assassins creed syndicate
I am a little bit obsessed with Evie Frye right now. And by little bit, I mean she's currently my favourite character from the Assassin's Creed franchise (sorry Ezio).
I can also safely say that I haven't enjoyed an Assassin's Creed game as much as Syndicate since... well probably ACII/Brotherhood to be honest.
I'm getting ahead of myself though.
When Assassin's Creed Syndicate was first announced (as AC Victory... which I kind of wish they'd kept, although I suppose that "syndicate: a group of individuals or organisations combined to promote a common interest" is more indicative of the game than "victory: an act of defeating an enemy or opponent in a battle, game, or other competition"... because that's all games ever... but I digress) I was so into it. Victorian era London as a time period is totally my jam. And all of the rather minimal information in the original leak was exciting to me.
So much so that I pre-ordered the Charing Cross edition (the one with the Jacob statue and all the extras). I saw some gameplay footage with Evie early on, and was very excited about her "hide in plain sight" ability. But then I avoided all spoilers and game play footage and reviews when the game came out, I didn't want to spoil the experience.
But then, like with Unity, I'd put the PS4 and the game away for Christmas, because I'm totally an adult. And then I needed to finish Unity before starting Sydnicate. It was definitely worth the wait though.
A little like the difference between ACIII and AC Black Flag, the second game after they debut a new direction/engine/approach, Syndicate vastly improves on many of Unity's flaws. From properly unlocking areas of the map to the movement system to getting rid of all the multiplayer elements... it's a much better game overall.
One of the things I wish Syndicate did have though was the in-game stats that detail how many people you've killed, what your preferred weapon/method is, and because you play as both Jacob Frye (who's supposed to be the default character) and his twin sister (the aforementioned) Evie Frye, how long you've played as each of them. Although I did get an email from Ubisoft after I finished the DLC saying that I'd assassinated 321 people (not sure if that's just "assassinations" or everyone I killed though).
I can almost guarantee that my time spent as Evie was at least triple that of Jacob (in fact, I only did missions as Jacob when the game forced me to, everything else was Evie)... and my preferred weapon, without doubt, was the throwing knives. I've said before that in AC games (well, all games really with some form of shooting) my preferred play style is "sniper". Sit somewhere up high and out of the way then snipe all the bad guys without them ever seeing me. And because Evie is the master of both throwing knives and stealth, she was the perfect character for the way I play.
Evie's skill build has added stealth items that unlock over the course of the game, so playing as her just feels much lighter and quicker than playing as Jacob (who's skills favour face-to-face melee fighting). By comparison, Jacob feels slower and heavier, although I think that some of that is just in my mind.
So, getting back to Evie and my sniper mindset, I cleared whole zones of the map just sitting on the tops of buildings or in the rafters and flinging knives at people's heads (headshot for the win... it was my first achieved perk without even trying).
I much prefer Evie's personality too... she's smart and more measured than Jacob and his brash manner (although to be honest, that's all about the way they present in cut scenes, I played them in exactly the same way barring their main weapon choices). I do kind of wish that you could have chosen to play the sequence 8 missions as Evie though... I get the point of them being Jacob, it's much more part of his storyline, but the option would have been nice.
Evie's voice actor, Victoria Atkin, brings so much to the character too... and I could honestly listen to her all day long.
This was also the first game since AC Brotherhood where I've cleared every single chest, collectible and side mission in the main game. The map has been picked clean of everything but the recurring items. I even bought additional DLC, which I've never done in an AC game before, I either have played it because it was free with the game, or I haven't bothered.
When I realised I could just start unlocking sections of the map at my own pace (and could afford a number of the maps that show you were all the goodies are) I started clearing out zone after zone and finding all the collectibles as I went. I wish I'd realised earlier that the free downloadable content was available for the PS4, I could have worked that in as I went instead of doing it all at once just before the final mission.
This was also the best ending mechanic in an Assassin's Creed game as far as I'm concerned.
The final mission ends, then there's some denouement chatting between characters, and our two heroes just run off into the proverbial yet not literal sunset. And instead of having to endure about half an hour of credits that you can't skip, the game just drops you back into the world, shows a brief info screen that explains that you can keep doing the non-story missions (all of which I'd already done) and that there are now some new missions to complete, and then you're back in your chosen character.
Such a nice change from the endless crawl of all the previous games. Bless you Ubisoft, please never change this mechanic in future AC games.
While we're on the topic of the way the story fits together, there are minimal "real world" sections this time around... and these are presented as cut scenes where you as the gamer within the game are watching recurring AC universe regulars Shawn and Rebecca complete a mission to recover the Piece of Eden you discover. It's slightly more memorable then the Unity sequences (and finishes on an interesting note for the ongoing series), but it's still mostly unobtrustive to the overall story.
Gameplay is very much what I've come to expect from Assassin's Creed... that is, except that this game has two protagonists.
The story missions are split into two Jacob missions and two Evie missions (which can be played in any order) per chapter. And the zone, or borough, unlocking I mentioned before isn't bound to those stories, which I thought it might be (since the first missions are actually tied to unlocking that area).
The borough tasks are pretty standard AC fare... sneak into this location, take out all the bad guys, free these good guys, etc.
There are four types of tasks... Gang Stronghold, Bounty Hunt (kidnapping), Templar Hunt (assassination) and Child Liberation... and then once you've completed enough of those per section, a Gang War appears. They've worked an interesting mechanic in between the Stronghold and War missions though... the leader of the strongholds shows up when you've cleared it and you're given a brief skirmish where you can try to kill them before they get away. If you fail, they show up as the boss in the Gang War task, if you succeed in getting them during the stronghold sequence then you just have to kill off the lower level goons.
It might have been interesting if they'd expanded that either across all four tasks... maybe each leading to the next somehow, or with the recurring "boss" character showing up in each spot and hightailing it before you can catch them.
But while each of the tasks is essentially the same thing repeated across the whole map (just with increasing difficulty levels and number of goons), they never felt boring (slightly grindy, yes... boring, no). Mostly that was because I was trying to complete each one by picking off all the goons without being detected. Each new task was an opportunity to either repeat or better my previous success.
Of the four tasks, the most different from borough to borough are the Hunt missions, especially the assassinations as they allowed for different optional bonuses (for example, "kill only the target", "kill the target from cover" or "use air assassination").
The missions are also connected to your various NPC allies (again, where the meaning of "syndicate" comes into play), and completing them gives you more "influence" with that ally which unlocks various weapons or gear.
One of these allies is Ned Wynert, a transgender man, which is kind of amazing especially since it's never even mentioned by anyone that this character with a clearly female voice is presenting as a man. So big tip of the top hat there to Ubisoft.
The new gear mechanic in this game is the hidden blade gauntlet. It includes a grappling hook that allows you not only to leap up the sides of buildings but also create your own ziplines between various points. It really does open up the city and I did love that ability, particularly going up the sides of buildings quickly when escaping, but the fact that you can't use it from the top of moving vehicles was occasionally annoying.
I found that it broke the flow of my travel much more than the freerunning did in Unity. Or at the very least, changed the way I travelled through the city. There was also often an inconsistency with which spots it would allow you to attached to, sometimes it would cover giant distances, other times only the next building over. It might have also been interesting if it could have been set up to yank enemies off spots or just used as a retractable killing weapon much like the rope darts from ACIII (although I never really did get them to work properly).
Not that I didn't appreciate the gauntlet, especially for traversing the distances between fast travel locations and objectives, or just getting the hell out of the way when things went south, but the grunting noise both characters make when they launch themselves into the air is something I could probably live without hearing again for a while.
It was also nice to see that the assassin's "whistle" ability is back after it was mysteriously absent from Unity (although they really need to let you whistle while hanging off the side of a building, mostly so you can throw people out of windows or off the top of roofs). Having said that, I didn't use it in Syndicate anywhere near as much as I have in the past, or needed it in the previous game.
One of the things I do very much miss though are the sleep darts/bombs from previous games. There were more than a few times when I would have liked to just knock out palace guards or policemen instead of killing them, but the game really doesn't give you that option beyond a much closer "knock out", and I'm still not sure if that killed the NPC or not.
The game also has the usual "optional" missions... starring none other than Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and (eventually) Queen Victoria... and the Dreadful Crimes, which are much like the Murder Mysteries in Unity.
In fact, all of those missions are very similar to the way the Paris Stories missions played out in Unity, although this time around they're grouped into four distinct storylines linked to the historical figures.
I think my favourite ones of the original three were Dickens, since there's a lot more rushing around in the Darwin ones and some of the Marx ones are a little irritating. Then there's the DLC missions, The Last Maharaja, which is centered around Duleep Singh (who I didn't realise was a real person until I started to write this... although given that the rest of the mission characters are real, it's not really surprising).
Overall though, the Dreadful Crimes were the most interesting, they weren't quite as obvious as the ones in the previous game and often hung on one small clue or noticing the discrepancy between two stories. And the clue text that hovers in the air in Eagle Vision mode is really beautifully done, especially when the game uses it to provide additional information or lead you from one place to another.
There's also a whole additional "memory sequence" outside of the main game, which I assumed was going to be like the World War II missions from Unity, but turned out to be a self-contained adventure with a new character. I won't say too much about it so I don't spoil it, but it just appears on the world map at a certain point, and it's well worth the time to go and play through... while I don't think they'll do a whole game in that time period, this definitely shows that it could work. And I was a little sad that the outfit from that time period doesn't become a playable outfit in the game.
As I said before, I bought both sets of DLC for this game, The Last Maharaja, which is just a set of in game missions, and the Jack the Ripper chapter which takes place 20 years after the main game.
The majority of the Ripper game place is focused on Evie, although it seemed really weird to me that she had lost all of her skills from the previous game, such as the hiding in plain sight ability. Surely that's the place you start from and then build additional skills on top of it, especially if you've just finished the game with all of those skills.
There are also instances where you play as Jack, but they felt compelled to add a visual demonstration of his insanity by shaking the screen and making the controller buzz, which was a little irritating. I know it's supposed to unsettle the player and make his view disturbing, but it was mostly annoying the way it was done especially when you're trying to line up a headshot on someone from a rooftop. It was also really jarring being thrown into Jack the first time, suddenly being given a whole new set of skills you have no idea how to control. But by the end of the game I did kind of enjoy it, especially his fear based ability to shout and scare people away.
Playing him also feels very heavy and solid. I think it's the sound effects they put in around him, the swish of his leather coat and the thump of his boots, but it makes the character feel quite heavy to control. Again, I think that's just the audio clues and he's not different from the others, but it's interesting that they can make me feel that with a very small change.
He also doesn't play in a significantly different way from either Evie or Jacob... yes, you can charge in, screaming fear into the hearts of those around you (which is possibly the way the game thinks you'll play him), or you can go the stealth route, or something in between, which is usually what I ended up doing.
Evie has some new non-lethal fear based skills as well, and new gear in the form of "fear spikes" and "fear bombs", but I don't think I ever bothered using the spikes other than just testing them out. And her fear skill-tree didn't feel like it really added that much to the game beyond amplifying the ability of the gear.
The story missions are focussed on Evie tracking down Jack, and make heavy use of the clue detection mechanic from the Dreadful Crimes missions.
There are also additional activities centred around killing off Jack's lieutenants, driving carriages as slowly as possible to save people suspected of being the Ripper (a great alternative to the usual time limit racing), as well as helping prostitutes either by rescuing a brothel from being held hostage, or finding a guy who is beating up a working girl and dragging him through groups of people to "shame" him (much in the style of the kidnap missions from the base game). These feel very much like the borough unlocking missions from the main game, and are really just there to bulk out what is a fairly short main game.
And playing as the same character 20 years later is interesting, not least of all because the majority of the game you play as Evie. And what was the last AAA game where you play as a woman over 40? The older version did look a little odd though... and she doesn't move or sound any different (but really, do we actually sound that different between 21 and 41)... which is weird when she's flying up the sides of buildings with the same ease she did as a much younger woman.
The image of Evie in the menu seems to show her holding two chakram, but annoyingly they're not a playable weapon, they just seem to be the bracelets she wears. Or those bracelets turn into weapons when she's doing a the new brutal takedown (it's hard to tell exactly what she's doing during those moves), but in either case, a little disappointing.
The other thing that was slightly disappointing to me (and here we stray into some spoiler territory) was that the game didn't follow the specific facts of the case, instead transforming the women of the real case into assassins and Jack into an assassin gone both rogue and insane.
I completely understand why they went that way with the story... it gives Evie a reason to get involved beyond just helping out Abberline, but I feel like they would have accomplished that with the kidnapping of Jacob, and that each of the Ripper's victims could have been a much more important plot point than they were.
I'm not completely sure it was worth $22.95 though... but it was an enjoyable end to the Syndicate experience.
Then we come to the visuals of the whole game.
I loved the way that Paris looked in Unity, but Syndicate's London just blows it out of the water. It's so incredibly beautiful, from the grubby slums of Whitechapel through to the opulent Buckingham Palace, everything looks so rich and detailed. And for the first time there's signage and advertising spread through the city that adds to the detail.
Locations like Big Ben, Picadilly Circus and (only sadly available in side missions) the Tower of London are all incredibly iconic and have clearly been created with a lot of love. And the fact that the whole of the River Thames is one long playable area which allows you to either run from one side of the river to the other using moving barges or (if you have enough patience) travel from one end of the river to the other using one of the boats is a definite achievement.
And getting up to the top of Big Ben and just looking out across the river and the city at the (admittedly smoggy) sunrise or sunset was just amazing.
Like with any game of this size, yes there are often repeated details, be it building interiors, rooftop details, layouts and the like... but like Unity, the range of different kinds of location throughout the city is fantastic.
There's also quite a bit of replication in the NPC characters... I think there's a mix of about a dozen body shapes, voices, faces and walk cycles which are mixed and matched in numerous combinations. However I did notice in more than one instance that often the character's location and outfit didn't always match up with their walk cycle or voice.
One notable instance of that was stopping in Hyde Park and hearing a very well dressed couple have a conversation in voices and content that would have been much more suited for Whitechapel. Or watching the heavy washerwoman character model walk like a duchess. And I think there were at least a couple of instances of misgendered voices and bodies (not that there's anything wrong with that).
But those are really very minor quibbles in an otherwise amazing game.
As for the next one, I'm hoping for one of three things... 1920's New York, 1800's Japan (Meiji Restoration period... think The Last Samurai) or Ancient Egypt... but we'll have to wait until 2017 to find out.