A rumor is now circulating that Ubisoft will, after holding to an annual release schedule for several years now, not release a new flagship Assassin’s Creed game in 2016, giving its next game extra time to possibly rebuild the series from the ground up. If true, I can only commend the decision. The series has been coping with exhaustion for some time, as its most recent entry makes clear. Still, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is… not bad. Which, coming after the flaming fiasco of Unity, is a welcome turn for the better. Unfortunately, despite being fun most of the time, Syndicate is also not very good. Some of the reasons for that are bound to this particular game, and others are the result of broader failings in the series that need to be corrected.
Syndicate’s dual protagonist setup with Jacob and Evie Frye mostly feels superfluous, and really the only interesting thing about them is that they make the tension between “Assassin Lore” and “Other Stuff” that’s been a serious problem in the gameplay since AC: Revelations into part of the game’s narrative.
The story they’re involved in is scattershot. Side characters lurch into it without good cause and then fade out of it unmemorably. Although characters insist that the Templars have so great a hold on London that the Assassins fear to make any move against them, rolling up their empire doesn’t feel like much of a challenge at any point. The Big Bad, Crawford Starrick, lacks both historical heft and practical menace. He spends the game sitting uselessly behind his desk as his lieutenants, most of whom appear for only a mission or two, fall or turn against him. Aside from an intelligence-insulting reversal atop St. Paul’s, the Fryes never even suffer a notable setback in their quest to clear the city of Templars. Perhaps because of this, they don’t noticeably evolve as characters either. The whole thing stumbles to a close with a laughably silly plot by Starrick and an irritating boss battle, having never seriously grappled with the era’s contradictions (seriously, Queen Victoria should have been the game’s villain) or even outlining what the hell Starrick thought he was actually going to accomplish with his various machinations.
The present-day story continues to be a disaster. Here it is reduced to cutscenes in which the player occasionally watches characters, who either don’t have a personality or who got one six games ago and haven’t changed or even elaborated it much since, fail to accomplish much of anything. The player-character doesn’t even get a name. I suspect this is because of a desire to make the character “you”, which is the worst conceit yet in a series practically defined by narrative befuddlements. Speaking of which, what did the WWI episode have to do with anything?
Syndicate’s complement to the battle between Templars and Assassins is a gang-takeover mechanic in which the Fryes complete missions like assassinating a particular Templar or freeing all the children in a sweatshop so that their gang of people dressed in green can take over part of London from a gang of identical people dressed in red. Very Christmas-y. It all comes off like a riff on Saints Row, without any of the personality, humor, or zaniness that animates those games and the gangs within them. I actually found this set of missions to be the most entertaining (and in some cases, the most challenging) part of the game, but it peaks far below its influences. And, of course, this side of the game doesn’t seem to speak to the narrative at all (though it occasionally gates it).
Syndicate, of course, conforms to Ubisoft’s current doctrine of producing an array of side activities ranging in their design quality from awful to mediocre, then filling a beautiful virtual world with so many of them that their sheer volume brute-forces the game to a Metascore of 80. So we have a dumptruck’s worth of collectibles strewn randomly around the world: flowers and glitches and posters and bad beers and chests containing pointless resources to fund an execrable upgrade system.
The game offers more involved diversions as well. There are repetitive brawling sequences, light stealth/theft sequences, and surprisingly little in the way of assassination. Then there are the carriage races, which have such awful AI and loathsomely unsubtle rubber-banding they should be taught in school. In one race all my competitors took a wrong turn and fell so far behind they were completely off my minimap. I lost that race when they all reappeared behind me, one nosed me into an obstacle to pass, then continued to ride so fast I couldn’t catch up to him or even seemingly keep pace.
Of course, that’s what one must expect when the game’s integral chases are scripted every bit as ruthlessly. That assassins have superhuman conditioning and reflexes up until the very moment they must chase or fight someone has long been an irritation of the series, but being forced to run along after some top-hatted doofus while dodging both scripted and emergent bullshit really rubbed in how much this has begun to grate.
Certain things about the core gameplay have gotten better—this is the first game in the series where I never once ran up a wall while trying to go around a corner—but characters continue to stop moving inexplicably while climbing or free-running. Some of this is cured by the zipline, which was a necessary tool to compensate for the broad avenues the game needed to accommodate carriages. However, that tool badly oversimplified stealth despite its awful aiming system. The combat has gotten worse in every game since Ezio bowed out, and that doesn’t change here. The Fryes have KEWL FINISHERS that go on for hours but the actual process of fighting is so dull I actually fell asleep once while doing the brawling activity.
I could continue in this vein for a while. Assassin’s Creed has a near-infinite series of nits to pick, from the details of its platforming to its apparent inability to conceive of anything important happening outside of Europe’s sphere of influence. But I think one can boil things down to two key problems.
The first is a lack of substance. Assassin’s Creed has always had plenty of flash, but it also once sent its protagonists on journeys of self-discovery and embarked on serious contemplations about whether their actions and philosophies were actually right. Even Desmond, whom nobody maligned more than me, went from a useless whiner to a character I could at least respect, if never really like. Now, whether in the present or the past, none of what’s going on seems to mean anything, least of all to the characters involved. Historical figures, previously integral characters important to the story, have mostly been reduced to “I’ve heard of that guy” cameos. What once all hung together and meant something is now scattershot and disconnected, just as the games’ activities, once almost entirely focused on the core narrative, have devolved into an deluge of extraneous crap.
The second problem is rigidity, and this is something the games have never yet gotten right. In my review of Assassin’s Creed III I described this as designing like a Templar. Assassin’s Creed is at its best when it hands the player a set of tools and asks him to solve a problem, and at its worst when it seizes the reigns and says “do this this way, and no other”. I didn’t like the gang-takeover activities in Syndicate more because they were particularly well-made; I liked them because the designers got out of the way and let me complete the objectives however I liked. And, the problem with Assassin’s Creed’s free-running hasn’t been as much that it’s loose and approximate as that the mission designs consistently require specificity that its parkour can’t deliver. The series awaits a design that expresses the freedom that lies at the heart of its titular creed.
To fix these problems would require a radical revamp of both narrative and design philosophy, a dramatic paring-back of fluff and possibly a reconceptualization of the series’ core concepts. So I have no hope that it will happen. Ubisoft’s open-world design has left the intentional spareness of Far Cry 2 in the past and is so firmly committed to enormous deluges of extraneous crap that this quality has come to define “Ubisoft-ness”. In the context of that corporate culture, creating a focused, substantial game seems practically impossible. We’ll always have the memories, but Assassin’s Creed has been driven so far into the ground I’m not sure it can be dug up again.