Ubisoft is like an adorable puppy that’s just left a steaming pile on your floor: it’s sorry it’s been bad, but you know you’re going to forgive them. Ubisoft knew that tail wagging and occasional leg-humping weren’t enough to bring in new fans for the annual AC release, so they gave us something that’s been missing from the main series: a female Assassin. Syndicate advertised plenty of steampunk fanfare and historical names that a wider audience should recognize, but the concept of two playable Assassins’ was their biggest drawcard, and it wasn’t that bad after all. For returning fans, I have to point out that you need to give Syndicate a full chance and play it through; if I had published this review without completing the story, it would have been a much more dismal perspective.
After 25 plus hours, I finished the main narrative and the minimum of side quests and found I needed almost three-quarters of that time to appreciate the game. From the first scene, the narrative is like Grandpa Simpson; confusing, nonsensical, rarely endearing and something to be humoured for the most part. I wanted to care about the real-world Assassin’s and their plight, but in total you see them in cutscenes that are uninteresting and offer little for the player to invest in. The in-game Assassins began just as disappointingly; Jacob and Evie went to London because they are terrible Assassins and don’t like following orders. They then decide they need to save London with only the information they are given by a single contact who quickly becomes their father figure and awkward love interest for Evie. From that point, it was a matter of scanning the map to find the sequence points and ticking them off with no sense of urgency and little interest. Eventually, something shifts and you find yourself feeling something for these maverick Assassins: a kind of pity.
The story was still all over the place, but the time spent in cutscenes with the twins and with their increasingly unbalanced foes finally brought out the urge to help them win this fight. The Evie and Henry love story didn’t take over, but it was underplayed, bringing the family bond to the foreground in an attempt to forge a stronger connection between us and them. By the end, I did care: the ending wasn’t too sappy or unbelievable but was a positive ending I felt I’d earned for them all. The entire story still felt somewhat lazy and unfocused outside of the relationships and individual vengeance, but it’s a huge step up from Unity. The real-world side, however, was still lacking interactivity, purpose, substance or personality: we remain just an ‘initiative’ and have to make do with scraps of video data to compile a plot. Throwing the last second curve ball as you end the game gives me some hope for a return to Desmond-like gameplay in the next installment, but as it stands currently, I’m still disappointed.
There was the obligatory relic chase, but during my progress Syndicate neglected to make the shroud anywhere near as desirable as other precursor objects. Evie’s path was dedicated to the stealthy and knowledgeable approach, and as such, I’d hoped for intense puzzles, mysteries and skill testing. I was, however, too busy picking flowers for Henry while he stayed behind and did my research for me. Jacob had the direct, brutal path, but not because Evie wasn’t capable of most of his skills through leveling, but simply because he just likes violence. His story felt more like something an ex-con would get up to out of boredom, hiding behind a story of vengeance and helping out the little guy. Ubisoft managed to bring the main characters full circle by the end, which doesn’t forgive a flimsy plot, or the female Assassin only being useful for 25% of the game, but it is an improvement I enjoyed.
Unity’s one saving grace was how beautiful it was, and Syndicate has managed to maintain the standard graphically. The detailed building and interiors are worth exploring, just as much are the trains and back alleys throughout London. I wasn’t expecting a bright and colourful display due to the period alone, but it was rich and full of personality I’d like to see more of in AC. More than once I was taken aback by the fine tuning in cutscenes and character upgrades: but it didn’t extend past the main characters. A prime example is your rooks and the blighters: if it weren’t for their handy colour coordinated coats then I’d have no idea who was who – they are all IDENTICAL. Not similar, they are all the same character depending on their attack class and, therefore, dashed my dream that this would be the game that Assassin’s finally has individual characters. The members of the public were more varied by comparison, but having five identical guys follow me into a fight against their doppelgangers bothered me.
Cookie-cutter NPCs aside, Syndicate did improve on two aspects of their presentation this time around; firstly their score, I loved every minute of it. The effects were great, and the voice acting was positive, but the soundtrack was worth listening to alone. Big, bold music that didn’t just litter secret areas or punctuate the cut scenes, instead it was an immersive sound that sprang up around you and instantly made the drab surroundings into something more special. Several times I’d pause in my mission and perch somewhere to enjoy the music a minute longer. The other improvement I found noticeable was the effort put into making the main characters more realistic in their reactions and conversations. Fine tuning the sarcasm or the raised eyebrows made Jacob go from a character I scoffed at to one who was relatable. Starrick’s cutscenes became slightly terrifying the more unhinged and desperate he became, thanks to his tense and unpredictable screen time. These short scenes of the villain crafted the first who has actually worried me since the Borgias.
Every Assassin and companion brings new life to the mechanics and arsenal of our protagonist, and always through a famous name in history taking a personal interest in our mission. Luckily, Alexander Graham Bell was here to give us high voltage bombs and the biggest lazy-gamer item of all time: the zip-line. Gone are the days when an Assassin had to use gray matter to scale a particularly intricate building, now you let the hook shot automatically select a target point at impossible heights and whizz you straight there. I both love and hate this item: it saves so much time and tediousness of running through the streets and missing jumps, but it may as well just be fast travel on a smaller scale. A fun new stealth technique included is the kidnap option; it took a second to master and gave every memory sequence a broader range of completion methods, and made for some interesting mistakes. More than once I’d end up running full tilt with a body that I kidnapped just that little too hard.
The wider variety of options in main story missions gave the memory completion the interest it lacked from the plot alone. Multiple entry points, stealth or forceful options, unique kills or ignoring all suggestions and whinging – it made otherwise dull assassinations entertaining. Having a hideout constantly on the move worked so well in Black Flag that Ubisoft brought it back and gave it wheels. The train made a nice change of pace as a hub, with the bonus of dropping you off at your next mission. The trains and carriages were a welcome break from whizzing over the buildings and required a certain level of skill to steal or maneuver. The first sequence that required me to hijack a carriage was horrible: it wasn’t explained clearly, and several attempts failed with Evie instead jumping from her carriage. Once you got the hang of it and realised the horses must be made of steel, you just needed to treat it like Grand Theft Carriage and have some fun.
Syndicate is set in an interesting era, looks and sounds brilliant and manages to step up its game with new Assassins and equipment. The plot may have started as an unfocused idea, but epic cutscenes and a platonic love story round it out as a fulfilling experience. There were still plenty of frustrating moments, but, overall, the negatives of this installment were overshadowed by the positives, finally. Next time, I want more challenges, more real-world crossovers and a personal experience as more than just a nameless initiate. While Syndicate is unsurprising on the whole, it has begun making headway with a return to memorable characters and interactions from the main few involved. One I’d like to forget is a nameless NPC as he approaches my hiding place, I reach out to assassinate him, and his last words are “I can’t wait to get home and see my wife and kids!” Thanks, Ubisoft, really.