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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Xbox One Review - 'Assassin's Creed: Syndicate'

by Redmond Carolipio on Nov. 12, 2015 @ 12:15 a.m. PST

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.

When I first heard Assassin's Creed: Syndicate was going to feature twin protagonists, I was wary. I thought of Jean Claude Van Damme in "Double Impact," Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in "Twins," and Tomax and Xamot from G.I. Joe.

Visions of kickboxing Belgians and action figures aside, I carried skepticism about the twin approach because from a character standpoint, twins can be tricky. Do I really want to see more tropes of "polar opposite" siblings or instances of people finishing each other's sentences? Also, did I want to see that in Assassin's Creed, which was starting to wear out its welcome with me after — ahem — twin releases of Unity and Rogue, the former being racked with bugs and strangely amped up difficulty?

It took me about 10 minutes with Jacob and Evie Frye for all those weird questions to dissipate. Ubisoft's newest Assassins are an embodiment of Syndicate's stripped-down, focused experience. It's got everything I liked about Assassin's Creed while shaving away some of the gameplay barnacles that were bogging down the series.

The Frye twins are a pair of impetuous, young Assassins with designs on freeing London from the shackles bestowed upon it by the resident Templar of power, Crawford Starrick. Jacob, the younger brother by a few minutes, wants to form a gang called the Rooks and take back London by force. Evie, the well-read and equally lethal sister, is on a quest to find another Piece of Eden before the Templars do.

Jacob and Evie can make a case for being the two most likeable Assassins since Ezio Auditore from Assassin's Creed II. They are brilliantly written, coming across as an extremely believable brother and sister duo. They antagonize and needle each other in a way only close siblings can, and one never overpowers the other with his or her personality.

What I liked most about them is how they weren't classically attractive heroes. Jacob could have easily been another Dashing Guy, but instead he comes across as an indelicate, rugged bar fighter who makes you wonder at times how became an Assassin in the first place.

Then there's Evie, who is walking proof that it's possible to craft a female lead without succumbing to the kind of base design ideas that can so easily plague other virtual women. There isn't one ounce of come-hither on Evie. She doesn't have doe eyes or D cups. She doesn't "sizzle," "smolder" or show a lot of skin. She fuses a sort of bookish cuteness with the graceful physicality that befits a master of the Assassin order.

Both characters are perfect fits for what I'd call the "friendliest" and most accessible game in the entire series. Somehow, it also manages to blend in an array of new stuff; there's nothing on the same scale as the naval combat prevalent in Assassin's Creed IV, but everything works together to set apart your trip through London from anything else.

An open world setting of six London boroughs awaits Jacob and Evie, rife with the usual Assassin's Creed trappings such as landmarks like Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, specialized missions with a variety of historical figures, leaps of faith off extremely high viewpoints, and lots and lots intricate detail that springs London to life.

What's different is how Ubisoft has added a sense of constant motion and fluidity. While exploring, you can switch back and forth seamlessly between Jacob the brawler and the fast-and-deadly Evie. In a blissful change, you can now fast-travel to each viewpoint you synchronize. That takes away a massive chunk of that grinding feeling I got in past Assassin's Creed games, where I had to haul ass from one end of the map to the other because I didn't take the time to unlock some arcane tunnel.

Adding to the sense of speed are horse-drawn carriages (hooray for societal advancements), which will remind most veteran players of other open-world titles like GTA. Frankly, it was about time Assassin's Creed got on board with the fact that not everybody likes to sprint across rooftops for hours. But for those who do, Syndicate finds an even faster way to do that by issuing Jacob and Evie portable zip line launchers. Like a British Batman, Jacob and Evie can scale buildings very quickly and zoom from roof to roof across the city. Again, this makes the entire experience of playing Syndicate faster and engaging.

The combat system has become more streamlined as well, which can be a mixed bag. In some ways, it echoes the feel of the Batman: Arkham Asylum combat system, where you can fight and counter your way through almost any horde of enemies. Unfortunately, this means players with a solid sense of timing and awareness have practically zero fear of getting caught, unless they stupidly engage a horde of armed cops and/or thugs. I won plenty of skirmishes simply by mashing X to strike with a manner of crafted, upgradeable weapons.

The simplified combat does fit, however, with what I felt was a conscious effort to have the Assassins truly mix it up. Chunks of the Blighters, a Templar-backed gang, control the boroughs of London. The only way to regain control is for Jacob and Evie to engage in optional missions (freeing children, hunting Templar leaders, kidnapping key gangsters) to get the attention of that borough's resident gang leader, who'll eventually want to engage in a gang brawl that calls up images of "Gangs of New York." Defeat the gang leader in a boss-fight style battle, and the borough is yours.

One curveball is that you can actually kill the gang leader before the big showdown, as executing enough missions in a borough gets his or her attention to the point where they'll show up and send a regiment of goons after you. If you kill the gang leader ahead of time, the ensuing massive gang fight become exponentially easier. Also, like any aspiring gang leader, you can recruit members of your growing gang to walk with you and fight in battle. Players have been able to do this kind of ally-rallying for a while in Assassin's Creed, but you now have the option of running your gang like a legitimate syndicate: paying for improvement to personnel, equipment and skills for your guys (and gals). Some of the improvements are quite helpful — for instance, an upgrade that ensures that my gang members whip out guns and fire a storm of bullets before letting loose with the melee attacks has ended confrontations in a couple of seconds.

The game isn't all chaotic violence. The Assassins are known for creative ways of getting to and ending their foes, and this edition is no different. I witnessed Jacob once kill a Templar doctor by pretending to be a corpse destined to be used as part of a medical lecture. To reach a crooked banker, I kidnapped the bank manager, who led me into the vault where the Templar bastard was hiding.

For as much fun as I was having, the game wasn't perfect. First off, there were some instances of bugginess, though far from the degree that plagued the release of Unity. Sometimes, button commands wouldn't pop up when I'd need them to, like "kidnap" when I was close enough and no one was around. This actually stopped a mission for me at one point, and I had to start over. In very rare moments, I'd get randomly frozen or stuck. I didn't encounter any true game-stoppers, but there were enough instances to be distracting.

Also, Jacob and Evie's stories felt disjointed, as they actually seemed to be getting in each other's way. For example, Jacob's killing of a Templar banker actually leads to a state of economic distress for the city, so Evie has a mission where she has to clean it up. It felt extraneous. For twins with such great in-person chemistry, you'd think they'd at least hash out a few things instead of being Stubborn Game Characters. Their friction felt superficial at times — being at odds for the sake of being at odds, and I didn't believe in it all the way. Also, while I've always enjoyed the appearances of historical figures in the Assassin's Creed series, Syndicate's cameos (complete with their own side missions) came across as a comical stretch.

You'll run into Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens and Karl Marx, to name a few. All of them are entertaining in their own way, but I have a hard time fully embracing the idea that Alexander Graham Bell is now the go-to guy for my hydraulic zip line launcher and my arsenal of poison darts. I can see da Vinci or Tesla doing that, but not the telephone guy. He's not Q.

Even in the face of those hiccups, I enjoyed every moment of playing Assassin's Creed: Syndicate and have returned to highly anticipating the next chapter. I still find time to bounce around London with the Frye twins, and I hope whoever comes next can provide the same kind of company.

Score: 7.8/10

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