By now, we’re used to Ubisoft’s annual release schedule for its open-world brawlers, but after the buggy mess that was Assassin’s Creed Unity, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate has something to prove. But can it defeat Ubisoft’s annual schedule? Maybe not.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (PS4, Xbox One, PC version coming in November)
Meet Jacob and Evie Frye. They stab people in Victorian London. That’s your plot, really. The details are the usual Assassin’s Creed gibberish, although the sibling rivalry at its core does help a bit, even if Evie Frye is the clucking mom too often, cleaning up after Jacob’s mess as he more or less burns London to the ground. Really, Jacob’s kind of an ass; about half the time, you hope Evie decks him.
Kudos where it’s due, though; as usual, Ubisoft plowed a ton of money into depicting the setting. Everything is beautiful and packed with detail, albeit the enemies could stand a little more variety in look and sound. You’re going to stab the same five dudes a lot; maybe the Animus is just saving render cycles when it comes to mooks? Similarly, the graphics engine doesn’t do well with beards in game; Charles Darwin in particular looks like he’s got tree branches growing out of his face.
The soundtrack, though, really deserves the most praise. The game has great sound design, but the soundtrack has a wonderful feel of the period while still working as video game music.
Sadly, there’s nothing like Assassin’s Creed IV‘s boats here. Aside from the cleverly designed Thames area, which is essentially a lot of moving platforms to free run over, there’s not much that’s different here: Find, stab, repeat.
The basics of the gameplay are strong: Explore, find Templars to murder, murder Templars in various creative ways. If you’ve played an entry of the franchise before, you know the drill, and it never stops being fun to fly off a roof and perforate some jerk, or put a throwing knife in somebody’s skull at forty paces.
Where this game really suffers, to be honest, is in how clumsy it is in some respects. It cribs a lot from other games this go-round, including the movement system from the Batman: Arkham games, but retains the series’ awful, no-good free-running controls. Your character is sometimes unable to so much as hop over a railing unless you’re pressing the right button. Oh, sometimes they do! Other times they don’t, and you’ll never be able to figure out why.
Similarly, the mission structure, equipment upgrading, and other back-end menu stuff you’ll fiddle with is annoying as all hell. Some missions you have to play as Jacob, some missions as Evie, and some missions won’t unlock until you finish up both siblings’ plotlines. Really not helping matters is that Evie’s symbol just looks like a typical Assassin, so at first you’ll think it’s a mission for either sibling.
When it comes to upgrading, they share some things, but not others: If you level up Jacob, Evie won’t follow until you go into the menu and assign a few skill points. If you want to craft gear, you can’t do that from the equipment menu; it takes you to the crafting menu, you craft it, then you equip it.
And then there are the bugs. You know, I never thought I’d see Karl Marx wander up to a drain pipe, pray in front of it, and then have an animated conversation with it. The wonders of this age!
Yeah, the game’s buggy, and it’s not the fun type of bugs where you see Victorian cops on invisible landspeeders. It’s the annoying type of bug where the idiot AI goes off script, forcing you to restart the mission, or it can’t figure out that you’ve actually stolen what you’re supposed to, so you have to run back to the mission area until it wakes up. Honestly, dumb silly bugs I can forgive. Mission-crashing bugs suck a lot more.
Finally, being that we’re talking clumsiness, let’s talk about the game’s half-assed diversity. Evie is there mostly as an apology for the messy way it handled a lack of playable female characters last year. Meanwhile, Ned Wynert, the transman Ubisoft talked up so much, turns out to be an Annie Hall cosplayer in practice. It’s nice Ned’s there, but by the same token, it would be nicer if the character being transgender actually informed his plot arc, to the extent he even has one. Or, you know, Jacob and Evie were even remotely fazed by the fact there’s somebody who is clearly biologically female wearing a suit and introducing himself as a man. They may be Assassins, but it’s still 1868.
Between the main plot, which is easily 10 hours, and the side missions featuring various historical figures, which are easily another six to eight, and the various open world activities, which are time sinks in of themselves, you’ll be playing this game for a while.
While substantially reduced, Ubisoft still has those microtransactions hidden in there: You can still buy crafting resources and XP boosts with “Helix Credits”, which cost real money. But the game doesn’t push it on you and you do have to actually dig it out of the menu, and there’s no mobile app BS this time. There’s DLC coming, of course, but there’s more than enough meat on this particular joint. They’ve even largely phased out UPlay, although it will pop up now and again.
The core gameplay is solid, but that’s to be expected with this being the ninth main game in the franchise. It’s the details where this game trips, and that’s kind of too bad. If you’re a fan of the series, or new to it, it’s a well done entry worth playing, but if anything, this is an argument against putting out a new entry of this franchise every year.