Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: The One with Identity Crisis

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: The One with Identity Crisis

London, 1868. From the bridges spanning the Thames to the gardens surrounding Buckingham Palace, the city is already under well-established Templar control; unsurprisingly, twin Assassins Jacob and Evie Frye take offence at that fact. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is quick to establish itself as seemingly different from the titles that preceded it, taking a minimalistic approach to the now-forgettable modern-day storyline (oh, how I miss the Desmond days) and instead choosing to make the liberation of London its main focus. Its valiant attempts to wrestle free from the choking grasp of familiarity that the series often brings with it are eventually bogged down by its issues with combat and frustratingly repetitive side missions, all of which is neatly tied up with a gift bow that is the beautifully-constructed-yet-clearly-simulated-Assassin’s-Creed™ open world.

Check out the debut trailer for Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate – An Overview

As protagonists, Jacob and Evie are complete opposites. The familiarity I felt with this trope – Jacob being brash and impulsive, Evie being the thoughtful one who prefers careful planning over rash actions – was offset by the witty banter between the two, which works surprisingly well. The largely linear story follows them taking down one key Templar figure after another in the pursuit of a Piece of Eden with mysterious healing powers, ultimately weakening the enemy’s hold over London (and consequently the Templars’ global influence).

Optionally, the player might choose to free areas of the map by completing liberation activities such as freeing those engaged in forced child labour or kidnapping Templar leaders and delivering them to the police. The motive behind the same is to take back control from a gang (the Blighters) who are a literal blight on the city of London. Jacob wishes to achieve this by forming a gang of his own: the Rooks. Though laughed off at first, Jacob follows through and eventually the Rooks may control all of London if the player wishes to do so. Upgrades such as improving gang members’ abilities in battle and generating income from investments are available for purchase through in-game currency which is earned by completing main story missions and side activities.


There are 7 boroughs in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s London, making liberating the entire city a time-consuming task.


Completing all of these liberation activities triggers a gang war for that borough, where you fight the local Templar leader. There are 7 boroughs in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s London, making liberating the entire city a time-consuming task. There is very little motivation to do so owing to the lack of variation in the activities. Interestingly, the borough Templar leaders make a brief appearance once you’ve almost liberated that region. If you move fast enough, you can kill them right then. Surprisingly, this action changes nothing at all; you are still forced to go through the grind of the last remaining liberation activity and the subsequent gang war even after the Templar leader has been eliminated.  

‘Different’ Protagonists

A picture of Evie and Jacob Frye, the dual protagonists of Assassin's Creed Syndicate

Twin Assassins Jacob and Evie Frye, as seen in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (Image: Ubisoft)

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate brands itself as featuring two protagonists with differing playstyles. Accordingly, a tip on the loading screen helpfully informs the player that Jacob prefers a direct approach while Evie opts for stealth. Here’s the thing: this difference in playstyles is barely noticeable. The main distinction between Evie and Jacob is the three unique skills they get – which are unfortunately located at the very bottom of the skill tree. Effectively, you’ll be spending most of the game levelling up to reach the skills that actually give you character-specific abilities (such as blending into your environment with Evie or taking less damage overall with Jacob). I did not observe any discernible difference between the two characters for the large part, nor did the game encourage a stealth-based approach when playing as Evie or provide guns-blazing entrances for Jacob.


A tip on the loading screen helpfully informs the player that Jacob prefers a direct approach while Evie opts for stealth. Here’s the thing: this difference in playstyles is barely noticeable.


Crawford Starrick has the honour of being the Templar villain the Assassins are up against in this iteration of the series. His menacing demeanour is in stark contrast to Jacob’s charm. With thinly veiled threats of bodily harm and the occasional burst of outrage, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate successfully imports the chilling, generic action-movie antagonist with no background into the video game format, serving the sole purpose of being an opposing force for the protagonists. Though I enjoyed his sequences (which were well-directed), the sudden shifts in tone were in jarring disharmony with the light-heartedness that the bulk of the game took after.

Famous Supporting Cast

As with every other Assassin’s Creed, there are famous personalities from the era that you interact with throughout the course of the game. This is where things get divisive again: either you love these eccentric portrayals, or you don’t. Personally, after multiple instances of the same, I find it tiring that these notable greats are essentially reduced to bumbling, caricature-like NPCs who either supply you with new tools or old-school fetch quests. Of all the people I encountered (Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Dickens, and Charles Darwin to name a few), Karl Marx was the sole exception who felt authentic. In a mission that reaches peak irony, the near-caricaturized depiction of Darwin requests Jacob to get rid of propaganda that depicts … a caricature of Darwin. Subtle self-reflection or an unintended self-burn? You tell me.

Charles Darwin as seen in Assassin's Creed Syndicate

Charles Darwin, the man behind the theory of evolution, as seen in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (Image: Ubisoft)

Wasted Opportunities

The main story also chooses to explore an interesting theme: Jacob’s brash actions often have dire consequences that threaten the citizens of London, with Evie having to repair the damage as best she can. It feels like a wasted opportunity, for outside of these missions and Evie’s disparaging remarks about Jacob’s short-sighted attitude, there aren’t any consequences for Jacob to bear, nor does he come out of the whole experience a wiser man. For the most part, he is blissfully ignorant of the damage he causes, revelling instead in the superficial benefits of his actions. This is one interesting thread that doesn’t really go anywhere, and it would have made the game a much richer experience.


Jacob’s brash actions often have dire consequences that threaten the citizens of London, with Evie having to repair the damage as best she can.


The City of London

The iconic clock tower Big Ben, as featured in Assassin's Creed Syndicate in painstakingly detailed fashion.

The iconic clock tower Big Ben (Image: Ubisoft)

London itself is beautiful to take in, benefited from the careful attention to detail towards the historical landmarks that are now a staple of Assassin’s Creed. From the dark alleys of the slums at night to the towering Monument to the Great Fire of London standing tall on a bright, sunny morning, this is a city swept up by emerging technological advancements. Smoke from factories powered by machinery merges into the sky in the distant horizon as I jump across the rooftops, a gentle reminder that this world is a far cry from the Assassin’s Creed I first played years ago. The introduction of a new rope launcher allows the player to zipline across rooftops, and greatly cuts down travel time as the wielder cross gaps across wide streets in a matter of seconds.

The map is also peppered with fun collectibles such as beer bottles, pressed flowers, and illustrations, along with the usual Animus Shards (rebranded as Helix Glitches). The Helix Glitches unlock modern-day Assassin intel, giving the player access to Templar recordings and research.

Unfortunately, not even the most painstakingly detailed depiction of Buckingham Palace can save the artificiality that plagues the world of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. With the introduction of carriages, you can gleefully run over pedestrians and destroy public property with practically no consequence, which feels completely out of line with the visual detail in the world. Enemies (and allies alike) cycle through a handful of character models, which makes these encounters all the more boring when you’re mashing up the same guys over and over again. Combat itself feels very fluid, complete with slick finishers, but it takes way too many hits to defeat an enemy, effectively venturing into beat-em-up territory.


Unfortunately, not even the most painstakingly detailed depiction of Buckingham Palace can save the artificiality that plagues the world of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.


Besides this, a glitch in the Matrix (sorry, Helix) also allows the player to experience another, more turbulent era in London’s history (not unlike 2014’s Unity). Without delving into too much detail, suffice it to say that the game chooses to fall back into its pattern of liberating territory rather than exploring the time period through the story missions itself.

The Sound of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

The one aspect of the game that shines through is the music. To paraphrase composer Austin Wintory (who has also worked on Journey), the soundtrack is unique in its approach as it doesn’t aim to complement the era through classical music, but rather focuses on the Assassin experience through its tone. Scattered musicians are seen across London, performing original songs composed for the game – their very own ballads of Evie and Jacob’s adventures.

A picture of Austin Wintory, who composed the original soundtrack for Assassin's Creed Syndicate.

Composer Austin Wintory (Image: Austin Wintory/Bandcamp)

Conclusion

At several points while writing this article, I had to ask myself: am I being too harsh towards the game? After all, if the game doesn’t take itself too seriously, why should I? The answer ventures into territory outside of the game or the whole franchise. If we as the audience don’t hold AAA-games to a higher standard and expect a certain quality (and not just in visuals) from them, then we’ll continue to get the same old product in newer packaging. It is worth noting that Assassin’s Creed (at this point in time) was practically the same Christmas gift every year with just prettier wrapping paper.

Ubisoft is by all means a well-established studio and they clearly have the resources to craft visually impressive, cinematic stories that blend a variety of genres. More than ever, video games today need to be seen as an art form and capable of sharing emotionally (and socially) relevant tales. Leading developers who possess cutting-edge resources could play a large role in making this leap if they manage to avoid the pitfalls that the franchise formula brings with it, but that’s a discussion for a different article.   


Syndicate is the series’ bold leap across the chasm; on the other side lie richer, fully realized worlds that feel alive and organic with improved combat mechanics and less of a grind.


Assassin’s Creed Syndicate wavers between action and humour, with budding romance on the side. It samples all of these along with political intrigue and corporate espionage, unable to settle on one and choosing a blend of all. As with any other long-running media franchise, there comes the need to change things up with each iteration and create fresh content, lest it fall into franchise hell. Syndicate is the series’ bold leap across the chasm; on the other side lie richer, fully realized worlds that feel alive and organic with improved combat mechanics and less of a grind. It barely lands one foot on the other side before it begins to feel its weight pulling it down. With the franchise teetering on the edge, we take our leave.

Find out what happens next in Assassin’s Creed: Origins.

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