Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate Review

Assassin’s Creed has always had an uneasy tension between gameplay and narrative. If Black Flag was the most balanced installment, last year’s Unity was a step backward, an overstuffed mess with a surprisingly well-written story that got ignored because the game pushed microtransactions instead of content.

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate represents the other side of that equation. The game is one of the best sandboxes in the series, a sooty Victorian playground with capes and cane swords that offers the usual assortment of collectibles and side missions with famous historical figures (the latest crop includes Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and a bizarrely apathetic Karl Marx). Syndicate even takes a page form GTA: San Andreas, introducing a gang war system that allows you to slowly liberate London neighborhoods from a Templar gang called the Blighters. It all combines to give Syndicate a rich gameplay density that shuttles you from exploration to side missions to main missions with a fluid sense of urgency.

So yes, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is fun. It’s a sprawling video game with lots of stuff to do and mechanics that (usually) allow you to do them. The zipline is a welcome addition that allows you to leap tall buildings in a single bound, while the introduction of vehicles makes it a little easier to get around horizontally. If you’ve enjoyed Assassin’s Creed in the past chances are good that you’ll love Syndicate.

Unfortunately, it all comes at the expense of dramatic tension. Syndicate focuses on Jacob and Evie Frye, twin Assassins attempting to wrest control of London from the Templars under Crawford Starrick, and the whole cast is going through the motions. Jacob and Evie don’t meet Starrick until the final mission. We know he’s the villain because he twirls his mustache while sitting in the villain’s chair, but there’s otherwise nothing to compel these people to interact.

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What’s worse is that the same is true of Jacob and Evie, whose relationship is woefully underdeveloped. After a fantastic introduction in which the twins bicker and argue about who killed who while also conveying a deep mutual affection and understanding – that is to say, they behave like proper siblings – they go their separate ways when they get to London. The story missions force you to play as one or the other, and while the distribution is roughly equal, you end up with two divergent narratives that only occasionally intertwine. In one, Evie does the legwork to track down a missing Piece of Eden. In the other, Jacob creates a gang called The Rooks and stirs up trouble because he’s too impatient to do anything else.

That’s fine in theory, but it falls apart when the story tries to introduce conflict. Jacob and Evie become increasingly frustrated with each other as the game progresses, and we’re supposed to believe that their relationship has deteriorated to the point of irreparability. You understand why they’re mad – Jacob thinks Evie is cautious to a fault, while Evie thinks Jacob creates as many problems as he solves – and that divide is reflected in a mission structure that falls into a comfortable pattern. Jacob assassinates a high-profile Templar but buggers London in the process. Evie keeps looking for the Piece of Eden, with periodic detours to un-bugger whatever Jacob buggered (examples include public transit and the Bank of England).

The problem is that the story never establishes the depth of their relationship, nor does it adequately communicate why they can no longer stand each other. Jacob and Evie just don’t have enough scenes together, so any change in status feels hollow given how close they’re supposed to be at the beginning. If anything, they seem like they should be an effective team because they respect each other and have complementary temperaments. They’re twins. How are these arguments any different from the ones they’ve had in the past? If they’re so close, how come they barely talk for the entire middle third of the game?

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It doesn’t help that Jacob and Evie get slotted into traditionally gendered roles in the final few missions. Jacob goes out and gets all the juicy kills, while Evie gets stuck doing all of the invisible work that no one seems to recognize. She also gets a romantic interest, which means she’s the one getting chastised for letting her emotions cloud her judgment even though she spends literally the entire game cleaning up after her hothead of a brother.

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The issue is largely one of tone. Jacob is the classic rogue, a pre-James Bond figure who makes an impression because he never leaves a room without first leaving two dead bodies and an explosion. He doesn’t apologize or second-guess himself because he (rightly) knows that the hero never has to deal with consequences in an action movie and that’s what makes it fun.

Evie is not so unencumbered. She regularly expresses doubt and questions her own actions, which creates the impression that she has something to apologize for even when her concerns are completely valid. In the real world, she’d be a necessary check on Jacob’s impulsiveness and that’s how she’s positioned in the story, but in the unreal context of a video game, her more cautious nature sets her up to be the buzzkill. She’s the wet blanket there to ruin Jacob’s fun while reprimanding him for doing exactly what the player expects from every Assassin’s Creed Assassin.

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And yet, Evie is unquestionably the more memorable character. Jacob gets the better missions, but he’s an off-the-rack protagonist indistinguishable from any other Assassin or video game anti-hero. He barely has a character arc because he ends up killing most of the people he interacts with. Evie is more novel simply because there’s no one to compare her to within the franchise, and also because she builds friendships with many of the other characters in the game. As imperfect as it is, her arc at least has texture.

That’s why I can’t come down too hard on Syndicate, whose faults seem unconsidered rather than malicious. The story is missing too many pieces at a purely structural level, relying heavily on our own pre-existing knowledge of the franchise. It doesn’t have anything new to say about the struggle between freedom and security that rests at the heart of Assassin’s Creed, so it’s therefore unsurprising that it leans too heavily on gendered tropes because it doesn’t know what else to do.

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And no, that’s not an excuse. The story could definitely be better and I won’t pretend otherwise. The point is that the story represents a relatively small percentage of the total content, and in other respects Syndicate is remarkably progressive. The supporting cast is filled with women in prominent roles as villains and heroes, while the enemy gangs recruit men and women in equal roles and numbers. Meanwhile, the fact that there are two co-protagonists alters the way you approach the game because you’re constantly aware that there are two people with a stake in the outcome. If you’re dissatisfied with one, you’re encouraged to look at things from the other perspective.

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A little while back I suggested that Jacob and Evie’s personalities would be determined through gameplay, and that’s more or less the case. Outside of the fixed story missions, the switch between Jacob and Evie is seamless, and both are full-fledged Assassins with access to the full suite of Assassin’s Creed activities. There are no substantive gameplay distinctions between the twins, so they can both infiltrate areas via stealth and they can both fight their way out if that doesn’t go so well.

That means Evie gets to do a whole battery of things that women don’t normally get to do in video games, entering street races, conquering gang territory, and joining underground fight leagues to beat the hell out of burly, shirtless men like a Victorian Ronda Rousey leaving a hilariously brutal collection of broken limbs and fractured patriarchy in her wake. In other words, Evie kicks ass. She’s always the smartest and toughest person in the room, and despite the ham-fisted romance subplot, no one ever questions her resolve or her capabilities as an Assassin.

More importantly, the flexible structure means that you’re not forced to accept the narrower versions of the characters that appear in brief cinematics. If you decide that Jacob is cautious while Evie is a take-no-prisoners badass, the game allows you to do that, and you’ll spend far more time with those versions of the characters than you will with the versions dictated by Ubisoft.

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That’s ultimately why the sandbox mechanics are so vital. Though Syndicate has a story, it also allows for personal expression. When the game mishandles its characters, you can react and come up with ones that you like better, and those characters can change and grow as you spend more time with them. I generally prefer stealth in games like Assassin’s Creed, but towards the end Evie became more confrontational because she resented being the ‘domestic’ assassin. Jacob is her twin. She’s not going to let him take all the glory.

Is that canonical? Who knows. But I’ve had a hell of a lot of fun using Evie to dismantle the toughest street gangs in London. The presence of two equal protagonists gives the player so many more options and opportunities, and that’s what makes Syndicate so refreshing. It’s an imperfect acknowledgement that more people deserve to be represented.

Syndicate is filled with other minor bugs and gripes. The most onerous are the missed triggers and the zipline’s finicky auto-targeting, while others – like the clipping and the weapons floating in midair – are quirky rather than obnoxious. In any case, that’s always been a part of the glorious mess that is Assassin’s Creed, and after nine games, I’ve learned that there is no such thing as a perfect Assassin’s Creed. Each game is so unwieldy and contains so many moving parts that it would be virtually impossible to bring them all together into a coherent whole.

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However, that’s also what makes the series fascinating. With each outing, you’re just hoping for a game with mechanics that hold your attention well enough to allow you to savor the delicious historical fan-fiction while writing some of your own. On that front Syndicate delivers, and the history, geography, and philosophy remain as intriguing as ever.

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If Unity broke the feedback loop, Syndicate is a welcome return to form that works because it feels like you have more control over the experience. London is your playground, one that feels more manageable because it has fewer unlockables, a smaller inventory, and a far less incessant approach to microtransactions (though Ubisoft has its hand out so you can purchase in-game currency if you’re a sucker).

It also demonstrates how gameplay can transform what would appear to be a rigid linear narrative. The strengths of one can make up for the shortcomings of the other given the proper context, and that’s why Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is likely to be remembered for giving fans one of the most beloved Assassins in the series.

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