Just like every year, the Marmite of the video game world was back again in 2015. Of course, I mean the Assassin’s Creed series – and side note: I don’t hate the yeasty goodness. The previous instalment, Assassin’s Creed Unity, was an absolute shit show. Horrible performance issues on even the meatiest PCs (23 fps when standing still is not acceptable) meant that the console versions were the only option, which meant it was unplayable for many gamers. I had to watch a plot summary on YouTube to get to the end of the story, which was extremely stale and did no justice to the French Revolution, a really interesting and action-packed period of history. On top of this, the actual layout of the game was atrocious; in trying to expand and give players more options and freedom with unending numbers of collectibles and side quests on the map, as well as the most convoluted and trash-filled RPG gear and ability system ever, they instead put gamers off and made the game very hard to play to completion. Luckily for fans of the series, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is very much a return to form. Ubisoft have played it safe, but in doing so, focused on what the fans love most about the franchise. Syndicate sits in the hallowed ground of good AC games alongside the Ezio Auditore trilogy and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
The story is very simple, but in a good way; the classic Assassins versus Templars conflict to hold control over an important city. In Syndicate, this city is London in the 1800s. At this time in history, a lot was happening on a number of levels in London: industry was booming, politics were in a huge state of reform, and people were becoming enlightened. Along with this, London was the heart of the huge British empire, reflected by a recurring phrase thrown around a lot by the villains in the game – “control London and you control the world”. Although this isn’t anything revolutionary, it gives the game the feel of a high-stakes game of cards, where you whittle down the Templar opponents one by one, and take London into Assassin control. The time and place the game takes place in is therefore, in my opinion, what defines the whole experience. These are the main appeal for me, and as a Londoner, scaling Buckingham Palace or St Paul’s is really something special. Knowing I am too unfit and would probably break a bunch of laws doing in real life on the other hand isn’t.
Let’s look at the protagonists: Jacob and Evie Frye, a sibling double act. Though advertised as two very different characters, by the time you unlock the whole skill tree, they are basically the same, gameplay-wise, bar one or two abilities that aren’t used very often. In personality, however, they are opposites. Evie is stealthy and has a softer touch, while Jacob is the ‘stab first, ask questions later’ type. This causes friction between the two of them as the story goes on, but it always feels natural, and anyone who has siblings will be able to identify with the pair very easily. The main memory sequences are split into two, with each character having their own small story. Evie spends most of the game tracking down the series-obligatory Piece of Eden, while Jacob kills off the main players in the Templar order of London. This definitely takes a leaf out of the GTA V method of switching characters, with there being character-specific missions and then ones where they both interact, notably in the final sequence of the game. While it’s hard to really elaborate here, although neither Jacob or Evie capture the charm of Ezio or Edward Kenway, they earn a deserved spot in Assassin Creed lore and are definitely memorable characters.
The side missions in Syndicate are very nicely done. The city is split into a number of boroughs, with each one having a select number of collectibles and side missions. You can spend just 20-30 minutes per borough to collect everything, and another 20-30 minutes to clear it of Templar control, making the experience manageable and fun, with enough variety that you are not completely sick of it all by the time you do everything. With the main story only taking about 15-20 hours to complete, you can platinum the game in about 40 hours, which for me is a sweet spot; I don’t think most adult gamers have the time for games that make you spend 60+ hours on just collectibles and side missions, especially if you play more than one game at a time like I do. There are also a number of associate missions, where you work for a number of very famous historical figures such as Karl Marx, Dickens, and Darwin. These characters are a solid mix of caricature and historical accuracy, and further strengthen what I said earlier about just how important London was historically at the time, as most people will know exactly what sort of legacies these figures will go on to have in real-life history. Of course, the real historical figures are not limited to side quests; there is one particularly hilarious mission where you take Prime Minister Disraeli’s wife on a tour of the Devils Row Slums. I won’t spoil what happens, but it is a moment anyone playing this game should keep an eye out for.
Unfortunately, the game suffers from the faults that most Assassin’s Creed games exhibit. The controls can sometimes be slightly unresponsive when you are running across rooftops and climbing, though by adding the new fire-able grappling hook to the game, a lot of those issues become void. Additionally, the ability to ride horse-drawn carriages around London is great, but you can tell it is a new addition to their engine, as it has a number of annoying bugs and control issues where you can sometimes end up on the street, with your target and vehicle getting away. The combat is the same old sometimes stick affair, but it does its job and, to be honest, has never been the glaring issue in the franchise. I tried the game on PS4 and on my PC, but ended up playing it all the way through on the PC. The game definitely delivers 30fps on the PS4 as promised, with only slight dips when boosting on horse-drawn carriages or fighting a gang of 5+ enemies, but on PC, it runs at a sexy and smooth 60fps with very few noticeable dips, so it was the way to go for me.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is definitely up there among the best games of 2015 as it offers an AC game that takes the series back to the foundations that were built upon during the Ezio trilogy. Syndicate’s players can experience life in a major city during an important period in history, with care taken to reconstruct the sights and sounds to a frankly impressive level, with superb gameplay that Unity simply could not match. The game has a plethora of memorable characters and moments that make it a must play for anyone who enjoys a good open-world city adventure. As a history graduate, I lap up historical references like a junkie looking for a fix, and I am pleased to find that Syndicate does not disappoint.