Special Series Playthrough - Assassin’s Creed
I’ve lost count of how many AC games I’ve played but I know the number of females I’ve been; one, and that was in a DLC. Syndicate attempts to half-address the balance.
Part 8; Syndicate
It was becoming uncomfortable how boys club-like the Assassins were and Unity not even featuring women in the co-op despite my unrealistic ability to shape-shift was the most overt snub yet. But finally, although likely due to the outcry not a genuine choice, we have our first female lead – well, half-lead; we’re the Frye twins Evie and Jacob. Not that you’d know from the cover; Jacob is centre while Evie is in the background alongside the NPCs. I didn’t even realise I could play her until the cut scene ended and I was in a dress. Evie feels like a cynical nod and Syndicate already had the deck stacked against it; it has Unity to apologise for. This should be a hard game to like.
The bickering twins raid a Templar hideout in Crawley, where Jacob hijacks then crashes a train and Evie destroys an Isu artefact. Ordered back to their hideout, they instead head for London. I like those two. Whereas Unity was the French Revolution, this is the Industrial Revolution, when London was the Capital of the world and the Templar’s seat of power, making it a no-go area for Assassins. I’m gonna get Cockney on those Templar Bowler Hats.
Present-day Assassin nerd Bishop suddenly hacks into my Helix again. Seriously, I’m sitting in my pants gaming, what now? The Templars’ plan is to clone their own Isu and to do so, they need an artefact – a shroud, like the one that resurrected Jesus. Jesus. Bishop thinks there’s one in London, so she asks us to uncover it. I gotta get some duct tape on that webcam.
Victorian London is dirty yet beautiful, choking with a pea-souper at night and hazy coal smoke during the day. It is compressed and a little cheated at times, but thanks to the tube everyone has a skewed idea of London’s layout anyway. What draws you in is the way it’s captured the arrogance of the time, when England ruled the world and Queen Vic presided over it. But controlling it is Starrick, Templar Grandmaster and Disney Villain.
Starrick even had a moustache he can twirl. We never get to grips with who or what he is; a committed Templar or a power-mad kingpin. He sways from cliché villainous behaviour like shooting a servant to spewing classic Templar rhetoric and wishing to see this great nation prosper. He seems complex but you can’t take him seriously, sitting at his desk, sipping tea and brooding when he’s updated about the Twins’ disruptions.
Not that I’m disrupting much, I’m too busy sight-seeing. Thankfully, this London is easier to get around than the real one; the Thames is rammed with coal-laden barges and steamboats we can navigate across - Unity’s parkour system has been refined so bouncing around is fun again, and away from the river we race past promenading Victorians, across steel and iron, through stations, parks and bustling streets which give way to grimy terrace rows, building sites, factories and mills where street urchins kick balls against walls.
You can jump steam trains that cut through the map, while carriages have turned AC into a Horse-Drawn GTA; you can leap from one to another, shoot villain’s horses to cause carriage pile-ups and even drift them. I rarely use the fast-travel points because it’s a pleasure to get around and see what’s happening in old London town.
All this throws up an aspect to AC that hadn’t really occurred to me before. Of all the games, this is the one I connect to the most. I lived in London, and unless they do Assassin’s Creed Brighton this is the closest I’ll get to ‘home turf’. I enjoyed all of AC’s time periods but as a tourist, this is home and it resonates, and I wonder if someone would forgive Unity’s faults because they lived in Paris, or enjoyed ACII more because they studied the Borgias. This is my town, I’ve stood where Evie is standing now, and that occasionally blinds me to Syndicate’s shortcomings; while being a sleek and solid game that learnt from Unity, it has its faults.
Most noticeably, Evie is … annoying. She’s so earnest, and constantly nagging Jacob. This is your first main female lead, a shrewish bossy-boots? And, she has a love-story. Why doesn’t Jacob? Why must she suffer reconciling her feelings with the mission – it’s cringeworthy when it should be digging into how a woman in Victorian England is expected to behave in polite society and how that conflicts with her day job - and Starrick’s second in command, Lucy Thorne, vibrates with buttoned up rage aimed at Evie; two women suppressed by societal expectations and we don’t draw parallels, have them connect while hating each other? Nope, just an excuse for some cat fights while they hiss at each other.
Evie also tries to live up to their late dad’s assassin reputation as a by-the-book type despite her introduction where she blows up an artefact, ignores orders and heads to the most dangerous place in the world for assassins. Is she rebellious or not? Her collectables are pressed flowers for her beau, an assassin bookworm. A flower-pressing assassin who doesn’t like assassinating? That charms our professional killer?!
And Jacob is doing an Edward, a scoundrel we’re supposed to find incorrigible yet much like Rogue’s Shay, there’s zero reason why he’s an assassin – but unlike Shay, he doesn’t have any depth; he doesn’t care about the code, the Isu, anything at all and doesn’t change. He is, as a Londoner called me when I ran him over with a carriage, a wanker.
There’s other issues in the game. Namely, there’s no issues. The twins take out the Templars so easily you wonder why Assassins were terrified of day-tripping to the big smoke and the missions are all strictly linear, even though we’re supposed to be playing two plotlines that are on a collision course.
Evie favours avoiding the Templars and reaching the Shroud first, while Jacob starts his own gang, The Rooks to provoke a street war with The Blighters, a Templar-backed gang. AC reset itself in Unity, Bishop could hack and alter the memory, so Syndicate could have allowed us to choose how to reclaim London, impact each plotline, face repercussions, set the twins against each other but the hacking has been dropped so you’ve got two opposing narratives that never meet outside the cutscenes. It could have nicked Far Cry 4’s branching plot where you picked who's plan to follow at key stages – that was badly done but it could have worked here. Quite quickly, you suspect this is a very shallow game.
Syndicate feels like a sleek bit of PR designed to undo Unity’s brand damage – refine the gameplay, chuck in a girl for the feminists, make lots of call-backs to earlier AC games – but then, after another rip-roaring mission ... I realised it’s about time the AC series lightened up; this is an adventure not some world-saving slog, it's a care-free caper and Victorian London is the perfect place for it.
Playing a couple of scrappy trouble-makers annoying a Templar Grandmaster for fun is just what the series needed; most of the missions are heists or sabotage based, and they often turn into frantic escapes or bursts of mayhem, and while we meet various historical figures, like a fussy Charles Darwin, Fredrick Abberline, Alexander G Bell, Florence Nightingale and even Queen Vic (who Evie manages to annoy …) we’re not a part of any great historical moment other than London at its peak – Syndicate has us playing out the Lore of London, it’s legend, and that is way more fun than the reality.
The DLCs have us hunting for Jack the Ripper and solving penny-dreadful murder mysteries, and a lot of the side missions are re-enactments of famous London mysteries; it’s like going on one of the London Ghost Walks. We even hunt my favourite London legend, Spring-heeled Jack (Disappointed we didn’t encounter the Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town though). All the tropes of Victorian London are here; mesmerists, suspect elixirs, truncheon waving peelers, orphanages, flat-cap wearing market sellers, Bearskin Guards, chimney sweeps, cor’blimey gov’ner kids, iron, steam and coal - we’re in AC: Charles Dickens.
When we do get down to business though, assassinations are always top stuff; we’re given different ways to approach, and they’re rewarding rather than stacked-against-you irritations; the best one is Jacob murdering a posh toff in Parliament who has an hilariously self-indulgent ‘for Queen and Country!’ death speech. Jacob just wanders off muttering ‘what a prick’.
There’s various distractions like fight clubs, carriage racing and hijacking Starrick’s shipments – both carriages and barges. London is split up into boroughs controlled by a Templar thug with objectives that weaken their hold; a top challenge is freeing kids from a mill. Eventually we get into an old-fashioned street fight to decide who’s patch it is, which generates money delivered to your train hideout - it is awesome, if annoying to find as it trundles along; not exactly a ‘hide’out but it adds to the feel of London constantly moving. But sooner or later you have to get back to Evie’s Shroud quest. Erm, what’s Jacob up to?
Jacob seems to be having fun – he disrupts Starrick’s businesses, kills his Bank Manager (as in, manager of the Bank of England), kills his cousin, kills his doctor by pretending to be the cadaver he’s dissecting in class, and takes the PM’s dotty wife for a walk around London’s slums. Eventually he catches the eye of the Blighters’ leader (who I can’t take seriously because it sounds like he was voiced by The Hitcher from Mighty Boosh) and the two team up to disrupt the Templars just for the anarchy before a fiery fallout in a horror theatre. None of his missions actually impact anything really, but they do infuriate Evie so that’s something.
Although their skill-trees favour stealth for Evie and brutality for Jacob, they’re not so different that you’re struggling to choose who to free-roam with; her story might be a bit lacklustre, but Evie is just as handy as Jacob when the scrapping starts. One awesome addition is escaping to a roof doesn’t mean you’re safe. They’ll head inside and pop out of a skylight to carry on the fight. Although, I’ve seen one run into a different house then pop on my roof, the cheating tea leaf. We have canes with daggers, Kukri knives and knuckledusters to swing with, and finishing moves are suitably British groin-kicks and headbutts - getting into fights feels like a typical scrap outside a kebab shop; during one tussle, I accidentally belted a passer-by who simply said “careful you twat!” – spot on.
But the biggest addition is the grapple gun. I mean ‘rope launcher’ – now we can rappel up buildings and across streets like a cockney Batman. It is great, but it gives you such an edge it leads to some balance issues. A lot of side missions and achievements reward you a skill point, so when combined with some clever weapon and outfit upgrades, you can become over-levelled very quickly. Half the time I only do Evie’s missions when the skill tree is blocked by ‘progress further in the main mission to unlock’.
There’s also a weird little distraction that feels like a DLC they forgot to charge for – Juno whisks you away to play as Jacob’s granddaughter helping Winston Churchill root out some Templar spies during WWII. It’s another bit of sketchy diversity (she agrees to help in return for the woman’s vote) and makes little sense; Juno revealed herself to me, the gamer, and Winston mentions the spies are collecting blood in ‘square vials’ – Templars have the Observatory?! That’s huge, imagine the impact on the war – oh, never mentioned again. Juno does it to explain the Sages, who are reincarnations of her husband and the DNA the modern Templars are using to clone an Isu with. I didn’t ask.
Evie’s story takes her on a tour through London’s landmarks, which are great because I never bothered in real London. Now I know what’s at the top of Nelson’s Column. Nelson, it turns out. Evie’s search plays with the mysterious, masonic folklore of the city, as it turns out many buildings are placed just so, or have hidden contraptions, markings and clues as many of the buildings do in real life. Supposedly anyway, I’ve never looked – but I will do now.
Inevitably, the Shroud turns out to be hidden in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, where Queen Vic is holding a ball. Evie is forced into a formal dress, or an ‘infernal contraption’ as she calls it to infiltrate the party but is made to dance with Starrick - who plans to have her shot once the song ends; as Jacob, we have that long to reach the shooters. If it was me, I’d let her get shot, might loosen her up. To be fair, Evie does have the best line in the game during this scene; having survived his assassin assassination, Evie knees Starrick in the groin then turns to shocked party-goers and says “I hate balls”.
It’s easy to dismiss Syndicate; the split narrative doesn’t work, the twins are cliché and have no real conflict, the main mission doesn’t resonate, the Templars are laughable and the modern element is so distant to be redundant. On the surface Syndicate seems too lighthearted to take seriously, but in fact they decided to celebrate being an Assassin and that’s given the series a new lease of life. Doing it just to wind up the Templars is such a British thing to do, and exactly the kind of Assassin I’d be. It’s not beaten Revelations as the definitive AC game, but I haven’t disappeared into an AC this deeply since Black Flag. Syndicate is really good. But I might be biased.
Oh yeah, Bishop. I always wondered if she’s the one who hacked Liberation but we never get to find out as this is her final appearance in what is becoming a trend for the modern-era – a light, zero-impact situation rather than a story-arc. Who knew Desmond would be missed?