When it comes to the recent history of the Assassin's Creed series, do we really need to talk about the last version all that much? Surely, everybody knows that at launch – although post-launch patches alleviated some of the issues – Assassin's Creed: Unity was a buggy, broken affair that even Ubisoft acknowledged just wasn't good enough. They even offered up a free DLC for everybody who bought it and a free game to those who splashed out on the Season Pass, in order to apologise.
As it turns out, we do need to acknowledge Unity in this review of the latest entry in the series, Assassin's Creed: Syndicate. People's opinion of the franchise was so coloured by the shortcomings of the last game that even all the die-hard fans want to know is if this new version – set in Victorian London – is technically up to snuff. On that front, we have good news and bad news.
The good news is that Syndicate is nowhere near as buggy as Unity. Despite featuring a map that we're told is - and which feels - around 30% bigger (not to mention considerably more varied and detailed) than the one found in that last game, there are less framerate drops overall, less general graphical issues, and certainly less bugs in total. The bad news is that the word "less" doesn't mean the same thing as the word "none." Within four minutes of taking hold of the controller, we watched as one of the two new protagonists, Jacob, fell through the game world to his death. We braced for the worst as the game reloaded, but our fears were unfounded since after many hours of play and with a fair amount of free-roaming fun under our belts since then, we haven't spotted anything as catastrophic. There are relatively rare occasions when NPCs don't behave as they should and that can be a real pain in the backside if it occurs at a crucial mission point, but the checkpoint system is generous enough for it to not sting too badly. Visually, though the development team seem to have upped the ante yet again in terms of the sheer scope and variety of the product, the framerate does suffer at times. We'll reiterate that it isn't as bad as last time around, but there are definitely drops and some pop in (generally when running at ground level or when driving a carriage) that have to be mentioned.
However – and this is a big however – we found ourselves having so much fun playing Assassin's Creed: Syndicate that within a very short amount of time, we genuinely started to be able to entirely ignore the graphical issues, to the point that we were set to write about how smooth it all was. It took an extra check to see the problems, since Ubisoft's vision of Victorian London is outstanding, the characterization stellar – Evie Frye is a bona fide badass and superb fun to play as - and the sheer amount and variety of things to do means that there's never a dull moment. Some of the franchise's traversal issues have been dealt with – at long last – by the inclusion of a rope dart. Embedded into your character's gauntlets, this new device allows you to reach far away or high places with a single press of a button. In practice, it all feels a bit Spiderman-like but that's no bad thing and it's surprising as to how many of the issues it takes away. In the past, if you wanted to quickly hit an air assassination and scramble back to the rooftops to search for your next target, it would be next to impossible to ensure that you'd be able to do it without being spotted. Now, you hit that air assassination, aim up, press LB, and whichever one of the characters you're controlling will be whisked back up to the rooftops in style. Of course, it also means that when you're running along those rooftops to get from one side of the map to the other, you don't need to keep going back to ground level in order to get across wider areas where free running won't work. You can just fire a rope dart and zipline your way across without losing too much momentum. That isn't to say that the Frye twins' toy always works. There are frustrating times when you'll aim at a perfectly good ledge and the option to shoot a rope dart doesn't appear. Generally though, a slight adjustment to your aim will find that something else relatively nearby is targetable.
In terms of other new additions, the whole concept of gangs and territories works well. Evie and Jacob lead a new gang - the Rooks - and roll into a London landscape that is entirely dominated by the Blighters. Each major borough is controlled by a gang leader and the pair have to assert their dominance in a series of varied side missions, gradually freeing each area from the Blighters' clutches. Whilst roaming about, if you stumble across a few other Rooks, you can "recruit" them to help you out in a mission or with a task, with up to five of them following you until you give them an order to attack, or tell them to hold back. The fact that you can use this new feature in actual story missions means that there's a whole new set of tactical approaches that you can choose to take in order to complete a given task. Being able to send in a couple of your Rooks to start a large-scale fight with a set of henchmen as you creep around the fracas to get to the main target is a refreshing option to have and works well.
You'll need to use your full arsenal of tactics as well since, as we've briefly touched upon so far, there's so much to do here. Sure, Ubisoft has done what they usually do and has filled Assassin's Creed: Syndicate with a million and one pickups and collection lists - though the horrendous "companion app" chests are gone - in an attempt to provide more playing time. But this time around, it doesn't feel as if that's the only thing that's left once you've played through the lengthy story. There are side missions to take on for some of London's more famous faces, for example, as well as minor diversions such as carriage racing events – some involving challenges such as racing against a train - and fight clubs. Your new hideout – a train that constantly rolls around London's permanent way – also contains extra missions that aren't shown on the map, generally involving the staff that keep the train rolling. There's a fair amount of Templar hunting to take on, a whole host of police bounties to collect, not to mention a veritable stack of little scamps to free from the clutches of tyrannical workhouse foremen. Once you've beaten the story, you likely won't have full control over London just yet, so there will be gang strongholds to take down and gang leaders remaining that you need to beat. We don't want to spoil the surprise of one the game's major additions – which is just dropped onto the map at some point without any fanfare whatsoever as if it's just another chest to unlock – but it involves a whole new location that you can only reach via a portal, along with a bunch of new missions to take on when you get there. That's before taking into account the spot missions that appear as you're running through the cobbled streets – fight off the criminals, scare the bullies, chase the thief and all that malarkey – and the amount of assassinations that you'll carry out as the result of the Blighter NPCs giving you a bit too much lip as you run past. They're all asking for a bunch of fives (with a hidden blade.)
There's also customisation to get involved with. As you play through, you earn cash, skill points, and dig up materials that can be used for crafting. Skill points grant you new skills and abilities of course, but the cash and materials can be used to craft new outfits, belts, capes, guns, knives, gauntlets and all manner of other death-dealing weaponry. Not only that, but you can choose to allocate your resources elsewhere, upgrading the abilities of your gang. This means that you can choose to train the Rooks so that groups that you come across on the street will contain better, stronger fighters who are more capable of helping you out on more complex missions. Maybe you'll come across all Fagin and hire a bunch of urchins to run about and pick a pocket or two? Maybe your resources are better spent upgrading your sidearm? The choice is yours.
Sometimes, the sheer amount of things that you can do in-game is overwhelming. That's not necessarily something to complain about, but there are times when even the game itself loses track and forgets to tell you where the next story mission is. Rest assured, if there's no indicator on the map that tells you what's next for Jacob and Evie, you should head back to the train hideout, as the mission will undoubtedly be waiting for you there. Unless you use the fast travel option though, it probably won't be a quick trip as you'll likely find a whole bunch of enjoyable things to do as you travel to meet it.
That's very much the feeling that we've taken from our time with Assassin's Creed: Syndicate – enjoyment. Missions featuring famous faces such as Florence Nightingale, Karl Marx, Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin (and a whole host of others) won't soon be forgotten and there's even a nice degree of freedom about most missions. You'll remember that time that you had to hijack a carriage and did so by leaping from the roof of your own to the roof of the target, strangling the driver and taking the reins of your new ride effortlessly. You'll remember that time that you decided to liberate a factory in reverse, silently creeping around roof beams to take out the foreman first, then working your way – undetected – back through the factory, freeing the children from right under the noses of the gang that are there to stop you from doing so. More than anything though, you'll remember the wonderfully detailed location and the story that takes place within it. We don't want to give too much away about it, but it's no longer a case of just taking on the one available mission, then the next, then the next. With the two characters being in play, you can take on a couple of levels from Evie's story, then come back to Jacob to progress his side of things a little, before taking on the mission that completes the sequence. It isn't that you can play through the entire game as one character or the other – Syndicate will switch characters automatically for you if you try to start a mission that requires the other Frye – but once again, there's a degree of freedom here that's more than welcome.
It's as if the developers have listened to many of the complaints that were levied at previous titles in the franchise and decided to finally do something about it with Assassin's Creed: Syndicate. Framerate problems persist – not nearly as much as in the last game – but they've stripped out the things that diluted the fun of the earlier titles and focused on giving the player the ability to do what they want, when they want and not only that, but to go about it however they want. There's no broken co-op or botched multiplayer here and as we've said, there's no need for a companion app. The focus is back on single player stealth and freedom, with the final game giving us the feeling that the franchise is absolutely back on track. Excellent fun.