‘Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’ Looks Great, But It's a Bore to Play

After running through a preview of the new game, I feel this series should have taken a sabbatical.

by Mike Diver
Jul 21 2015, 7:50pm

London does look bloody lovely in 'Syndicate.' All screens courtesy of Ubisoft

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Where do you go from Unity? When the Assassin's Creed series reached the French Revolution last year, it was evident from the outset that the power of current-gen consoles could create environments to astound. Ubisoft's army of artists vividly brought to life Paris in the late 18th century, making locations like Notre Dame look so realistic, it was easy to briefly believe you were looking at a big-budget movie, not a video game. Atmospherically, the eighth major Assassin's Creed game was a triumph. Unfortunately, it was a let down in several important aspects.

Yes, there were the (mostly amusing) graphical bugs—characters falling through floors, their faces loading incorrectly, bizarre body contortions. That's forgivable, and besides, who doesn't love it when their game freaks out in funny ways from time to time? But the game played so tediously, which is where it truly fell down.

The game's predecessor, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, was, by most critical accounts, a rip-roaring pirate adventure that made great use of its setting and framed its swashbuckling combat and treasure-hunting side-quests in childhood fantasies-fulfilling style. It went on a bit, but what modern open-world game doesn't? Unity, by comparison, felt claustrophobic, its tight streets collapsing onto each other, a lack of verticality giving the impression of a much smaller game. Enemy AI was average at best, mission design depressingly repetitive, and the introduction of a "proper" stealth system half-hearted in comparison to titles that prioritize the need to sneak your way forwards. It was met by average reviews scores, and I wasn't alone in thinking that the series needed to take a year off.

You'll control Evie, as well as Jacob, in the final game.

But here we are, less than 12 months later, with Assassin's Creed Syndicate imminent. The Victorian London-set game releases for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in late October, and having had my hands on a very short preview of it, I can't shake the opinion that Ubisoft might have been wise to pause the franchise a while, to take stock of its strengths and weaknesses and really deliver an experience as memorable as the first game's Crusades-era adventuring and the second's exploits in Renaissance Italy.

Like Unity, Syndicate looks incredible—I get to see the area around St. Paul's Cathedral, and it's most certainly London, from the rain-slicked cobbles at ground level to the terracotta tiles of the so-easily-scaled roofs. Horse-drawn carriages trundle through the streets, which are appropriately much wider than Unity's Parisian thoroughfares. Everything's taller, too, basic housing bearing the mark of the industrial revolution, rising upwards to escape the East End's warring gangs. The level of detail is astounding—you could spend a long time just looking over all the billboards and fly posters that bring life to the static bricks and mortar.

I play as Jacob Frye, who heads up the Rooks alongside twin sister Evie. I slug back a cutscene drink in some unremarkable watering hole or other and then it's onto the streets, my first objective to assassinate several members of a rival gang, the Blighters. There's a twist, though. They're holding two of my mates hostage, so if they see me coming, they're sure to kill them. I use Jacob's not-quite-like-Batman grappling hook to quickly get up beside the chimneys, and head towards the waypoint. A lookout makes me, though, and before my hands can properly get to grips with the controls, I'm surrounded by thugs and beaten into unsynchronized submission.

I try again, and this time I get to the lookout first, silencing her warning. I drop down to where more of my enemies await, but while I successfully beat them black and blue, they've already done away with their captives. A third attempt: the lookout's dealt with, and rather than wade in fists flying, I use a hallucinogenic dart to turn friend against friend beneath my lofty perch. The Blighters attack each other, and all I need to do is descend when the last one's unconscious. My colleagues are safe, and it's onto stage two of our little soiree around EC4—a carriage race through the streets leading to a gang war sequence where Rooks and Blighters collide, at which I need to knock down ten of their men and women. Somewhere among the blows is the enemy's leader, Bloody Nora. She's soon enough beneath my feet, flat out, conquered, and the preview's finished, its a violent crescendo lasting for less time than it takes to down a half. Evie joins Jacob in telling the Blighters that they now work for them. Fade to black.

Jacob's handy with his fists, which is useful when his controller (that'll be me) is inept at sticking to stealth play.

What I'm seeing is examples of the variety of gameplay on offer, but nothing feels particularly progressive. Ranged weapons, like darts and knives and your more standard bullets, can be used to combat foes just as readily as your own knuckles and knees. Knock your top hat off and whip your hood up and you're in stealth mode—enemies are less likely to spot you, hunched down and light of foot. Jacob can commandeer a horse and cart to get about quicker, but much like the relationship between the Batmobile and the Dark Knight's gadgets-aided aerial prowess in Batman: Arkham Knight, it's going to be up to the player whether they prefer to travel on wheels or across rooftops. It all works, but where's the hook, the line, the USP that sinks me into Syndicate like Unity couldn't?

If it's there, I'm not seeing it yet. We're all familiar with the "it's like Grand Theft Auto, but..." sales pitch, and Syndicate is a GTA game in Victorian London right now, albeit with the standard Assassin's Creed lore draped atop it—you either dig the Abstergo stuff or you don't, and I've never been overly enamored with it. Being beautiful, which it is even at this stage, might be enough to have series fans handing over their pre-order cash, but what I play just isn't exciting, and that's a worry. It's competently structured, controls easily and it doesn't bug out once, but offers not nearly enough to whet my appetite for more.

On Motherboard: The Art of Video Game Photography

The run-up to Christmas is a busy time for major new releases, with Halo 5: Guardians, Guitar Hero Live, Fallout 4, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Star Wars: Battlefront, and Call of Duty: Black Ops III all out around the same time as Syndicate. That's some significant competition, against which I can't see another Assassin's Creed that plays much the same way as so many installments before it truly shining. A change is as good as a rest, so the proverb goes, and swapping 18th century Paris for 19th century London has resulted in a visual delight. But if those shimmering puddles are turning stagnant just a few hours into proceedings, it'll vindicate my feeling that this series should have taken a sabbatical.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate is released for PS4 and Xbox One on October 23, with a PC version also planned for an autumn release. More information at the game's official website.

Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.