You’ve no doubt read this elsewhere, but it bears repeating: Yes, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is superior to Unity. The creative and technical mistakes of last year’s Assassin’s Creed model haven’t been repeated, and while it isn’t bug-free (any game with this many technical intricacies is bound to have a glitchy NPC or two), there’s nothing that will ever render it unplayable.
That said, Assassin’s Creed has had deeper problems for some years now, ones that even Black Flag’s spectacular pirate antics couldn’t gloss over entirely. Syndicate isn’t quite the game to make all those problems go away. What Syndicate does do is course correct. This is Assassin’s Creed stripped back down to what it does best: giving players a giant, impeccably detailed city—1860s London—to run, jump, climb, and tumble throughout, a new magical MacGuffin to chase, a new Templar villain, and the means to stylishly destabilize his whole infrastructure one dead body at a time.
The heroes this time are Jacob Frye, a rough-hewn Nathan Drake-ish rebel with a cause, and his clever, no-nonsense sister, Evie, both of whom are playable, with the game effectively taking a page from Grand Theft Auto V’s revolving door of playable protagonists. They’re sent by the Order to London to retrieve the new Piece of Eden, what turns out to be the Shroud of Turin. Finding out the sorry state of London affairs (child labor, gang presence, public health issues, and general social inequity), Jacob and Evie agree that the city’s people need heroes. And so they set out to disrupt the Templar’s day-to-day operations, while simultaneously racing to the Piece of Eden.
The ongoing cycle of gameplay is the same as it ever was for this series: completing various activities to decrease Templar control over the city, punctuating progress with the occasional high-profile/high-society murder. Mileage may vary on whether that’s a good thing. If anything, it’s definitely good that the game takes more of its mission design cues from the Ezio Auditore saga (Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood, and Revelations) than it does from the rather lifeless sidequests that permeated the games that came after.
Taking over London involves wrestling control away from both Templars and the Blighters, the incumbent crime syndicate maintaining a stranglehold on the city. That means buying up local businesses, abducting gang leaders and selling them off to the cops, disrupting factories and freeing their child laborers, and discombobulating the steady stream of weaponry and contraband powering their operations. This time, it also shares importance with full-on, enormously fun Gangs of New York-style street fights, where you and 10 of your NPC allies face off against a splinter faction of the Blighters.
That’s all to say, in short, that there’s a lot more fighting, killing, and assassinating to do here than there’s been in years, and assassination feels great. That’s especially the case now that combat has gotten a nice little shakeup, with a new emphasis on vicious close-quarters combat as opposed to fencing, and the new toys that have been made available. The grappling hook, in particular, adds a slick, stylish Arkham Asylum feel to traversal, the kind of modern, steampunk-ish cool this series has needed more of since Leonardo da Vinci was playing Q to Ezio’s James Bond in Assassin’s Creed II.
As mentioned, however, this is all more of an incremental step to what Brotherhood was doing back in 2010. But what probably bolsters Syndicate more than anything is Ubisoft remembering just how much these games need Assassins worth caring about—people we actually want to spend 30-plus hours with. Syndicate gives the series back its soul.
Evie and Jacob are fantastically realized, nuanced, likeable protagonists. He’s a carefree man about town struggling with the very real possibility he’s become nothing more than a common murderous thug. And she’s a studious, giant-hearted heroine who just happens to be a downright surgical killer when necessary—and who ends up cleaning up Jacob’s messes just to keep the city from tearing itself apart. Each represents one potential future of the Assassin Order (there’s a subtextual argument to be made for them representing the future of Assassin’s Creed), and each struggles with the other for how best to accomplish the endgame.
Both are surrounded by a vast, well-developed kaleidoscope of characters, ranging in personalities, kindness, sanity, and, most impressively, gender and race, something the series has struggled with for too long. The game does stumble in giving actual narrative closure to all the people we meet over its lengthy campaign, and the segments set in the modern day haven’t been able to justify their inclusion since the days of former protagonist Desmond Miles. That said, the fact remains that these are people you want to actually meet, causes you want to fight for, and enemies worth fighting. Even the most basic low-level gang leader in this game has a personality, and that personality shows outside of more than just the cutscenes.
Syndicate isn’t the game to finally thrust Assassin’s Creed forward into new territory, but it’s the one to point the series at true north for the first time in years. It’s less advancement than refinement—a distillation of the things that worked in all the games between Brotherhood and Unity, discarding much of the rest. There’s no companion app. There’s no multiplayer. There’s still an in-game shop where extra currency can be purchased with real money, and the fact that I was already at the game’s eighth sequence out of nine before I realized it was there says much about how unobtrusive the microtransaction is. For players that may have fallen out of love with Assassin’s Creed, Syndicate is a forceful attempt to woo them back.