syndicate 22 Oct

Another year. Another Assassin’s Creed game. This time players are sent to Industrial Revolution London. Cuz that’s the era people have been wanting to play… Not Feudal Japan or Imperial China or the Russian Revolution, or World War II Europe, or cold war America, or present day London, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo….

You know, back in 2007 when the original Assassin’s Creed hit shelves, it was a breath of fresh air compared to the generic shooter genre that was dominating the market. I was a huge, huge fan. I even liked Unity, but I was frustrated with how it had little or nothing to do with the serial story line involving the Precursor race that ties the series together as one cohesive unit. Despite Unity’s rough reception, part of me had hope that the series would turn itself around.

I played Assassin’s Creed Syndicate on my PlayStation 4 using a review copy sent to me by the publisher. There was one little patch I downloaded immediately before playing and apparently there’s another on the way on launch day. The game ran fine for me. I can’t speak for its stability on PC yet, but no one was missing faces, I had no crashes, or real frame rate hiccups that I could see. Of course there were a few minor bugs here and there, but they were all par for the course of pretty much any open world game. It took me the better part of 3 days to chug through it all.

This time instead of playing as one protagonist, gamers play as two separate assassins: the twins Jacob and Evie Frye. Certain missions are character specific, but during free roam, the player can play as either one, which I found to be a cool idea. I didn’t love Evie Frye, but I thought Jacob was a wanna-be James Bond.

Thinking on it a little harder, that shouldn’t work lore-wise to be able to play as both. Desmond could only share the genetic memories of people who were in his direct bloodline. There’s no way a brother and sister could be direct ancestors of someone unless… OH GOD GROSS.

What they could have and… probably should have done, to both avoid accidental incestuous implications and to make a better storyline, was to take male and female assassins who start off hating each other, but end up falling in love while learning to work together to topple a common enemy. There you go. That’s some free writing for ya.

But that’s not how the story goes. Jacob and Evie start off sharing a personality, and as Assassin’s Creed London progresses, they bicker a little bit while fighting off the forces of Snidely Whiplash. Seriously… look at this guy. They could could have called him Evil McBadGuy and given him red eyes and it would have been just as subtle.

New to the series is Batman’s grapnel gun.

And hats.

And… I think… that’s… it….

What has been axed? Competitive multiplayer. Engaging cooperative missions. Mobile phone companion apps. Fun travel system, complete with its own customizations.

The map of London is so big here that the game needs a solid travel system. Black Flag didn’t have this problem because the Jackdaw was both a great way to travel and it was a cool mobile base. I didn’t mind not having a boat during the French Revolution because the story held up better. But in Syndicate, ziplining is too slow. Stealing horse-drawn buggies is too boring.

The mobile base here is a train that you steal early on. You can’t guide where it goes or how fast it gets there. At this point, we’ve traded having a totally wicked pirate ship for Thomas the Tank Engine.

Fast traveling is always an option, but the load times can be a bit on the long side. They aren’t unbearable, but I’d rather be doing something slowly, than nothing at all a little less slowly.

Despite my early tangent, I truly wanted to hit home some of the solid points of the game.
It has a great gloomy atmosphere. I almost want this to be set in a first person point of view so I can really take in the stunning work here. Excellent water. Beautiful lighting. Awesome rain and night effects.

It’s a shame that the city itself doesn’t play much of a role until closer to the end. And the way the game is mapped out and set up, the city itself, despite being a representation of London, isn’t very memorable. I know my way around Liberty City, Los Santos, and even Assassin’s Creed’s own Rome, the frontier, Florence, etc. I’ve only been to London once in my lifetime, but I recall the city having much more personality than this.

I jokingly referred to their own zip line system as Bat grapnel gun. But there’s really nothing else to call it. It seemed silly at first, but got to be sort of fun as I went along. Popping and smoke bomb, knocking out some enemies, and then zipping back up to the rooftops before the smoke clears a la Bruce Wayne. I wish it would control a little better, letting you use it from further away, letting you stop before you zip up the side of an entire tower, or heck, using it on enemies like the Just Cause series. I mean, if we’re going to whip something like that out, might as well go whole hog, right?

And the game is genuinely fun in random bursts. Like Unity before it, it takes stealth gameplay more seriously than past Assassin’s Creed games. Syndicate is more fun when you’re challenging enemies that are several levels above you, forcing you to stretch those stealthy muscles a little.

The way the game is set up, you have access to quite a bit when you’re a lower level. Sadly, when you gain experience and unlock new skills and perks, the game gets too easy. And unfortunately, there’s no way to turn off those perks once they’re purchased as a sort of artificial way to control the difficulty on your own. Without a difficulty slider, the best you can do is wear and use weak gear and weapons to make it harder on yourself.

AI is rock stupid. I’ve read some criticisms recently about the AI in Phantom Pain, but Phantom Pain’s AI is miles ahead of this. They give up on searches after a few seconds. They sheepishly walk to you alone if you whistle from a hiding spot. Their cone of vision is pretty small and you’re given a hefty amount of time to avoid detection if you really want to. With smoke bombs, insanity darts, throwing daggers, concussion grenades, a pistol, and your main weapon… you’ll be fine.

Surprisingly, the game’s standard cash economy feels pretty good. It’s the best an AC game has seen yet. Weapons aren’t doled out too quickly, and the player will really have to decide how to spend their money. By the end of the game, I had enough to buy pretty much everything but up until then, I had to be a little judicious with my finances. However, between crafting, the standard market, unlocking items by collecting assorted objects across the map, and Ubisoft’s Helix currency there are too many different types of currencies at play here.

There is a way to buy Ubisoft helix with real world money to unlock things in the game faster, but I found no reason to use it at all. It stinks that Ubisoft is asking for more money on top of your $60 purchase, but truly, 99.999% of gamers will never ever need to spend a dime.

Combat has been improved a bit. It’s vicious looking. Your choice of weapon doesn’t really matter much except for visual flair. Enemies hit harder, gang up on you, and I’m happy to say I died much more in this Assassin’s Creed. But analytically, it still boils down to hitting the counter button at the right time, and attacking when there’s an opening.

Like I said earlier, the villains in Syndicate are cardboard cutouts. They didn’t really drive me. There’s no twist. They pose no real tangible menace. They aren’t identifiable characters whose motivations are morally ambiguous. They are just bland, bland, bland. Remember Haytham Kenway? Remember the Borgias? I do. You won’t remember Evil Badguyface sitting in his office saying bad guy things.

But my apathy didn’t end there. I didn’t really care for any of the characters. At this point, I sort of miss the dynamic relationship between Arno and Elise. The voice actors all did a fine job. It’s the script and pacing that’s problematic.

Evie has a love story where her relationship goes from mild to mild and married. Really. It felt forced. Zero chemistry between the two characters with no arc or relationship building.

The open world gameplay is super repetitive. Map is cluttered with random objects to pick up. I visited every pub in town to collect every beer bottle in the game and I my rewarded for my world-class errand efforts with a belt.

That’s it. A belt.

It’s not even a very good belt, or that cool looking. The chachkies dumped across the map are busy work. Nothing more. And you’re required to do SO… MUCH… CARRIAGE DRIVING, not just for the side junk, but for the main story as well. This HAS to be the most boring mode of transportation of all time.

While I’m on a bit of a tirade, why does Ubisoft insist on asking for a rating after their missions? They’ve been doing it for a little while and it’s always sorta bugged me, but now I’m dying to know. Why do they want their missions rated? These aren’t fan made levels that I’m recommending to a friend. These are professionally made levels. Right?

If you’re one of the unfortunate souls holding on to the franchise in hopes that the frame story about the precursor civilization is going to pick back up again, don’t bother. What little happens outside the simulated digital world is starting to tear down the relevance of the original Desmond story. Why was Desmond so special if just about anyone’s ancestry seems to be unlocking Assassin vs. Templar history.

The story of the ones who came before seems to be pretty much abandoned at this point. (but it IS touched super briefly toward the end). They keep teasing you as if to say “eh?! look, we didn’t forget about it! we’re just not doing anything with it. Maybe the next game!”

At first glance, Syndicate seems like a refinement of a lot of what Ubisoft has been trying to do with the franchise, but they still manage to miss the mark in crucial areas. It’s almost as though when they release a game, they selectively listen to feedback and adjust. But there is one crucial piece of feedback they seem to be ignoring. Let the franchise rest for a year or so. Come back to it with fresh eyes and some new ideas.

If the series takes a much needed break now, it doesn’t go out on a high note, but it DEFINITELY doesn’t go out on a low note. It gives Ubisoft a chance to come back at this and create stories and characters that people honestly care about and can attach themselves to.

In the past many outspoken people voiced their distaste for the frame story within the Assassin’s Creed universe. I think what happened outside the Animus was more important than what happened within. Desmond Miles was someone that players could project themselves into. He was a prisoner and later a refugee. People could empathize with him.

Now, players play the role of themselves in the modern world and watch groups of people we don’t know or care about battle one another. There’s no more Animus or hero character to mentally insert ourselves into. It’s a strange thing, but when the series changed the game’s secret protagonist from Desmond Miles to the player, it made the series much less personal and believable. I know this is all science fiction. But to Desmond Miles, it was real, and we saw the Assassin’s Creed universe through his eyes.

As much as I complain, Syndicate is not a totally bad game. But it’s not a great game, either. Compared to so many other amazing titles that already came out this year, it’s tough to recommend this at full price, unless you’re a super fan, and if that’s the scenario, I imagine you’ve already purchased the game and this review isn’t much good for you. A sale would be best for everyone else, or if you have a weekend or two with absolutely nothing else planned. The old AC formula just doesn’t work as well as it used to.

You know what? Good, clever writing with a solid cast of memorable characters could save a big chunk of this mess. It’s a shame. It’s like the writing team just gave up and started cramming any historical figure who was famous at the time into the game while the team responsible for creating all the mindblowing environments are working their butts off.

If I was a teacher and this was a test, I’d give this a C+ with an imposing note “see me after class” written in deep red ink and a few exclamation marks that should send a chill down your spine. You can do better. You’re not applying yourself, Ubisoft.

Tested on: PlayStation 4
Developer: Ubisoft Quebec
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One
Launch Date: October 23, 2015
Review copy provided by publisher