The First Few Hours: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

Syndicate has its shit together in all the ways that Unity did not.

It’s autumn in 2015 which means that, for the seventh year in a row, I’m attempting to play a new Assassin’s Creed game.  Part of the annual ritual is deciding, with my friend Greg, what that game’s nickname should be.  Numbered sequels kinda take care of themselves, but so far we’ve come up with:

  1. Ass1
  2. Ass2
  3. AssBro
  4. AssRev
  5. Ass3
  6. AssFlag (or, alternately, BlackAss)
  7. AssUnit

Which brings us to this year’s installment, Syndicate, of which I had no choice but to bestow the sobriquet AssCat.  (As a long-time fan of the UCB, I felt it was only appropriate.)

Anyway, so:  I’m currently around 2-3 hours into AssCat; I’ve finished the tutorial and the Whitechapel sections, and both Jacob and Evie are at level 4.  Don’t let the even-level number misguide you, though; when given the opportunity, I’m spending every minute possible playing as Evie, because Jacob is a douche.  But we’ll get to that in a bit.

Here are some bullet-pointed immediate first impressions to note before I get into some details:

  • First and foremost – AssCat has its shit together in all the ways that AssUnit did not.  Even if I’m only 3 hours in, the game feels much more solid and conceptually unified, and exudes a self-confidence not seen since AssFlag.
  • The music is terrific – all sorts of very cool dissonant string quartet stuff going on, which I’m not sure I’ve ever heard in a videogame before.
  • There’s been a lot of talk about the new line-launcher as being AssCat’s great new innovation (even if it’s shamelessly cribbed from the Batman Arkham games), but for my money the best new thing about this year’s edition is the “Free Run Down” option, which makes getting down from the rooftops 1000x less annoying.
  • The map isn’t upsetting in the way that Unity’s was; there’s side-stuff, sure, but you’re not beaten over the head with it.  (And to be fair, the map had been getting out of control for a while now.  Even AssBro, my personal high point in the franchise, had a map that caused serious OCD panic.)

It is strange to be playing this game after having both Metal Gear Solid V and the Uncharted remasters still fresh in my hands.

As reluctant as I am to heap praise upon anything made by Kojima, I’ll give credit where credit is due – the stealth mechanics in MGS V are, without question, the best I’ve ever seen; and they’re the best because the controls are unambiguous and very responsive, and most importantly – and I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Kojima game – they make sense.  Enemies in MGS V react believably in response to your actions, and if they act absurdly in the face of absurdity, well, that’s an appropriate reaction.  Stealth in AC games, on the other hand, is a bit of a dicey proposition; the controls in AC games have always had a certain amount of jank, and so there is inevitably some grey area between what you intend to do and what your character actually does (like accidentally jumping off a rooftop instead of unsheathing your blade).  Furthermore, my 30+ hours in MGS V* have trained me to play non-lethally except where necessary – which I know doesn’t make any intuitive sense given that the word “Assassin” is part of the game’s title.

And as for the aforementioned Uncharted comparison: well, among other things, the opening of AssCat has you running through and on top of a train that eventually falls off a cliff, and train combat is a thing that happens quite a lot.  Which might sound familiar.

But let’s get to the actual game itself, shall we?

First thing’s first – I’m obviously still very early in the game and while I’m out of the tutorial and into the open world, I’m not 100% sure that I have the full gist of the game’s intentions.  That being said, if the opening Whitechapel area is any indication of how you progress in the game, then I’m pleased to report that it kinda reminds me of the very first AC game, of all things.  London is divvied up into certain sections, each with a recommended level.  You have 4 main tasks to perform in a section before you can take down the section’s boss, and I presume that you have to get rid of all the bosses before you get to the finale.  There are hidden chests and helix glitches and other collectibles to deal with, of course, but there’s a lot less overall clutter and tedium in your path.  I must confess that I like this streamlined approach.  The reason why it grew tedious for me in the first game was that none of these things ever changed, and so eventually I stopped playing “in character” and would start to bull-rush my way through each section, which would make everything that much more difficult.  Here, though, there are clear tasks to perform, and while the nature of each task might change from section to section, the game’s path of progression feels purposeful in a way that AssUnit lacked.

(Comparing this game to AssFlag is pointless; Flag is so profoundly and fundamentally different from everything that preceded it that it might as well belong to a completely different franchise.)

On a technical level, the game is gorgeous.  Again, I haven’t seen that much of London just yet, but what I have seen really quite spectacular; the texture detail on each building is quite stunning, and the frame rate is pleasantly smooth.  The streets are perhaps not as ridiculously crowded as in previous installments, but that’s fine.  (More on NPC behavior in a sec.)  This being said, London – as with each of these games’ open-world cities before it – lacks that certain thing that Rockstar does so well; it feels less like a living, breathing city and more like a really well-made 3-block radius that’s been copied and pasted all over the place.

I should also note that the NPC AI is so weird that I don’t even know how to react to it.  One of the things that is brought to your attention very quickly is that, in this particular era of London, factories were often populated by child laborers; one of the things that you’ll have to do as part of your section-clearing tasks is to free these children.  And as you might expect, there are guards patrolling each section of the factory.  And since you’re an assassin, you’re going to murder these guards.  In front of the children.  Who don’t react.  Nobody reacts, really.  In the opening tutorial, you run through a factory, sabotaging equipment and killing dudes in full view of everyone, and nobody bats an eye.  I guess people being stabbed to death in the street was just a thing that happened, and in the same way that modern New Yorkers deal with rats eating pizza in the subway, you just learn to deal with it.

Some other random, unconnected thoughts:

I have no idea what’s happening in the larger meta-story anymore.  Unlike some people, I liked the intersection of the modern-day and the digital past, and I had paid a lot of attention to it right up until AssRev, which I couldn’t finish; and Ass3 was a mess; and Black Flag had already moved on to something else; and I haven’t played Rogue; and I gave Unity far more time than it deserved, but still didn’t come close to finishing it.  Whatever the original intention was in terms of the present-day battle between the Assassins and the Templars has totally passed me by, and I’ve decided that I no longer care.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: I wish these games could feel special again.  They should feel special; they’re setting games in places and eras that nobody else does, and at the game’s peak (which I put at AssBro), it was uniquely absorbing.  But the only way that’s going to happen is if Ubisoft stops annualizing it, which will probably never happen.  That being said, I don’t want to imply that AssCat is in any way phoned in; it’s just that the novelty has long worn off.

I love playing as Evie Frye; she’s a really cool character (where her brother is kind of a douche-bro), and I prefer the sneak/stealth approach rather than the brute-force tactic.  But as I mentioned above, it seems damn-near impossible to be non-lethal in missions, which means it’s more necessary to play as Jacob.  Again – I know this game is called Assassin’s Creed – you’re supposed to be killing people.  But it’s odd that they’ve given each character different strengths.  Jacob is a combat brute, Evie is sneaky.  (Still quite deadly, of course, but she also takes far more damage in combat.)  Everything you do in the game – from missions to side-stuff to just finding collectibles – earns XP, which unlocks skill points, which flow into a central pool; but if you unlock, say, lockpicking for Evie, you also have to unlock it for Jacob.  Switching between characters is easy in-game, but switching between their skillsets requires far more button presses than necessary, which is annoying.  This also means that leveling up can feel redundant, as well as unnecessarily difficult in terms of choice.  I want to make each character strong, but I’d rather make their dominant aspects stronger rather than having to catch up on their weak sides – like putting more points into health and stamina for Evie and putting more points into sneaking for Jacob.

I’m not gonna lie – I miss Prince of Persia.  But as long as Ubi is dedicated to churning out a new AC every year, a new PoP would be redundant (in terms of the action/platformer genre).  It should be noted, however, that its main competition – Lara Croft and Uncharted – are not annualized, and their respective releases feel special in all the ways that AC doesn’t.  I used to get really excited about AC games, and now I play them only out of obligation.  I wasn’t even necessarily planning on playing this one, and I’m not sure what it says about me that I was convinced because the general review consensus was that it doesn’t suck the way that Unity did.  I have a soft spot / blind spot where AC is concerned; that’s on me, and I hate feeling like a sucker.

This is damn near 2000 words already and I’m still only at the very beginning of the game.  I guess that means it’s worth talking about?

* I should probably just admit right now that I haven’t touched MGS V since I handed in that ~4000 word essay a month or so ago.  I still feel like I got my money’s worth, for whatever that’s worth.

Author: Jeremy Voss

Musician, wanna-be writer, suburban husband and father. I'll occasionally tweet from @couchshouts. You can find me on XBL, PSN and Steam as JervoNYC.

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