With no Assassin's Creed this year, let's reflect on how good Syndicate was
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate impressed me so much, I am really bummed I didn't get to play it last year.
Before we talk about Assassins Creed: Syndicate, I'll just preface this by saying I am not a fan of most Assassin’s Creed games. I think the general story of Pieces of Eden and Modern Day Abstergo Adventures (that somehow still find their way into these games) is incoherent garbage. The gameplay usually revolves around assassinating targets in different "arenas", with some other side stuff that's mostly of little substance, existing just so you fill up progress bars.
That’s not to say I didn't enjoy any of these games. My two favourite ones are the two most hated; the original and Assassin’s Creed 3. I've been told that’s crazy, but that’s a talk for another time.
Out of boredom, a desire to test out a new GPU with a taxing AAA game, and knowing Syndicate will be the last Assassin’s Creed we see for a while, I installed the game and went in thinking it won’t last a week on my hard drive.
After spending six or so hours with it, I can safely say it’s going to be among my favourites in the series, and an overall solid open-world game. I usually check out of an Assassin’s Creed game right around the moment it starts being an Assassin’s Creed game. That is to say, when you do your first synchronisation, locate your first target, and the map begins barfing out icons.
Fortunately for me, Syndicate does its best to get away from all of that by being an open-world game with exciting combat, interesting characters, and exhilarating scenarios. Sure, you still need to kill high-ranking officials and scale the occasional perch, but I never felt there was as much drive for me to do so as there were in the previous games.
The tools at your disposal in both Evie and Jacob offer you two clear classes. But the best part is, if it all goes south and you have to break out your cane sword, the combat is arguably the best part of it.
The overhauled hand-to-hand mechanics are truly felt when you get a rush breaking your opponent’s guard and setting yourself up for an upper cut or a flashy finish. There’s a satisfying tactile feedback that wouldn't be possible without the sheer number of different animations in place that all couple together very smoothly, something I am guessing took a long time to build.
It’s nowhere near deep enough when compared to Batman: Arkham Knight’s, but you’re very fragile, which really makes you a lot more mindful of counter windows, adding a welcome tactical layer.
The couple of targets I assassinated were in levels big enough for me to choose the approach I wanted. The always-on tag system means, just like Far Cry and Batman, you’re always on top of the situation, making plans as you go. Furthermore, you can be more aggressive, knowing you won’t be picked up by an enemy that decided to suddenly turn around.
Giving personalities to your targets (and the places they work) helps massively in making these missions not feel like chores. They don’t just hum and ho in regret as they're dying like in the older games, they’re steadfast in their beliefs and never doubt their methods. For these high-profile targets, each kill carried emotional and mechanical weight.
The experience outside of the assassination missions is what really sets this game apart. For starters, you have a quick way to get around town either on foot (grappling hook) or riding carriages. Both are efficient, fun to use, and ironically made me more excited to venture into back alleys and walk more, because I wasn't spending as much time around them.
London’s different boroughs are level-gated. This is an excellent addition, and much like other good open-world games, you find out instantly if it’s worth venturing forth or retreating to level-appropriate areas. Giving your character a level and clear progression nodes is an equally ingenious addition. It got me so invested early on with build plans that I'm always figuring out how to acquire more skill points.
This RPG layer extends to your equipment, too, which can be upgraded and crafted, providing yet another goal for you to chase after. Not to mention making chest runs a lot more appealing, because the resources you find directly affect your game.
I didn't realise how much I had forgotten about Syndicate being an Assassin’s Creed game until I was navigating a crowd of people and my character suddenly got all greyed-out and a white circle appeared on the ground. It took me a few seconds to realise, "oh, that's the crowd blending mechanic." I had never used it since starting the game, apparently.
It was always there, just like the other Assassin’s Creed features I don’t care about, but there’s a lot more interesting in the ways of new mechanics or toys that the Assassin’s Creed loop that drove away before is almost non-existent.
Syndicate’s two main characters are sadly the weakest part of it, through no fault of their own. I firmly believe uncoupling these games from the overarching Templar vs Assassin narrative will only help them. Keeping those stand-ins removes any need for building a true villain or true conflict. It’s always a pre-baked "evildoer must die" justification and a paper-thin drive for revenge or redemption, or whatever.
Get away from the grand globe-spanning story, and you’re left with extremely well-realised characters that are almost always consistent with their respective archetypes. There’s a magnificent cadence to the delivery of lines in this game that leads me to believe the director, and by extension actors, have solid theatre backgrounds.
Evie as a character in particular is always comfortable being herself, chasing ends in her own way. I never felt she was the Bad Ass Lady version of muscular men we tend to get as heroes. Don’t get me wrong, she roughs people up with that cane sword, but she’s never in your face about her abilities like Jacob is.
Syndicate’s presentation is top-notch. It’s one of the best looking, and best sounding, games I've played in a while. The attention to detail can be felt moment-to-moment. From how the different Burroughs show off their denizens’ affluence, to the subjects and accents you’ll be hearing around the alleyways of London. The general art design gives everything a warm tone that’s only amplified by Austin Wintory’s structure-averse, brass and strings waltz. An Industrial Age adage of polarity on full display.
I don’t know if Syndicate is a good Assassin’s Creed game or not. I can tell you, however, that I am itching to play more of it. If you’re looking for a great open-world game set in a real historical location that’s a joy to play and look at, Syndicate is a top pick.