2015 has been a transformative year for open-world games, with standout releases like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain revolutionising individual tenets of the genre, from narrative depth to mechanical breadth.
Unfortunately, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is not one of those progressive titles, and instead of continuing this year’s trend of pushing toward higher expectations from triple-A blockbusters, Syndicate suffers from a litany of legacy issues that run the gamut from design to technical.
With a new studio, Ubisoft Quebec, making its Assassin’s debut, Syndicate does occasionally suggest a desire to affect change in an annual juggernaut so large that it can barely be steered. However, the team seems essentially powerless when placed under such monumental time pressure. The small shifts toward better worlds, characters, and in particular sharper writing, get lost among problems that have pervaded the series since its peak in 2009.
Syndicate’s romanticised rendition of 1860s London is certainly impressive – a smoky sprawl filled with cockney guttersnipes and towering chimneys. It is by far the largest Assassin’s world to date.
The enjoyable Horrible Histories approach to London works well. Each district, from the grimy slums of Whitechapel to the stately grandeur of Westminster, feels distinct – visually, at least – and London has a dank sheen that does look glorious under a cloud-covered rainy evening. Hopping across the Thames, bustling with a constant stream of tugs and barges, or using the new rope launcher to speedily rappel up Big Ben or St Paul’s Cathedral; this is a place that seems more familiar than 12th-Century Jerusalem or the archipelago of the Caribbean, and that familiarity leads to a sense of discovery.
But below the Victorian streets, the technical foundations are creaking. Syndicate is not nearly the technical disaster that last year’s Unity was, but frequent slowdown and texture pop-in are both fairly common on PS4, especially when travelling around in a horse and cart, where a disgusting motion blur literally attempts to disguise the fact the world is struggling to keep up with itself.
In story terms, the narrative fog swirls around Crawford Starrick, the latest Head of the Hydra that is the Templar regime; longtime enemies of the Assassins and all-round bad news. Starrick himself – shallow, softly spoken, sinisterly unhinged and clearly torn straight from Ubisoft’s Villain Handbook – is propped up on the shoulders of a ruthless network of powerful Templars controlling the capital, and he enforces his grasp with his violent street gang, The Blighters.
This simplicity, of a bad guy with his henchmen poised in positions of power, plays perfectly into Syndicate’s streamlined approach – it even omits the futuristic sections that plagued previous games, presenting these as infrequent and snappy cut-scenes for narrative context, and to confirm that the series’ perpetual pratt Sean Hastings is still alive-and-snarking in the present day. The game’s two new assassins – Jacob and Evie Frye – act as two sides of the same coin, creating narrative dynamism and some of the series’ best dialogue. Jacob, brash and cocky, wants to take Starrick head on, so founds a gang called The Rooks to take on The Blighters, while Evie, the more level-headed and intriguing of the two, is more interested in the search for ancient scientific artifacts Pieces of Eden, taking her adventure off in other directions.
It’s a strong setup, which quickly falls to pieces. The Rooks themselves don’t add much to proceedings – these AI companions, upgradeable using the experience and resources you earn through completing missions and exploring the world, feel more like a bothersome distraction than a compelling timesink. A whole host of side activities then further continues the series’ preference for quantity over quality. Alexander Graham Bell, Karl Marx, Charles Dickens and even Florence Nightingale, all excellently depicted, each have unique, occasionally interesting tasks to dole out, but none escape the underlying problems.
Then there are more minor assassinations to lessen Starrick’s grasp on the city: liberation missions have you freeing innocent child workers; there are investigations into sinister urban myths like Spring-Heeled Jack; and there are plenty of bounty hunts. The latter are particularly irritating, forcing you to kidnap key targets before marching them to a destination against their will. This quickly becomes another lesson in frustration as you try to manage one NPC while killing off a dozen more that appear on your way from A to B. And with its new levelling system, Syndicate essentially forces you to play these repetitive sideshows to level up enough to continue the main quest. In channeling you through the game this way – through activities that feel so throwaway, so hopelessly incapable of creating more excitement about the things you’re doing rather than the long-dead people you’re seeing – any compulsion disappears down the fetid Thames.
All of this would be easier to swallow if the simple act of playing didn’t feel so broken. The controls are a relic of the crusades (literally, as this is where the series began), and have become unsatisfying and woefully imprecise. All contextual actions are mapped to the same three buttons, which makes it the luck of the draw as to whether you do the action you want to, or the one the game thinks you want to. Firing your gun is the same button as dodging enemy bullets under timed prompts; opening boxes next to ledges is the same as jumping down off ledges if you’re accidentally holding the action button at the same time, as you often are; and bundling kidnapped targets into carriages is the same button as getting on to that carriage and driving off.
The game’s stealth is worse, relying so heavily on these broken controls that it’s almost impossible to pull off takedowns with satisfaction, instead leaving you fumbling against the set of world rules that oppose you at almost every turn. The main assassinations, unique set-pieces that punctuate the end of each narrative chapter, are some of the series’ most diverse - Lambeth Asylum, Cannon Street Station, St Paul’s - but are underpinned by this complete lack of finesse. Where Metal Gear Solid V filled its world with opportunities to feel empowered for using its emerging opportunities, Syndicate goes all the way toward making experimentation feel like a chore. It punishes you with getting stuck on scenery, objectives that don’t prompt progression mid-mission, and an imprecise quick-aim system that on one occasion auto-targeted our assassination target - not the half-dozen or so low-level thugs standing next to him - with a hallucinogenic dart, sending him into a frenzy so he was impossible to kill and complete the objective, forcing a complete restart.
When the stealth inevitably falls down, the game’s combat is repetitive, requiring you to hammer the same button with an occasional counter against identical NPCs. This was more forgivable in previous games, where a carefully executed counter attack let you slice open your enemies within a couple of sword clashes and string together kills, but neither of Syndicate’s assassins feel particularly lethal. You’ll hit individual enemies dozens upon dozens of times, smacking them round the face, stabbing them in the neck, twisting their arms, breaking their arms, smacking them some more and only then deliver the killing blow. While the intention was clearly for Syndicate to be a scrappier brawler, complete with knuckle dusters, canes and kukri blades, it comes off as loose and weightless. It just isn’t fun.
That dearth of fun is the crux here. As the series finally begins to carve out an identity for itself, shed the dead-weight of its futuristic fluff of a sub-plot, and really let fly with its caricatural depiction of human history, it’s simultaneously failing to keep up with even middling mechanical, technical and design standards. With searing irony, the series feels more historic with each profit-driven iteration.
Ubisoft Quebec should be commended for its world building, its excellent debut assassin duo and a more inclusive cast, but the heart of Assassin’s Creed is so outdated, so horrendously stagnant by this year’s standards, that it’s difficult to truly enjoy what Syndicate brings to the table. Much like the smog factories of London, Assassin’s Creed is stuck in an unrelenting industrial churn. It need only look inward, and it may finally recognise the monster it has become.
This article was written by Sam White, for theguardian.com on Friday 23rd October 2015 10.14 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010