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A jolly good time

Assassin’s Creed is one of gaming’s constants. Like a sports title or Call of Duty, the Assassin’s Creed series has maintained a high-level of quality on an annual basis for a long time now (since 2009) and has turned into a solid go-to for everyone who needs a regular action-adventure fix. Until last year.

Assassin’s Creed Unity dropped the ball in terms of what people expect from the series in terms of gameplay, narrative, and general design, putting an unusual amount of pressure on 2015’s annual entry to right the course—or risk potential ruin for Ubisoft’s crown jewel. Luckily, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate does indeed strike true with its hidden blade, plunging the series back into the conversation for favorite fall games after jettisoning multiplayer and focusing on trying to put together the best single-player experience possible.

Once again, players assume the role of an Initiate, using their hacked Helix—a home entertainment version of the Animus that allowed you to relive ancestral history in the franchise’s early games—to help the Assassin Brotherhood in their search for Pieces of Eden that can turn the tide of their struggle against the Templars back in their favor. This time, you are sent to Victorian Era London, and for the first time in the series, you can freely switch between two protagonists as you step into the boots of the young, brash, yet highly effective Jacob and Evie Frye.

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If nothing else, this is one of the more memorable narratives the series has seen yet. Jacob and Evie not only have a great rapport with each other, but each has their own separate arcs that watch them grow and change in different and compelling ways. Jacob’s brashness and charm sometimes goes too far, and Evie’s single-minded approach to things costs her in ways she doesn’t necessarily realize in the moment. Each of their respective decisions has consequences on their lives—as well as the lives of those they’ve sworn to protect in London—and will keep you entertained throughout. The siblings even play differently, with Jacob being a plodding bruiser, and Evie the truer, stealthy assassin, with many side missions offering you a choice of who to play as.

Upon arriving in London, Evie and Jacob have a singular purpose: to bring down Templar Grandmaster Crawford Starrick. His crippling grip on London’s infrastructure has made the Templars strong, so the goal of breaking it makes playing the game far more interesting—especially when the Frye twins handle Starrick in their own one-of-a-kind ways. A strong, clear counterpoint to our respective heroes is something the series has lacked since the Borgias butted heads with Ezio and the narrative flows more smoothly from it.

The only point where the narrative stumbles at all is in the present day aspect of the series. Your Initiate character again remains chained to the Helix for the entirety of the game. While you do get a larger glimpse into the present day, meeting new assassins and seeing old friendly faces like Shaun and Rebecca from the Desmond days, things unfold as little more than long cutscenes.

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Playing around in the present day—last available to us in Black Flag—was beneficial in that it afforded a brief respite from the intense situations of the main game, with puzzles and conversations giving players the chance to catch their breath and let what just happened to them sink in more. It also aided the pacing of the game, allowing for drastic movement in time in a more cinematic way. Because we don’t have that here, we really see all of Syndicate play out in what feels like a few days, and at that point, why even bother with the idea of breaking up story beats into “sequences” besides as a cute reference to early titles in the series?

And since I mentioned puzzles, I do wish those would return to Assassin’s Creed. There is one puzzle in all of Syndicate, and another scavenger hunt for legendary armor. At the very least, in order to mix up the gameplay a bit, there is a special sequence that unlocks about halfway through the narrative that fast-forwards us in time to a World War I London about one-third the size of the Victorian Era one. It’s an extremely fun twist that doubles as a critical chance for moving the present-day story forward—unlike the weird, minigame-esque time jumps we saw in last year’s Unity.

And speaking of Unity again, I do have to mention there are some major, welcome differences between Syndicate and its predecessor that are clear indicators of the series being back on track. One of those is the setting, but I’m not just talking time or geography-wise. 1868 London feels more alive, more vibrant, and more like its own character than late-18th century Paris ever did. NPCs call out to Jacob and Evie with unique dialogue as the duo runs around town. Train stations are bristling with life as people rush to the platform to get on trains that actual speed around London. And, the addition of horse-drawn carriages mingling with pedestrians on city streets gives the illusion of authentic hustle and bustle that you’d expect from the heart of the civilized world.

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The most impressive aspect of this digital London, however, is how each section of town feels truly inimitable. Whether slumming it near the asylum in Lambeth, or sipping tea at 10 Downing in Westminster, London’s districts give off a specific tone that makes it easier to navigate and, again, feels more authentic and alive.

Speaking of navigation, Syndicate adds a lot on this front. The previously talked about carriages are hijackable and everywhere in London. The map may be massive, but who knew two-horsepower could get you across it so quickly. The handling of the carriages does take some time to get used to due to their wobbly nature, but with enough practice, you’ll be racing down London’s streets in no time and covering distance faster than in any Assassin’s Creed game to date.

Not every situation, or space for that matter, is ideal for a horse drawn carriage. This means that the series’ traditional parkour returns, and feels as smooth as ever. The addition of tapping the left-bumper to hop in windows, combined with what feels like more intuitive transitions between last year’s up and down movements, means scaling buildings has never felt better.

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The biggest upgrade to traversal, though, may be the much talked-about rope launcher. London’s most famous towers and buildings now can be scaled in a fraction of the time when you get close to their base, or you can swing across the city’s wide avenues when firing the rope launcher from rooftop to rooftop. Unlike the carriages and traditional parkour, I thought this new piece of equipment needed a bit more work, though.

For starters, the rope launcher has no aiming reticle, so you often lack the precision you’re looking for when using it, especially when moving horizontally. Also, there’s no clear definition of how far you can fire the rope launcher, or what edges you can latch onto with it and which ones you can’t. Just “eyeing it up” gets tiresome, especially if trying to make a quick escape—so the rope launcher definitely needed to either latch onto anything, or be something that should have offered clearer working parameters. The in-between ground the device found is okay, and when it works it works well, but you’ll be on top of a church asking yourself why you can’t just launch down to a building below way too often.

The rope launcher isn’t just for navigation, however. While it doesn’t come into play in direct combat, it’s great for creating stealth opportunities when looking to assassinate someone via the air. By creating a zipline between buildings or across a courtyard, Jacob and Evie can position themselves directly above their targets and drop, blades drawn, onto their unsuspecting victims. A new “kidnap” mechanic also helps players be stealthy. By slowly approaching an enemy from behind, our heroes can wrench their prey’s arm and guide them around guard patrols, using them to make it seem like they actually belong and not drawing the ire of nearby foes. If you wander too close to an enemy, however, the ruse is lost. These are just a couple of new ways you can infiltrate enemy spaces and minimize your risk of being detected, and more options are always a good thing when trying to be sneaky.

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Combat has also seen a marked improvement in Syndicate. New offensive weapons like the “Voltaic” stun bombs and hallucinogenic darts—which make enemies temporarily fight on your side—allows you to whittle down enemy numbers before a full-blown fight erupts. Once melees do ensue, taking on a horde of guards at once can still prove difficult, but combat isn’t nearly as punishing as it was in Unity thanks to the return of the counter. Even better, a much clearer counter window allows Jacob and Evie to pull off some spectacular combinations that lead to supremely cinematic, bone-crushing multi-kills when several opponents are all near death.

Whether the gameplay is new or old, one thing Syndicate also does well is ease players into its mechanics. Side activities like fight clubs and carriage races are great opportunities to practice driving and fighting, while the Gang War missions—Jacob Frye’s one-man march towards unifying the underworld of London under his banner—freshens you up on old techniques, even if they have new twists or if your hidden blade happens to be a bit rusty.

The Gang War side content also acts as a great way for players to clearly follow their progression in the game. A bit like an RPG, Evie and Jacob level up as they unlock and learn new assassination abilities, weapons, and armor, including some specific to each character. As they grow, they can more easily handle enemies of higher difficulty. While it’s not impossible for a level five Evie to stealthily assassinate a level eight Templar, should the hit be botched, she’s more likely to walk away from that encounter if they are closer in level.

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With that in mind, the sections of London are similarly labeled, usually housing enemies of a level equal to the location, ranging from Whitechapel’s two up to Westminster’s nine. By freeing London borough by borough from Crawford Starrick’s gangs, both characters level up. Jacob and Evie each max out at level 10, and thankfully, they’ll both earn points toward reaching that goal no matter who you’re playing as. This paves the way for an easier time in the story, while also providing that satisfying feeling of accomplishment that comes from freeing the entire city from Templar control and snagging a couple hundred collectibles along the way—and which Unity made nearly impossible with its cluttered map and unclear progression system.

As good as Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is, it does share one familiar trait with Unity, however: there are a fair amount of bugs in the game. Syndicate froze up on me several times, mission objectives would glitch (forcing me to reload checkpoints), and both Jacob and Evie fell through the world or got stuck in walls far too frequently. It makes one wonder if the yearly Assassins Creed cycle is just too much for Ubisoft to handle, because—while not nearly as bad as Unity—this is back to back years where my gameplay was noticeably hindered at times due to technical issues.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a return to form for the most part for Assassin’s Creed. Sure, the removal of all multiplayer might ding the replayability of the title, but I’d rather have an awesome 30-40 hour experience that I’ll one-hundred percent once and be done with—which is what Syndicate is—than the feeling of being forced into online play to try and squeeze a few more hours out of it. Syndicate features a compelling story with great protagonists, some terrific gameplay, and a beautiful new world and time period to explore, which remains Assassin’s Creed’s calling card. If Ubisoft can just work out those last few kinks, Assassin’s Creed would be ready to truly take new-gen by storm. As is, Syndicate is a strong addition to the series’ ever-expanding timeline that should reassure fans who were questioning its viability after last year.

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Developer: Ubisoft Quebec • Publisher: Ubisoft • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 10.23.15
8.5

A fair amount of bugs and lack of a present-day scenario detract from what is otherwise a strong return to form for Assassin’s Creed. Syndicate touts not one, but two great protagonists, strong gameplay, and Victorian Era London is neck and neck with Renaissance Italy as the best place the series has been to.

The Good London may be the most impressive setting for the series yet. Strong narrative and gameplay.
The Bad Glitches galore. Lack of present-day scenario. Rope launcher could use some work.
The Ugly I wonder if PETA will come after Ubisoft for all the horses I killed during high-speed carriage chases.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is available on Xbox One and PS4 and is coming later to PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Ubisoft for the benefit of this review.
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