The Assassins of Assassin’s Creed are terrible at their jobs. For nearly a thousand years they’ve been waging a guerilla war against the tyrannical Templar Order, but no matter where you look in history the Templars are on top and the Assassins are sucking their thumbs in bales of hay. Perhaps they should consider updating their approach. They have, after all, been using essentially the same tactics since the 12th century. For more than a millennium, they’ve been clinging desperately not just to what works—stabbing somebody you want to kill will always be effective—but to what’s long since gotten stale and to what never made sense in the first place. They’re a bit like Assassin’s Creed itself that way.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the latest entry in Ubisoft’s series of murder-themed historical sightseeing tours, brings the hooded executioners to London at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Nineteenth century England was in many ways the furnace in which the modern world was forged, a time and place defined by incredibly tumultuous change. If Assassin’s Creed or its stars are ever going to break with the past, now would be the time to do it. Instead, the series has once again opted to refine its formula, to massage the bits that have never truly worked rather than doing anything as radical as actually fixing them. Syndicate is no revolution for the series, but it does at least attempt a few uncertain steps into the modern age.
The story of this latest Assassin’s Creed is one of its many elements to not be updated in the least. The Templars need to die, there’s a powerful artifact that everybody’s looking for, etc., etc. Fortunately, the series has at least retained its gift for characterization. The stealth-focused busybody Evie Frye and her laissez-faire bruiser brother Jacob Frye might be the most charismatic leads the series has ever produced. When they’re together they bicker and tease each other, and while each one laughs off these barbs publicly, privately they worry that their sibling’s criticisms might have some validity. They never make up or apologize; they’re just constant, affectionate annoyances in each other’s lives. In other words, they act exactly like real siblings. Their relationship shapes the mission structure in interesting ways, too—many of Evie’s missions find her revisiting the sites of Jacob’s rampages to fix what he’s broken.
While the broader story is more of the usual Assassin’s Creed nonsense, Syndicate’s setting imbues it with some interesting subtext. The increasingly mechanized London is presented as a huge machine itself, and while the Assassins view themselves as the spanner that’s been thrown into the works, they’re really more like cogs in that machine. They embody some of the worst vices of Victorian society: They assign no value to human life, they fetishize technology and advancement, and they exploit the impoverished for their own ends. The Frye twins’ takeover of London could even be read as English colonialism in miniature—they move in from out of town, take whatever they want, use violence to suppress resistance, and force their beliefs and uniform on anyone still alive when they’re done. Troublingly, Syndicate doesn’t really engage with or even recognize that its heroes behave exactly like its villains, just without the power.
Syndicate’s story might be stuck in the series’ comfort zone, but the game has received a couple of subtle renovations elsewhere. Two of the series’ better installments—Black Flag and Rogue—rose above the rest because traveling by ship was more fun than having to leg it everywhere. Syndicate doesn’t have anything nautical about it, but it does introduce three new methods of transportation. Hitching a ride on a train or hijacking a horse-drawn carriage are decent ways to get around, but the real star is the rope launcher, a combination grappling hook and zipline that allows Evie or Jacob to dart across the rooftops like a Victorian Spider-Man. This is exactly what the series has needed for a long time—a way to make just getting from A to B fun by itself. Having a massive city to explore is no fun if getting around it is boring, after all.
Moving through London’s cobblestone streets and filth-encrusted alleys feels smooth and simple if all you want to do is move generally forward, but doing anything more demanding is still as frustrating as ever. The series’ overly forgiving controls have remained fundamentally unchanged since the original Assassin’s Creed in 2007, and the more complex the environments become, the less they work. You’ll often be able to see exactly where you need to position yourself to avoid a guard’s line of sight or dodge the bullet that’s hurtling toward your spine, but your Frye twin of choice will opt instead to hang off a ledge, or jump six stories down and break their legs, or just not move at all. Like all Assassins, Evie and Jacob are at their least agile when the stakes are highest, and it’s infuriating to repeatedly fail missions because your character wouldn’t follow your instructions.
In one of Syndicate’s occasional glances at the near-future story that frames the series’ historical action, a group of 21st century Assassins are preparing to infiltrate a Templar stronghold equipped with robotic drones, laptops, and futuristic technology—and one of them is still wearing the series’ signature wrist-mounted retractable blades. The Assassins, like the games in which they star, have a lot of reverence for their history, but they’re too sentimental to throw anything away, even things that no longer work. The best parts of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate are the things it does differently from other entries in the series, and its greatest frustrations are what it has in common with them. The series’ heroes have been fighting the same battle against the same enemy for countless generations without success partly because they’ve always got one foot in the past. If Assassin’s Creed never changes, it’ll stay as stuck as its own stars.