Recently in Enemy Slime we’ve begun discussing the impact of having an annual series, and how such games such as Pro Evolution Soccer or Call of Duty end up feeling hollow, dry, and occasionally, even lazy and broken due to their raw cash-in type nature. Assassin’s Creed is definitely a franchise that is losing its spirit as a yearly series. Even if Syndicate is at least a competent effort, or more competent than Unity anyway, it definitely only comes off as an echo of what it once was. It makes Assassin’s Creeds I found a bit lacking in the past feel content rich, looking at you Black Flag, and I wonder if there’s any magic left to be mined out from this series.
As you’re dropped into Victorian London and see the muck ridden streets, crowds of people both opulently rich and squalidly poor passing through train stations built as temples to industry and factories chugging blackness into the skies in the distance I can safely say Syndicate at least looks good. Though I would like to put an emphasis on the word ‘safe’, like most things in Syndicate the graphics weren’t so much mindblowing as they were functional. Sure I have a full world, the character models have that modern half way cartoony, half way realistic look, but it doesn’t feel rich or fleshed out how Bloodborne’s creepy Victorian cityscapes or Witcher 3’s colorful vast travelogue panoramas did before it. It’s a city without a soul. It returns a bit to the bad old days of Bloom and Brown, as I suppose this is to represent the smog plaguing an industrialized London. Instead it drains the game even more, it’s not like games set in L.A. have an eternal haze or the Arctic assaults you with constant snow drifts, such things just rob games of color and excitement. Assassin’s Creed can certainly manage, but I don’t know if ‘managing stable frames and non-glitchy character models’ is an achievement.
The story is flatly boring. Actually, I have a less kind word for it, the story is shit. We open up with a ton of blurted out exposition listed to us in the form of a ‘letter’ written to some party or other we’re meant to care about. Evie and Jacob randomly decide to go to London so plot can happen, and they will a gang into existence just because they wanted to. It reeks of ‘everything you need to know before you’re allowed to play the game’ and it’s amateurish writing to the rawest degree. Even a few of Assassin’s Creed worse off entries took the time to world build for us. I don’t think Edward was ever a particularly well written character, and I concede there are those that found his grandson Connor to be dry, but there was a certain slow reveal to their respective struggles that built their worlds for us and allowed us to really settle in as part of the narrative. The modern day story meanwhile is a mess of MTV style camera angles pointing at random bits of action you’re meant to care about. Keepin’ Up with the Assassin’s featuring Bishop and Shaun. Forget Desmond, these frenetic bits of exposition make me long for the days I was a floating iPad. This is all to say Syndicate’s story telling prowess rivals that of an infographic.
The Twins at least are fun. I was worried that Evie Frye, as the more serious of the two siblings, would come off as dry and boring, the typical ‘nagging woman.’ If anything Evie is the far more endearing of the two, with an eagerness to prove herself and prove her intelligence and a penchant for flirting with the opposite sex we haven’t really seen since Ezio. Ironically enough it’s Jacob who ends up the dryer of the pair, as he is your typical “cocky young assassin’ only his undeserved confidence is pushed to the point he comes off as a bit of a jerk, while his desires and motivations remain unclear. I know he wants to start a gang, but I don’t know why he wants to start a gang, I don’t know why he thinks his gang alternative is better than the other gang, or why it’s important to him on any level.
So Jacob alone is boring, but his rapport with his sister Evie is at least entertaining to watch, they feel like a real sibling pair. My problem with the dialogue though is that it was far too easy for it to slip between intentionally camp and accidentally cheesy. Jacob once spat off three rapid fire one liners in a row that just made me groan. I do understand that the game is overall meant to be ‘fun’ in its tone, but it’s a problem when a character blurts out a line and I’m left asking “Was it meant to be that bad? Or was that just a misstep in writing?”
As for the controls. Assassins still feel like stone golems wearing lead boots as they climb through glue. I never much appreciated the ‘weight’ assassins had to them, their job description basically states urban parkour ninjas so why do they always feel so heavy? You could claim physics and gravity, but then I would claim Assassin’s Creed must turn up the gravity by a G. The “tweaked” controls of the game make the Twins feel more cumbersome than any assassin before them. The game does implement “climb down” and “climb up” buttons but it’s clear these are a bandage on a bleeding pus filled gash, and has the secondary effect of making climbing feel less fluid than in prior entries.
With Talion of Shadows of Mordor or Lara Croft in Tomb Raider I can tell them to climb in a direction and they’ll, you know, do it. With Jacob and Evie I found myself sometimes struggling with controls that chose to invert themselves for no damn reason. I would tell an assassin to move left, they would go right, I would tell them to jump down, they magnetically cling to a surface some distance away. We’re given the grappling hook and grapple line, but sometimes points of attachment will randomly disappear or the line will hook in somewhere you don’t want. Once more, compared to so many grapple lines in games before it, Assassin’s Creed has the poorest effort. I’d also like to declare I don’t view the grapple line as a ‘fix’, it’s the exact opposite. In games like Black Flag and Brotherhood traversal was as much platformer and puzzle as it was a way to get from A to B. The grapple line completely absolves Ubisoft of having to think level design through. Like the writing, the stealth, the weapons and the graphics, this is another symptom of laziness.
Inflexible vertical gameplay wasn’t my only problem. Combat is pretty miserable too. Enemies now have health bars, which exactly like the climb up/down buttons and the ability to go into stealth, breaks the fluidity these systems once had. I didn’t need a health bar to tell me when I was close to done, when they were close to rekt. it also seems you get room for less contextual actions unless you deplete health bars down to a zone where the enemy is ‘stunned.’ Then, and only then, can you execute them, throw them off a moving train, headshot them, chain kill them or use the environment against them. These were all tactics you could perform at any point in combat during prior Assassin’s Creeds. The health bars serve to make it feel more “video game-y” while reducing our video game options.
I wish the misery of combat ended at my health bar nitpick. It seems the game actually takes quite a few cues from RPGs. Being able to win a fight is no longer so much skill based as it is a numbers game. The higher an enemy, the much, much larger their health bar, and sometimes even things like headshots won’t do them in. It was possible for me to clear an entire district but then run up against a brick wall in the final ‘gang war” mission because the enemy could one shot my group and destroy my health bar in the blink of an eye. It didn’t take a very major level disparity for this to happen either, sometimes as close as one level away a foe could utterly destroy me and my army. Upgraded gear doesn’t seem to do much to swing numbers back in your favor either. What does give you an edge up, is real money transactions, an offer to exchange more of your cash for some hefty experience or gear boosts. It’s a model of combat ripped right out of the greediest of cellphone apps. In prior games the stats on my gear and upgrades took a backseat to my skill, I could conquer a fort in Black Flag or AC3 just paying attention to my surroundings and making effective use of my tools. In Syndicate Ubisoft seems to want the greatest victories to come from my wallet.
Your gang barely functions any differently from the fighters, prostitutes and income structures from other games. They’re not even as fun to build up as your ships in Black Flag and Rogue, your assassins in Brotherhood or the homestead in AC3. Just random thugs you can upgrade for the oh so scarce reward. They can join you to liberate a district but gang wars often end up feeling like a one-man or one-woman effort. The one scant moment of coolness Syndicate has is giving you your own mobile base in the form of train, and even that feels a bit hollow compared to your secret tree forts in other games.
The quality and quantity of tools at your disposal has also gone down since AC3, and Syndicate has one of the smallest toolboxes outside of a spin-off. One of my fondest memories of 3 will be dispatching a fort from a distance with a vast mix of tools from arrows, muskets, darts and ropes then going in with tomahawks, axes, sabers, daggers, clubs and dirks-a-swingin’. In Syndicate I can choose either headshot with a knife (guns make too much noise and are weaker than the flintlocks in prior games, what?) or I can bash someone’s head with a cane, or bash them with knuckles, or bash them with a kukri. Each weapon basically feels the same. Metal Gear Solid V and Saints Row 4 have both made strong cases for large toy chests in sandbox games. Assassin’s Creed seems to solidified itself as open world and not so much stealth, why not embrace it and give me more fun tools rather than limiting my experience?
Let’s discuss what I call Anti-Contextual Stealth. If the Phantom Pain had Contextual Stealth, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate has Anti-Contextual Stealth. See, Jacob and Evie can actively go ninja go ninja go at a button press. They’ll throw their hoods up along with they gang signs, get strapped and go ghost niggas. Or rather, they’ll make a huge spectacle of themselves and draw attention fast. See, without the hood, enemies will recognize you, follow you, harass you and bust you down for doing simple things like running. With the hood up, enemies will recognize you, follow you, harass you and bust you down for doing simple things like walking. Assassin sans hood gets a ton of attention. Assassin with hood nets a ton more attention. The only way to really stop bringing attention to myself wasn’t with skill but, you guessed it, RPG tree stat upgrades for myself and Londontown that boosted my invisibility and how much enemies wanted to bother me.
Both twins have a stat tree by the way. The trees are meant to help make each twin feel “different”, but they have all but six “max level” skills that crossover. It reminded me of the skill licenses board in Final Fantasy 12, where each character started out a carbon copy of each other just because it was useful for all to share certain abilities. Only halfway into the game did they start to slightly depart from one another, until the end when they once more became near exact copies. Jacob has a more combat focused design in both missions and exclusive skills, while Evie is the stealthy femme fatale of the two. This had the side effect of making Evie the more fun of the two to play with her ridiculously high stealth stats that made for a ton of options in infiltrating and exfiltrating mission areas, while Jacob’s tactic was “walk up to a man and punch ’em.”
Then I start running into the glitches. They decreased my enjoyment of Black Flag, destroyed my enjoyment of Chronicles China, and nailed Unity bad scores across the board. If I were Ubisoft and I had this franchise on my hands I would double the amount of QA Testers I had on this title and delay release as long as I needed to in order to iron out as many bugs possible. Fair enough it might be difficult to get rid of every glitch, but when you have cutscenes where character models are disappearing or glitching through doors, when NPCs are floating off in zero G gravity, when you’re repeating the same exact mistakes you made in your last disappointing entry, then it’s time to call foul play.
Here’s the big problem with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. It tries to improve what may be an irrevocably broken franchise. With key members of the game’s creative teams having long since moved on from the franchise and a company that only cares their annual entries are chasing that Call of Duty money, what was once a beloved series has become no more than a lazy cash-in that’s broken on every conceivable level. I refuse to praise this gameplay as the “best the franchise has to offer yet” when dozens of other developers of all sorts of financial backings have put out titles on the market that run circles around Assassin’s Creed’s gameplay. When it comes to climbing or fighting the Frye twins feel flat out unruly up against Shadows of Mordor or Arkham. When it comes to stealth I’ve played early access titles that manage more fun, contextual stealth than Assassin’s Creed. Saying Syndicate is ‘the best the franchise has to offer’ is like giving a gold star to the kid who is terrible at math but finally worked out his multiplication table, we shouldn’t be rewarding something rudimentary the other students got right a long time ago.
Finally, the game is still broken, it doesn’t work, it still chooses to glitch out and remain unresponsive despite all these tweaks and changes to controls. When I score a game low it’s usually because problems on a technical level make it an unplayable jaunt devoid of fun. These entries also aren’t cheap, it’s not like you’re paying 10 bucks to walk into a superhero movie or 4 bucks for a happy meal and a toy. This is a game that’s asking for $60 a year (that’s conservative, before microtransactions and ‘swag’) but refuses to provide $60 worth of quality. When Assassin’s Creed chooses to give me a game that’s not broken and is as competent as its competitors is when I’ll next choose to give the series anything above a 2. For now, Ubisoft doesn’t get points for trying, not that they tried very hard.