Assassin’s Creed is one of the most disappointing contemporary series of videogames; Assassin’s Creed is also great entertainment.
I’ve been turning that paradox over in my mind for the last few days as I’ve leapt from chimney to chimney and thrown knives into the spines of my foes. To say it plainly: I have devoured Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, playing through the entire game and doing nearly every available activity in three sittings. I have had a ridiculous amount of fun ziplining across the cityscape and making fun of my protagonist’s stupid top hat as he kicks a dude in front of an oncoming carriage. I am also disappointed. And not in the way I get disappointed with most games that are broken or bad. I am disappointed to the point that it actually smarts a little bit, like when a talented buddy isn’t anywhere near reaching their potential because they’ve just stopped giving a damn.
During my freshman year of college, a time in which I had sworn off most games until I finished my degree, the first Assassin’s Creed was the only game I’d bother my neighbors with the Xbox 360 to play. The concept of playing out periods of history as individuals living in those times was incredibly appealing to me, and Altair’s weighty movements and his physical relationship to the environment felt innovative and exciting. It was a rough game, but I was sure within in a few years they’d patch out the kinks and maybe do something truly special with it. It’d be a nuanced look at history, into the lives of others, bringing untold and compelling stories to a huge audience. I had faith in progress.
Look. I was 18 years old. I was young and dumb(er) and optimistic about nearly everything under the sun and didn’t have a great gauge of the realities of videogame development. The real Assassin’s Creed that exists as a tangible thing we can play is a blockbuster action series with a convoluted story about two factions of killers vying for power over the centuries, with the player filling the role of several characters from both factions during different time periods. It started off loud and mostly dumb with moral shades of grey thrown in for good measure. And since its inception, it’s only gotten gleefully dumber and has forsaken any claim to moral complexity in favor of cartoonish absolutes. The Templars, though they’ve almost always been positioned as the antagonists in the story, are just goofy evil in Syndicate, real mustache-twirling dastards who want power no matter the cost. Case in point: one of the first assassination targets is a factory owner who not only employs children as workers but abuses them and docks from their wages when they’re injured. There’s no backstory there that tries to humanize him like The Witcher 3 does with The Bloody Baron or even Assassin’s Creed 3’s Haytham Kenway. This guy is just an evil bastard who needs to be put down, and the majority of the antagonists, even the more interesting ones, are more or less the same.
In a way it’s relieving as well as crushing that Assassin’s Creed has finally plunged into the absurd, giving players zipline launchers to zoom up the sides of buildings and lightning grenades to stun foes so it’s easier to beat on them with brass knuckles and canes. This makes both traversal and combat more enjoyable in comparison to earlier games. However, this commitment to the zany feels like a watershed moment for the series, but not in the same way that Black Flag was with its promising demonstration that there was still some creative wiggle room in a franchise that had already seen a ridiculous number of games within the few years of its existence.
Assassin’s Creed is a series that has always been on the verge of collapsing thanks to its exhausting (and impressive!) juggling act: it wants to give players historical accuracy and fantasy, it wants to give them agency, it wants them to be tourists, it wants them to be badass assassins, it wants to be funny, it wants to be tragic, it wants it wants it wants it wants everything. With Syndicate, it feels like a necessary choice was made, or more likely the choice had been made long ago and the developers were finally owning up to it, and that Assassin’s Creed could finally barrel on toward what it was always going to be and could stop pretending otherwise: a weird-ass combination of Forest Gump and The Bourne Identity. This game is as close to a unified, cohesive vision as the series has ever been, but that vision is going to be a bit of a bummer for those (like me) who dreamed, perhaps foolishly, of a more thoughtful Assassin’s Creed dedicated to exploring the anxieties and tragedies of history in a compelling way. Syndicate, like all of the Creed games (except maybe the first) beforehand, firmly refuses to grapple with the complexity of history and instead makes it an entertaining and beautiful, but ultimately toothless, tourism experience. Syndicate’s madcap hijinks in particular feel like a door is shutting on the possibility of such a daring Assassin’s Creed game ever existing, one that could take the woes of industrialization or imperialism to task instead of having characters make wry throwaway lines about such subjects. This game doesn’t want you mulling over the cruelties of the Victorian era. It wants you to feel powerful, to be constantly moving and tearing enemies to shreds and gaining territory. It is so clearly designed to make you feel like London’s unstoppable savior, or, saviors, I should say.
The Frye twins, who you switch between during the course of the game, are as close to sitcom-level protagonists as Assassin’s Creed has had yet, with the two exchanging barbs constantly and almost always following up a serious, dramatic moment with a joke. Evie’s the better of the two, level-headed and discreetly deadly, while Jacob’s got the Nathan Drake problem of being a mass-murdering, wise-cracking psychopath that the game wants us to be charmed by. But he’s not a lovable rogue; he’s just a creep with a dumb hat and it’s unfortunate the game makes you play most of the main story missions as him. When you do actually get to play as Evie during the campaign most of the time you’re cleaning up Jacob’s messes, like fetching some money plates that have gone missing after he causes some havoc at a bank, and those missions are the absolute worst. It’s a good thing that storyline isn’t the meat of the game. A lot of time is spent taking over Templar sections of London for the Assassins. This means doing a plethora of side missions, like assassinating a well-guarded Templar leader, killing a bunch of them in one area, or, as everybody knows to dread when it comes to these games, Bounty Hunts.
Bounty Hunting requires you to sneak into a Templar fortress and kidnap the leader of that group. No big deal, right? Okay, so then you have to forcibly escort this person back to a carriage and transport them to the police station while avoiding detection from enemies. You can also kill them to make things easier but doing so robs you of a money and experience bonus, and you still have to drag their body to the station anyway. This mode is the only point in the game where I encountered bugs in Syndicate, but they were mission-breaking issues. My bounty targets would occasionally fall through the floor. Sometimes I’d load their very dead carcasses into a carriage and then they’d get out and walk away without giving me any option to fetch them again until I restarted the mission. The game is just so broken in that one area, and you have to do it over and over again to unlock items. The rest of these side activities work because even though they’re all slaughter type missions the layout of each area is different enough from every other one that you’re encouraged to use a variety of tactics. During the course of the game, you infiltrate cathedrals, alleyways, factories, houses—lots of environments filled with devices and vantage points for you to use to your advantage. You can brute force your way through these missions if you want but you’ll eat through your expensive supplies pretty quickly and have to pay a pretty penny to refill them. If fighting’s not your style, you can bypass a good portion of it with stealth, which might be the first time in Assassin’s Creed where that’s a viable option for a large part of the game. It’s by no means perfect, or even half as sophisticated as Metal Gear Solid V’s stealth systems, but it works well enough as long as you’re careful and take your time moving. You can also call a few gang members in to distract enemies or straight up attack them; I didn’t use my chums much after the first couple of hours because even leveled-up they die pretty quickly.
On the whole Syndicate is entertaining and good at providing an enjoyable time while you thoughtlessly grind away at the completion meter, checking off lists of items and missions as you go along. It’s as goofy and ludicrous as the series has dared go so far, and why wouldn’t it go to these lengths? Keeping in mind fans’ expectations, where else is there left for Ubisoft to haul this monstrosity they’ve created except into the world of the preposterous, where your character makes dick jokes with Charles Darwin and where you can punt people off moving trains. It’s all pretty fun but my pangs of yearning for a game that treats its subject matter as anything other than window dressing remains nonetheless. Assassin’s Creed has long forgone aspirations for fulfilling the potential for poignancy or narrative beauty buried deep in its concept and has settled for being an extravagant and entertaining blood-soaked Saturday morning cartoon. It doesn’t ask you to think about child labor or the root cause of such an societal epidemic; it tells you to rescue them and be the hero of the industrial era, righting wrongs and feeling like a badass all while refusing to make you examine the realities of child labor in the industrial age beyond the context of your heroism. To come face to face with the anxieties or banalities of history is hardly the traditional definition of entertainment, and it’s probably to the series’ financial benefit that it keeps things light by letting you bump shoulders with Darwin and Dickens and save the day. It’s a game that demands your constant movement and violence to the point that even experiencing this beautiful recreation of London without shedding blood becomes something of an impossibility
I remember one bit early on. I was walking around the streets of London, taking in the sights and sounds when I came across a man deftly playing a violin in a park, an enraptured audience sitting in front of him. I joined them, standing behind the fleet of chairs. It was nice. There was sunlight peeking through the smoke rising up through the chimney tops, and children were shouting about something across the street.
And that’s when the Templar’s knife sank into my back. A ruthless ambush. I turned, pulled out my revolver, and shot her directly in the face. She fell back like that soldier on the staircase in Gone With The Wind, violently transfigured into a cadaver before hitting the ground. I turned back to find the music had stopped, the violinist and his audience scattering in flight, and there was just me standing alone over a corpse in broad daylight, my brief peace shattered.
The game wouldn’t let me have it. There had to be chaos. By the game’s rules, I had to be an action star every second, progressing along a mostly predetermined path, leaving bodies in my wake as I went.
It just couldn’t let that beautiful moment stand.
What a shame.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.