At 12:20 AM on July 25, 2015, I earned my final Trophy for Assassin’s Creed Unity. When it popped, I set down my controller, sent out a profoundly relieved Tweet or two, and swore that I wasn’t going anywhere near the game’s successor, Syndicate. I was done. Finished. I’d knelt over the corpse of my enthusiasm for the Assassin’s Creed series and stained a white feather scarlet with the blood seeping from the gaping, Unity-shaped wound in its throat. Until Ubisoft did something spectacular with the series — or visited Egypt… — I was out.
And out I was… until September 1, 2016. Well over a year since I’d turned my back on the series, I navigated to Syndicate’s icon on my PS4’s Home Screen — sitting there, neglected, since I’d gotten an excellent deal on it on the PlayStation Store in March — and pressed X.
At 4:18 AM on September 15, I earned Syndicate’s Platinum Trophy. When it popped, I set down my controller, scribbled down a profoundly relieved note or two, and found my enthusiasm for the series restored.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate plays like an answer to the question, ‘What if Unity had been good?’ In many ways, the games are twins — but whilst they’re clearly cut from the same cloth, Syndicate is, by quite a margin, the more fortunate, smarter, better-looking sibling.
Like Unity, Syndicate’s soundtrack features variations on Jesper Kyd’s increasingly iconic Ezio’s Family. Unlike Unity, however, its presence here isn’t questionable. With Unity, I was puzzled by its inclusion, wondering, somewhat cynically, if it was there to trigger the nostalgia of long-time fans of the series, to make Unity seem better than it was by invoking memories of the excellent Assassin’s Creed II.
With Syndicate, I felt like it belonged; here was a game worthy of calling itself a successor to the adventures of Ezio Auditore da Firenze. It’s a good thing, this worthiness, because from start to finish, Syndicate is packed with references to past trips to the Animus. Near the beginning, a rooftop race between Jacob and Evie recalls the stellar opening of Assassin’s Creed II; a mission later in the game takes players to the mansion of Black Flag protagonist Edward Kenway; Jacob pays a visit to a theatre whose posters advertise stories familiar to players of past titles.
If the game were bad, this barrage of references to past glories would be tiresome. But Syndicate is a very good game on its own merit, and so those references are welcome — drawing a smiles rather than sighs.
Syndicate takes players to the much-requested Victorian London, a setting that, when first revealed, did absolutely nothing for me. I’d found various areas of Unity’s Paris, though visually impressive, to be depressingly bleak, and the prospect of being in for more of the same — as Syndicate’s reveal footage seemed to suggest — was less than appealing. Much to my genuine surprise, though, I ended up enjoying game’s world quite a bit.
Divided into various boroughs, Syndicate’s London is beautifully realised. The thing, though, is that much of it is reminiscent of Unity’s Paris, which, for me, raises an interesting question about how the basic enjoyment — or not… — of a game can affect appreciation of other aspects of it. Objectively, Unity’s Paris was almost as impressive as Syndicate’s London, but the problems I had with the game meant that I rarely took the time to appreciate it as much.
Similarities aside, Syndicate makes one major deviation from Unity’s visuals: the water. After Watch Dogs demonstrated a significant improvement to the water found in Ubisoft’s third-person, open world titles, I was disappointed to find that Unity had stuck instead with what I’ve previously described as Microsoft Paint-esque ‘splashes’ to indicate interaction with the game’s H2O. Syndicate, however, favours a more realistic — though admittedly not 100% so — displacement of the liquid, the waves made by the passage of various boats on the Thames in particular being excellent. It’s unfortunate that the effect is still augmented by those Paint-esque ‘splashes’, but the improvement on the whole is very welcome nonetheless.
Also welcome is the fact that, just as my expectations for London’s appearance were subverted, so too were my doubts about how traversing the city would feel.
When Syndicate was revealed, and the developers spoke of having implemented wider streets to accommodate the game’s carriages, I worried that Syndicate might fall into the same trap Assassin’s Creed III did, with the distances between buildings severely impacting the flow of the game’s parkour. The rope launcher I saw as a gimmick — a feature worthy of DLC rather than a full release.
In reality, said launcher is the perfect antidote to the increased distance between architecture. More than that, though, it’s fun, with a surprisingly large range and uses beyond the undeniably gimmicky zip-lining from rooftop-to-rooftop. I found dropping a smoke bomb, air assassinating a target amid the clouds, and then using the launcher to zip back to the rooftops before they could dissipate immensely satisfying, and enjoyed the mini-puzzles of working out where best to use the launcher to reach various Helix Glitches scattered throughout the world.
In fact, gameplay on the whole feels markedly better than that of Unity. Whereas I found Arno ponderous at the best of times, clunky in enclosed spaces, I encountered very little of the same issues with Jacob and Evie. I won’t pretend that the gameplay is perfect across the board — the twins get stuck on objects in the world with notable frequency; combat can, at times, appear cartoonishly fast; gunplay remains awful; and anything to do with carriages (aside from the actual driving of them) is basically terrible — but the fact that Syndicate simply feels better to play than Unity did makes a huge difference.
It lessens the tedium of completing the game’s myriad side missions, remedies that sense of wasting time I felt with Unity. The effect is also strengthened by the fact that the number of the series’ trademark ‘tail’ and ‘follow’ missions has been greatly reduced — though their few appearances are, unfortunately, just as dull and restrictive as ever.
Chase-focused missions, too, can become a source of frustration, often seeming to have been designed to prevent the player catching their quarry before reaching a particular location. In these situations, engaging players in the chase at all seems utterly pointless, an unfortunate recurrence of Unity’s wasting of players time amid Syndicate’s various improvements.
Combat-wise, I continue to find the inability to select hidden blades as your primary weapon(s) to be incredibly disappointing. Ubisoft might be determined to throw the word ‘iconic’ in front of pretty much anything these days, but the hidden blade is absolutely worthy of it — those blades are a trademark of the series, and their relegation to being a secondary piece of equipment takes away from the feeling of having a true Assassin’s Creed experience.
Ironically, though, deviation from presenting a standard Assassin’s Creed experience is also Syndicate’s greatest strength. Unlike other entires, its story is told through two playable Assassins operating alongside each other.
Siblings Evie and Jacob Frye are opposite sides of the same coin — Jacob brash and quick to action, Evie more cerebral, favouring stealth over outright force, but more than capable of springing into action herself when the situation calls for it.
It’s the dichotomy between these two that truly elevates Syndicate, the ability to switch between them that keeps the game fresh, that gives players options. Had the game focused on just one of the pair, I think I would’ve found both its gameplay and story much less effective.
That’s not to say said story is 100% effective as it is. It’s obvious what’s in store from the get-go, predictable that, despite their differences of approach, Jacob and Evie will come together at the end, in a climax that, though the concept behind it is sound — and the spectacle excellent — suffers from somewhat messy execution, with forced switches between the twins removing the choice that had been present for most of the game.
The journey to that finale, though, is a surprisingly enjoyable ride. Starrick and his various cohorts make for entertaining antagonists, and if they are a little cartoonish, a little over the top, it’s in all the best ways.
Just as Unity featured sections set during one of the World Wars (II) so too does Syndicate (I), with a significant difference. Unity took players through these sections as Arno, the same character with which they experienced the rest of the game. Syndicate, however, puts players in the boots of Lydia Frye, descendant of Jacob and Evie.
I loved this part of the game. I was reminded of my feelings towards Far Cry 4’s Shangri-La side story — that Ubisoft could absolutely have gotten away (as unfortunate as it would have been) with selling it as separate DLC post-release. Thankfully, though, it didn’t. So shines a good deed in a DLC-weary world.
Visually spectacular, and offering some decent — if not particularly dramatic — additions to the gameplay, Syndicate’s foray into WWI provided a refreshing intermission to the game’s main plot.
It’s not, however, the only break in proceedings. Throughout the game, players are treated to glimpses of Assassin’s Creed’s ongoing, famously divisive modern-day story. This, perhaps, is where Syndicate surprised me the most. Since the end of Assassin’s Creed III, with it’s disaster of an attempt to bring a swift end to Desmond Miles, I’ve been paying precious little attention to Assassin’s Creed’s modern-day proceedings. In previous games, I enjoyed Shaun, Rebecca and co., but going into Syndicate, I had very little idea of what was going on in their world. Frankly, I didn’t much care.
As Syndicate went on, however, giving players what is, in my opinion, the best, clearest glimpse into the modern-day story since the early days of the Creed, I found myself getting slowly reinvested. It was great to see more of Shaun and Rebecca, to see them in action alongside their fellow Assassins, sticking it to the Templars in ways that would make their predecessors proud. Going in, I was disinterested — now, though, I’m hesitantly excited again, looking forward to what happens next.
And that, really, is the thing about Syndicate: it made me think about the future.
Not long into Unity, I thought that, despite its obvious issues, it had the potential to be the best Assassin’s Creed game yet. Unfortunately, though, those issues proved too great, and its potential was never realised — Syndicate, however, inherits that potential, and — for me, at least — finally realises it.
In the final minutes of the game’s main adventure, as Evie and Jacob ran off into the grounds of Buckingham Palace, I felt that their story had been a perfect swansong to Assassin’s Creed as it currently exists. It was excellent, yes, but it can’t be a blueprint for future games. If it’s to have any real hope of succeeding, the series needs to evolve, to change. I was conscious of this as I played, and eagerly await finding out what the next entry will bring to the series in 2017.
In December 2013, I finished Assassin’s Creed IV, and found that, as they say of books, you can’t judge a game by its cover. Just short of three years later, Syndicate taught me lesson of its own: that you can’t judge one by its predecessor, either.
Once upon a time — with my feelings towards Unity still fresh and raw — I swore that I wouldn’t go anywhere near Syndicate. Now, however, I’m glad I did. You might say I took a Leap of Faith. From here on out, I’m no longer just an interested observer.