Assassin's Creed: Syndicate has arrived, and the critics are speaking with one voice, but many different scores. The first wave of reviews are all over the map when it comes to the overall quality of the first London-set installment of the historical action series, but when one actually reads the points the reviewers are making, they're frequently similar.
"Being in this world is a joy, especially at night where moody lighting and pouring rain produce some startling images, a threatening world of poverty and violence," raved Steven Burns in his review for VideoGamer.com. "Scaling Big Ben or St Paul's, familiar and beautifully rendered in their vast glory, is one of the most arresting feelings I've had this generation."
Burns also praised the writing in Syndicate, particularly for the twin protagonists Jacob and Evie Frye, but he wound up giving the game a 5 out of 10.
"It is so Dickensian that Charles Dickens is actually in it."
The Telegraph's Kirk McKeand was similarly gushing of the game's setting in giving the game two stars out of five.
"Syndicate's London setting is meticulously crafted and filled with period details: its rich citizens stroll around in top hats, tailcoats, corsets and other finery; its flat cap-wearing poor sweep the factories; its buildings stand tall, alleyways dividing streets; and its rain-soaked cobbles are constantly busy with traffic from horse-drawn carts. It is so Dickensian that Charles Dickens is actually in it."
Obviously, those compliments were tempered by plenty of complaints.
"From AI, to mission flow, to combat, the core pillars of these games are weathered at best and rotting at worst," Burns wrote. "Syndicate feels ancient, like Black Flag did, like Revelations did. I played it on a PS4, but it may as well have been a 360."
McKeand and Burns brought up many of the same complaints. Both felt the game paled in comparison to another recent game about sneakily dispatching foes, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. McKeand thought Assassin's Creed could take notes from the Konami game on how to have repeating content that doesn't feel repetitive, while Burns saw Syndicate's AI as simplistic to the point of obsolescence in the face of The Phantom Pain's lively enemies.
Both also mentioned the game's context-sensitive controls, which map many different actions to the same button on the controller, forcing the game to guess at the player's intention in any given situation. It's a complaint that also surfaced in more positive reviews, such as Phil Kollar's 8.5 out of 10 write-up for Polygon.
"The rope launcher is the thing this franchise so desperately needed, and now that it's here I don't ever want to be without it."
Alexa Ray Corriea
"[T]he button mapped to interact with things in the environment is the same button that, when you hold down the left trigger, tells your assassin to free-run in a downward direction," Kollar said. "I can't tell you how many times I tried to tap that button to open a chest and instead watched my chosen Frye hang precariously off a ledge or leap into a nearby body of water."
But where McKeand found the controls' touchiness to be something that "ruins the overall experience" and Burns chalked them up as "relentlessly terrible" and "especially irritating," Kollar found them to be annoyances that "rarely if ever get in the way where it matters."
And even if some of the control issues will be familiar to fans of the series, Kollar lauded the developers for changing Syndicate's world to ameliorate them, noting less clutter on the game's streets and more direct paths for players to take between areas. There's also a new rope launcher tool that works like a grappling hook and allows players to zipline around the city at will, something Kollar called a "brilliant," if slightly derivative, addition.
In her glowing 9 out of 10 review for GameSpot, Alexa Ray Corriea lavished loads of praise on the rope launcher addition and the way it plays to the game's other strengths, encouraging players to traverse the city rather than use a fast-travel function, which will have them stumbling across more side quests and discovering more of the world.
"The setting is so lovely, and zipping across the city like a Victorian Spider-Man makes you truly feel like the city's protector, dropping to the streets every so often to air assassinate someone," she said, adding, "One tool helps you traverse, discover, escape, and assassinate. The rope launcher is the thing this franchise so desperately needed, and now that it's here I don't ever want to be without it."
"[Syndicate is] the first step in a uniformly positive direction that the franchise has taken in years."
Aside from the score, the other big thing the reviewers seemed split on was where the series is going from here.
"Syndicate is a massive shame," McKeand said. "Ubisoft's yearly development cycle is really beginning to leave its mark on the series...For a series concerned with making its players historical tourists, it is ironic that it is so stuck in the past. I have faith that Ubisoft can rescue the series. After all, the company has reinvented its franchises with great success multiple times in the past. Maybe one day we will get the brilliant game the series deserves, but for now it is time for a hiatus."
Burns said that in the moments when Syndicate works as its developers intended, the AI behaves, and the game avoids bugs, "it's very good." (Emphasis in original.)
"But leave it a few minutes and it reveals itself to be as utterly flawed as its forebears, a beautiful facade on a rotting core," he added.
Kollar came away with a distinctly different impression, calling Syndicate "a long-needed course correction" for the series and saying the game's "biggest triumph" is the way it has streamlined the mechanics and problems introduced over years of iterative installments.
"Syndicate doesn't get everything right," he said. "It doesn't solve all of the series' problems, and at this point, I'm not sure if any one game could. However, it's the first step in a uniformly positive direction that the franchise has taken in years."
Corriea also invoked triumph, but used it to describe the entire game rather than one specific element.
"The game is a triumphant return to form for a franchise, and presents a beautifully structured tale with heart and soul to spare," she wrote. "Ziplining through London is thrilling, and the game allows you to organically discover missions and leaves you open-ended solutions lets you to create a meaningful, personal experience within its world. Coupled with strong, loveable leads and a seemingly endless procession of ways to leave your (fictional) mark on London's history, Assassin's Creed Syndicate is a shining example of gameplay and storytelling."
Assassin's Creed Syndicate launches on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One this Friday, October 23.