Wot I Think: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

After initial investigations revealed a port worth playing and a game that ignited unexpected enthusiasm, I’ve spent just over forty hours playing Assassin’s Creed Syndicate [official site]. Some of that enthusiasm has been dampened as familiar AAA open world problems popped up across the map like fungi, but a spark still remains.

This may well be my favourite Assassin’s Creed game.

Charles Dickens has asked me to investigate a figure from Victorian folklore, Spring-heeled Jack. The ‘orrible bastard (that’s Jack, not Chuck) is terrorising the population, leaping from buildings and threatening them with his clawed, clammy hands and staring from the darkness with eyes like red-hot coals. Dickens is having none of it. It’s a sham of some sort, he reckons, and he asks me to investigate.

I can send one of two playable characters onto Jack’s trail. The Frye twins are the assassins at the heart of Ubisoft’s latest trawl through the memory banks and I decided that Evie was best-suited to the task at hand. Silent, observant and swift, she’s the perfect fit for the kind of character-led investigative missions that this first meeting with Dickens seemed to presage.

And so it was, as I followed tracks across rooftops avoiding the gangs and coppers in the streets below. But then the mission took an unexpected turn and Evie found herself fighting for her life in close quarters, against overwhelming odds. Perhaps Jacob would have been the better fit after all. I’d chosen to put all of his experience into mutilating strikes, pistol executions and health upgrades, where Evie was trained in the arts of the silent assassin. She throws knives into throats and tags enemies through walls so that she can sneak in, perform a kill, and get out before anyone even knows she was in the area.

I was primed to be infuriated by Jacob and Evie Frye. Jacob has exactly the kind of shit-eating grin and smug attitude that immediately made me think of Nathan Drake starring in a Lynx commercial. He’s a wall-walking liability, impulsive and brash, but his impulsive ineptitude is clearly supposed to be amusing because a funny little tune sometimes plays when he proposes an outlandish idea. He’s the blunt instrument thumping at the intricate plans of the Templars who have occupied London and he doesn’t care a jot about conspiracies and ancient contraptions – he just wants to run his own gang of hoodlums.

Evie treats her kid brother (the archives tell us she was born a few minutes earlier) like an actual kid. For the most part, she tolerates his behaviour in the same way that you might tolerate a puppy doing a poo on the floor during a family get-together. It’s funny because the little scamp doesn’t know any better. Jacob isn’t a puppy anymore though and I feel like Evie should really address the steaming piles he’s leaving all over her best-laid plans. She’s the straight woman in a double act that the game frames so blatantly and repeatedly in its opening hours that it’s almost as if we’re being re-introduced to two old favourites rather than two completely new characters.

“Remember Jacob and Evie? You always loved these guys! Everyone does! They are going to get into so many scrapes!”

I’ve spent more than forty hours in their company now, individually and as that double act, and to my great surprise I’d quite like to see more of them. They’re a likeable duo, eventually, both light- and kind-hearted (as long as you can look past all the cartoonish killing), and they’re sufficiently amused by their own world that I felt comfortable taking it about as seriously as they did. On top of that, the dynamic between the twins works for the structure of the game as well as for the back-and-forth of their relationship.

You can switch between them at will most of the time. They share experience, so you won’t end up with one super-sibling, but you can plot separate paths through the ability tree to allow for specialisation. They also have their own equipment, some of which can be purchased or earned, and some of which must be crafted. The crafting, and the upgrade system in general, disappointed me. There’s no sense of having your own version of either twin – you’re just going to end up with the best clothes and weapons available for your particular level of character. The same is true of the gang upgrade tree, which essentially makes the friendly characters standing around the street slightly tougher or brings in more income over time. It’s a process of levelling up rather than a possibility for customisation.

Back to the twins though. There are times when you’re forced to play as one or the other though as they follow their own leads in the main story. Jacob is the gangleader, whose plans tend to involve head-on collisions with the Templars and the thuggish Blighter mobs. Evie tends toward infiltration and investigation as she attempts to recover the ancient Precursor artifacts that form part of the Templars long-term planning. At the beginning of the game, I couldn’t have given a hoot for any of the story beats, but by the end I was slightly miffed that it all seemed to be over so quickly. I’ve mildly enjoyed Assassin’s Creed games before but this one was the first that made me give a damn about its story and characters.

It’s not just this series that I skim across the surface of, recoiling from the shallowness of the depths, such as they are. The vast majority of open world map-cleaning games, with all of their icons to chase and collectibles to grab, leave me exhausted and burnt out long before they come to an end. There are only so many objective indicators I can follow before whatever world they’re guiding me around becomes a tedious canvas that someone has dropped a Pollock on. The icons, dotted about the place, are the only thing I see and whatever beautifully crafted city or state lies underneath them has become wholly irrelevant.

Syndicate’s greatest achievement is that its activities left me wanting more. That’s partly because for every arrow-following hunt for bottles and flowers, there’s a story mission that mixes things up, taking all of the game’s movement and combat fundamentals and stirring them until they take on a new shape. It’s also partly due to the way in which movement and combat have been reworked in satisfying ways.

The grapple-gun, introduced early in proceedings, is a quick and simple way to climb and create aerial routes between buildings, from which you can dangle and plummet knife-first like a murderous Philippe Petit. Slow-moving carriages clog the streets when regular folk use them to get around but take the whip yourself and you can plough around the streets just like one of your favourite GTA characters. It’s weird when you crash into a building and the horse pulling the carriage bounces off the wall as if he were the bumper on a car, but it’s less distressing and disruptive than the alternative – ragdoll horse corpses littering every street corner. I’ve seen enough equine flesh for a Findus Thanksgiving after a particularly nasty pile-up turned shoot-out, but Syndicate’s carriages are more like rickety automobiles than horse-drawn boxes.

Combat is improved as well. Basically, that comes down to fisticuffs and blade-battles alike feeling more like a Rocksteady scrap. Movement is fluid and taking on a large group of enemies and walking away without so much as a scratch feels fantastic. There aren’t enough gadgets or enemy types to keep the challenge fresh throughout the running time, but combat is rarely a chore. And if it is, you can always grapple up the side of a building and run away, or take your enemies out from afar.

Indeed, one of the issues is the superiority of certain methods of assassination over others. Throw a hallucinogenic dart into the neck of a bodyguard and he might well do all the dirty work for you, bludgeoning his boss (your target) to death while you watch from distance. It’s amusing but it doesn’t feel right – not in the sense that it doesn’t suit the characters or the world, but in the sense that it’s such a simple solution to a problem that I felt like I was cheating.

If that’s the case, the game’s systems are often far too easy to circumnavigate. Syndicate is my favourite Assassin’s Creed game – yes, I prefer it to the shanties of Black Flag – but it’s still freighted with some of the series’ accumulated deadweight. Free-running often feels like relinquishing control rather than taking control, and the environment can be far too sticky, in opposition to the apparent fluidity of motion. Exteriors are fantastic but interiors are repetitive and relatively drab. There are bugs, particularly during missions that contain checkpoints – I had NPCs spawning out of position, which left me unable to talk to them as required to progress. Not often, but often enough to make repeating a couple of the more blandly scripted segments a lot more infuriating than it should have been.

Whatever flaws still exist and whatever improvements have been made, the main reason I’ve enjoyed my time with Syndicate is because its London is one of my favourite open world environments. The Thames, thick with traffic, is astonishing. The spires and steeples are like the bones of history puncturing the smog of industry. The splashes of green in garden and park are lovely. Even the population are great company. It’s a city in which people fill various roles and functions, from street criers to nattering gentry. There are women who aren’t prostitutes – indeed, the gangs are equal opportunities employers, and there are all manner of street thugs and bullies. The game deserves notice for its main cast as well as its extras though, who combine to make the newfound diversity seem more than a token gesture. It’s a more interesting and charming game for making its globe-spanning, history-consuming mysteries a more inclusive affair.

I don’t live in London but I have lived in London, and I still find myself visiting far more often than I’d like to because inconsiderate Big City friends and games companies demand my presence there from time to time. It’s an ideal place to visit, actually. You could replace ‘London’ in Samuel Johnson’s “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” with the name of any other half-decent city as far as I’m concerned. Besides, I don’t find London tiring, I find it irritating and expensive.

There are some great fictional Londons though and while Syndicate’s isn’t quite up there with the half-hallucinated dusty derelict of Our Mutual Friend or even Penny Dreadful’s macabre mash-up, it’s a brilliant reinterpretation of the city. I’d thought that familiarity might breed contempt, as far as visiting an Assassin’s Creed city that is closer in time and in my personal biography, but I’m surprised by how much I recognise. The scale seems right and that’s as important as anything. Sitting on Nelson’s head, atop the Column, I can almost trace the route that the Night Bus used to carry me after I’d been out on the sauce, and I’ve been spotting all the places that have turned into a Starbucks or a Pizza Hut.

I love this London and wish there were more to explore within its boroughs. One of the great shames of the game, and the series (perhaps genre) as a whole, is the way in which the location itself becomes backdrop rather than character. Take one of the collectibles: beer bottles. I enjoy collecting beer bottles and the text that accompanies them, written by a future-man doing a sort of historical pub crawl, is amusing enough. But rather than finding clues and then hunting the bottles down in pubs and breweries, I climb to the top of a chimney or spire and scan the horizon so that all of the collectibles are marked on my map. Syndicate, for all the technical beauty and imaginative craftmanship of its city, is still a game about icons on a map rather than objects and people within a convincing environment.

There’s an attempt to tie the city’s struggles and development to the squabbling of the Templars and Assassins, giving a historical and thematic context to your adventures, but it’s tissue-thin. Whether the cast of famous historical characters who provide missions and companionship will work for you, I can’t say – I expected to find the whole exercise vaguely insulting but was quickly won over. It’s not that these are particularly intelligent, relevant or interesting takes on the characters, it’s more that I’d rather solve supernatural mysteries with Charles Dickens than with a generic quest-giver NPC. They add flavour rather than authenticity, and if you can accept that Syndicate is more like a historical, as opposed to literary, League of Extraordinary Gentleman, you might find the whole thing surprisingly palatable.

For all that Syndicate does wrong – and none of those things will be any surprise to those who’ve played any of its predecessors – it’s a game packed with enthusiasm. I’ve seen people describe it as just another yearly product from the assembly line, but the city is such an extraordinary creation and the people within it have such energy and joie de vivre (not to mention joie de tuer) that I’ve found it infectiously entertaining. Repetitive? Yes. Revolutionary? No. But an engaging and exuberant slab of blockbuster entertainment? Absolutely.

When I reviewed the ill-fated PC port of Arkham Knight, I said that the Arkham games were my go-to AAA series. On this form, they’ve got stiff competition. Here’s hoping Syndicate isn’t an anomaly and that the future of the series will be something other than history repeating itself.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is out now.

76 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    heretic says:

    I wonder which city next

    • Pich says:

      i’m gonna take a wild guess: Nazi Berlin. It would definitively help with the whole “can’t kill historical figures because their descendants are still alive” thing.

      • lylebot says:

        ? You kill historical figures in these games all the time. Nearly every assassination target in every game has been a person that actually existed.

      • gpown says:

        ACTUALLY, one of the Animus puzzles from early games revealed that Hitler was killed by an assassin while leaving a bunker after his double suicided. Or something.

    • subedii says:

      I’d guess at 1960’s Liverpool. Liverpool in the 1960’s. Goodness knows whose side the Beatles would be on.

    • Doganpc says:

      Gold Rush San Fransisco, closest thing to urban and western within range of Victorian.

      • Zenicetus says:

        I like the idea of a Western theme, but San Francisco during the Gold Rush was just a ramshackle port town. Maybe not big enough for a hub, and not enough local lore to build on.

        New Orleans, on the other hand… bring in some Caribbean/Bayou Voodoo themes. That could be good.

        • Doganpc says:

          Ooh, New Orleans would be neat. I was primarily thinking they’d want to do some sort of Western, ala Tombstone. Trying to think what else was going on around the world at that time, but don’t think they would provide the kind of environment AssCreed favors.

          • Premium User Badge

            basilisk says:

            Most of AC3 took place in a forest, and most of AC4 on the open sea. The series has been remarkably flexible about its settings; it doesn’t have to take place in a big city at all.

            For me, I’d prefer something non-western for a change. I think it’s about time AC left Europe or North America; the world is a lot bigger than that.

          • Hedgeclipper says:

            I’d actually love to see Latin America as a setting for a big game – for AC Paraguay (and Brazil and Argentina) in the 1860s would be an interesting setting.

        • Qazi says:

          Poor Aveline.

          • mrwonko says:

            Exactly: There was already an AC in New Orleans: Liberation.

            Wild West sounds interesting though.

    • woppyce says:

      Here are some clues for future locations found in Black Flag. And even one concerning the WW2 scenario.

      • Wobsey says:

        1960s California in the summer of love? Sounds unbelievably goofy and also spectacular.

        • epeternally says:

          I’ve generally stayed uninterested in the series but I would buy the hell out of that.

    • LittleJP says:

      1870s Berlin would be most amazing, with the whole German unification thing going on.

    • Premium User Badge

      The Borderer says:

      Moscow, 1917?

      • kament says:

        Nah, it wasn’t even the capital of Russia at the time. And Saint Petersburg is better suited than Moscow anyway. Architecturally, that is, though it doesn’t compare to London by any means.

        • Premium User Badge

          The Borderer says:

          St Petersburg makes sense historically, but I just want to climb up St Basil’s Cathedral.

          There’s nothing stopping both cities being in the game though.

          • onodera says:

            Moscow was kinda… flat back in 1917. Postwar Moscow with its wedding cake skyscrapers would be a better fit. And there’s Stalin himself to kill!

            St. Pete between the revolutions would be a neat setting as well, with Somerset Maugham as the token gay character and Mr. Exposition.

    • ulix says:

      I’m down with Berlin, but I’d love it to be set in the late 1920s. You have Nazis to kill, you have communists, you have a lot of violent conflict between nationalists and progressives, and all kinds of other groups, and you have a culturally diverse and bustling metropolis.
      Probably not enough famous people known to an international audience at the time, however… hmmm…

    • ishumar says:

      Dallas 1963

    • Durgendorf says:

      I’ve always hoped for Prohibition-era Chicago, but Ubi are going to avoid having Assassins and automatic weapons coexist until they’ve exhausted every other option.

    • 0positivo says:

      I’d love to see something eastern for a change. Besides, feudal japan (or even more interesting, end of shogunate-era japan) has quite the potential

      • LittleJP says:

        late 19th century Philippines during the Philippine-American war would make for a change of pace.

      • xyzzy frobozz says:

        Sounds good.

        Right after you explain how you fit Templars into feudal Japan.

    • April March says:

      If it’s in Europe or the US again I’ll be quite cross.

    • poliovaccine says:

      Which city next? I’d like to see someone clean up modern-day Brooklyn… uproot the modern gentry and let all the crime, rabble, and drugs back in… as nature intended.

    • xyzzy frobozz says:

      Is it not obvious?

      Colonial Hobart.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Aerothorn says:

    Don’t make me change my RPS Bestest Best picks, Adam – I’ve already listed far too many games that, AFAIK, only you played!

  3. Keios says:

    Assassin’s Creed: Parkour Blimey Guv’nor.

  4. Blastaz says:

    I’ve got to say that London is amazing. I work in Whitehall and sitting on the top of Big Ben watching what has changed and what hasn’t, navigating around is fantastic.

    Other than that it’s an AC game you either like em or you don’t. Personally I love them and this is a good one.

    On the current voguish open world map clutter hate. I wonder if the reason for this is that games journalists are playing lots of games in small amounts of time. As such they want to bustle through them as quickly as possible, and are afraid of “missing things” ( a la fallout 4) because they didn’t get round to it. Meanwhile ordinary gamers are playing games as a hobby because they enjoy them. Especially someone playing AC9 as this probably wants more AC to play rather than less and is thus more kindly disposed to a bit of filler that lets them potter around in the game for a bit longer. Or at least doesn’t hate it on quite the same existential level…

    • Cederic says:

      Or maybe it’s because going to and completing every single icon is actually just work, not fun – particularly when most of them turn out to be a mini-game that breaks immersion and/or forces you into a game style you dislike.

      I had to give up on Sleeping Dogs for that reason, and it puts me off Ubisoft games (although UPlay stops me buying them anyway).

    • caff says:

      I’ve always lost interest in AC games after a few hours play, but what you’ve said about this title’s recreation of London has piqued my interest. I’ve worked in the city for about 15 years and seen all sides of it, so it sounds like the geography might resonate with me, if not the gameplay.

    • kament says:

      I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but I personally find the very idea of a map (not to mention mini-map and the rest of the visual clutter) littered with hundreds of icons… irritating, shall we say, though in all honesty it’s more like they make my eyes bleed.

      My major gripe with AC games is that they’re not quite playable without using those, but I still turn’em off and don’t bother to look at the map most of the time. It adds to frustration sometimes, granted. But at least this way I get to see more of the game and less of its f-ing interface.

  5. Laurentius says:

    So basicly typical AC game. I got burned by the Black Flag and I am not coming back. These are games that looks splendid from outside but the more you play their incerdibly shallow nature come through. But by that time you have already many hours invested in icon hunting, and boy vistas are beatiful so you are convincing yourself that you actually have a great time until you hit despair moment. That happend to me in Black Flag. Every idea that at first looks promising and interesting is squndered by its shallowness and most basic gamey-ness known to man. To put so much money into making the game and to have end result with so little substance is actually astonishing.

    • Bostec says:

      Pretty much this. After about 10 hours play and numerous chest openings and icon clearing I came to the same conclusion. Its just so so shallow and soul destroying, hunting those unrelenting icons because thats all I was basically doing. Ubisoft need to radically change the format, especially for Far cry 4. There not games anymore, just boring box ticking.

      • poliovaccine says:

        I think that’s true enough, but it’s ultimately a complaint about virtual worlds in general, especially ones which beg us to spend more and more hours within them. There’s just no way they’ll measure up to the manifold possibilities and dynamically-developing variety of the “meatworld.”

        There are games like Gunpoint or maybe DX:HR which exemplify the idea of simple, binary systems, overlaid, randomized, therefore interrelated, and the organic development of complex scenarios that can emerge from those interactions of systems. It’s as simple as, “if this, then that,” and you change the on/off switch on something, and it sends ripples through the whole rest of the level. More open world games need effective implementation of this – and man, I really wish somebody could put it together for a dynamic system of *dialogue.* In fact, that begins to tie into my own little hobby/personal mission…

        Any game eventually gives you that rotten existential feeling. I’ve actually used a term for years, that “beaten video game feeling,” to describe existential emptiness, that feeling that all possible options and variety have been expended, that there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s not just in Assassin’s Creed.

        I got it in all the games I loved and couldn’t stop playing after they were over. I got it in GTAIII real bad. I got it so bad in Mafia, actually, which I loved even more than GTA, that I found a similarly disillusioned friend and together we started a mod to make the game’s Free Ride more like the open worlds you see today – with randomizing mini-missions, more NPC interactivity, ability to actually travel in a taxi, going into interiors from the campaign was a big one, rival gangs holding down certain areas, etc, etc… it drew a whole team of people who helped it go way beyond our own 14 year old abilities… in fact it actually was featured on a PC Gamer disc at one point, they did like a paragraph-long email interview with me, it was sweet. My point is – ALL THAT came from that HORRIBLE EXISTENTIAL FEELING OF EMPTINESS, ENTROPY, UGLY PIXELLATED HORROR, POLYGONAL IMMERSION-BREAK, AND WORSE, *THEIR REFLECTIONS IN REALITY*… reality itself could seem hollow, unreal, a thin veil over a vast, undulating sea of glowing, thrumming, throbbing, interrelated grid systems… all of us just complex A.I.s, no more and no less, built out of our scripted systems of circumstance of birth and genes and exterior conditions and diet and death… you draw back from the whole world and see nothing but one big beaten video game… all of society, all the constructions and aims of all men… just minigames to delay the conscious inevitability of death – this is why men are “different” from animals – this is why men, but not dogs, build cities… light! noise! company! inebriants! video simulations! anything to delay the lurking, patient, ever-seeping-in eventuality of our own deletion! resistance is futile because EXISTENCE is futile! our functions of consciousness represent an utterly unique randomized collusion of an unknowable number of cosmic systems – we are nothing but writhing bags of reactivity, chemical construction and outward, cancerous growth and reproduction… happily we clod ourselves together in warm heaps, ourselves merely life blatted out… “ripped from the void,” as the True Detective guy says at one point, and he remarks on the *arrogance* of doing so! Indeed! None of us asked for this! Or did we? Some say we go to the dark, warm place and wait for the next opening of light, for our next family… but there’s nothing to say the dark, warm place isn’t where we best belong… indeed, where our magnetized path inevitably retracts to, where vast forces of nature dictate we always end… and for my money it sounds more unified, more in-and-of-itself, whole, and complete. A perfect snowglobe of no time because of no space – of stasis. A crystalline, frozen moment, with time revolving around it, outside, and these light-opening vaginal-birth moments coming only at the synchronized revolution of many external cycles, like an eclipse – a chance to be taken perhaps once in an eternity, or so it seems in an eternal place – and all these systems so far out of our control. Indeed – who says we belong here at all??

        I need to play a video game now… and smoke a cigarette. I think the whole reason killing is the most popular way to interact with NPCs in video games is because it’s the most direct way of arbitrarily asserting our own existence – moreso anyway than marking territory with urine.

      • Deadly Sinner says:

        If you don’t like icon clearing, then why would you do it? The good part about all of these open world games is that everything is optional besides the main story, so you get to choose to do what you find fun. For example, I thought that finding feathers in AC2 was completely boring, so I ignored it, and the game was not worse for it. I love the side assassin missions, however, so I made sure to do all of them.

        Black Flag is the only AC that I’ve almost gotten 100% on (because I liked all of the side missions, and just loved inhabiting the world,) but the rest that I’ve played (1,2,B-Hood) have plenty of icons uncleared, and that’s perfectly fine.

  6. Premium User Badge

    IJC says:

    I think one think making the Frye-twins likable is that they are just kinda nice to their allies. Especially with “annoying” ones they seem to actually care for them, not just the services they provide. There’s even always one of them hanging out at your hq, together with the twin you are not playing.

  7. F242 says:

    Why it took so long for this WIT?
    You say that this is the best AC game yet – I fully agree but you do not justify it with your writing.
    And you most probably did not play Dreadful Crimes – a tribute to the young AC Doyle :)
    Come on – in this game every game mechanic that was attempted before is polished to perfection.
    Never thought that London – Victorian London would be so much more interesting than the French Revolution Paris – but it is here.
    The best AC game yet – I hope that the next will be better.

    • LaurieCheers says:

      Why it took so long for this WIT?

      The PC version only came out last week. I suppose there were no early review copies.

      • puzzlepiece87 says:

        That and RPS is silently suffering through a blacklist from Ubisoft. Did their FO4 review come in late too? Are they getting blacklisted by Bethesda as well, same as Kotaku?

        • mukuste says:

          Huh? Blacklist? Is this speculation or is there any source on this?

    • DeepSleeper says:

      I don’t think you can play Dreadful Crimes in the PC version until sometime next year.

  8. Buggery says:

    Given that I haven’t played an Assassin’s Creed since AC2: Part 2: Electric Boogaloo: Boogaloo Nights: The Reckoning, this looks… Surprisingly decent?

    Will pick it up when it’s on sale.

  9. Serenegoose says:

    Hi Adam, could you give me a rough guess as to how much of the story missions you play as each character? Is it about a 50/50 split or is it skewed towards one?

    • Blastaz says:

      Probably split towards Jacob about 60/40. His storyline is about saving London though, hers about saving an artefact, so it makes more sense that most of the side missions tend towards his story, it’s up to you who you play them as though. You can spend 90%+ as one character and only switch to the other during their missions if that’s what you want.

  10. Zenicetus says:

    “Throw a hallucinogenic dart into the neck of a bodyguard and he might well do all the dirty work for you.”

    That was in Black Flag too. I liked having at least the option to thin out the guards and not have to kill every single one myself. When I wanted more challenge I just didn’t use it.

    This is sounding better than I expected. So, one question remains… are there any annoying insta-fail, linear scripted stealth missions? That, and the modern sci-fi stuff are the two main things I don’t like about the series.

    • fish99 says:

      I’m only about 12 hrs in, but so far the modern sci-fi stuff has been limited to one very short cut-scene. Haven’t seen any inst-fail stealth missions yet either.

  11. draglikepull says:

    “Syndicate is my favourite Assassin’s Creed game – yes, I prefer it to the shanties of Black Flag.”

    To each their own, of course, but I thought it was more or less universally recognised that AC2 was the best of the bunch. It’s certainly the game that perfected the parkour platforming which the series was clearly intended to be about. I don’t think it’s an accident it became much less platformer-y and much more murder simulator-y once Patrice Desilets left Ubisoft.

    Black Flag was a decent enough game, but it had all the problems that the other post-Desilets games have had, including annoying insta-fail stealth missions, huge combats that you can’t avoid, massively over-iconed maps, a huge de-emphasisation of climbing/platforming, and so forth.

    • malkav11 says:

      I’m not ready to acclaim it best in series, having not played most of it yet, but Brotherhood was definitely better than AC2 in a whole bunch of ways: better mission design, many of the mechanical frustrations either eliminated or (much more often) backgrounded by the objectives no longer forcing them into circumstances that show them at their worst (e.g. time limits on the ruin platforming sequences became optional), a more constrained but also more memorable setting, a more focused narrative, etc. Plus, IIRC, that’s when horses came in. Why they added them for a game set almost entirely in Rome when the previous game had an actual countryside is beyond me. But still. Oh, and while some probably don’t care for the assassin recruitment/mission system I really really enjoyed it myself.

      • malkav11 says:

        Most of the series, I mean. I’ve beaten Brotherhood and done most of the side stuff. The ones that had some individuality and payoff, as opposed to flags or feathers or whatever. I just haven’t played, e.g. Black Flag or Unity or Syndicate, etc.

      • udat says:

        Haven’t they always had horses ever since the first game? I think in AC1 and AC2 you couldn’t ride one into a city though… is that what you mean?

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          basilisk says:

          Yes, all the games from the first one up to AC3 (except maybe Revelations) had horses that you could ride, just not everywhere on the map.

        • malkav11 says:

          That’s probably what I meant, yeah. It’s been a long time since I played 1, and not that much less time since I played 2. I do think AC2 was a good game, by and large, and certainly a huge improvement on the first game (though I also rather liked the core missions and story in that, if not the “investigations” or the pointless side crap). But I found some missions in 2 really frustrating in ways that Brotherhood mostly cleans up by making things like time limits and perfect stealth optional challenges for “full sync” (which has no actual bearing on anything).

    • Zhivko Yakimov says:

      I completely agree. While Black Flag was entertaining and brought some new systems, it suffered from what most other games past AC2 had – very painful levelling. Sea battles were interesting, but in order to have a shot at the more difficult ones, you had to collect a ridiculously large amount of crafting materials. It was a grind in its purest form and a clear attempt to lure players into micro transactions. This was done much better in AC2, especially in Brother hood, where you had to invest time and effort, but not too much to become a bore.

      Even Unity had less grind, at least after the online app was removed. I actually played the game about 8-9 months after its release, so it was relatively well handled, though most of the side tasks were extremely repetitive, something I didn’t feel that much with AC2 and Brotherhood.

      • Deadly Sinner says:

        Ridiculously large? I’m pretty sure I bought pretty much everything by the time I finished. I never needed to go out and destroy random ships.

    • poliovaccine says:

      If you go at it as a platformer/parkour game it’s not ideal… it’s the first of any AC games I’d ever played, myself, and I was surprised at how “sticky” the movement could be – try to walk round a corner, wind up scaling a trellis and hanging from a balcony or some crap. Definitely not a “Mirror’s Edge” parkour experience, but then, a good parkhour experience is actually pretty hard to find. Try making a “top” 20… you might just get all of them.

      I popped my AC cherry, though, not cus I came at Black Flag like a parkour game in the first place, but rather cus I thought, “Finally, a moderately-well-reviewed modern game with pirates already!” I just wanted ports and towns that were lootable enough to be worth docking when I wasn’t having ship combat and seeing whales, and apart from never once being attacked by any sort of Kraken type thing, it fulfilled all my other pirate-game wishes. And it had some weirdo corporate-historical sideline which, knowing nothing of previous AC games, startled me into some very surprised laughter when it first broke and that little French assistant comes and teaches you how to look up and down (if you get my meaning – hey!).

      I’ve tried a few AC games since then, and it seems the sticky movement is fairly universal, which is weird to me, cus it seems so clear it could be avoided. Then again, I’m not balls deep in their code. But even the Thief reboot by Square Enix had the same basic stuff going on, but felt just a little less sticky (tho it wouldn’t let you just walk off a ledge, which feels as insulting as a shin-high playpen fence, or those incessant Windows prompts: “Are you suuuuure you want to uninstall? You sure your dumb, stubby fingers didn’t just hit the icon by mistake?”).

      Black Flag isn’t a great parkour game, and frankly, having been introduced to the idea by Mirror’s Edge, I can’t really name another. Black Flag IS pretty much the go-to option for a decent island-hopping pirate game currently in existence. (I’m hoping Dying Light’s parkour can keep it up – I’ll find out if I ever get past this interminable first bit, with its molasses-drip of exposition and early characters & tutorials which practically dare you to just shut the stupid game off forever…)

  12. strayth says:

    Totally agree with you about Jacob & Evie. I spent the first five hours or so despising them, and after around Sequence 5 I found them much more tolerable. AC’s “writing” has never been about complexity or nuance, and that same lack pervades this game too, but for how forcefully we were told to enjoy these twins, they’re actually pretty enjoyable later on.

    I think I’m still in Sequence 6, finding myself a tad bored with a lack of tangible goals. The problem mostly stems from not wanting the plot to progress and come to its ultimate act, but there are only so many trains, boats, horseless sleighs, and chests to rob. I want to play Barbie Dress-Up™ but apparently the schematics to things like a nice overcoat or a leather hood are the best-kept secrets in Londontown.

  13. E_FD says:

    I haven’t bought a Ubisoft game in a while; does this one still have awful DRM, or have they finally given up on that?

    • malkav11 says:

      Their games still force you to run Uplay, but in terms of always-online DRM they ditched that back with AC2 and I don’t believe any of the AC games have been saddled with any other horrendous DRM measures beyond the shitty proprietary client. I can’t say for sure, though.

    • Premium User Badge

      basilisk says:

      This is probably the time to yet again try to point out that Uplay has exactly the same DRM mechanism as Steam (with a perfectly functional offline mode), has made huge progress in recent years to become an unnecessary, but generally perfectly usable client, and has finally mastered Steam integration so that once you set it up, which takes seconds, it basically becomes a splash screen.

      I never quite understood the whole “Uplay is the devil” narrative, but it’s really made enormous progress since it launched way back with the release AC2. The despicable always-on lock has been dead and buried for a very long time.

      • malkav11 says:

        I haven’t mucked around with much since they did their latest overhaul on uPlay, but as of a revision or two ago it was still quite bad at things like patching that are among the few legitimate purposes for a client like uPlay. (And of course, it’s completely unnecessary on top of Steam, but oh well.) It’s not enough to make me skip games just because they have uPlay (nor Origin, for that matter), but it’s still annoying.

  14. Premium User Badge

    basilisk says:

    I’m glad to hear this. I keep saying that Unity had the best AC game yet buried somewhere under all that bloat and an onslaught of technical issues; if Syndicate managed to throw the bloat away while keeping Unity’s huge improvements to the AC formula, I’m very much looking forward to it.

  15. Borodin says:

    It’s a real shame that, after Ubisoft Quebec’s success with both male and female protagonists, Jacob and Evie Frye, the marketing guys go for Jacob front and centre on the cover of the game, with Evie half-visible off to the right

    Cover Image

    Such a shame. Will they never learn? Odd, too, that Jacob is adopting the iconic 60s image of Christine Keeler astride a contemporary chair

  16. gpown says:

    Wait, so… you’re saying this is better than AC2?

    • Cleave says:

      I’d say so. It’s a long time since I’ve played it but it’s the side missions that are really making this one for me. Each of the territory missions are fun and involve being an assassin; you have templar assassinations, bounty hunts where you have to capture the target alive, child liberations which are stealthing through a building without alerting enemies, and gang hqs, all culminating in a final brawl. I’ve been having such a good time with that side of the game I kind of forgot to do the main missions and have had to play catch up with them. It’s also more open than previous games, you can go anywhere pretty much from the start but there is a natural path through the territories as the enemy levels increase.

      The missions themselves are very good and the mechanics are smoother than they’ve ever been. It looks gorgeous as well.

  17. Phantom_Renegade says:

    Are there still instant fail stealth sections? I remember a really insulting one in Black Flag where being discovered was a failure state, but at the end of the mission one of the people you were tailing revealed in a cutscene he knew you were there all along. I almost rage quitted.

    • Premium User Badge

      basilisk says:

      Haven’t played Syndicate yet, but Unity removed those, as well as the universally hated tailing missions. Not being discovered or not losing your target may be a secondary objective, but the game continues even if you fail, changing the primary objective to a chase or investigation or something.

      I would be surprised if Syndicate rolled this back.

  18. Zhivko Yakimov says:

    So I guess I’ll do the same I did with Unity – wait until next summer, when most of the bugs will be removed, the game will be better balanced and quite probably there will be a deal to get it with all DLCs at a discount. I played Unity this summer and while the story and the characters weren’t particularly interesting, the game was polished enough so I didn’t see any bugs, quite unlike at release, from what I’ve read.

    I highly doubt this one is better than AC2 or Brotherhood, but at least it looks like it could be above the series’ average. Not a great hurdle, to be fair, but still something.

  19. xyzzy frobozz says:

    Is it not obvious?

    Colonial Hobart.