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Assassin's Creed: Syndicate review: London calling

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate is a captivating adventure game that rebounds happily from the disappointment that was last year's Unity, even if its core is slowly growing tired.

Jeff Bakalar Editor at Large
Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.
Jeff Bakalar
6 min read

Another year, another Assassin's Creed game. If you've been counting this whole time, Assassin's Creed Syndicate is the ninth game in eight years, not considering the various spinoffs and iterations that have come and gone.

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate

The Good

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate is a much more focused and cohesive adventure than recent entries in the series. Its Victorian London setting is beautifully realized and its story weaves in notable historical figures. Twin heroes Evie and Jacob make a compelling duo and welcome additions such as the zip line help improve the flow of the game.

The Bad

Syndicate suffers from animation oddities, frustrating stops in free-flowing movement and occasionally dumbstruck AI. Significant dips in frame rate and graphical pop-ins were common, not to mention a fair amount of glitchy behavior. Microtransactions occupy a good chunk of menu space, which can be off-putting.

The Bottom Line

Assassin's Creed: Syndicate is a captivating adventure game that rebounds happily from the disappointment that was last year's Unity. Syndicate makes great use of its setting, doesn't overwhelm the player with mindlessness and stands on its own as a great open world game, even if its core is slowly growing tired.

I've struggled with the series over the years. I've never been accused of being someone who overly enjoys Assassin's Creed games, save for Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag -- I really liked that one.

When I think of a typical Assassin's Creed game I tend to think of repetition and grinding through missions I don't want to play. I also have a big issue with the core of the game's narrative -- the idea that you're essentially Matrixing into the past and assuming the role of a historical assassin -- but that's my problem.

Ubisoft Quebec

I've always felt that when a new Assassin's Creed game would come along my interest would be piqued, but the product would never able to deliver on that initial hype. I'd either burn out on the game too quickly or never gather enough momentum to find a steady groove.

Sure, I'm not what you'd call a fan, but I'm in the minority compared to the gaming public. People really love Assassin's Creed games and it's a staple Ubisoft franchise, even if efforts like last year's Assassin's Creed Unity nearly dragged the series to irreparable depths.

So you could imagine how surprised I was to discover how much I really liked Assassin's Creed Syndicate.

Ubisoft Quebec

It's certainly not perfect and there's a handful of hiccups that had me shaking my head, but I found Syndicate to be a game I genuinely wanted to finish, thanks to its solid pacing, engaging characters, beautifully realized setting and new travel mechanics.

For me, Syndicate was able to rise above some of the stigmas I have about the franchise and instead appeal to me on its own. Once I made it passed a mostly rotten tutorial, I was hooked.

First off, the game captures the city and boroughs surrounding London in breathtaking fashion. The Victorian England presented in Syndicate is nothing short of exquisite. First thing I did the second the map opened up was climb Big Ben. I just had to. And it delivered. I love how the game is able to take advantage of the time it takes place in. You're essentially on the cusp of a technological revolution and it's exciting to have that storyline spliced into the game's narrative.

Ubisoft Quebec

In Syndicate you'll play as a set of twins, the brother and sister tandem of Jacob and Evie Frye. Jacob is the more aggressive of the pair, while Evie excels in stealth situations. Even though they kill a lot of people (I'm talking hundreds), they're likeable enough. You can swap back and forth between them while not in a mission as they aim to take down British Templar bad guy Crawford Starrick and unhinge the slimy grip he has on London.

Switching characters sounds like fun on paper and it was great in games like Grand Theft Auto V. But in Syndicate you need to manage each of their skill trees independently, which starts to feel like busy work by level 4 or so. It's not a game breaker, but I constantly found myself checking to make sure they were near each other or equal in abilities. I didn't want them to feel uneven when switching between them. Jacob and Evie also get auto-selected for specific missions, and after a while I just wished the game decided the player throughout.

Leveling up in Syndicate plays a major logistical role in the game if you're going to try and play it the way it seems it was designed to be traversed. Each section of London is identified by a level number that details how difficult its objectives are.

Ubisoft Quebec

Of course, all of these level-based components can be thwarted if you're willing to pay. Say what you will about microtransactions, but they are presented to the player as an option for advancing in nearly every conceivable category. XP, crafting resources, game currency, and more can all be purchased for real life dollars. You're not never forced to pay for something -- we're not there yet -- but just their presence alone will surely rub some the wrong way.

On your quest to conquer each borough and eliminate your many targets, new travel elements will appear in the game, thankfully early on. Most notable is the rope launcher that gives Jacob and Evie the ability to zip themselves up the side of a building, or in even more of a Batman fashion, set up a tightrope or zipline between two points. It speeds things up along very nicely, although it's not always abundantly clear where your rope launcher is going to latch. A number of times I assumed it was going to launch at the building ahead of me but instead was shot back behind me.

You can also move around London by driving horse carriages which make for plenty of unintentionally hilarious situations, mostly when you're caught in a traffic jam and the only way around is the sidewalk. They're easy to control, fun to drive and you're likely to have some thrilling fights on the roof of a moving one.

Ubisoft Quebec

Speaking of combat, the melee system in Syndicate is definitely starting to feel stale. It's just too easy. If I'm at the same level of a group of foes, I'm likely going to take them down. Facing off against a group of enemies with a higher level is a different story.

The AI in Syndicate has its forehead-slapping moments. A handful of times I was able to sneak up right in front of a foe that just didn't see me. Other times, he or she would be stuck running in place having been caught on an object in the world. Unfortunately, things like this are common. Also, I'll never understand how everyone in town knows who my two characters are. It's the 1880s, there's no APB, no fax machines -- there's barely the invention of the telephone. So why is anyone able to sniff me out?

Syndicate is also not without its share of graphical shortcomings. Framerates tend to drop well below 30 when there's heavy action on screen and there's a significant chunk of pop-in when riding in a carriage. The free-flowing parkour that the franchise is built on isn't flawless either. You'll often get stopped midway by a strange animation which is super frustrating. I like the idea of free flowing descending and ascending, but it's not always as fluid as you might hope.

Ubisoft Quebec

I really like how focused and to the point Assassin's Creed Syndicate is. The map isn't overloaded with endless icons that are just there to create the illusion of depth. The game's leveling up system is a useful guide that really helps your progression through the game. There's plenty to explore and collect, but also absent is the feeling of monotony. By the way, the map is awesome. It's a mini 3D model that shows each building rendered with a surprising amount of detail. It feels a bit like the opening title sequence in "Game of Thrones."

Sure, in the end, Assassin's Creed staples are still abundant. You'll need to synchronize viewpoints to unlock activities and you can still inexplicably dive 40 stories into a pile of leaves. I guess an Assassin's Creed game needs these things.

But because it hits a number of sweet spots and concentrates on substance, Syndicate is able to separate itself a bit from the rest of the Creed pack. However, in an evolving landscape of open world games, Syndicate still feels like a safe bet, not interested in taking many chances. As a franchise, Assassin's Creed will eventually need to take risks if it's going to stay relevant. But with Syndicate, perhaps that's something to worry about for next year.

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Checkout GameSpot's coverage of Assassin's Creed Syndicate.