Assassin’s Creed is one of the industry’s annual bestsellers, but unlike Call of Duty, which is allowed to continue obeying genre conventions, Assassin’s Creed cops a lot of flack for remaining an open world game about stealth and stabbing every year – possibly because the first one felt so revolutionary.

This year, though, Syndicate caught a break and reviewed pretty well, and I think that’s because it addressed some ongoing complaints about the series that make playing much less of a chore. Although the loading times are rubbish, in general there’s very little to come between the player and the stabbing they crave; the rope launcher makes navigation a pure pleasure, and driving carriages is great fun even if the constant running over of pedestrians clashes with the game’s fiction and synchronisation rules.

London itself is a delight, feeling much more alive and busy. It recaptures the joy of Assassin’s Creed’s parkour traversal.

London itself is a delight, feeling much more alive and busy than past settings, including Unity’s oddly static crowds. The Thames in particular is just brilliant, constantly bustling with vessels of multiple sizes. You can hop your way across from one bank to the other by leaping from moving deck to moving deck by way of flotsam and jestam, posts, and static vessels. It recaptures the joy of Assassin’s Creed’s parkour traversal, and it’s amazingly easy to get distracted when a barge covered in Blighters sails past with a stack of loot.

Elsewhere, there’s a good variety of districts and landmarks, so you rarely have to travel more than three blocks on a dull residential rooftop route. Random income events (stealing or defending cargo, for example) and the return of crowd events keep things lively as you expand your reach across the city.

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Although the borough by borough conquest seems to be this year’s primary differentiator, what makes the system so appealing is not so much the gradual mastery of the territory as that it guides the player to some of the best traditional Assassin’s Creed gameplay in the whole package. The Child Liberation, Templar Hunt, Gang Stronghold and Abduction missions are generally terrific little sandboxes, provided you want to play them stealthily.

Unfortunately, Ubisoft has had to compromise for the sake of accessibility, providing combat or ecosystem solutions for those who still can’t come to terms with Assassin’s Creed’s constantly evolving but oft-derided stealth. Can’t be arsed sneaking? Button mash through combat with decent enough gear, or just call the Rooks.

If you ignore these shortcuts and play stealthily, it can be terrific fun – especially if you follow the game’s difficulty guidance, learning all the way. By the time you get to Westminster the streets are crawling with Blighters, Templars and police; the arenas and guard placements become convoluted indeed; and optional challenges like taking out a target with a headshot in the middle of an open park force you to step outside your comfort zones. This is the Assassin’s Creed I first fell in love with: a target, a box of tools, some creative opportunities and the freedom to execute (ah ha) my own plan.

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The proliferation of sandbox arenas, smoothing of rough edges and delightful touches like the excellent combat animations, twin protagonists and mobile train base (choo choo!) add up to make Syndicate a good, fun Assassin’s Creed game. Unfortunately that’s not going to win over those suffering franchise fatigue or just plain uninterested in the series formula, and there are certainly cracks in the facade.

Although everyone goes on about the bugs (I saw two quite spectacular bugs in about 20 hours, but your mileage may vary), for me it’s the narrative design that lets the experience down. There’s some quite good writing and characterisation in Syndicate but it’s strung together higgedly-piggeldy, with dire consequences for pacing and flow. Train memories are an especially egregious example of this; there’s a turret sequence, for example, which just feels entirely disconnected from everything else – very much shoved in any old where.

Perhaps we can place some of the blame for this on Ubiqoft Quebec’s admirable goal of allowing the player more freedom to pick their own path rather than follow a strictly linear sequence. I suspect it also has something to do with a multi-studio development approach and push for content glut, though. I don’t envy the writers, and I’m impressed they managed to make it work even as well as it does – especially as this is the Quebec team’s first go-round as lead studio.

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Syndicate isn’t a must-play. Yes, it has some of the most satisfying sandbox gameplay in years, which you will greatly enjoy if you have tender feelings for Assassin’s Creed. Unfortunately for everyone else, Ubisoft hasn’t foregrounded that, electing to layer on filler content and pad things out with story missions that de-emphasise infiltration. It hasn’t let Assassin’s Creed – stealth and stabbing in a sandbox – shine through. It’s no wonder some people write Assassin’s Creed off as just another open world game, when its light is eclipsed by a heavy bushel of guff.

I think the problem is Ubisoft still doesn’t really know what Assassin’s Creed is, and every yearly entry is another attempt to find out, without interrupting the enormous flow of blockbuster revenue. Perhaps that’s why Ubisoft Montreal is taking a year off – to really go away and figure that out.

Look, if you love Assassin’s Creed, you bought Syndicate on day one, and like me you probably don’t regret it. If you hate or just feel indifferent to Assassin’s Creed, this one isn’t going to change your mind, despite the remarkable improvements it makes. Maybe next year, eh?

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