Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Review (PS4)
Glitches eh? That’s what we were all expecting in this years new Assassin’s Creed. Last years Parisian outing was a freak show of broken level geometry, flickering, fucked up animation and failing, flat-lining AI. I confess I didn’t play Unity, but from what I saw the glitches were severe enough to almost ruin the game. In the case of Syndicate, although I’ve been on the receiving end of a fair few game breaking bugs and seen an awful lot of janky, glitchy character behavior, it hasn’t put me off playing the game. The mediocrity has. You see, Assassin’s Creed has a more fundamental problem: a general malaise exists around the series now as it’s overtake by better, cleverer, more innovative open-world stealth games. 2015 has been a great year for games, and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate might exists only as a tiny footnote on most peoples GOTY summaries. “There was also an Assassins Creed game.” That’s about it.
So it wasn’t the glitches that put me off Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, rather it was series fatigue. Assassins Creed is old now. The game engine creaks, the character models look bland and the controls in particular have aged very poorly. It’s telling that all of the major changes in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate feel retrograde. If I played this game first, then played Assassin’s Creed 2 after, (visuals aside) I would think the latter was the sequel and the former was an earlier, less ambitious, less polished game in the series.
Let’s look at that game engine. There’s no doubt that it can still produce great vistas. Climbing high above the London streets can still evoke awe, and there’s a (now nostalgic) thrill to jumping off high buildings into carts of hay. But the people who inhabit the world look generic. The city itself is frequently covered in a (admittedly period-appropriate) smog that makes it hard to appreciate the cityscape. And the most impressive scenes, like the huge network of boats criss-crossing the Thames, look boxy and low-detail when viewed at a distance. Perhaps there’s aggressive LOD culling taking place to maximize performance, but it’s at the expense of scope and scale. And while exterior’s are a mixed bag, interiors look uniformly poor. Indoor environments really show the weaknesses of the Assassin’s Creed game engine, combining mediocre environment detail with real fundamental control and gameplay problems.
While Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s controls are frequently frustrating, they are at their worst during indoor sections. They just don’t suit skulking around indoors, and while your character always feels far too “sticky” in outdoor sections you feel like an outright klutz rather than a master assassin when inside a house.
The controls form last years Unity have been mostly replicated in Syndicate, with a button for going up and a button for going down used in conjunction with the free running. There are moments where it works beautifully, but within the wide, varied architecture of the city there are lots of moments where it doesn’t. Story missions typically set up the playground ahead of you in such a way to make the traversal seem smooth, but in the open world I would occasionally get completely stuck on a ledge or platform just inches from the ground. Being unable to fall off (until I was shot off), it made for a frustrating and thoroughly comical situation.
Worse still, you can see that the designers were looking at their competitors, hoping to crib their best ideas. But they implement them poorly. For example, you get a grappling hook which works almost exactly like Barman’s in the Arkham games, but with no accompanying cape to glide off buildings, you’ll often find yourself rocketing to the top of a high structure only to be stuck there. What can I do now? Often, your only choice is to sadly climb back down, all feelings of exhilaration or emancipation utterly deflated.
Often you can grapple to other buildings, but even then the movement feels a bit too slow, the animation a little too awkward. Where Assassins Creed’s gameplay and controls need a major rethink, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate just patches over the cracks.
The spongy combat is another problem. There’s more of an emphasis on streetfighting, with enemies taking more hits and each engagement taking far longer to play out. It’s very animation-heavy as the game struggles to show you advanced choreography while retaining player agency. Again the cracks are all too visible. Hitting the counter button sometimes works, other times your in the middle of an animation so you don’t really do anything, but the game gives you a break and doesn’t take any health from you. All in, the animations in combat seem far too ambitious for the game engine they sit upon. Don’t expect anything like Arkham’s responsive, fluid combat here. Even much more modest titles from this year like Mad Max implemented basic hand to hand combat much better.
Perhaps the best designed aspects of the game exists around the periphery of the gameplay. There’s complex leveling trees for BOTH characters, so you can tailor each to different situations. There’s also a big variety of weapons and items to craft and unlock and they really do improve the speed and responsiveness of the combat at higher levels. Or at least they shorten the combat enough that you become less aware of its problems. There’s also a neat moving hub area. You capture a train early on in the game, and it serves as an orbiting base you return to often. It’s the most technically and artistically impressive part of the game. You can look out the windows at the city moving past, and it’s genuinely thrilling to see the whole game world slide by as you relax aboard your locomotive. Within the train, you can also plan your objectives by choosing missions or leveling up your gangs to help take over the city.
You might have notices I said “both” characters up above. Rather excellently, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate includes two playable assassins, bringing some genuine variety to the game. Undoubtedly Syndicate’s best contribution to the series, this two-character system allows you to play as Jacob and Evie and switch between them. While Jacob is a likable enough hothead (not too far from the Ezio’s template) Evie is more interesting. Pragmatic, likable and capable, she’s a great videogame protagonist and when given a choice, she was always my avatar within the game.
Since the disappointment of Assassins Creed 3 and how it wrapped up the original story line, the real world Abstergo elements of the Assassins Creed games have become a weird vestigial element. In Assassin’s Creed Syndicate they make barely an appearance, having so little baearing on the story that they might as well have been excised completely. Offering so little, they take you out of the experience and distance the player from the game world. They’re like a Brechtian Alienation device, throwing you out of the story every time they crop up (although I’m fairly sure that’s not intentional).
Perhaps Assassin’s Creed Syndicate could be considered a success. After last years travesty, it couldn’t have been easy for Ubisoft to reset the series back on to the rails. Syndicate fixes most of the glitchy gameplay and even includes a cool female character. And the soundtrack has never been better, with Austin Wintory’s compositions evoking Victorian London perfectly. They’re clearly listening to their fans on some fronts.
But Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s flaws run deep in the series DNA. There’s still frustrating insta-fail missions. Story missions still feel flat and lifeless. Even at it’s very best moments, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate feels like a poor mans Assassins Creed 2. And that’s not good enough. The competition has caught up and kept going. There’s been a ton of great open world games this year, and Syndicate just can’t compete.