In fact, Assassins Creed Syndicate is just the latest of multiple titles set in the period that were released in this year alone. There’s no denying that Victorian London is a popular video game locale. It’s fitting that Syndicate explores such well-worn territory, as many of its gameplay mechanics are borrowed from other games or previous entries in Ubisoft’s flagship series. But while it’s hard to shake the feeling of having seen it all before—of having played it before—the lack of innovation in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is easily forgiven when you’re having so much fun.

Somewhere outside of Britain’s capital city in 1868, twin Assassins-in-training Evie and Jacob Frye are bored with the tasks they’ve been given. The children of a well-known Assassin, the Fryes want to take on bigger and better things than the town of Crawley has to offer them. Against the orders of their advisor, the pair hop a train to London and meet up with one of the last Assassins in the area to begin their journey. The goal, of course, is to eradicate the Templars—no easy feat when they’re led by the intimidating Crawford Starrick, one of the most powerful and influential men in the city. Starrick is the perfect blend of soft-spoken and scary; he clearly pulls the strings on anyone worth knowing in London, and can bang out a killer piano tune and ruthlessly shoot an associate in the same breath.

The fact that there are two protagonists is the biggest difference between Syndicate and previous games in the series. Evie is level-headed, focused on stealth, and determined to follow in her father’s footsteps, while Jacob is more impulsive, rarely listens to directions, and never thinks about the consequences of his actions (or how Evie will have to clean up those messes). Being able to switch between characters at will (outside of proscribed story missions) is a breath of fresh air for the annual franchise, and Evie in particular stands out as one of the series’ most likeable characters.

To take advantage of the twins’ similarities and differences, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate introduces a new experience-based progression system. No matter which character is being used, Jacob and Evie gain experience together, unlocking skill points that can be assigned to separate skill trees for each character. This allows for each Assassin to raise their stealth stats, increase their health bars, and the like, as well as unlock a few high-level skills are only available for one character.

The new XP system also feeds into a less welcome addition: an in-game e-store that can provide more experience for a real world price. Thankfully, these microtransactions aren’t all that intrusive. It’s easy to simply ignore the prompt to get more currency or an experience boost at the bottom of the Inventory and Skills screens. There is a direct path to the e-store in the main menu, which also lets players purchase crafting plans, materials, and maps. Since the game’s higher-level weapons must be crafted from raw materials, spending a few bucks here can definitely make Syndicate easier, but players won’t feel underleveled or disadvantaged if they ignore the e-store entirely.

The gang’s all here

Syndicate also differentiates itself by putting the player in charge of some semi-controlled gang warfare roiling the city. Throughout the game, the Frye twins and their rough cohorts in The Rooks take London back bit by bit from a rival gang, the Blighters. Each borough has its own activity designed to eradicate the Blighters and earn the loyalty of the Assassins’ associates; it may be freeing child laborers for a factory, kidnapping prominent citizens for a bounty, or just a good old-fashioned Templar murder.
After successfully completing these missions, the twins have the chance to take on the gang’s leader and remaining members for total control of that area. The more Blighters that are taken out, the more Rooks will be ready to join the fight on the city streets. With the tap of a button, you can recruit these men and women in green to fight with all sorts of rivals. Enemy gang members, police, Royal Guards—if someone is in your way, the Rooks are ready to fight. The twins’ gang has its own tree of upgrades to unlock as well. When you need a getaway vehicle in a hurry, you’ll be glad you invested in getting the Rooks their own carriages.

When not participating in gang wars, Evie and Jacob quickly realize that they have very different goals. Evie wants to locate a mysterious Piece of Eden, a shroud that grants immortality, in order to keep it out of the hands of the Templars. Jacob, meanwhile, takes a more hands-on tack to getting the monarchy out of his enemies’ hands. The different approaches cause a rift between Jacob and Evie that’s a bit overdramatic, but it gives the player a chance to use both characters regularly when playing through the campaign.

Along the way, the pair encounters the historical figures the series is so fond of incorporating into Assassin lore. When they’re not giving Alexander Graham Bell advice about his latest inventions or hunting down ghosts with Charles Dickens, the twins might be helping Charles Darwin take out an opium ring or having cake with Queen Victoria.

Something borrowed…

Syndicate’s core plot and numerous side quests are compelling and enjoyable, even if the new methods used to conquer them feel borrowed from other games. For the first time, the Assassins can drive carriages throughout the city, which is great for getting around quickly in the style of the rideable horses in previous games. It can also make Syndicate feel a bit like Grand Theft Industrial Revolution, particularly when smashing up Rook carriages along the way or barreling over civilians. (Don’t worry, they’re fine. Probably). Evie and Jacob are also able to use ziplines to move from roof to roof, which is so reminiscent of the Batman: Arkham series that it’s hard not to push the wrong button with the Dark Knight’s control scheme in mind.

But even though Assassin’s Creed Syndicate isn’t very innovative, these borrowed mechanics work really well and don’t feel out of place at all. Grabbing a cart is faster than dealing with the load times of fast traveling, not to mention more enjoyable—who knows what treasures or conflicts you might find along the way? The zipline is great for saving time when going from building to building, not to mention a more stealthy option than running in the open. Both of these elements are incorporated so naturally into Syndicate that it’s hard to believe they didn’t already exist in previous Assassin’s Creed games. They’re not exactly original, but who cares? They’re fun.

The 19th-century segments of Syndicate are so compelling, in fact, that it’s always a shame to be dragged out of the past to view the modern-day Abstergo story moments. Unlike in past games, there’s no hands-on action in these sections. Instead, the player is treated (and I use that word loosely) to a drone’s eye view of today’s Assassins, who are using the Fryes’ history to locate the very Piece of Eden that Evie is so intent on finding. There’s no real reason for this uninteresting storyline to even be in the game, and being taken out of the action for these scenes is always a drag. Maybe the developers feel obligated to keep that sci-fi backbone in the series, but Syndicate certainly doesn’t make a case for why it’s still necessary.

It’s always a relief to get out of the present and back to 1868, especially since Syndicate’s vision of London is teeming with activity. Like Assassin’s Creed Unity, the streets of the iconic European city are filled with citizens; unlike Unity, the crowds are not hampered by frequent technical issues. Sure, there are the occasional glitches—getting stuck in a corner here, walking through an NPC there—and the loads can be lengthy, but for the most part, Syndicate runs smoothly and looks great on the PS4.
It’s tempting to ditch the missions entirely and just visit familiar landmarks. The city’s highest points offer great views, and free-running up and down without pausing to catch a breath is usually a quick and easy way to explore. Running up a building and ziplining to the next usually feels like skillful parkour, but quick camera changes and reluctant movement occasionally hamper the flow of the exploring experience.

Longtime Assassin’s Creed players won’t be surprised that the chase sequences are still more chore than excitement; it’s far too easy to get snagged on the environment and lose your target in the process. These issues have been plaguing the series since the beginning, of course, but it’s a shame that Syndicate couldn’t do more to make the assassins’ movement feel truly effortless.

Familiar fun

It’s hard to keep an annualized series fresh and exciting year after year, but Assassin’s Creed Syndicate finds a good balance between incorporating new ideas and making good use of recycled techniques. Some of the mechanics feel lifted straight out of other games, but none of them feel out of place in Victorian-era London.

And Syndicate is just plain fun. After a couple dozen hours in Jacob’s or Evie’s shoes, it’s easy to forget about the past missteps, the annoying chase sequences, or that time one of the twins got stuck in a corner and the mission had to be restarted. Despite the lack of originality, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is an impressive return to form for the series.

The good

  • Switching between characters is a refreshing twist, and Evie makes a great leading lady,
  • It’s easy to lose hours in London’s various activities, particularly taking over Blighter territory,
  • The main story missions are a lot of fun, thanks in no small part to the use of historical characters and a compelling villain

The bad

  • Most of the new mechanics are clearly borrowed from other games
  • Being pulled out of the interesting gameplay to watch a modern-day cut-scene

The ugly

  • Chase sequences are still the worst

Verdict:

Syndicate is a step in the right direction for the series. It’s not as innovative as it could be, but it’s an entertaining adventure worthy of the name Assassin’s Creed. Buy it.

Game Details:

Developer: Ubisoft Quebec
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platform: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Windows (coming November 19)
ESRB Rating: T for Teen
Release Date: October 23, 2015
Price: $60
Links: Steam | Amazon | Official website

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