I think it’s fair to say that Ubisoft had an enormous amount of pressure on their shoulders to deliver not just a solid Assassin’s Creed game this year, but one that exceeded expectations. Assassin’s Creed Unity
stumbled flat out fell on its face at launch last year, forcing Ubisoft to spend a good couple months issuing out new patches, fixes, and even shutting down certain in-game online elements like the Initiates integration.
Things were so bad, that Ubisoft even acknowledged and apologized for the way Unity was handled at the start of the announcement video for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, a move which is pretty rare for these mega corporations. In an effort to right the wrongs of the past, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate ditched Revolutionary France in favor of a new type of revolution: the Industrial Revolution of 19th century London. Players would now be able to interact with modern marvels like trains, steamships, and defend against practices like child labor and poor working conditions. A hero of the people if you will.
With Ubisoft Montreal taking a backseat role to new Assassin’s Creed development lead, Ubisoft Quebec, the pressure was on to make up for the missteps of the past. With consumer trust in the brand dipping, does Syndicate manage to bring this popular franchise back to the top?
Read on for my initial impressions after spending the weekend playing.
I’m not terribly far into Assassin’s Creed Syndicate in terms of the story, but essentially it seems to boil down to trying to free the oppressed workers from the tyranical grasp of the Templar overlords. The Templars are shown to be living in luxury and wealth, while the common people are forced deeper into squalor through working in harsh factory conditions. For those who are not a fan of the modern day conspiracy stuff in this franchise, you’ll be happy to hear that it has been kept firmly in the background in favor of the London gameplay. Yes, there’s a tiny bit of story there, but so far, it seems to not be a priority at all.
In a first for the franchise, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate features two main protagonists and frankly, Ubisoft hasn’t had compelling leads like Jacob and Evie Frye in an Assassin’s Creed game since Ezio Auditore. These two are extremely likable, feature a witty banter between them, and have personalities that are really easy to root for. It’s something that the series has been missing for a few years and frankly, I hope they get featured in a new game as well. I’m curious to learn more about these twins.
As expected, Syndicate runs on a modified version of the engine used by Unity and the team at Ubisoft Quebec has done a marvelous job of bringing 19th century London to life. The Themes River is clogged with boats, factories choke the air with smog, horse drawn carriages line the streets, and famous landmarks like Big Ben and Westminster Abbey have been meticulously recreated in the game. It’s quite the site and a fun playground to runaround in. It’s not all browns and smoke though as many of the districts all have their own unique look, especially ones where the wealthy live.
To me, Syndicate gives off a big Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood vibe, essentially pushing the player to take back control of London by weakening the grip of key figures in each of the major Burroughs, similar to what players had to do against the Borgia family in Rome. The Templars have a tight control over London, and players are tasked with undermining that control by assisting in various tasks and actions along with story based missions. By completing these missions, various Burroughs are liberated giving the player better access to gang upgrades, and other important items and reputation.
One aspect that has been talked about openly by Ubisoft pre-release is the combat system. Gone are the systems put in place by Unity and previous entries. Sure, you still have a dedicated button for attacking and countering, but with Syndicate, the focus was placed firmly on more hand to hand combat encounters. The more methodical combat of past games that featured swords have taken a major back seat in favor of a much faster and brutal form of combat. The Frye twins basically have access to three primary types of weapons: brass knuckles, a cane sword, and a kukri knife outside of the assassin’s blade and sub-weapons like a pistol or throwing knives.
Combat is lightning fast, almost feeling like a train that is about to come off the rails. Animations are great, and combat is very fluid, but I can’t help but feel that the system is even easier than it has been in the past. While players can counter and grab enemies, typical fist fights boil down into mashing the attack button, and enemies will typically crumble, especially when Jacob is leveled and gains access to some brutal moves. Granted, I’m still early on in the experience, so I know I’m not facing any of the cream of the crop enemies, so I’m hoping that as the more difficult areas of London are unlocked, combat will add a new layer of challenge. We shall see.
Honestly, the rope launcher may be my favorite addition to any Assassin’s Creed game. Sure, it basically makes you a sort of Industrial Revolution/Steampunk inspired Batman, but traversing the city has never been easier. The rope launcher lets you scale buildings incredibly fast, slide across a large gap from building to building, and also set up some pretty sweet air kills. It’s at the point where if a tool like this doesn’t exist in an AC game going forward, it’s going to leave a massive void in the experience for me. It is that good.
In a neat little twist, Syndicate also adds in a small RPG system highlighted by experience and skill trees. Each protagonists has thier own specific skills to unlock, so players can choose to level Evie and Jacob in completely different ways if they wish. Each tree also has a few skills which can only be unlocked by a specific character, focusing on abilities that match their specialties like combat for Jacob or stealth for Evie. As players unlock new abilities by spending skill points on new abilities, additional levels are gained. These levels dictate the difficulty of the various London districts and missions available, allowing players to experience more of the world without getting wiped out due to tougher challenges.
I haven’t found too many issues with the game so far, and compared to the server and technical issues that riddled Unity, that’s a massive achievement. Sure, little things here and there may pop up, and the enemy AI can sometimes be either hilariously oblivious or just plain stupid, but so far, there’s been nothing major or big enough the be a dealbreaker at all.
What I do find a bit odd is that the enemy Blighter gang character models are heavily recycled. Running into these guys on the streets of London, typically I’ll come across one of four types: the large and bald bruiser, the tall and lanky lady, normal white mustache man, and normal white non-mustache man. I’m a bit dumbfounded as to why the normal Blighter enemy models are not more varied than they are, because everything else about the game is fantastic. Normal civilian models, Templar agents, and even enemy characters in leadership positions have more diverse and interesting looking models. Maybe it’s intentional on some level? It’s by no means a dealbreaker, I just found it kind of interesting.
You can feel the extra time and care Ubisoft Quebec has put into Syndicate. The game feels solid like it’s on much more stable ground. Everything about this game feels better than its recent predecessors, from the main characters, the supporting cast, the location, and the technical details powering the experience. The missions feel more focused and don’t lean on tired mechanics from past games, and frankly, taking back control of London through various activities is proving to be a fun experience. So far I’m very satisfied with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, more so than I’ve felt the past couple years. If you’re someone that has been feeling let down by the franchise, Syndicate just might be what the doctor ordered.