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Fried Take - "Assassin's Creed Syndicate" (2015)

If there's one thing I'm almost always up for, it's taking the piss out of Assassin's Creed. That sounds a bit bitter and vindictive, sure, but we're talking about a series built on broken promises and unfulfilled potential, yet one that is perennially defended as "innovative" and "educational," both of which it only is occasionally. Sure, there are some fantastic games in the series. I count Black Flag among the best open-world titles ever released, and Liberation has one of gaming's most interesting female protagonists. The first one, practically a retro game at this point, even holds a special place in my heart.

That said, the series almost ran itself into the ground last year with the release of Unity. To date, it is one of the most embarrassing, laughable pittances of a AAA game ever dropped onto the market, and it seemed that even some of the most diehard fans were put off by the abhorrent lack of quality displayed there. It would have been wise, then, to maybe nix the whole "crank out a game every year" thing and take some time to figure out what went wrong. But Ubisoft didn't have time for that. So here we are again, less than a year later, with Assassin's Creed Syndicate.

And I'll be damned, but I actually quite love it.

It isn't for lack of trying to go in with a healthy dose of cynicism, I can tell you that much. As awful as this sounds, part of me wanted another excuse to go on a tangent about Ubisoft, to rail against annual releases, to tear into the same-ness of AAA titles. Alas, I'll have to get my ya-ya's out about that elsewhere, because as it stands, Assassin's Creed Syndicate is a damn fine video game.

Even the narrative, one of the historically weakest parts of the franchise, tries some new hats on and took me by surprise. Yeah, we've got the Templar and Assassin conflict still waging, Abstergo still doing evil corporation things, a cocky male lead in the middle of it, so on, so forth. But this time, there's a welcome breath of fresh air in terms of narrative variety and depth. Twins Evie and Jacob Frye travel to London to carry on their father's legacy and take down the Templars, then find themselves forced to start a fearsome gang in order to topple the Templar-backed crime syndicate known as the Blighters, who practically govern all of the city and the surrounding territories.

This time around, however, there is a distinct lack of the old "one person against the world" hat that this series has historically loved. More so than even the heavily ensemble-based Black Flag, Syndicate's narrative is driven by a stellar cast of characters who are among the most memorable in a title this year. Aside from the compelling leads, the rogue's gallery of original characters and historical figures assembled here is a dynamite one, not to mention relatively diverse. It's a blast to blow up factories with a wise-cracking Charles Darwin, or to hijack a train with the aid of Ned Wynert, the franchise's first transgender character. From body types to genders to backgrounds, the only diversity checkbox left unchecked here is pretty much the racial one, and even then, it says more about the time period (Victorian London) than it does any racial prejudice on part of the developers. For Assassin's Creed to have more than gruff men and a few token sexy women comprising its roster is a welcome change from most of the past entries, and it's an exciting step in a more progressive direction for the franchise as a whole.

The effect this diverse and interesting cast has on the overall story is a positive one, and makes it into one of the more authentic, genuine entries in the series. With Unity, III, and pretty much any game with Altair or Ezio, we only got to see the emotional journeys of the protagonists, who were often presented as stoic moral pillars, and were typically as generic and flat as Sunbeam Bread. Here, we get to see Evie and Jacob butt heads. We get an insight into how the rest of the cast factors into the larger conspiracy of the plot. We get both an in-depth exploration of the time period and a glimpse into how this story fits into the grand scheme of the canon (there are several interesting callbacks to past games here.) And, on top of all that, we get some of the best bits of the whole "future" meta-narrative that have been in the series thus far, which actually present us with compelling, interesting modern-day characters that are easy to start caring about.

From a narrative standpoint, Syndicate is a definite high point for the franchise, and is of such a high quality that I genuinely hope Ubisoft can pull a hat trick and not start slumming it again next year.

Speaking of slumming it, that was probably my biggest fear for this game in terms of gameplay: an unwelcome repetition of old mechanics that grow stale after the first few hours. And, make no mistake, Syndicate does very little to rock the boat in terms of gameplay. This still controls and acts very much like what we expect from an Assassin's Creed game in 2015. Free-running, air assassinations, some novelty form of transportation (horse-drawn carriages here,) free-flowing combat, some ranged combat, yada yada yada.

That said? It works better here than it has in the past, and personally, I feel like it represents a honing of fundamentals for the franchise. Unity tried too much stuff and did it all horribly. Black Flag had an amazing world and great navigation mechanics hampered by some unpolished combat and finicky gunplay. Pretty much anything before those games had their own niggling little flaws too. Here, it feels like a developer has finally nailed what it takes to make this franchise work. Outside of the occasional "why in the world would you jump off of that in that way" issues, everything works like a dream here, especially the smooth and polished combat, and the fun, fast zipline mechanic. Navigating the world and beating down thugs, not to mention assassinating targets, works with barely any hang-ups.

Also, I must say it was wise for the more elaborate, Hitman-esque stealth assassinations from Unity to be retained here. There's a certain charm to navigating large arenas and discovering bonus, silly ways to take out targets. For instance, it's much more fun to pretend to be a corpse and kill a doctor in the middle of an operating theater than it is to just storm in, swords swinging, and take him out with brute force. Much more polished than they were in their initial introductions, these elaborate kills add a great deal of charm to the overall experience.

That charm is easier to enjoy in Syndicate, too, because the game doesn't perform like trash. Everything looks stunning, outside of some of my usual complaints of Ubisoft games (no dynamic reflections, questionable distance draw, etc.,) and runs at a respectable frame rate. No, it's definitely not 60 FPS (at least on consoles,) but with how much stuff is often going on at once in Syndicate, that's pretty acceptable. And considering that the last game operated at around 10-15 FPS for a month or two after its launch, it's a major improvement.

Insofar, I realize that a lot of my praise for Assassin's Creed Syndicate has sounded pretty backhanded, and I apologize for that. Overall, I really do think this is a pretty great game. It's not going to set the world on fire in terms of gameplay, no, nor does it really do much to stray from the patented "Ubisoft Open-World Game" progression mold. That said, it does all of that relatively rote stuff very, very well, and is paced in such a way that actually makes me feel motivated to not only progress through the story, but to go out of my way to do all the side activities, which are all engaging and entertaining in their own right. In other words, yeah, it's very much what we all expected in many respects, but done so well that I don't particularly mind.

What really sets this one apart is the little things. The ability to switch between Jacob and Evie. The excellent roster of characters. The engaging and memorable set-pieces. The in-depth upgrade system. The merciful lack of aggressive immersion-breakers like reminders for micro-transactions and companion apps. The overall atmosphere of Victorian London. All of these things add to a solid, if somewhat predictable, package, resulting in a game that is half "pretty good," half "astonishing."

Assassin's Creed Syndicate represents a sort of compromise. It's still firmly rooted in its increasingly archaic systems of progression and navigation, yet shows a distinct willingness to try out a lot of new, polished mechanics that have managed to suck me in and keep wanting more. It's the best Assassin's Creed since Black Flag, and I daresay the second-best in the franchise next to that one.

Here's hoping Ubisoft keeps putting out games that work as well as this one. Or, you know. Work in general.

Hey, I needed to get that shot in somewhere.


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