I thought I was done with Assassin’s Creed. Having played every mainline game in the series, I’d like to say I’m well versed in its many highs and lows; witnessing first-hand how the mediocre games have gradually begun to outnumber the good ones, with last year’s bug-riddled Unity still fresh in the memory as an obliterator of any enthusiasm I once had for this historical, neck-stabbing franchise. After that debacle of technical ineptitude, tired ideas and rapidly aging mechanics, there should have been no going back to Ubisoft’s flagship franchise. And yet here we are, just one year removed, and despite the series’ many missteps and current downward trend, Syndicate has managed to keep gnawing at my attention.
Assassin’s Creed has always had beautifully realized cities, from its humble beginnings in the likes of Jerusalem, Florence and Rome, right up to Unity’s phenomenal recreation of Revolutionary Paris. Just walking the cobblestone streets of the French capital was a joy to behold: taking in the sights and sounds, sampling the architecture and the contrast between the rich and poor, from the grandiose golden interiors of La Marais, to a raucous pub of singing Parisians in Ventre de Paris.
And so we come to London, 1868—the bait Syndicate has used to reel me back in. I mean, how could I resist? My immediate family hails from North London, and while my parents were smart enough to move to the outskirts just before I was born, I’m very well acquainted with my nation’s capital. Family outings and school trips made sure the gamut of tourist hotspots was ticked off the checklist of Things to Do in London, while more low-key outings have accrued over the years with venture’s to music gigs and sporting events in Brixton, Finsbury Park and the like. I’ve never been to Italy or the United States (woe is me, right?), and have only ever driven through Paris on a trip to Disneyland, so the lure of an Assassin’s Creed game actually set somewhere I’m intimately familiar with was far too tempting to pass up.
I’m glad I took the plunge.
Syndicate’s London is the visual marvel I had hoped it would be. As intricately detailed as Paris before it, this rendition of a coal-covered London is immediately familiar yet foreign at the same time—a city inching ever closer to modernity, while still seeped in remnants of the medieval era. The landmarks are as you would expect: wonderfully realized in all their vast splendor, from St. Paul’s Cathedral to Big Ben, and beyond. The Tower of London is just as I remember it from a fairly recent visit—the patrolling Royal Guards replacing tourists snapping pictures—while Trafalgar Square is as busy as ever, with its healthy pigeon population offering no better sign of authenticity.
Yes, it may be over a century ago, but familiarity permeates almost every nook and cranny of this London town, particularly when it comes to that distinct London feel. If you’ve ever visited the city then you know the one: a unique sense of place that transcends famous landmarks and recognizable sights. It manifests in the dreary grey skies that blanket the city in gloom. In the clouds that unleash a torrent of rainfall that lines the streets with puddles, reflecting the chaos of its bustling crowds back onto the populace. And in the trains that bellow out of King’s Cross filled with weary passengers, as merchants with sore backs try their best to sell their wares by shouting at the top of haggard lungs. This is certainly London.
It enticed me back to a series I had fallen out of love with, yet it’s not what made me fall for Assassin’s Creed all over again. That was Evie Frye.
Though the marketing may not have always made it apparent (nor the box art), Evie Frye is one of Syndicate’s two playable protagonists, sharing the spotlight with twin brother (and top hat lover) Jacob. He’s the archetypal Assassin’s Creed protagonist—you know, the one that this series has clung to ever since Ezio Auditore lovingly graced our screens—and Evie is his perfect foil. Intelligent, witty and caring, but relentless when she needs to be, Evie is an astute counterpoint to Jacob’s rogue cockiness and cavalier approach to all things assassin. They’re the consummate double-act and a believable team—one’s strengths making up for the other’s weaknesses—and the writing does an excellent job of bouncing the two of them off each other in the sort of playful way you’d expect of twins who bicker and argue, but still clearly love one another.
Jacob subverts early impressions that he’s just another gruff meathead by slotting comfortably into his role as an act-first-think-later assassin, gladly letting Evie flourish as the brains of the operation, and often following her lead. Jacob’s a loveable brawler—respectful, funny and never the dumb oaf I dreaded he would be—but Evie is easily the more compelling of the two. Whether she’s showing compassion for people in need, exerting a ruthless streak or excitedly planning her next move, Evie’s never not engaging, amusing or just generally entertaining, and that feels significant because of how she’s represented. That Evie’s a wonderfully well-written character may be subjective and rife for debate, but it’s also important that Syndicate nurtures an environment where she can only be elevated by her surroundings, rather than negatively impacted by gratuitous oversexualization or objectification.
Female protagonists in triple-A games are a rarity as it is, so it’s incredibly pleasing to see a game that not only has one, but gets her so, so right. It’s the simple things, too, like her practical attire (perfectly appropriate for a Victorian assassin, not to mention absolutely splendid), and her lethal, non-sexualized combat style. Or the fact that enemies will hurl insults at her that have nothing to do with her gender and everything to do with her status as an assassin and rival gang leader.
And while Jacob and Evie both have their own specific story missions, the rest of the time (a.k.a. the majority of the game) you’re free to choose between either of them, with Evie being able to do anything Jacob can. Stepping into one of the many fight clubs with Evie, I really wasn’t expecting this and was just waiting for it to switch to the muscle-bound Jacob, only to be pleasantly surprised to find Evie standing in the middle of the fighting pit, all decked out in her fighter garb and ready to smash some burly men’s faces in. She never once feels like a secondary protagonist—like a sidekick to Jacob’s hero—and it’s clear she was written and designed as a strong, capable woman from the word “go”, rather than a late gender-swap in the face of controversy surrounding Unity’s lack of playable female characters (and Ubisoft’s hilarious-if-it-wasn’t-so-sad excuse for their absence).
The recently released Jack the Ripper DLC maintains form, too. Evie is once again front and center, hunting down the illusive serial killer who stalked the borough of Whitechapel back in the late 1880s. She’s older as well—in her forties, in fact; battle-hardened, experienced and with more than a few wrinkles layered upon her steely gaze. If Evie is a relative rarity as a female protagonist, then her reappearance as an older women is akin to Halley’s Comet: a rare and notable sight.
And this inclusiveness extends onto the London streets, and into Syndicate’s amusing cast of characters. Take a few steps down any road and you’ll no doubt stumble across one of many female enemy combatants, who are just as rambunctious, aggressive and capable as their male counterparts. Or maybe you’ll hop into a story mission and chitchat with a key character like Henry Green, a British Indian assassin and one of the more unique assassins in the series—keen to stick back and gather crucial intelligence, rather than wading out into the field to stab necks with the rest of them. You might even converse with Ned Wynert, a successful thief who’s also a trans man, a fact no one bats an eyelid at. He’s just treated as he should be: like a human being. At a time when we’ve got someone like Germaine Greer making headlines for saying that transgender women are “not women,” or countless would-be comedians belittling Caitlyn Jenner, it’s refreshing that we can look to videogames and find a prime example of how trans people should be treated.
It feels significant. And while not always perfect—people of color are conspicuously absent outside of the story—it’s certainly a welcome break from the tired and predictable status quo.
I know some will argue that it’s not historically accurate or realistic for everyone to be quite so inclusive in 1868 London. But this is a game about assassins in the near-future raging a centuries-old war against Templars by using a glorified videogame console to find the locations of magic artefacts. A game where you do missions for the likes of Karl Marx, Charles Dickens and Alexander Graham Bell; where you’re basically Victorian Batman, and can swim in the murky brown depths of the Thames without contracting some kind of horrific disease. I think historical accuracy went out the window like a would-be assassin.
As a straight white man, I’m not even going to pretend to know what women and marginalized people often go through on a daily basis. Hell, maybe I’m off base on a lot of this—I think the last few years have been a necessary learning process for everyone. But I do know that videogames can offer a form of escapism and a hopeful place of comfort away from whatever harshness exists elsewhere in people’s lives. They shouldn’t be restricted to representing just one kind of person, but everyone, with relatable characters no matter your gender, sexual preferences, age or skin color. Videogames are unique in that they let us embody anyone and anything, and I love that I can step into the shoes of an 18-year old girl in Arcadia Bay, a black man on the streets of Los Santos, and a strong, intelligent female assassin in Victorian London. But for millions of other people, this diversity and respectful representation can mean so much more than simply experiencing things from a different perspective. Hopefully Syndicate can be a positive beacon for even a few of these people. It should certainly be celebrated.
Richard Wakeling has been writing about videogames for a number of years now. His freelance work has appeared on the likes of Gamespot and Playboy, and you can find him on Twitter where he moans about things like videogames and wrestling, among other things.