Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is in contention for the second best Assassin’s Creed game ever. Black Flag is the first best and isn’t going to have its throne toppled by the minor improvements Syndicate made to the usual formula, but those minor improvements make Syndicate stand out compared to other games like the Ezio trilogy, III, and especially Unity.
Syndicate’s story is still more gonzo yet less character-driven than the original Assassin’s Creed, and the more gonzo you go, the more you want to rely on characters to keep the story grounded (alternatively, go full gonzo and make Kung Fury). Still, Syndicate is coming out ahead of most Assassin’s Creed games for its story. The tale of two siblings who become estranged from one another but then reconcile is delivered poorly, but most Assassin’s Creed stories are delivered poorly and this one is at least an interesting concept. Anyway, the first Assassin’s Creed game was the only one with an even passable story, the rest are divided between bland filler (the Ezio trilogy, Black Flag) and a cavalcade of opportunities missed out of corporate terror at the idea of having something to say (III, Unity).
Syndicate touches up the mechanics in a couple of important areas. The parkour is still not as good as it was in the Ezio trilogy (I’m still baffled as to why they didn’t just keep that parkour engine), but it’s a much more functional version of what they used in Unity. The left shoulder button will actually pull you into a window, as opposed to Unity, which promised that pressing left trigger would pull you in a window, but was lying. For the first time ever the combat system has been noticeably improved with the addition of a guard-break, so now you don’t just attack and counter but also break. One additional button to press does not drastically deepen the game’s combat, but it’s something. I talked about the Dreadful Crimes DLC in another post, which takes the mysteries from Unity (already a good idea) and gives them some quality of life improvements that remove a lot of minor annoyances from the experience.
New gameplay mechanics are minor, but mostly fun and easy to ignore when they’re not. The grapple hook is mostly a gimmick. Zipline assassinations are fun, but other than that it just lets you skip a bit of parkour, but, like, parkour is the gameplay. That’s part of what makes Assassin’s Creed fun. I don’t want to skip it. The new carriage riding mechanics are pretty fun. You can ram Templar carriages off the road, or climb on top to jump to an adjacent carriage and kill the guy driving it to steal his carriage if you like it better. The trains circling about London are put to good use, with open world activities to rob them, thus giving you an excuse to climb all over them while having a shootout/brawl with bad guys.
Speaking of shooting, the existence of revolvers brings a welcome expansion to the game’s ranged combat. Now that you can go as many as eight shots before reloading (assuming you’re using the best pistol in the game), ranged combat can be used not just to take out one guy before a melee, but to actually win an entire fight. Syndicate is heavy on melee, but having six cylinders to chew through means ranged combat is a real option unto itself in a way it never really was in earlier games.
I’m a little bit sad they stopped advancing towards present day with Assassin’s Creed games, because I think they had all the elements they needed to make that work in Syndicate. The carriage mechanics are close enough to car mechanics, and the revolver provides a foundation for effective ranged weapons despite the melee-focused mechanics of the series, which could’ve been expanded to cover modern automatic weapons. I think WW2 is the most overdone historical period in all of video games and while you could say some very interesting things about how the Assassins and Templars supported or opposed fascism, communism, and liberalism in the 20th century, Ubisoft would never actually say those things, so better to just leave that whole time period alone. WW1 has also gotten kinda played out lately, but there’s theaters of that conflict that could make for a great Assassin’s Creed game, like the Middle-East. You can have your trench warfare in Gallipolli while getting up to classic Assassin shenanigans in the Great Arab Revolt, meeting with historical figures like Lawrence of Arabia and stabbing Templars.
There’s no headline feature like the ship combat in Black Flag, but Syndicate has a lot of minor improvements on the Assassin’s Creed formula that makes it one of the best of the series, and it makes me sad that it got overlooked because it came out in the aftermath of Unity, which had such an infamously terrible release that everyone wrote off Assassin’s Creed until Ubisoft promised to spend a year in timeout thinking about what they’d done.