Another year, and another Assassin's Creed title is out. Last year's game, Assassin's Creed: Unity, was met with negative criticism, with everything from combat to the well-known bug of disappearing faces in numerous cutscenes ruining the experience of traveling to Paris during the Industrial Revolution.
With such negativity surrounding the series, one would expect that the next game, Assassin's Creed: Syndicate might go along the same path. However, it seems that Ubisoft Quebec learned from the mistakes of Ubisoft Montreal (the latter being the developers behind Unity), and created an enjoyable Assassin's Creed game once again.
For the second game in a row, the conflict between the Assassins and Templars is waged in front of a backdrop of revolution. Unlike the French Revolution, with its executions and mobs raiding the homes of the bourgeoisie, the Industrial Revolution in London is a somewhat more peaceful event. Instead of fires burning down homes and bodies littering the streets, the city of London is brimming with production.
The London skyline is partially blacked out as the smoke from various factories rises to the sky, and yet its most welcoming change are the streets. Most of the roads and avenues of Paris were narrow, only allowing foot traffic, save for the more majestic sites of the city. In London, the streets are extremely wide, mainly due to the amount of horse carriages carrying everything from supplies to people in this bustling city. This allows for better movement for the player, whether on foot or driving a carriage.
Then again, there's always the popular option of traversing the rooftops.
The Siblings Frye
Speaking of the players, they will be able to control two Assassins this time around: the Frye twins, Evie and Jacob. Both arrive in London, where the Templars, led by Crawford Starrick and his gang (called the Blighters) continue to gain a significant foothold in the city. The twins believe that the Assassins are taking too long in mounting an effective offensive against their arch rivals.
However, the siblings want to go about changing that in two different ways. Evie prefers going straight for the Pieces of Eden, artifacts that contains unknown powers and could be used in notorious ways by the Templars. Jacob, on the other hand, wants a more direct approach with his newfound gang, the Rooks. His goal is to take down London, borough by borough, and cut off the Templar leaders in each part of the city in order to get to Starrick. At first, it's unclear as to how the game will show these two perspectives, but after some time, the direction is starting to become clear.
Like the rest of the games in the series, the first few missions are all about setting up a base of operations and establishing contacts. From there, the two characters can go about their main objectives. While exploring London or taking part in missions, you are free to switch between the Fryes at any time.
There are character-specific missions throughout the game, but other than these special missions or interactions between the two during cutscenes, you can play both characters in the same way -- mainly because they share experience points, rewards and money. This makes it easier for the player to try out both characters, but it throws out the main motivations for each character. Evie is more stealth-focused, preferring a plan of attack before acting on it. Jacob is more of a loose cannon in that he wants to take everything head-on and think about the consequences later. However, you don't really see any of that reflected in the gameplay, except for the occasional challenges here and there.
Taking London Back
What you do see in gameplay is a vast improvement to the series. While Evie's pursuit of the Pieces of Eden are more prominent in her missions, the majority of free roaming around London is full of activities, with the most notable being reclaiming London from the Templars.
But first, there's the issue of controls. The first noticeable change is in the overall player movement. Climbing buildings or running through the streets feels smoother, even in crowded areas. The Sneak button is moved from the left trigger (or R2) to the A (or X) button, and you don't have to keep it pressed. What's even more impressive is that even in Sneak mode, you can still run about and then automatically return to a hooded and crouched position once you stop moving.
Combat, thankfully, is back to being fast-paced and brutal. One change is that instead of dodging enemy attacks, the Assassins will break the enemy guard instead, opening them up to a wave of lethal attacks. There's even an option to chain enemies near death to a series of gruesome maneuvers to finish them off.
However, it does get frustrating at times. Pressing the punch button once unleashes two to three punches, so it's sometimes difficult to gauge the timing of the next attack or when to dodge an assault from another opponent, which breaks the ever-growing combo multiplier. Still, it's a welcome change over the painfully slow swordfighting from the previous game.
The variety of usable items hasn't changed, with the exception of the rope launcher. It acts as an early version of a grappling hook, allowing the Frye twins to easily scale walls or cross wide gaps of buildings with ease. However, the best use for it is during missions requiring a level of stealth. You can easily assassinate a target from the air and then quickly return to a high vantage point to scout out other enemies or escape from patrols. It's this dual use that makes the rope launcher the new favorite item. Not only does it provide a way to travel faster, but it becomes handy in tight situations.
Another addition to the game is through the horse carriages. Players control them in the same way as a car (L2 or left trigger to slow down/brake, R2 or right trigger to speed up), but you can also use it to ram other carriages in pursuit or gaining a momentary speed boost from the horse. There's even an option to climb on top of the carriage's roof to make a quick getaway or to get a better shot at opponents. In terms of travel, setting a waypoint and then driving a carriage reveals a thin white line on the pavement showing the best route, saving players the agony of opening the map screen multiple times to check if they're on the right path.
As for the gameplay itself, the first order of business is to capture the seven boroughs of London. Within each borough is a series of smaller areas, each with a Templar-centric mission. This could be capturing a valuable target, killing a high-ranking member, or even liberating children from their unethical work in the factories.
Each mission further agitates the top Templar in charge of the borough, and after each area is free, there's a final challenge of taking on the Templar leader and his or her gang. Taking a page from the movie Gangs of New York, a Gang War is the last step to claiming a borough. Take down the rival members and the Templar leader, and a piece of London belongs to the Assassins.
It's a similar method of gameplay used in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and most notably in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood with the Naval Forts and Borgia Towers, respectively, and just like in the past, it serves well in Syndicate. Even in its repetitive nature, the missions are fun and pose a challenge even for the most seasoned veteran, and it's very rewarding to claim pieces of London step by step to the ultimate goal.
Once again, other side missions dot the map as well. You can hijack enemy carriages for extra supplies and money or participate in a small fight club to gain more money in a pinch. However, it should be noted that unlike Unity’s map, which was oversaturated with side missions, locations, and various collectibles, the London map of Syndicate is cleaner, with all the optional activities more evenly spread out throughout the area.
Players will also be spending some time in the main menu screen, primarily due to the various skills, inventory items, and upgrades that require attention. This time around, all three elements are more in-depth. The game also carries over the skill mechanic introduced in Unity. Every 1,000 experience points nets a skill point, which can go to Stealth, Combat, or the overall Ecosystem. Unlocking four skills in one row will open another tier of skills, which requires more skill points per ability. It's a noticeable improvement from the previous game, not only because there are more skills available, but also because it's neatly organized into multiple trees on one screen.
The amount of inventory items have increased, as well. Both characters can equip themselves from a large arsenal of weapons with the main three coming from three branches: a cane sword, brass knuckles, and a kukri knife. Players can also gear up on firearms, gauntlets, capes, belts and outfits.
However, some of these are locked due to a lack of progress in the story, or they need to be crafted with materials gained in various chests or from enemy carriages. Even though an item is unlocked, it still needs to be purchased. On top of that, there's an optional upgrade cost. These two things put a big dent in your funds early in the game, so it becomes even more important to decide which items to take into the field.
The creation of the Rooks gang also means that the player must help build it from the ground up. This could come in the form of more varied troops in the streets; intimidation, which leads to less health to the existing Blighter gang members; or to investing in the city's pubs to gain more money. Unlike the skill tree for the Assassins, which require skill points, the gang upgrades require money and materials to unlock more abilities, with the best perks demanding tens of thousands of British pounds to purchase. Between the Rooks and the inventory, the money purse isn't going to stay full for long, and it's always a tough decision to choose between investing in better items for the Fryes or improving the gang.
Better Than The Last, But A Few Hiccups
It wouldn't be an Assassin’s Creed game without some bugs, and there are a few that still exist throughout the game. There were instances where targets would get stuck in objects, certain optional missions would appear in unreachable areas, and (my personal favorite) characters wouldn't appear in cutscenes at all, with the exception of a few items such as their clothes or the gun they were using. Fortunately, these bugs happen less frequently this time around, leaving players more focused on the game and less on the frustration towards developers.
It's all a good indication that Ubisoft Quebec is taking the Assassin’s Creed series in the right direction. This latest entry continues to present improvements on new mechanics, like the skill tree, but it also knows what fans loved about the franchise, most notably the conquest of various boroughs, and the team modified it to make it work in a new game.
Fast-paced combat is back, but the traditionalist fans will want to use the rope launcher to see how it improves their stealth approach. There are so many things to do in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, and it's more fun than overwhelming to tackle each part of the game -- something that fans probably haven't experienced in a few years.
Rexly Peñaflorida II is a Contributor at Tom’s Hardware. He writes news on tech and hardware, but mostly focuses on gaming news. As a Chicagoan, he believes that deep dish pizza is real pizza and ketchup should never be on hot dogs. Ever. Also, Portillo’s is amazing.