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.