Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is all about change. Not just in its plot (which we’ll come back to later), but in its design: this is the first game in the long-running series to offer a female protagonist, but also drops multiplayer and includes fewer modern-day shenanigans to interrupt the historical fun.
Any fans of the series craving a breath of fresh air have got it.
Cockneys, Carriages, and Creeds
Syndicate is a stunning game, not only in its breathtaking visuals, but also in the way London feels truly organic. The city’s slums are as dirty and muddy as you would imagine; chimneys belch black smoke into the sky; its landmarks stand almost exactly where they should (the map has been slightly condensed); people will scream and flee if they see you committing murder – every single aspect of 1868 London is beautifully realised.
Players take on the dual roles of Jacob and Evie Frye, Assassin twins devoted to breaking the Templars’ hold on London and taking down a gang known as the Blighters. For much of the game, in free-roam and side-quests, you can switch between them as you like, but in campaign missions, you’re assigned either one.
Of the twins, Evie is clearly the more conflicted, struggling with the Assassin lifestyle and her role, whereas Jacob has a slightly more simplistic mindset.
While the characters have different personalities, they play pretty similarly to each other. With three unique abilities based on their strengths, they bring specific qualities to situations: Evie is able to practically become invisible when standing still, and Jacob packs a powerful range of combos. Evie relies more on stealth, whereas her brother is more inclined to a direct approach.
Players need to upgrade their characters proportionately: investing too much in Evie’s silent attacks or Jacob’s combat will leave you under-equipped for certain situations – finding a balance that plays to their strengths and keeps their skills diverse is key.
Freeing the City
Syndicate’s plot revolves around freeing London from the Templars. Jacob and Evie must build a gang (the Rooks) by taking down enemies controlling different districts. As the majority of available activities add to your struggle to liberate the city, the plot is always moving forward, and prevents any aspects of the game from feeling unnecessary.
The city needs to be taken back one tiny part at a time, and players can diversify their approach, such as by taking control of the docks or even slipping the police a bribe or two.
Victorian London, and the era itself, had some iconic figures – and Syndicate works them in beautifully. Players interact with legendary characters directly, including Alexander Graham Bell (responsible for some great in-game items), Karl Marx, and even Charles Dickens.
In fact, the latter is responsible for some fantastic side-quests.
Accompanying the writer of A Christmas Carol on occult-themed missions is a crazy concept for a game, which is partly why it works so brilliantly here – Ubisoft has taken the idea and ran with it. You work with Mr Dickens to track down hypnotists, expose the work of charlatans, and enter London’s most haunted house.
These fun, exciting, unique missions steep the game even deeper into its time, and help to enhance the atmosphere of this dark, murky city.
Freeing London, as it undergoes the changes of industrialisation, involves the standard Assassin’s Creed ingredients: tracking, killing, or protecting people, as well as stealing certain objects. There’s more than enough diversity, though, to keep the gameplay from ever even approaching a stale state. For example, the new grapple-gun is a neat addition, allowing you to reach high rooftops and cross roads undetected.
Meanwhile, down on the ground, horse-driven carriages can be commandeered, for both leisurely trips and, incredibly, high-speed chases. Carriage-to-carriage combat is a thrill, ramming pursuing vehicles and running from police being particular highlights. You can even climb onto their roofs for a high-speed punch-up, which is as awesome as it sounds.
Fighting the Good Fight
Syndicate’s combat is as good as it’s ever been throughout the series. Fighting is fast-paced, with the new sword-cane a great tool to use in-battle, and both Evie & Jacob feel slightly different when brawling. Players will likely develop a preference for either the brother or sister, but neither hampers the gameplay in any way.
Levelling characters up makes them tougher, of course, but the Rooks themselves can also be enhanced. Making sure your gang has plenty of tough fighters is a big help, bringing much-needed backup to fights, and group-perks can be purchased, including stronger carriages & cheaper items. This micromanagement element is a smart addition, creating another layer in the Assassin’s Creed experience.
Syndicate’s storyline is rich, engaging, and compelling, helped by the setting – Victorian London is an under-used location in gaming, and works wonderfully here. The new mechanics (ziplining through the city, more open-ended ways to complete missions) and likeable, dual characters are equally welcome, making this one of the best entries in the series & setting a high bar for sequels.