Apparently you can have too much of a good thing. With numerous releases over the years, the lustre had begun to wear off Ubisoft's flagship series, Assassin's Creed. The series has lost direction, and the current link with players is far from the peak it reached with Ezio Auditore's trilogy. The situation worsened dramatically over the past year, with the launch of Assassin's Creed: Unity, a very promising, but ultimately flawed and broken game. The subsequently released updates, the free content, might have helped remedy the situation, but many will say that it was too little, too late.
Thus it was imperative for Ubisoft to do things right this year, otherwise it might become very difficult for the publisher to justify the current annual release schedule. Ubisoft Quebec (the first studio to take on one of the main entries, besides the usual Ubisoft Montreal) knew this and were keen to re-focus the series on the hardcore experience that has captivated so many fans. Mobile apps, online modes, and extra Initiate programs; all gone. The result is a more focussed, solid and enjoyable game. The characters (especially the Frye twins) are interesting, the story goes along at a very nice pace, the extra activities are varied and well integrated, and many of the bugs and technical problems have been resolved. There are still microtransactions, pre-order content, exclusive missions and all that annoying stuff, although it's good to see the developers primarily focus on what matters most.
The new adventure takes place in 19th century London, during Queen Victoria's reign, and focusses on the Frye twins, Jacob and Evie. They were born into a family of murderers, and when the game kicks off, they're already fully embedded into the creed. This means Syndicate spends little time on the preliminaries, instead going straight to the action. Templars are in complete control in this era, and their presence in London is unchallenged. While political power and law enforcement are governed by influential elements of the secretive organisation, the working classes, ordinary citizens, tremble at the sight of the baddest gang in town, the Blighters, also controlled by the Templars.
Evie and Jacob are ready to take a stand against the current status quo, and thus join forces with Henry Green, the assassin tasked with monitoring operations in London. All this while going against the orders of the creed. While Jacob plans to reconquer the streets with his own gang, the Rooks, Evie is more concerned with retrieving a new piece of Eden that the Templars have found. There is also a parallel story in the present, following the events in Unity, that includes the participation of some familiar faces.
Taking advantage of the ongoing industrial revolution, Ubisoft Quebec managed to modernise some elements of the Assassin's Creed experience. During this period, for example, no one carried weapons in plain sight, let alone swords and axes. This means that fighting is done with other, more discreet weapons. Brass knuckles, daggers and hidden knives are the three archetypes you will have at your disposal, with many variations of each. You will also have access to guns, smoke grenades, poison darts and, of course, the iconic hidden blade.
All weapons can be upgraded in exchange for money, and you can even find schematics to craft weapons and new equipment. Jacob and Evie can also be improved through three talent trees - combat, stealth and general skills. They can both evolve as you wish, but it will make more sense to improve the stealth capabilities of Evie, and Jacob's fighting, since the best skills of each tree are unique to the respective character. Early on you will also unlock a headquarters, that is now a moving train. From here, you can develop many aspects of the brotherhood and especially Rooks, Jacob's gang.
London is also very different from Unity's Paris. Instead of claustrophobic streets crowded with people that get in your way, London has wide avenues and large buildings. This forced the introduction of new tools to keep the movement flowing. Out on the streets you can now drive carriages, which operate almost like cars (you can even drift). To access the rooftops more quickly there is now a new grappling hook, which also connects to other points in the world, offering considerable acceleration to the player's movement. Freerun follows in-line with what was introduced in Unity, refining the mechanics (it is less likely that you'll climb the wrong piece of scenery, and there's even a specific button for entering windows). With the introduction of the hook and the upgraded freerun, Syndicate almost feels like a Victorian-era Spiderman simulator.
The biggest problems appear during combat. Although stealth works better than ever, when you have to directly confront enemies Assassin's Creed is starting to show its age, and it feels mechanically uninspired. Combat is a lot faster and it's based on combinations of blows, but the animations aren't strong and the enemy reactions are poor. It's all too fast and clunky, there's no tangible impact with each attack. The stealthy gameplay is more satisfying, but the assassination animations suffer from the same problem of not offering satisfying feedback.
We played Assassin's Creed: Syndicate on PlayStation 4, with the latest update already installed. The severe frame-rate issues from the previous game disappeared almost completely, and rarely did we notice frames dropping. Pop-up was also less frequent, and we really only noticed them while "driving" the cart at high speed. Technically speaking, Syndicate is already a much more solid experience than Unity ever was. That said, it also seems there was a clear graphical downgrade since last year. When it comes to lighting and detail, Unity seemed richer, especially during cutscenes. Syndicate is very solid, and it can be a beautiful game at times, but it's far from reaching the levels of quality that we've seen in other titles of this generation, including Unity. We assume that this was the price to pay for the more consistent frame-rate.
London is also bursting with content for the player to explore. Each district has to be conquered from the gang in control; you need to perform minor side-quests to clear areas of each district. You will have to kidnap specific individuals (a new game mechanic), stealthily assassinate targets, and release members of the Rooks. When all areas are free, you will confront the incumbent leader of the district in a major confrontation between gangs. There are also several collectibles to discover and side missions with historical characters.
In this regard we have to lament the exclusion of some content. The copy sent to us has all of the currently available DLC, including the exclusive PS4 missions and the pre-order content. Both add quality activities to the game, be it investigating ten mysterious crimes (a big evolution from Unity), or dealing with several 'supernatural' cases. We can't help but feel bad for the fans who won't have access to this content. An Xbox One or PC player that buys a regular version after launch will not be entitled to any of these missions, but that's unfortunately the way this industry works nowadays.
Assassin's Creed: Syndicate is a good, solid game. It's better then Unity (even if visually it doesn't look quite as nice), providing an entertaining adventure that remains stable most of the time and never revealed any major bugs. Despite having improved since last year, Assassin's Creed is beginning to show some wear and tear, and there's a few elements that are starting to feel very dated. That said, it's good to see Assassin's Creed back on the right track, but at the moment, with the continuing rollout of annual releases, perhaps "good" is the best the series can aspire to. The time when Assassin's Creed meant something truly special is unfortunately long gone.