It seems as if fans have waited years for a London-based Assassin’s Creed but their dreams have now been realised with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the latest in Ubisoft’s series.
Lets get the elephant in the room out of the way first, shall we? The last game in the series, Unity, has had somewhat of a chequered past due to the many bugs and glitches it suffered at launch and the detached feel it had to the rest of the series. Syndicate still uses the same game engine but this time pulls back on trying to push the consoles to their limit. As such, there are far less in the way of embarrassing glitches, though I still met with the occasional odd bug at times, none of which were game breaking.
In fact, from the start it’s clear that this is a much better game than Unity. The introduction alone is enough to get the heart racing, short though it is. A series of guided events gets new players used to the controls while introducing new Assassin twins Evie and Jacob Frye, plus the villain of the piece, Crawford Starrick, a Templar who controls most of London via a gang called The Blighters and who is hunting, along with his cohorts, for pieces of Eden, artefacts introduced in previous games that contain the power to control the human race.
The gameplay, then, boils down to hunting for people and objects on the one hand and building your own gang, The Rooks, to defeat Starrick’s Blighters on the other. Evie’s main focus is on the artefacts and so she tends to be the more stealthy of the twins, while Jacob is considered the brawn of the family and rushes in head first. While it initially seems to be setting up very different gameplay styles for each of them, the truth is that there’s not really much between them and the skill trees for both characters will often neutralise any differences once new skills are learned. It’s only in the cut scenes that we see their conflicting opinions on how they should go about liberating London from the Templars’ control.
Traversing London uses the tried and tested formula of free running over buildings, though some of the main streets are pretty wide and can’t be crossed by simply jumping. That’s where the grappling hook comes in. A new addition to the series, this tool is given to you early on in the game by Alexander Graham Bell and instantly becomes your new best friend. Using the hook you can fly across huge gaps, pretending that you’re Batman in the process. Yes, it might borrow the idea from the Arkham games, but since Arkham and others have borrowed from Assassin’s Creed’s bag of tricks in the past, it’s only fair. What’s more, it works considerably well here in addition to the free running.
Skill tree upgrades also provide new stealth and gang features, with an interesting invisibility feature given to Evie later in the game that seems to sit at odds with the simulation aspect of the game. Despite this, the adding of new skills is handled well and covers everything from upgraded gang members with horse and carts to being able to earn more money from businesses, but with far less hassle than in Unity.
Ah, yes, carts. If grappling gets a bit tiresome, you can always grab a horse and cart, GTA style, to take you around the cobbled streets of London in a hurry. There’s even a ‘turbo boost’ button which helps you escape rival gang members riding around the city (it’s basically a sharp whip of the reigns rather than some Victorian nitro invention). You can task one of your own gang with driving if you fancy shooting at rivals from the carriage and several story missions ensure that you learn how to do this pretty fast or die trying. Your other method of transport is the train, with your own moving base of operations being based inside one.
Unfortunately, the downside of carts also highlights the main weak area of the game and of past Assassin’s Creed games; the controls. Free running, for the most part, is fine but there’s always that snag on the edge of a roof or the slight turn that stops you focusing on an opponent just before you try to leap down on them. The cart driving, though, is harder to master due to the controls not really being suited to this mode of transport. It’s been the same with every game so far, though the ships in Black Flag were an exception. It doesn’t make driving impossible, by any means, but it could certainly improve the series if Ubisoft could just get these issues under control.
While you’ll need to complete set tasks to unlock a borough, as usual with the series there are plenty of side quests to uncover as you free boroughs from The Blighters’ rule. You can challenge a series of increasingly tougher opponents to a fight via an underground fight club or steal items from carriages, as well as doing tasks for a set of rather well known luminaries like Charles Dickens, Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Darwin.
All these elements come together under the tower of Big Ben to form an engrossing game and another great chapter of the Assassin’s Creed series that seems to learn from its past mistakes. There is still room for improvement, especially in the controls, but it’s certainly a solid effort.