This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Assassin's Creed Syndicate.
Well, here we are again. That might as well have been the subtitle, actually: Assassin's Creed: Well, Here We Are Again. I'm not sure I can pinpoint the moment that my feelings towards Assassin's Creed crossed over from cautious enthusiasm to a resigned sense of Monday-morning dread, 'cause if you told me before, say, Assassin's Creed 3 that they would do Victorian London, I'd have said, "All the fucks, yes! I'm gonna rub my face all over Queen Victoria's bustle! Nyam nyam nyam, gor bless ya, Ma'm."
Not that 3 was necessarily the shark upsurge moment, 'cause I think we're all in agreement that 4 was good, at least as long as I wave this broken bottle around, but then again, we only liked 4 when it was being Steady Eddy's pirate adventure fun times, and we didn't like it so much when it was being Assassin's Creed, and obviously Syndicate doesn't have room for a pirate ship, what with all the space taken up by the absurdly large sideburns.
I once described the Assassin's Creed series as a line graph and here's how it continues: from the point that Unity was at, draw a perfectly horizontal line. We've jumped 60 years and about 250 miles, but we haven't budged a fucking inch. I wouldn't say Syndicate is the worst Sassy Credo, but it might well be the laziest. Lazily written, certainly. We play as twins, Jacob and Evie Frye, one of them is brash and reckless and direct-combat-oriented; the other is smart and measured and more suited to stealth. I'll leave you to guess which one's the boy and which one's the girl, but here's a hint: try to think like the laziest writer in the fucking universe.
And the sideburns were taking up even more space than I first thought it seems, because there also wasn't room for much in the way of plot or motivation. The game literally starts with the protagonists going, "I'm bored, let's go to London and liberate it from the Templars." "Ooh yes, that sounds like a smashing time!" "And you know what? I've always wanted to start a street gang and call it 'The Rooks'". The way it's presented, it's like one of those terrible wink-to-audience moments from bad historical films. "What did he say his name was? Da Vinci? Well, he won't amount to anything, and may the atomic bomb fall on the Japanese if I'm wrong." Speaking of, remember how Leonardo was a major character in Screedo II and the friendship between him and Ezio was actually firmly established? Well, the sideburns muscled that out, too, 'cause every meeting with a historical figure in Syndicate plays like something from a fucking kids TV series:
"Hello, I'm the famous Charles Dickens."
"Hello the famous Charles Dickens, we're stand-ins for the audience."
"Hello stand-ins, I guess that means I can inexplicably enlist you to solve my problems."
"What problems, the famous Charles Dickens?"
"It's all these random thugs, stopping me from finishing the famous books I write. If only there was someone around here who could brutally stab them all to death for me."
The bridging future plot is the same as it always is as well: we're looking for a new Piece of Eden, an assassin in the past found it once, so you have to go into their memories and see how they did it because we can't be arsed to lift a finger and put the same effort in, like the entitled fucking Millennials we are.
Mind you, I said we haven't moved anywhere since Unity, but at least Unity tried to play a bit with the idea of Assassins and Templars not being a totally uncomplicated good-versus-evil situation, whereas in Syndicate the best and only argument for opposing the main villain is, "Fucking look at the guy! He's like someone drew a Snidely Whiplash moustache onto a picture of Joseph Goebbels."
So you know what the gameplay of Screedo is by now, it's like being a vigilante rent boy: you jump around the rooftops pacifying districts by strategically inserting things into people. Let's focus on the new mechanics or rather gimmicks: a gimmick is a new mechanic that lets us achieve something we could already do with the established mechanics, but easier, or harder. In the latter case, rendering itself as vestigial as an armless chimpanzee's bellend.
Syndicate has examples of both. The new hookshot merely replaces all the traditional climbing gameplay with one button press and when things go corset-up, you can instantly escape pursuers with a smoke bomb and hookshot out, a.k.a "the Batman Bye-Bye." And while it was occasionally annoying to watch Ezio or Altair bounce his little tushy up and down, internally debating whether a 2mm-crack constitutes a handhold, this is taking out gameplay and not replacing it with anything, unless you count trying to figure out which square foot of rooftop you need to stand in to make the game register the opposite building as hookshotable. Now there's an adjective that deserves to enter common parlance: "Hello Patricia, you're looking jolly hookshotable this evening."
Meanwhile there's the street gang stuff, whose main benefit seems to be that if you run into a hairy fight, you can lure your enemies down the stairs, out their stronghold and through the streets until you can find some friendly NPCs to tag in, or alternatively just stab them yourself, you big, wet nelly.
Also there's drivable carriages in the sandbox which are the centerpiece of the odd chase mission, in which you run enemies off the road with sideswipes, which would only be physically possible if your horse were capable of spontaneously teleporting six feet to the side. But it's slightly faster than parkour and slightly slower than hookshotting, making it a gimmick introduced and made obsolete within the same sodding game.
There are more fiddly little differences I could bring up, but my main point is that, broadly speaking, it's just Assassin's Creed: Another One. More by-the-numbers, find-and-replace shit. Same ending as usual, too: Fight over the Piece of Eden with the big villain in the Assassin vault, because despite thousands of years of practice, the Assassins have yet to develop a secret vault that their own people can't get into before the Templars do. Hey, ancient Assassins, you ever heard of safety deposit boxes?
You know that opening screen that used to say, "This game was developed by a multicultural team of various faiths etcetera"? Well, now it says "various beliefs, sexual preferences and gender identities". Now, in Screedo 1 I assumed this was about preemptively dodging racism accusations before they let you slit up all the Muslims. So I wasn't sure what this new one was about until I discovered that roughly half the standard enemies seem to be women now. Go equal rights, but I wonder if this was the equality they had in mind, as I headbutt them and stab them in the tits. Slightly historically iffy of course, but let's not talk about this like it's an artistic choice. This is because of that bullshit with Unity not having a female player character that the internet randomly drew as the thing that they were going to be arbitrarily cross about that week. And this is exactly the kind of bland corporate response one should expect from what Ubisoft is now. There's got to be some remnant of the human being who gave us Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and sought actual creative fulfillment in there somewhere. Is he not sick of his bullshit yet?
[Darth Vader voice] "I'm afraid it's too late for me," intones Ubisoft, as it solemnly begins to remove its helmet and horror grips my heart as the sideburns begin to emerge.
- Blimey bollocks give us a chip: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Looking forward to the World War 1 installment where the Templars explain why they senselessly murdered millions of young men as part of a scheme to make the beaches less crowded
- And remember, Big Ben is the bell, not the tower