Assassin's Creed Syndicate review

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Ubisoft
Developer Ubisoft Quebec
Release Date Oct 23, 2015

More than anything, Assassin's Creed Syndicate feels like a long-needed course correction.

Last year's Assassin's Creed Unity was by most accounts the lowest point in the franchise thus far, at least as far as the main-line games are concerned. But that low point wasn't an anomaly; it was an inevitability on the downhill slope the series has been on since 2010's excellent Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood.

As the franchise has layered on new complexities and an increasingly baffling plot, it's failed to compensate in the other direction, to clean up issues that have been lingering as far back as the first game.

Syndicate finally changes that pattern. The open-world bloat that Assassin's Creed has been known for is trimmed considerably here, leading to a more streamlined experience. Meanwhile the core world design has improved as well, shifting away from the focus on realism in its virtual London and focusing instead on playability.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate feels like a long-needed course correction

Assassin's Creed Syndicate sees the history-jumping series moving to Industrial Revolution-era London. Twin assassins Jacob and Evie Frye have come to the city looking to interrupt the reign of Crawford Starrick, an evil Templar industrialist who gives out marching orders to the gangs running the city's streets.

As in previous Assassin's Creed games, there's a metafictional frame to this narrative: You take on the role of a character recruited by the Assassins of modern time to play through the memories of Jacob and Evie. But Syndicate strikes a perfect balance in making those segments add meaningful progress to the overarching plot of the series without overstaying their welcome — much needed for a story that's barely moved an inch since 2012's Assassin's Creed 3.

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It's nice to see things happening again with that top layer of plot, but most of Syndicate's time is devoted to a chaotic caricature of 1860s London. Jacob and Evie gather a number of allies, both fictional (an awkward assassin named Henry Green) and historical (hilariously undercover police inspector Frederick Abberline, a ghost-obsessed Charles Dickens and more). The supporting cast is better than it's ever been, full of memorable characters and sharp, witty dialogue.

Part of the praise for the dialogue also goes to Evie and Jacob themselves. Jacob is the suave, sarcastic type whose arrogance causes him to fuck up a lot; Evie is a cooler head, whose collected approach allows her to keep a close eye on her primary goal while constantly cleaning up Jacob's messes. They play off of each other perfectly.

What about multiplayer and all that other junk?

For the first time in a main release in the series since 2010's Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Syndicate features no multiplayer at all — neither the unique spin on competitive multiplayer nor the cooperative play that was added in Unity. While some might miss the company of other assassins, it seems clear that the game has benefited from a focus on developing and polishing the single-player experience.

In addition to a higher quality of design, Syndicate suffers much less from the bugs and glitches that plagued last year's Assassin's Creed. I ran into a couple of crashes and enemies spawning into weird places. In one case, I fell through the world. But there was nothing on the level of the nonstop problems that Unity had.

Also absent from Syndicate: the dozens of chests and bonus features that could only be unlocked via a second-screen app or joining the Assassin's Creed Initiates group. The game now features a single option in the menu to log in to a "Ubisoft Club" account and unlock a few extras, but it never pushes it on the player. And despite still having the ability to purchase in-game currency with real money, Syndicate never feels miserly. I finished the game with 80 percent completion in around 30 hours, and managed to hit max level, purchase all gang upgrades and do most of the crafting I wanted without ever even considering buying extra material with real money.

It's also notable that despite having an already announced paid downloadable add-on, Syndicate has plenty of meat on its bones. There's one particularly cool and lengthy segment I won't spoil that absolutely struck me as the kind of thing that Ubisoft would normally have tried to section out and sell as DLC. Hopefully this marks the beginning of a more outwardly consumer-friendly attitude for the series.

Syndicate also does a good job of letting you largely stick with whichever twin you prefer. In side missions, you can choose to play as Evie or Jacob, and aside from some very minor differences in the skills they unlock as they level up — Evie ends up just a little better at stealth, while Jacob has a tiny bit more survivability in fights — the two play nearly identically. Story missions force you into one role or another, but they're given about equal screen time, and the swapping made sense in the context of the twins' often opposing viewpoints on the correct path forward.

While discussing the story, I'd be remiss not to give special mention to antagonist Crawford Starrick, and Syndicate's general approach to villains. There are plenty of no-name assassination targets who get quietly taken out and forgotten over the course of Assassin's Creed Syndicate. But the game also spends a lot of time building up three or four of the main bad guys, especially Starrick, who perfectly embodies the Templars' superficial care for the greater good amid overtly homicidal actions.

Of course, Jacob and Evie have some homicidal tendencies of their own. As has become usual for Assassin's Creed, Syndicate takes place in an open world where you take on specific missions, often choosing whether to approach using stealth or take a more action-oriented path.

While story missions are much longer and have much more unique objectives, the more generic and less exciting Assassin's Creed goals are relegated to side tasks that will free territory from Templar control. Assassin's Creed has featured territory control elements before, but they're handled particularly well in Syndicate. They're totally optional, and I found myself using them as a cooldown between more intense tasks.

The main assassination missions are where Syndicate really shines. They place you into larger-than-life settings — the Bank of England, the Tower of London, Lambeth Asylum, etc. — and provide you with a variety of potential ways to get close to and take out your target. If you want to run in and clumsily kill everyone in sight, Syndicate will allow it, in most cases. But you can play it more carefully, sneak around, find hidden entrances, knock out guards for disguises and more. There are also unique assassinations you can pull off in each of these main missions, if you're especially crafty.

My favorite unique assassination? When I pretended to be a corpse so that I could get wheeled in to kill an evil doctor giving a live medical lecture.

ac syndicate tall screen 1

Both the story missions and the open-world activities work better than they otherwise would because of how smartly Syndicate's world is designed. With previous releases, it's often felt like the series prides itself on historical authenticity first and foremost, often to the detriment of the actual moveset and animations of the characters in the games. This came to a head in Assassin's Creed 3 and has persisted in every installment since, where the main characters constantly felt like they were tripping over things in the environment. Assassin's Creed Syndicate has cleaner streets and rooftops, more direct paths between areas, and a slightly simplified control layout that makes it easier to differentiate between when you're trying to move up a building or jump down to the street below.

Syndicate also benefits from the introduction of a fantastic new means of traversal: the grappling hook-esque rope launcher. The rope launcher works both vertically and horizontally, letting Jacob or Evie quickly scale to the top of a building or cross a wide street without touching the ground. While this clearly takes heavy inspiration from similar devices in other open-world games, it's a brilliant addition to the Assassin's Creed arsenal.

Despite all the upgrades and fixes in Assassin's Creed Syndicate, there are a few annoyances with the series' control scheme that haven't been ironed out yet. For example, the button mapped to interact with things in the environment is the same button that, when you hold down the left trigger, tells your assassin to free-run in a downward direction. I can't tell you how many times I tried to tap that button to open a chest and instead watched my chosen Frye hang precariously off a ledge or leap into a nearby body of water.

But unlike the last few Assassin's Creed games, these annoyances rarely if ever get in the way where it matters. I never found myself bumbling around the spaces in Syndicate — or, at least, when I did, I never felt like the game was at fault. Syndicate's environments maximize feeling like an unstoppable assassin and downplay the awkwardness that has consistently accompanied the franchise's complicated controls and animation.

Wrap Up:

Syndicate pushes back the cruft that has collected around Assassin's Creed for years

That's really Assassin's Creed Syndicate's biggest triumph: It pushes back against the collected cruft of eight years of releases and spinoffs, an imposing accumulation of mechanics and lore and expectations. Syndicate doesn't get everything right. It doesn't solve all of the series' problems, and at this point, I'm not sure if any one game could. However, it's the first step in a uniformly positive direction that the franchise has taken in years.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate was reviewed using final retail PlayStation 4 code provided by Ubisoft. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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