Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Review

#Video ReviewsOctober 22, 2015

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Anita Sarkeesian

Executive Director and Buffy the Vampire Slayer Enthusiast

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is the latest entry in Ubisoft’s long-running open-world franchise, and although the gameplay is exactly what you’d expect from an Assassin’s Creed game, Syndicate distinguishes itself from its predecessors. It stands apart not because of improved mechanics or visual design but because its developers have made noticeable attempts to portray a more inclusive cast of characters.

Syndicate follows twin assassins Jacob and Evie Frye on their quest to liberate the oppressed working class of 19th century London from ruling class thug Crawford Starrick and free the city from the Templars’ control. It’s clear that Starrick is a monster from the first moment we see him because of his evil mustache and his penchant for punching desks.

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Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is the latest entry in Ubisoft’s long-running open-world franchise, and although the gameplay is exactly what you’d expect from an Assassin’s Creed game, Syndicate distinguishes itself from its predecessors. It stands apart not because of improved mechanics or visual design but because its developers have made noticeable attempts to portray a more inclusive cast of characters.

Syndicate follows twin assassins Jacob and Evie Frye on their quest to liberate the oppressed working class of 19th century London from ruling class thug Crawford Starrick and free the city from the Templars’ control. It’s clear that Starrick is a monster from the first moment we see him because of his evil mustache and his penchant for punching desks.

Preceding the release of last year’s Unity, Ubisoft came under intense public criticism for its repeated lack of playable female characters in the core games. 2012’s Assassin’s Creed III had a tie-in game, Liberation, starring a female protagonist, but it was not a core entry in the series and in its initial release was relegated exclusively to handheld. Syndicate is a clear response to gamers’ increased desire for more capable and powerful female options. Promotional materials for the game emphasized Jacob as the primary protagonist, leaving some wondering just how big a role Evie would play. From Syndicate’s first moments, we see the twins together, and after completing a short mission with Jacob we immediately start playing as Evie. Throughout the game, each twin is assigned specific missions that are catered to their individual interests in London’s liberation, but outside of that, players are given the choice to alternate between the siblings while navigating Syndicate’s open world.

Sadly, as the larger story unfolds Jacob’s narrative dominates, meaning that if players don’t actively choose to play as Evie in side missions, they don’t engage with her very often. It’s frustrating that the story focuses increasingly on Jacob as it approaches the end not only because having the twins be truly equal protagonists would have been rare and significant, but also because Evie is easily the more compelling of the two. Jacob is arrogant, pompous, and quick to action without understanding the consequences while Evie is charismatic, focused, intelligent and forced to clean up her brother’s messes.

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There are small, easy-to-overlook details put into Evie’s character design that contribute to why she feels so refreshing in a AAA landscape that is notorious for excluding and sexualizing women. These details are sometimes easier to notice by identifying what she isn’t rather than what she is. Evie is not objectified, she is not sexualized, and she is not created exclusively for the sexual arousal of a presumed straight male audience. She’s dressed appropriately, her fighting moves are not sexualized, and her combat grunts are forceful and fierce, instead of sounding like she is in the throes of ecstasy. Evie doesn’t feel like a male character who was a last minute gender swap but like she was developed from the ground up with a strong, capable and spirited personality.

A humanized playable female protagonist isn’t the only thing that distinguishes Syndicate from its predecessors. We meet an amusing cast of historical characters such as Karl Marx, Florence Nightingale, and a charming Alexander Graham Bell, but Evie and Jacob’s allies also include Henry Green, a British Indian Assassin, and Ned Wynert, a successful thief who just happens to be a trans man and no one in the world thinks anything of it. These characters play supporting or minor roles but their inclusion is notable. While it might seem “unrealistic” to imagine women, people of colour and trans folks who are treated and respected as full human beings in 1868, realism is not really the goal in a game where Assassins and Templars have been waging a centuries’ old war over artifacts created by an ancient civilization, and where you can leap from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral into a pile of leaves and walk away unharmed. The inclusion of these characters works not because of realism but because of believability and internal consistency. That believability is a result of the developers’ conscious decision to make the presence of these characters normalized and respected by everyone else in the game.

Throughout this world, I quickly noticed a significant number of female combatants goading you into battle with the same tenacity and strength as their male counterparts. There are many valid concerns around portrayals of violence against women in games because too often such scenarios trivialize the real-world epidemic of gendered abuse. But Syndicate avoids this problem by framing the female enemies as competent, capable, and practically dressed.

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Syndicate also addresses a criticism that I’ve leveled at the series in the past: the presence of prostitutes who could be recruited as cover to help its male protagonists “blend in.” I kept waiting for these bundles of objectified women to appear on every corner but Ubisoft has completely removed this blending-in mechanic and with it, its troubling portrayals of women as  non-playable sex objects.

Women may be present as soldiers and leaders throughout the criminal ranks of Syndicate’s London, but the same cannot be said for people of colour. Despite the presence of Henry Green, this is an overwhelmingly white game. It’s a huge missed opportunity for Syndicate, which could have taken the same approach to people of colour that it took to women, making their presence in gangs and throughout the factories and palaces of London just a normalized, internally consistent aspect of the game’s world.
And for all of its noteworthy efforts where representations are concerned, Syndicate’s main story falls short in many ways. The game’s writing is quite good in isolated moments. Characters come across as witty, brash, and sometimes endearing, which only makes us want to get to know them better. But sadly, the overall development of the characters and their relationships is lacking. A romance plot is woefully underdeveloped, given just a few lines and a few significant looks between characters. Similarly, the dynamic between the Frye siblings has its highs and lows but the tension between them is given so little attention that their story arc feels like chunks of it are missing.

The narrative presents all the ills plaguing the London of 1868 as a result of the evil Templars, and presents the solution to those ills as killing lots and lots of people. Fighting to liberate the oppressed working classes of London would, in reality, be a noble and extraordinary goal, but reducing such an important issue to an excuse for violent AAA game mechanics does little more than trivialize it. Freeing child labourers in each district is as simple as following signs that say ‘KILL’ and ‘FREE’ on the heads of targets. And for all of the Frye twins’ charms and good intentions, they are outsiders taking over a struggle that they have no part of. The game presents them as liberators freeing London from oppression, but they’re really just conquerors, replacing one crime syndicate’s rule with another’s.

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The London of Syndicate is both gloomy and lively. It’s a place where you’ll find yourself in rollicking carriage chases and leaping from boat to boat across the muddy waters of the Thames like you’re playing an 1868 version of Frogger. But it’s also very much like the cities of earlier Assassin’s Creed games. You climb to the tops of beautiful buildings to take in a spectacular view of the city all around you, only to find that nothing awaits but more of the same cookie cutter activities you’ve already done. In gameplay terms, this is just another Assassin’s Creed.

And like some other Assassin’s Creed games, Syndicate is plagued with plenty of wonkiness. Enemy AI often behaves in erratic ways, NPCs sometimes become unable to fulfill mission-specific functions, and occasionally things just break entirely.

Despite all its problems, Syndicate deserves to be acknowledged for its cast of characters and particularly for its treatment of women. The game’s narrative leaves much to be desired, but Syndicate gives us an image of a world in which the existence of women as people is treated as completely normal. And that is certainly refreshing and sadly strange in a AAA gaming climate that still so often struggles with representing women as actual human beings.