Assassin's Creed Syndicate: Review

Written by: Jon Castillo

Games | Nov 2, 2015

Assassin's Creed Assassin's Creed Syndicate E3 Ubisoft

I first ran into "Assassin's Creed Syndicate" earlier this year at E3. Truthfully, I had no intention of checking out this game, and was only pressured to when lines for "The Division," "Rainbow Six: Siege," and Ghost Recon: Wildlands" had been overwhelming. The AC games never tasted the same after "Assassin's Creed II." There was always something missing that brought a sense of wonder and amazement beyond running, jumping, and stabbing unseen.

"It's just another AC game," I told myself, going tiptoe to see the screens ahead of me from my queue. I saw a fellow videogame journalist, with an exhibitor from Ubisoft, talking him through the game's new features, notably the rope launcher and hijacking carriages. I was not impressed then, even as I got to hold the controller and started playing as Jacob, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, firing the rope launcher, and driving a carriage like a drunk on speed. It only felt then, that "Assassin's Creed" was starting to suffer a mild case of identity crisis. Because, running around with a high-powered, automated grappling hook, and stealing vehicles to drive around in an open-world environment, sounds way too familiar in many games out there.

"How was it? Is this your first time playing Assassin's Creed?" The Ubisoft exhibitor asked me, smiling.

"Not really," I said, "Just a bad driver."

She nodded, smiled bigger, and whatever she thought of me that time, I'll never know.

When the release of "Syndicate" loomed nearby, I was still skeptical. My mantra, "It's just another AC game" echoed in my head every time people started talking about it. I wanted to tell them to think very carefully before throwing their money away. Even my close friends at Game Gulp were going gaga about it. Apparently, the entire staff is a huge fan of "Assassin's Creed," turning me into an outcast hipster.

In between all AC titles, there had been what I found, little reason to return to. Jumping across trees, exploring a vast forest, hunting wild animals, skinning them, sailing in a ship across seas and engage in epic naval battles under a surging storm, were all fine things, but they just didn't cut it for me. Black Flag, and while it had been fun, I was tired of it after the first three hours. I didn't even know there was a Rogue. And while Unity had been fun for a while, there was something missing that brought the same sense of wonder from Altair's and Ezio's adventures.

My skepticism didn't fade even when everyone in Game Gulp gathered around, basking in the game box like some sacred child destined to save the world. The cover art was in some way, nostalgic to Martin Scorsese's 2002 film, "Gangs of New York." I have to admit, the artwork is wonderful. For the things we find fault in Ubisoft, is redeemable through their efforts to ensure the series' artistic image. The box art helps sell the game, after all.

And slapping the game disc into the console, "Assassin's Creed Syndicate" does feel like "Gangs of New York." It was only then the title "Syndicate," had actually begun to sink in. We're part of a syndicate that is plotting to take over London. Our Assassin heroes, twins Evie and Jacob Frye, however, sees it as liberating the city from Templar influence. And then what? Assume the role of a secret police that is beyond the law?

As for the Fryes: Adorable delinquents, cold killers who believe they are doing the world some good. While both Assassins share their differences from one another, their character chemistry is a drug addiction. You'd want to see these two together as much as possible, watching them banter and the problems they cause to one another with conflicting ideologies and priorities.

Jacob is childish and brash, which stems from his burning self-confidence. His default weapon, a brass knuckle, tells us that his skillsets should be geared into developing his combat prowess. And while his sister busies herself investigating the whereabouts of the "Piece of Eden," he - with some help from Evie - builds an army. Their own Syndicate, the Rooks, to take out rival gangs throughout London, slowly closing in to assassinate their primary target, the Templar Crawford Starrick. It was his impulses that brought Evie and himself to London the first place, to take action now without heeding the advice of their master.

Evie Frye is the more serious one, taking her mission as an Assassin to the very soul. She's tactical and stealthy, integrating what it means to be an Assassin. She's dressed as one, more closely than her brother's. Though she herself is brims as much self-confidence from Jacob, only a little humbler and subtle. She banters around and smiles with a raised cheekbone as deadly as an Assassin's blade through a throat. She's a character that doesn't go into the excess to look badass. The 'badassery' is reserved when she's out in an assassination mission. Or getting a little touchy in a while blouse against rough-looking, bare-chested men in a Fight Club. She fights with cane-sword (her default weapon), where her combat moves shows how she targets enemy weak points, such as the groin and throat. She's not someone trying to be much tougher than she's supposed to be. 

Make no mistake. Jacob and Evie are as frightening as the gangs they take on. As soon as they kill a leader, they assume immediate authority, demanding recruitment from the very people who tried to kill them five minutes ago. This is what "Assassin's Creed Syndicate" is all about. Build a syndicate to capture rival gangs' territories. It is a long, winded piece of work that actually feels rewarding.

Let me explain: London 1868, is not shy to danger. When gang members see Jacob or Evie, they shout insults and threats, which would lead into a fight starting with shove. It becomes a test of pride then. If either Jacob or Evie would back down or not. If not, well, get on with knocking teeth in.

Throughout the six boroughs - Whitechapel, the Strand, Lambeth, Southwark, City of London, and Westminster - are all under Templar influence. The twin Assassins gradually take over, seizing control a piece of borough at a time, by eliminating gangs and their leaders, assassinating profiled Templars, meeting new associates and supporting their cause - sabotaging rivals' supplies, stealing cargo, disrupting manufacturing productions by freeing child laborers, and kidnapping people of influence. Which, all of this, would culminate into one epic gang war, where both Jacob and Evie steals the opportunity to further spread their own influence as the Rooks. While many of these are actually side missions, they feel integrated seamlessly into the main story known as "Conquests." The Fryes, after all, are building their own gangland. I've played over eight hours the other day, only to realize everything I've done are mostly side missions, yet it didn't feel like a waste of time, as the effects had been significant.

With an expanding influence, people will less likely pick a fight with either Jacob or Evie. And even if someone does pull out a knife, there will be a number of Rooks nearby to assist without calling for aid-not really that new to the game, as I seem to recall Brotherhood and Black Flag had regular citizens stalling enemies. But for them to act alone so seamlessly, and give them specific orders give incredible power in the game. We have to remember; these are gang members, not trained Assassins who joined the order for a greater cause. These are people who are interested in employment and will support the strongest reigning leader.

Associates supported throughout the game will award items that can be used to craft better equipment or learn new skills for the Rooks, which does make a huge difference in combat - like, dying less, or at the very least, last long enough to stall a mob. Other associates such as Alexander Graham Bell and Charles Dickens provide additional missions, the latter a more surreal approach by accessing memories to tell a story within a story. It's a nice whiff of fresh air from all plans in conquering London.

I have ran across people who have expressed dislike for the rope launcher. I cannot deny that it did somewhat felt like a "Batman: Arkham" game. Throw a smoke bomb down a target, perform an air assassination, then fire the rope launcher for a safe and quick getaway, is almost unfair. But it is something needed for that era. London's avenues are wide and bustling with life, its buildings are ridiculously high with a regiment of birds flying in the sky. Parkour is almost rendered useless while touring these parts. It's almost heartbreaking really, not to get to run on rooftops as we used to. The rope launcher is needed here, to remain in the rooftops unseen and safe from the dangers in the streets below.

However, for those who yearn to run freely, the innermost parts of the London, a sprawling alleyways of labyrinthine monstrosities and buildings much closer to each other, is where an eagle's freedom can be felt. While the wilderness of AC3 and the naval explorations in Black Flag had their moments, the six boroughs of London however turned out to be grander than expected. London is indeed large. Running from one point to the next is time consuming, and even the fast travel points are sparse in between. The inclusion of hijacking carriages then, makes sense, and becomes less of a gimmick but a necessity for travel, kidnapping, and gang transport.

But let's dive in a little bit more. This isn't all about how large a map is. It's how much is inside the map. The level of architectural design, the lightings, and the shadowing, for a game this massive, is an effort of legendary will. There's just so much that can be done, so much to see. Never has it been breathtaking awesome to run across the River Thames by jumping on ships-both stationary and passing-wooden poles, and floating crates, while stumbling into a few bad guys, and causing explosions on their shipments.

I still refuse to waste time on searching for collectibles as I explore the city. It ruins the fun by giving us a tedious chore to do. I prefer to make an effort to open chests or grab that floating thing in the sky only if I had seen it. I'm not sure if it's a common concern, but the longer I have played the more I have encountered glitches: Vanishing enemies, targets getting stuck in tight positions-making it impossible to kidnap-and certain unresponsive actions such as firing a gun when the mission demanded it. (Though the last one only happened on a main story mission).

Looking around at other games today, we notice more are applying RPG elements into them. It's become a generic formula to balance the game and keep people in check. It does add a depth to the gameplay and the acquisition of Perks is a requirement to make life easier. Combat is exaggeratedly fun, and top it off with music al compositions that sound like Guy Ritche's "Sherlock Holmes." Sometimes, it takes too long to knock a thug down, and some of them can block gunshots with their arms, is blatantly ridiculous. But we can't complain too much. Constables are forces of nature, while not impossible to deal with, they are serious threat. They can interrupt missions, and yet, they aid you themselves if they witness others who are on the offensive.

The overall spirit of the game mechanics are as fluid as its parkour. We are no longer burdened with faulty mission requirements such as remaining unseen, which had been migraines in the past for the lack of crouching. No more missions where we have to stalk someone who flees the unreasonable moment we get too close. We are free to complete assassination missions any way we see fit. The rope launcher helps get around quicker or gain a better vantage point to study enemy movements. The game is obsessed in giving us all the freedom we need in an open-world game, with the exception of hurting non-combatant individuals strolling along sidewalks.

"Assassin's Creed Syndicate" is a monumental achievement for the entire series. It is the best thing that has happened since "Assassin's Creed II" and feels like the first true sequel. My skepticism has been assassinated and I look eagerly for the next installment. And this is coming from a non-AC fan.

Just chilling up here.

About the author: Jon Castillo

Jonathan is hiding from a lynch mob after messing with the wrong basketball team. His favorite song is "Boys do Fall in Love" by Robin Gibb.

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