As I explained the other day, during ‘Gaming’s Silly Season‘ I shall most likely be doing ‘First Impression‘ pieces for the majority of games, and in these I hope to cover my initial thoughts and/or experiences of playing a particular game, but stopping somewhere short of hitting ‘Full Campaign Review’ type detail. I’ve been playing AC: Syndicate for a total of about 20+ hours at this point, so I figure that puts me in a decent enough position to cover some of the more general points. Also, Halo 5’s just come out, and given I’m both rubbish at multi-tasking and easily confused, I should pro’ly get this out of the way before I begin conflating the two games and start going on about Locke casually chatting to Charles Dickens and suchlike.
So, for your reading pleasure, my first impressions of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate……
I’ve mentioned previously that I’d already had a brief play around on Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate shortly before release, and what little I’d seen then had left me very impressed, and genuinely excited to fully dive into Victorian Era London. In this respect I haven’t been disappointed at all, and the game’s depiction of the city at this time is positively exquisite, and in terms of GRAPHICS, AC: Syndicate really is rather sublime. The care and detail gone into recreating that world is obvious in every building, street and alley, and there’s also a very real sense that this is a vibrant, living place; with everything from overheard snippets of conversation, to back-alley games, to busy pubs all accentuating a feeling of immersion in a spontaneous, fully-realised world. The contrasts help with this feeling too, and passing, for example, from the splendour of wide boulevards of architectural bombast, to grim, squalid tenements only a few streets away is particularly effective – like actually being in a Dickens novel, come to think of it.
It all really is a joy to explore, and I’ve often found myself heading off to a particular mission, only to get sidetracked by one thing, then another, then another, until I’d spent upwards of an hour just checking out buildings, or people, or whatever. I’ve a tendency to get easily distracted, admittedly (I once missed two buses because I was watching squirrels humping), but even so, I think Syndicate’s attention to detail, and the sheer size of its world are genuinely impressive.
What’s more (and more impressive) is that there’s a distinct duality to everything, and once the Sun goes down, there’s a very real, palpable change in that very world. Those wide boulevards, which were full of strolling mustachioed Gentlemen just hours before, suddenly become more sinister and menacing. The Thames, which earlier was a sun-drenched, bustling waterway becomes a fog-filled and foreboding hazard cutting through the heart of the city. The nighttime London of AC: Syndicate is the Gothic, creepy London of Stoker, Stevenson and the Penny Dreadfuls, and that sense of oppression and danger in a London after dark is at least as impressive as the richness and vibrancy of Syndicate’s daytime world.
Adding to that atmosphere is, undoubtedly, the MUSIC, score and soundtrack. Sound-ey type duties (to use the technical term) have been given as much attention as visual-ey ones in AC: Syndicate, and the game’s all the better for it. Austin Wintory (the guy responsible for the music in the sublime ‘Journey’) was given the reins for Syndicate, and it’s a decision that’s paid off in spades.
Mixing up an (ostensibly) Classical score, with more jaunty, plinkey-plonkey type waltzes (another technical term for you there), and throwing in a few bawdy Pub/Music Hall numbers for good measure, the soundtrack augments and enhances the game’s sense of time and place, whilst also really emphasising those contrasts I mentioned earlier. At one point, I was scaling St. Paul’s (which was pretty awesome anyway) and my ascent was accompanied by a suitably soaring and majestic score of strings and whatnot – the combination resulting in a genuinely breathtaking moment as I reached the summit; yet, just a minute-or-so later, after I’d zip-lined down to a slightly less reputable area, I could hear a more folk-ey, mournful song drifting in from the fringes. Which, I’m pretty sure is symbolic. Or metaphorical. Or somesuch. Obviously nobody was going to throw in a dubstep score for a game set in Victorian London, but still, it was important to nail the soundtrack within the context and setting of the game, and that’s been accomplished here, with all different kinds of skill and aplomb (if you’re interested, by the way, you can listen on Soundcloud to some highlights here).
Right, so that’s the Audio/Visual stuff dealt with, but what about the GAMEPLAY? Well, at this point, it’s something of a mixed bag – if I’m being honest. I’ll freely admit that some of my issues are likely down to me being a clumsy, fat-fingered numbnuts, and that some more are because, after playing the Demo, I genuinely felt optimistic that these issues wouldn’t be issues – if you get what I mean – so there’s now a real sense of disappointment that they are.
For example, I said in the First Look piece that I’d had exactly no instances of trying to deftly climb a building only to end up dangling with my crotch in a guard’s face, but playing the actual game, that number’s increased significantly – to somewhere in the region of a gajillion (you know, give or take). Likewise, there’s been plenty of instances of me carefully, painstakingly working my way around buildings (being all stealthy and shit) to position myself perfectly for an assassination or whatnot, only for my character to suddenly, inexplicably, leap off a rooftop smack into the middle of a group of enemies – when what I actually wanted to do was, like, just hop across to a perch a mere foot away that would allow me to discreetly finish off my target. This is frustrating at the best of times, but when you’ve spent ages setting up for it, it’s controller-through-the-TV-screen levels of annoying.
Compounding this is a control scheme that could, in my opinion, be both better thought out, and a lot better executed. To start with, there’s that annoying thing where there’s exactly one millimetre of positioning that will trigger a context specific action or prompt. Take opening the chests dotted around London – I’ve spent ages walking around in ever-decreasing circles trying to find that one millimeter. In free roam that’s just annoying, but when it’s a mission – and you’ve got seconds to do it – it’s a proper fucking ballache, and closer to game breaking than just mildly irritating.
Moreover, when these things happen in combination it’s a genuinely unpleasant experience, and risks making even the most laid-back person turn the damn game off. In one mission, I’d taken out all the lookouts and snipers like a goddam ninja, sneaked my way to above my objective (a box I had to open), and figured out I could hop across to x, shimmy down y, and do so without being spotted. Cue another instance of doing a massive leap into crowd of heavily armed enemies – which wasn’t particularly helpful. Now, when it became apparent that these enemies were going to keep coming, I figured I’d just run off to said box, grab my shizzle, and get gone. After a bit of trouble breaking ‘combat stance’, I eventually got to the box, finished off the dude guarding it, and quickly pressed the “open” button. Job-Done, right!?
See, the ‘open’ button is also the ‘carry body’ button, and given the position of the dude I’d just killed, there was now less than a millimetre between the two context-specific things. So, what actually happened was I picked the guy up – and by the time I’d thrown him out of the way, all the other people had arrived to continue kicking my ass. And yes, when I killed them, I was in the same position, so I spent a bizarre (and infinitely aggravating) half hour killing people, throwing them, killing the others that spawned to replace them, until I just gave up and let them kill me.
Am I being overly picky (or just overly shite)? Possibly, but this sort of stuff in stealth-type games can ruin them, and more importantly, they’re eminently avoidable with a bit of forethought and planning by developers. The Assassin’s Creed franchise has had plenty of opportunity to fix this stuff, but it’s still an issue nearly a decade after the original game came out, and that’s a real shame – particularly when you consider the improvements elsewhere.
Anyway, aside from the above, I’ve mostly enjoyed my initial time with AC: Syndicate, and some of my issues have been offset by improvements and tweaks elsewhere. There’s a line-launcher thingy in Syndicate, for example, and I’m loving that because a) it’s pretty darn awesome, and b) it’s tactically very, very useful, allowing me to avoid some of the aforementioned ‘crotch in a guard’s face’ related snafus.
Finally, in terms of MISSIONS and ACTIVITIES, I think Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate has done really, really well. The missions I’ve tackled so far have been interesting, and have had sufficient differences contained within them to prevent everything becoming boring and same-y. The additional/optional/unique opportunity style parameters help with this, certainly, and without wanting to spoil anything, give you some pretty cool assassination possibilities – including pretending to be dead in order to get somebody else dead.
In Free Roam too, there’s plenty to keep you both busy and amused. You’ll be tasked with taking over and controlling various boroughs of London, and this involves completing certain ACTIVITIES to weaken the gang currently controlling it (around five or six variations, including Bounty Hunting, Freeing Child Slaves, and good old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness Assassinatifying). There’s also a whole raft of different activities to perform for particular allies – who’ll reward you with goodies, money, XP, and loyalty points, as well as some pretty cool side-missions to undertake on behalf of various individuals you’ll likely recognise.
This is all worth pursuing because there’s a fairly well executed Levelling-up, Perks and Crafting System in AC: Syndicate, which creates a genuine feeling of progression and achievement. Tasks and activities and whatnot come with a recommended level for tackling, so you’ll certainly need to approach the main stuff vs side-stuff with a degree of forethought and smarts. Cooler still, Syndicate has a dual-protagonist thing going on, with Evie Frye clearly more geared towards Stealth, and Jacob decidedly more punchey-stabby in his approach. This means you’ll likely have to be a bit smarter deciding on where you’ll spend money and skill points, but it also creates really rather great tactical options – allowing you to pick one approach over the other in most situations. I’m currently really enjoying this aspect, and having the two characters with an overlapping – yet somewhat distinct – skill set is a lot of fun and great to play around with.
All-in-all, and in CONCLUSION, my First Impressions of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate have been mostly positive. Setting aside the frustrations arising from control/stealth issues, I’ve been impressed with the size, scope and detail of the game, and it’s incredibly absorbing and addictive. After 20+ hours I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface, and that’s pretty cool. Taken as a whole, the Victorian Era London of AC: Syndicate is spectacular, and the game’s attention to detail – from architecture, to clothing, to the score and soundtrack – is brilliant, and well worth your time and attention. Obviously, not having completed the Campaign/Narrative aspects, I can’t wholly judge the game (in a score-out-of-ten way), but at this early-to-mid stage, I’m most certainly enjoying the journey.