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Assassin's Creed Syndicate

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Quebec
Release Date: Oct. 23, 2015


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PS4 Review - 'Assassin's Creed: Syndicate'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Oct. 28, 2015 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Join gangster assassin Jacob Frye as he races through the streets of London in the midst of the Industrial Revolution to take down rival street gangs and bring justice to a city choked by corruption and greed.

Last year's Assassin's Creed: Unity was infamously buggy and one of the most poorly received Assassin's Creed games, so Assassin's Creed: Syndicate must stand on its own two legs and make up for last year's game. The good news is that Syndicate is no Unity, but in avoiding that pitfall, it may have played it too safe.

Syndicate takes place in London during the 1860s. Siblings Evie and Jacob Frye, a pair of Assassins, are looking for excitement and adventure in a town that's known to be the stronghold of the Assassins' longtime enemies, the Templars. The Frye siblings set up their own gang, the Rooks, to build an army. As Jacob takes the fight to the Templars, Evie is embroiled in a hunt for the Shroud of Eden, an ancient artifact that is rumored to grant immortality. Together, the Frye siblings seek to break the Templars' hold over London and bring freedom to all. Along the way, they encounter a host of historical figures, from Alexander Graham Bell to Charles Darwin.

Syndicate's plot is fun but toothless. The characters are fun and enjoyable, but they lack the development of someone like Edward Kenway or Ezio. Evie sees a bit of character growth, which amounts to her realizing that she can sometimes follow her emotions. The Rooks, who are featured heavily in the advertising, are almost entirely absent from the game. There's a buildup to an interesting conflict that is almost entirely subverted by some smiles and vague promises to change. I enjoyed watching the characters interact but didn't care about the plot or the villains, especially as the game rolls to a predictably dull ending.

This isn't helped by the fact that Assassin's Creed's metaplot is in a holding pattern. Desmond Miles' death at the end of Assassin's Creed 3 seems to have halted almost all progress in the Templar vs. Assassin plot. Every game seems to wave its hand at something that will be important in the next game, followed by the next game waving its hand at something that will be important in the game after that. Syndicate is no different. There are a handful of plot points that amount to, "We swear something big will happen in next game." The future plot has never been the strong point of the franchise, but now, it seems unwilling to even provide additional context. It doesn't hurt Syndicate on its own, but it can be easy for someone who plays the games yearly to get worn down by the lack of momentum.

However, the game does try some things that deserve respect. After the well-publicized kerfuffle last year over the lack of playable female characters, Syndicate goes all-out in the opposite direction. Not only is Evie playable, but almost every faction has male and female characters. It might sound minor, but it's rare to experience. This is one of many little touches that make it clear Ubisoft heard fan complaints and wants to be more inclusive.

Syndicate is a synthesis of the recent Assassin's Creed games in that it borrows mechanics from Unity but goes back to the style and feel of earlier games. Your characters are far more in the "stabby superhero" vein than the more realistic tone of Unity. Combat is more akin to Arkham Asylum, making this the best fighting the franchise has seen to date. You'll quickly begin to dominate enemies, but it feels fast and engaging, and it's easy to get overwhelmed if you let down your guard. Large group fights are fast and brutal, and there's encouragement to plan your moves.

The stealth and parkour mechanics will feel very familiar. Syndicate uses the modified parkour mechanics from Unity, so you have more control. The big addition is the grappling hook, which allows you to rocket up to the top of a building or zipline between two buildings. Traveling around the city feels a lot faster and smoother, and it makes it less tedious to reach Viewpoints. The only downside is that it removes some "flavor" from the game since there's no reason to climb a building once you get the grappling hook. The movement controls have the same unfortunate stickiness in Unity; they're great for fast movement but awkward for precise movement. Fortunately, the game rarely asks for the latter.

Syndicate allows players to play as either of the Frye siblings, who are almost identical in gameplay mechanics. They share weapons, levels, and most of their equipment, so the only significant difference is in their armor. They have different outfits, and Evie gets capes while Jacob gets belts. Jacob is a better brawler and better with guns, while Evie is better at stealth and throwing knives, but these differences are extremely slight. Evie is a capable brawler and gunslinger, and Jacob has no problem sneaking into places. Players can pick a favorite and stick with him or her while exploring town. Since they share so much of their basic equipment, there's no punishment for swapping between them, either.

Each character has their own set of missions to play through, though some missions can be completed with either character. It's disappointing how the missions are divided up. Evie's focus is on stealth, but the bulk of the assassination missions are given to Jacob. It doesn't feel like Evie gets enough chances to showcase her expertise; she cleans up after Jacob a lot, which is never as exciting as performing the kills. One of her missions includes the best assassination in the game, but Jacob is simply showcased more.

Speaking of which, Syndicate makes assassinations a lot of fun. They're closer to the classic Assassin's Creed 1 style in that you spend time gathering information about a character and then go in for the kill. You can poison a waitress' drinks to eliminate guards or kidnap a guard captain to sneak past his men. Each target also has a Unique Kill which is not mandatory but is fun because it feels like you're setting up for an actual assassination instead of merely following a script.

The mission design in Syndicate is a step up for the franchise by building on Unity's reduction of failure states. What that means is that it is a lot more difficult to instantly fail missions. Sneaking up and killing someone is just as valid as charging in and punching your way through guards. The game encourages you to go for more complex optional objectives, and the prize is a small bonus to your end-of-mission gold and experience.

There are some annoying missions, though. I wasn't fond of the kidnap mechanic. You can grab an enemy from behind and use him or her as a personal shield to walk through heavily guarded areas. It's an amusing idea but dull in practice because you have to walk pretty slowly to avoid getting noticed. The game is not entirely free off the occasional tailing mission, which is no more enjoyable now than it has been in the history of the franchise. Carriage racing is also weak and doesn't play to any of the game's strengths.

Outside of the core missions, there's a boatload of side-quests. It's better designed than in Unity, as there are only a few quest-givers. Some objectives are fun and others are kind of a chore. There's a subset of missions you need to complete to take over London, but they're straightforward. Being tasked with doing missions for Charles Darwin or Karl Marx is the kind of absurdity that Assassin's Creed thrives on. Collectibles have also been trimmed down. Every area has a few, but they're easy to find, clearly marked on your map and provide limited rewards.

The game offers micro-transactions that aren't entirely worth it. The majority of them are for unlocking extra money, experience points or crafting materials, but the game is overly generous with all of those. By the time I finished the game, I had more than enough money and crafting items to max out my character's equipment. If you want to unlock every single thing in the game, you'll need a lot of resources, but the side-quests throw those at you. The most annoying thing is that certain side-quest maps are locked behind real-world money, but it's pretty easy to look them up online.

Noticeably absent from the game is multiplayer, making this the first mainline Assassin's Creed since Assassin's Creed II to lack a multiplayer component. It's a minor loss in the long run but may be disappointing to those who've come to expect it. There are still some social features, but they've been scaled back considerably from the prior title. Aside from a few social collectibles, there's not a big difference between online and offline play. Considering the absurd abundance of collectibles in Unity, that may be a relief to some. The multiplayer is missed, but it doesn't detract much from the overall experience.

Visually, Syndicate is a step back from Unity, but the game runs much smoother than even a heavily patched version of Unity. While the environments and characters are a touch simpler, they still look quite good. The frame rate isn't perfect, but it's far closer to what's expected from the franchise. Likewise, there are some expected glitches but not constant bugs. I did suffer a hard freeze in one mission where I went slightly outside where the game expected, and there are numerous AI quirks, but nothing soured the experience much. The voice acting is generally quite good, and Evie and Jacob's actors bring a lot of life to their roles. Syndicate also has a good soundtrack, which is easily one of my favorites in the franchise.

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate's only significant flaw is a lack of ambition. It's an incredibly safe game that makes sure every edge is smoothed out to avoid any backlash. It's a simple, solid and predictable game that is a big improvement over last year's title, but at the same time, it leaves it feeling slightly bland. Syndicate is a good experience, and it's hard to fault a game for focusing on that. Fans of the franchise and newcomers alike should find much to like here.

Score: 8.0/10

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