This column contains SPOILERS for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. If you have not played it, read my spoiler-free review. If you have played it, or simply don’t mind the spoilers, then read on!
It seems somewhat strange to write a retrospective for a game which came out less than a month ago, but after the absolute shitstorm that was Unity, I feel I need to provide a bit more detail. I though Syndicate was pretty good, but there was lots of it which I felt was either very out of place, or at least a strange way to take the franchise.
First thing first, and perhaps most importantly, The Frye twins were one of the best player characters (as a whole) the series has seen. I don’t think they topped Ezio, from Assassin’s Creed II/Brotherhood/Revelations, but I don’t think anyone ever will. The twins personalities matched their play styles, and the way they played off each other in the story added some much needed tension. From a meta standpoint, Evie Frye also marks the first time the playable character was a female (in a main game, because for some reason Liberation‘s Aveline and Chronicles: China‘s Shao Jun don’t count?). As far as inclusiveness goes, I am sure this was a big deal to many, but I personally didn’t see it as anything other than natural progression. Evie didn’t play significantly differently to Jacob, or indeed any other previous game’s protagonist, which I think was the best way to go about it; Evie was just another Assassin, trained in the ways of stealth and parkour like all her predecessors. As a quick side note, Syndicate was also the first game to have female enemies, whom could be killed in all the same ways as the males. No sex discrimination in the Templars or Assassin orders, it seems.
But the movement in general felt somewhat off to me. I understand there was a real effort to make Syndicate’s free-running ‘less floaty’ than Unity, but I think they pushed it too far in the other direction. When holding the sprint + ascend buttons, I was always thrown off by the split second between reaching the wall, and the climbing animation playing. For all its faults, I thought the climbing, and particularly the “controlled descent” mechanic to be just what the series needed, and I was disappointed to see it changed in Syndicate. All of this talk of climbing, of course, is completely negated by the inclusion of the rope launcher, which I felt was incredibly out of place, but also the product of a bigger issue: as we move into the future, buildings are only going to get taller and flatter. The rope launcher was obviously designed to skip the boring ground-to-window-to-window-to-window-to-roof cycle which nearly every building in Syndicate followed. But surely the best option would be to make climbing more enjoyable, rather than negate it entirely?
Also as we move into the future, the notion of carrying weapons has (obviously) become unrealistic. Whereas carrying a sword in 15th century Italy may be something which actually happened, it is not possible to carry an axe in 1860s London. In this regard, I thought the weapons being brass knuckles and cane swords was a clever way to go. Both lend themselves to the more subtle way Assassin’s would have to operate, and of course the hidden blade is, well, hidden. But aside from simply having hidden weapons, the bigger issue becomes apparent in Syndicate’s World War 1 segments: guns. As we continue moving into the future, bringing a sword to a gun fight is only going to become even more of a problem, and it is going to become harder to suspend disbelief about the power of a gun. It may be arguable that an Assassin could survive a shot from a hidden gun in Renaissance Italy, and you could probably make a case for a Colonial Era musket, but by the time World War 1 came along, surely any bullet would be a kill shot, no matter what type of robe/armour your Assassin is wearing. Again from a gameplay standpoint, why bother using a hidden blade when you could just get a sniper rifle and take out your target from a few kilometers away?
Guns also negate much of the need for any sort of melee combat. Where Syndicate opted to use the (much maligned by me) Batman: Arkham style punch/counter/dodge/stun method, I will admit it was slightly more enjoyable than that of, say, Mad Max. The animations for combat were particularly enjoyable, and I think the simplicity, but graphic nature of the combat is what made the Fight Clubs one of my favourite parts of Syndicate. Evie, in particular, was incredibly violent, and considering the lack of medical care in Victorian London, you have to imagine that getting into the ring with either Frye sibling was tantamount to a death sentence. From the gameplay standpoint, the multi (that is, 2-, 3- or 4-man kills) were incredibly satisfying, but very often didn’t seem to work like they should – I would often have four enemies ready to be put down, but Jacob would instead choose to attack just two of them. I cannot see Ubisoft opting to return to the slower paced combat from previous games, which means I guess we should all get used to mashing X until a big, obvious COUNTER icon flashes above an enemy’s head.
So I guess the final question is: what’s next? In my opinion, in looking towards the future, we need to go back to the past. The obvious choices are China (already covered in a spin off game), Egypt (teased heavily in Black Flag) or Russia (upcoming spin off game). All of these are good options, and should provide interesting architecture, and certainly a great cast of characters, but none are my personal choice. In my opinion, the best way to progress the franchise would be for us to head to 9th and 10th century Scandinavia and play as a Viking Assassin. Vikings were teased in Rogue as unlockable weapons and armour, and also featured in a handful of audio logs in the modern day segments. Vikings would be able to utilise the best part of previous games (tree-running and hunting from Assassin’s Creed III, the sailing mechanics from Black Flag and Rogue, and the more primitive weaponry from the original Assassin’s Creed), and would in fact negate much of the issues I have had with the more recent games (no rope launcher, no guns, and a frantic fighting style makes more sense), and the inclusion of a shield maiden player character would not be out of place. This could also tie directly into the Assassin order in Syria and the Templars present in Jerusalem in the first game. And, come on, who doesn’t love Vikings?
Basically, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was an above average game made to look fantastic by its shoddy predecessor. Not without some meta-issues of its own it was a safe and admittedly quite tame return to form for a series which lost its way a few times. If they continue heading into the modern day, I think there will be nothing but more issues, but looking to the past for the future’s games will save them lots of trouble, and maybe win back some fans.