A tale of two Victorian era assassins
Syndicate is also the first main AC title to feature a female player character. Evie Frye is not the sole protagonist, however, as her twin brother Jacob is playable as well. You can switch between the twins freely though story missions often give you no choice in which one you play as. (There is also a 3rd protagonist in the surprise World War 1 mission.)
Evie and Jacob are almost identical gameplay-wise. They gain skill points simultaneously and have the same skill trees with the exception of both having 3 exclusive skills. Jacob is able to equip belts while Evie gets cloaks. The few differences make Evie ever so slightly favored towards stealth and Jacob towards direct combat.
I have a feeling they included two characters to not scare away a big part of the target audience. Like with Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect trilogy, I reckon the majority of people chose to play mostly as the male character.
Dress to impress
Regardless, with a female character in Victorian London comes the possibility of all kinds of fancy attires. And the game indeed features plenty of outfits to pick from. They all follow the general design of the franchise's assassin clothing and are pretty enough. But none of the base game's outfits really struck as me as truly special.
I say base game because the Bloofer Lady outfit Evie gets from Victorian Legends pack is absolutely stunning. The DLC was the only one I bought as after some serious research I came to the conclusion the rest were not worth it. Even at 60% off, the game with its season pass still cost 30€, which in my opinion is too much for a two-year-old game. (Or any game . . .)
But the Victorian Legends pack is without a doubt worth it just for the outfit. I love its Dracula-inspired design. The colors, feathers, lace, boots -- everything about the outfit is perfect.
They should have made it possible to pull the hood up without sneak crouching, though. And when you get Evie's invisible-while-stationary Chameleon skill, you can no longer easily appreciate the hood at all. I should have skipped the skill as I had hard time to even find use for it as it does not kick in if you have already been spotted. And trying to get to a position it would be useful at usually just gets you seen in the process.
The outfit made me wish there was a vampire game in the same setting. Oh, man -- imagine stalking your prey atop rooftops in the nights of Victorian London. I guess that is what you partly do in Syndicate too. But imagine if it was more meaningful. If you had flashier, and more varying combat, and more linear story progression -- without all the open world crap this game is full of.
The city is filled with people but their purpose is merely to be in your way and make the game more taxing to run. You can walk up to and kill a hostile NPC in broad daylight without consequences (unless another enemy happens to witness it). The civilians may make sounds and gape at the body but it has no actual gameplay effect of any kind. It does not feel immersive.
Surprisingly sluggish parkour
I believe adding supernatural elements to Syndicate's gameplay -- or even making it a tiny bit less grounded in reality -- would improve it immensely. For instance, being able to simply jump off a roof and land on the streets (without a drop assassination) or just being able to freely jump would make traversing the game world so much smoother. For a franchise with this many titles (Syndicate is the 9th in the main series), one would think the free-running was better.
Whenever I was chasing a fleeing NPC, I felt like I was running underwater. And you are so glued to surfaces in this game. Trying to shortcut over a fence or a similar obstacle is not a thing as it slows you down so much that taking the long route is faster.
I did not like how you have to hold E to loot enemies while picking up the body is just pressing the key. Guess which action you do way more than the other? They should be reversed like they are in the new Deus Ex games. There is full WASD-hand menu navigation support, however, so they did get at least something right with the user interface.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was made after all the free-running and freeflow combat had been already invented in the Assassin's Creed and Batman Arkham games. But to me it felt like Ubisoft had tried to poorly copy that game's combat and movement. Syndicate is like a poor man's Shadow of Mordor in that regard.
Story-wise I found AC Syndicate to be entertaining enough. From what I gathered from this game (as I was not too familiar with the franchise beforehand), an organization called Templars has tried to control mankind since the dawn of time and another organization called Assassin Brotherhood fights to stop them.
In the game world's present day, there is technology to relive past people's genetic memories. In this case, the player's task as an "Assassin Initiate" is to find out the location of an artifact in London via the memories of the Frye twins as they take over the Templar-controlled City of Light. My interest in the present day plot grew considerably when I learned that in the AC universe Earth was inhabited by an advanced civilization before a solar flare wiped them out. Too bad the game ended before that story got to a climax. I guess it was saved for Assassin's Creed Origins which was released yesterday.
Collectathon with pay to skip options
AC Syndicate features a stupid amount of collectibles. There are resource chests, beer bottles, pressed flowers, illustrations, Helix glitches, letters, and secrets of London (some sort of music discs) scattered around the city. Some of them have purchasable maps to reveal their locations. Some do not. The glitches and secrets do have maps but instead of being available at vendors for in-game currency, you can buy them in the game's e-store with Helix credits. The maps cost 1000 credits each which in turn cost 10€. Paying 20€ instead of just looking up a collectibles map guide or watching a video sounds dumb.
You can also buy experience boosters, in-game currency, and crafting materials in the e-store. The idea of spending money on those is mind-boggling. You bought the game to play it and then would want to pay more to play less of it? If you are really in only for the story, you might as well just watch a let's play.
There is also the thing with how putting an extra price tag on the content sort of devalues it. As if Ubisoft was saying that doing the varying activities is not really worth your time and with just a bit more money you can skip them.
The people who actually purchase the microtransactions are in the minority but since there are always some mad lads that spend ludicrous amounts of cash on them, big publishers probably feel justified and satisfied at having implemented the feature.
I however do like that the hideout is an actual train that is constantly going around London. You can hop in without a loading screen as it is passing by and find everything aboard. Somewhat similarly it is neat that you can cross the Thames by traversing passing boats. I doubt the real river has ever been filled with that many vessels at once but as gameplay feature the boats and the train are novel.
Pretty but not impressively so
Anti-aliasing I could not set past FXAA without a huge performance hit. I do not get why FXAA is always in use in addition to MSAA or TXAA in this game. Does it make a difference to have two AA techniques on at once even if the hardware could handle it? I do give Syndicate points for having in-engine cutscenes, though, and thus making it possible for your characters to wear in them what you made them to.
Assassin's Creed Syndicate will probably remain as the only AC game I will ever play. Their settings are cool but if the content is so much recycled open world stuff, I see no point in playing them. But maybe Origins is better.