Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate – Review (PS4)

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The Assassin’s Creed series arrived on the scene back in 2007 with an interesting premise but repetitive and unrefined gameplay. It was well received and when the second game arrived two years later, it had almost everything we wanted. Again the next title in the series, Brotherhood, improved and refined the way the series played and was an absolute blast. That was in 2010 and in the five years since we have had a mainline Assassin’s Creed game released every year.

Aside from 2013’s Black Flag it has been a case of diminishing returns, with not much innovation and too much clutter getting in the way of the gaming experience, culminating in 2014’s Unity, which was a broken game upon release. I didn’t finish Unity as I didn’t like the main character and felt like I had better things to spend my game time on.

As you can imagine, I approached Syndicate with some trepidation. It was ticking boxes for me pre-release: Victorian London? Check. Two main playable characters? Check. One of which is female? Check. It looked good on paper but after playing nine of these games in eight years (including a few spin off titles) the potential for burn out was extremely high. So did another new setting and main characters do anything to stop the slide of the series?

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The answer for me is a resounding yes.

Let’s start with the characters, twins Evie and Jacob Frye. For the first time in a long while I genuinely felt attached and interested in Assassin’s Creed’s main stars. As much as I enjoyed Black Flag and felt Edward Kenway was a likeable character, I didn’t really care for his story. With Syndicate I was keen to progress the story and enjoyed the freedom (some missions aside) to choose between controlling Evie or Jacob.

Both have slightly different skills, Evie is more stealth based while Jacob is more aggressive, but you can use either for most situations and be confident you won’t run into too much trouble. A huge part of their appeal is the delivery from actors Victoria Atkin and Paul Amos, both in terms of motion capture and vocal performance. The sibling banter flows freely and feels genuine enough to convince.

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The gameplay is still rooted in the maligned Assassin’s Creed template – you’ll need to climb a viewpoint to see all the side activities in an area but with climbing more efficient and easy to navigate it wasn’t too much of a hardship. The side activities were varied enough to keep me coming back, whether it was smaller stuff like protecting horse-drawn cargo, carriage racing (not a high point), bare knuckle fighting (surprisingly fun) or bigger things like taking over gang hideouts or assassinating Templars commanders. Do enough side stuff to clear out a borough of London and you trigger a gang fight, with each of these having a gang leader with back story and lines of dialogue etc. It reminded me a little of Shadow Of Mordor’s nemesis system but more static and less in depth. I’d love to see them work on this and try to incorporate something more dynamic for future titles.

There are also some interesting side missions that you can do for historical figures of the time – Dickens, Alexander Graham Bell, Darwin, Marx and even Queen Victoria have some really nice missions. In addition to that you’ll also find yourself bumping into others, like Florence Nightingale and Prime Minister Disraeli. Fun stuff and the game doesn’t take any of it too seriously, which is good.

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Another welcome new addition is the story based assassinations themselves. Nothing was more frustrating for me in previous games than sneaking up on a target, going to take them out, only for that to bring up a health bar and trigger a ‘boss fight’. Here you have the freedom to do as you like and the game also provides some ‘Hitman‘ style optional extras – interesting ways to get close to your target and perhaps activate a unique kill on them. Very cool stuff.

The game looks fantastic with some really cool lighting and a day/night cycle that also features various weather effects. Considering the issues in last year’s title I didn’t experience much in the way of technical problems. There was, of course, a bit of open-world ‘jank’, which isn’t uncommon in games of this size but there was nothing that dampened my enjoyment of the game.

Thinking of negatives, to be honest there aren’t many. I would’ve liked to have seen a little more variation in the bigger side missions – having said that I spent hours taking over London and finished them all, so they can’t have been that bad! The characters themselves handled fine but the horse drawn vehicle stuff was painful at times. I guess it would be tough to race through the streets of London in the 1860’s but a little more control would’ve been welcome. Also having the same button to get into a vehicle and pick up a dead body meant some extremely frustrating moments where the game picked the wrong option for me. Minor complaints in the grand scheme of things.

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So, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was a really positive experience for me. The fact that Ubisoft are giving the franchise a year off in 2016 is great news as it allows for some breathing space and gives them time to improve the game a lot more. We know the next game won’t be returning to London and the twins Frye but I genuinely hope we see a return to England with Evie and Jacob in the future.

Rating: 9/10

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