Wednesday 18 October 2017

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate review: Ganging up

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: Gangs of London
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: Gangs of London
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

EIGHT years and nine instalments have bequeathed Assassin’s Creed with a bucketload of baggage. Syndicate is an attempt to step out from under the overhanging weight of its history after last year’s calamitous AC Unity.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (XOne/PS4); rating: 8/10; age 18+

It retains that pointless modern-day underpinning of a computer simulation running a Matrix-like world. But the shift to simulating London in the late 19th century showcases Ubisoft’s gift for city-building.

The bustling streets, grimy buildings and convincing cast interlock to deliver a fascinating playground as twin brother and sister Jacob and Evie Frye tackle London’s gangs while searching for … some magical yoke.

Fanciful plot interjections from the likes of Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin make no sense but do provide interesting side-quest lines that are rewarded with some cool gear.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: The horse carriages give the Frye twins a quick way to travel around London
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: The horse carriages give the Frye twins a quick way to travel around London

The visual glitches that bedevilled Unity have largely been conquered, with only a few examples of characters spawning in odd places (pity the poor street urchin found buried up to his legs in a roof six storeys up).

But Syndicate still struggles to offer a streamlined version of parkour that defined the early titles of the series. While it’s not as completely broken as was the case in Unity, the Fryes often can’t decide to which bit of building they’ll magically attach or which handhold they’ll leap to, sometimes resulting in a comedy of errors when descending.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: Bringing knives to a fistfight
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: Bringing knives to a fistfight

Perhaps as an attempt to ease the pain of its graceless parkour, Syndicate steals Batman’s grappling hook, allowing the twins to more easily ascend a building or cross a street with quick flick of a rope line. But even that feature is incredibly finicky about where and when it will trigger.

Ubisoft has never been shy about cross-pollinating its franchises and Syndicate borrows some of its characterisation from Far Cry 4, where two rebel leaders offered a choice of tactics about their guerrilla war. Here, Jacob and Evie differ in their approaches, the boorish bloke preferring brute force versus the stealthy infiltrations of his sister. To the developers’ credit, you can switch between the two at will, though their skill sets are very similar.

Ubisoft has sensibly trimmed some of the annoying fripperies (such as the mobile companion app) and restored features that had been inexplicably cut in previous years (such as the whistle to attract enemies’ attention). But it also dispenses with co-op and multiplayer modes that had genuinely added something fresh to the series in recent entries.

Yet Syndicate is clearly a chip off the old block, a heavily layered interplay of systems that peppers the map of London with missions, side-quests and trinkets. When you’re not pursuing the main plotlines, you’re building up the strength of your gangs, advancing your skills and investing in property to beef up your income. Of course, if you can’t be bothered putting in the investment of your time, Ubisoft’s unfortunate love of microtransactions will give you a shortcut.

Syndicate goes some way to wiping the stain of Unity from AC’s history. It’s a beautiful-looking game,  with a welter of tasks and stories to follow.

But it’s clear the franchise would benefit from a gap year, the pressure of churning out a new one every 12 months not giving enough time for the rethink the series needs.

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