Another year. Another thirty-ish hours of my life. Another Assassin's Creed.
It's tempting to call Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate a “return to form” because, well, it is. It's the best Assassin's Creed since Black Flag, which was in turn the best since Brotherhood, and on we go back to 2007 when this whole series started and the idea seemed so fresh and intriguing. I miss those days.
Because the truth is even a great Assassin's Creed game feels pretty rote in 2015. Syndicate keeps the dialogue light and snappy, ditches the stupid companion app and all the weird “These missions happen in real-time” mobile fodder, pares back (a bit) the amount of pointless filler missions, and shows off a breathtaking rendition of Victorian London.
But it's...well, it's still Assassin's Creed. You climb buildings. You leap into haystacks. You stab people with your hidden blade. Someone finds yet another Piece of Eden. The Templars get angry. The Assassins kill Templars. The sun rises. The sun sets. It's been eight years and we've played this game nine times now.
Burning the candle at both ends
If Syndicate is saved from mediocrity it's because of the quality of its lead characters, the brother/sister Assassin duo of Jacob and Evie Frye. Jacob plays the now familiar role of “Ezio-In-A-Different-Time-Period,” wisecracking his way through situations and generally not giving half a damn about the Creed part of Assassin's Creed, while Evie is more levelheaded and focused on the brotherhood's teachings.
Their sibling rivalry leads to Syndicate's best moments, the pair leveling barbs at each other and adding some much-needed levity to the proceedings—something the self-serious Assassin’s Creed Unity was sorely missing. Even Evie, the more “practical” of the two, is full of witty one-liners, always equipped with a sigh and a snide jab when Jacob inevitably screws up.
It's not the most unique dynamic, but it keeps Syndicate moving.
The rest of the cast is less successful, with cameos that often go nowhere and feel largely interchangeable. Alexander Graham Bell shows up, for instance—and then disappears from the story after you do some menial tasks for him. Charles Dickens stays around for slightly longer so you can hunt London's “ghosts,” giving them a “I would've gotten away with it too, if it weren't for that assassin and his/her hidden blade” moment.
But Dickens's side missions (and those for fellow “It's a Famous Person!” quest givers Marx and Darwin) suffer at the hands of some poor pacing and Assassin's Creed's limited, stale set of missions. You know: Follow this guy, kill this one, chase this one, steal a thing. Syndicate even feels like a step backward from Unity in this regard, where the French Revolution's murder “mysteries” broke up the proceedings a bit.
Worst of all are the various “Do this thing to liberate this district” missions—which, again, fall into the “Kill This Guy”/”Kill All These Guys” grind but without even a thin guise of story to make you care. And with something like forty districts to liberate, you'll have your fill long of all these activities before you've scrubbed Templar Red off London's map.
The song remains the same
Assassin's Creed has started to feel almost like a semi-interactive art showcase, a massive tech demo for photorealistic recreations of various periods in history. I don't say this with any malice. On the contrary, Syndicate is a stunning achievement of historical tourism. The sprawling green lawns of Westminster, the crowded and occasionally crooked apartments of Whitechapel, the muddy banks of the Thames—all are rendered with a level of detail I find incredible.
There is nothing to do though. Assassin's Creed Syndicate is an exquisite model railway, running around its toy track to the hum of whirring gears and clockwork.
What's, I guess, sad to me is that at one point Assassin's Creed truly was novel. I still remember the excitement around the first game in the series, way back in ye ol' 2007. Despite the lackluster and repetitive mission structure, there was much to be admired—the (impressive at the time) parkour, the grim story, the reactive crowds, the size of the world and the way it blended historic fact and legend. But the longer Assassin's Creed goes without a major overhaul of its core design principles, the more it feels like a weird holdover from another era—say, 2010 when Brotherhood came out.
Even after Unity's tweaks the parkour feels stilted, and in Syndicate the introduction of a grappling hook that lets you bound to the top of a building with the press of a button renders your character's climbing skills almost comically useless.
The stories are predictable, and the modern-day aspect now resides in a hellish limbo—still present enough to annoy those who don't care, but minimized to the point it feels inconsequential. Syndicate takes this to an extreme, forcing all of its present-day exposition into tedious cutscenes.
And the crowds, which Ubisoft pushed hard in Unity, are apparently a victim of that game's bug-ridden delivery. Syndicate's London feels stagnant and empty by comparison, with not a single crowd that can match what we saw in Unity last year. At one point in the story, characters in Syndicate tell you “all of London is rioting.” If so, it was a very quiet sort of riot—the type where nothing gets broken and people say “Good day” to each other in the streets. Contrast that with Unity's depiction of Paris burning.
The world keeps getting bigger, though. More detailed. It's the one consistent “improvement” every year, and Ubisoft boasts that Syndicate's London is the largest of any of the Assassin's Creed cities. Congratulations to the art team. Congratulations to the people who do research on the period. But it would be more impressive if there were anything to fill up that space besides half-hearted stabs at side content and a bunch of collectibles.
A note on bugs
It's worth officially codifying the game's bugs, too. Last week we took a look at the game and I concluded it's “Better than Unity.” That's a low bar, but I stand by it. It is better than Unity.
There are still issues, though. I had a few crashes to desktop, the load screens seemed to get exponentially lengthier the further I got into the game, AI companions would occasionally get locked in place and force me to restart from a checkpoint, the world turned completely white at one point, and a main story msision froze and then crashed every time a conversation ended. That last one is a known issue, and the only solution at the moment is to race to your destination before the conversation ends to force the next stage of the quest to load.
So yeah, it's better than Unity, but you're still probably better off waiting a month or two for the bugs to get worked out. And in the meantime we've deducted an extra half-star from the score, because a game-breaking quest bug is pretty damn huge.
For all that I'm down on Assassin's Creed as a whole, Syndicate is at least one of the better entries in the series. And there is admittedly a certain charm to familiarity—a ritualistic quality, as every year I load up the latest entry and proceed through its bevy of re-skinned content. “Hello, old friend. Nice to see you again. My, you haven't changed a bit.”
But Assassin's Creed has long since been surpassed by its imitators, from Mad Max to Arkham City to Shadow of Mordor to Sunset Overdrive to Tomb Raider. What they lack in recreating a period of history, they make up for by offering something a modicum different.
Can Assassin's Creed change? I honestly don't know. If anything, Ubisoft has gone the opposite direction lately, with lots of talk about bringing the series “back to its roots”—as if it had ever strayed very far in the first place.