By: Christian Crawford
Once again Ubisoft has presented us another chance to parkour and hidden blade our way around a historic time period. Since the release of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, a game that I approached with extreme caution, I’ve been thinking about the past and future of the series as a whole.
Perhaps some context is needed before I get to what I mean: I am someone who has played all the core Assassin’s Creed games as soon as they came out. I’ve always been pumped to jump in an animus and see what kind of history jokes or references these games will make next. Despite this, when recently asked if Syndicate was my favourite in the series, I realized that I was hesitant to deem it number one – or even as a top contender. Honestly this realization caught me by surprise, but after thinking about it I’ve concluded why: these games always seem to have a flaw of some kind that serve as a caveat whenever I say I like them. Simply put, Assassin’s Creed games have always had a ton of potential but can never quite pull it off entirely.
That might sound harsh, so I’d like to reiterate that I am a fan of the series (though I’ll admit AC:3 and Unity let me down). What I really mean is that it always seems like the games are one step away from greatness; there’s one little clean up needed before we get that game that would fill the expectations set from each games’ announcement trailer.
For me, Unity held a lot of firsts in the Assassins Creed series: I didn’t like the story, I didn’t like quite a few of the features and to be brutally honest I felt no real drive to keep playing the missions. Exploring the city of Paris itself was a more fun experience than anything the missions could offer me, at least when everything loaded nicely. Unity’s new features, perhaps for the first time, got dramatically in the way of the gameplay and I think it was this experience that caused me to be so tepid about Syndicate. For the first time I didn’t see the potential any more. It looked like a pretty cool story that was having trouble with a part of its narrative had finally lost its way.
Now I have picked up Syndicate and I am pleased to report that it is already better than Unity (like way way better). It’s the Assassins Creed we have come to love. Yet, despite the enjoyment I already see myself falling into old patterns: I see plenty of elements pulled off amazingly and even some new stuff that adds quite a bit to the experience, but there’s still the odd hiccup. I already hear myself thinking, “man this game is awesome but it would be perfect if they just fixed ____”. Although considering its predecessor maybe I should be happy I am back in this place.
Although I give Syndicate my full endorsement it is not perfect. The free running is again improved upon but it could be better, and the combat, while the most dynamic I have seen in the series, still seems to pale against contemporaries like the Batman Arkham series or Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. Once again Ubisoft is just short of that perfect experience but they have definitely righted the ship (No Black Flag Pun intended). If Syndicate has done nothing else, it has restored my belief that one day this series might actually fulfill all the potential we have seen in it since we assassinated that first Templar all those years ago.
Now while I sit here thinking on the series and how much time, energy and money I have put into it, a little cynical voice in my head begins to wonder. What if Ubisoft is intentionally taking advantage of the ride-or-die fans by putting out half baked games and concepts they know many will buy no matter what? While it’s certainly possible, I somehow doubt it. Strangely other than the small faith I have that no one would do that (I mean probably, right?) it’s the games themselves that convince me otherwise. Each new title attempts to innovate in some way; each one tries to add its own flavor or mechanic that can change how we play Assassin’s.
Unity is actually a prime positive example in this situation (I know, I can’t believe it either). I can rag on the game all I want for its lack of interesting story or drive but one thing I simply cannot fault it for is ambition. It tried very hard to revamp a lot of the systems in the game and change the way the player interacts with the world. Did all of these work? No, but it was a bold move that shook things up, and what’s stranger is that a few of the new features that I did like in Unity (like those little mini murder things) are back in Syndicate and you know what? They only better the quality of the game as a whole.
What if that feeling I mentioned of “it would be perfect if they just fixed…” is a part of what makes Assassin’s Creed a successful franchise? Maybe having us fans always think ,”that was good but there’s room for MORE,” – especially when we see small steps forward with each new title – is what keeps us excited and coming back for future installments?
Maybe the overall takeaway is that while Assassin’s continues to be flawed in ways that prevent it from being a unmitigated masterpiece, it is improving in others. Ubisoft took its punches with Unity, but they got back up and made a great game in response. Despite not being perfect Syndicate it still is very, very good. Maybe the dream of an Assassin’s Creed game that meets all that potential I saw all those years ago isn’t so dead after all. I guess I’ll have to wait and see where the company takes us next to find out.