Over the years, the Assassin’s Creed video game series has played out as a bit of an off-center history lesson. It’s been a through-the-ages overview filtered through a convoluted tall tale involving advanced genetics-tapping technology, ruthless murder, powerful ancient artifacts and even aliens.
But still, it’s history of the same sort you might see on, say, the History Channel.
The games have swept players from the Holy Land Crusades to French Revolution battlefields, made them a pirate on the high seas and a native American tracker serving the colonials. Where to this time around? Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate plops gamers down in the heart of Victorian England during the industrial revolution.
Syndicate first simplifies the franchise’s twisting and turning backstory. We learn that the generations-long conflict between the Assassins and the Templars grinds on still. As a modern day initiate on the Assassins’ side, you’re sent back (through whiz-bang tech) to find the whereabouts of an ancient Piece of Eden artifact. To do that you inhabit the minds and lives of a pair of assassins in 1886—siblings Jacob and Evie Frye.
That’s right, this Assassin’s entry gives players the ability to shift back and forth between two different characters and pursue their individual objectives. Jacob is something of a hard-fisted, knife-throwing street brawler type who wishes to free London from the oppressive power of the Templars. So he raises up a gang called the Rooks to battle and slash at the evil plans of Templar Grandmaster Crawford Starrick and his thugs.
Evie, however, is much more devoted to the Assassins’ long-range goals. So she uses her intellect and all her wall-climbing and head-cracking skills in the service of searching for an all-powerful Shroud of Eden: magical garb that can heal any wound.
As brother and sister strike at the narcotics trade in London’s back alleys and search out the wisdom hidden in dusty secret tomes, they also run across recognizable people of historical significance such as Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria, Florence Nightingale and Alexander Graham Bell. And, frankly, it’s these encounters with famous folk that tend to offer up the most whimsy and fun in this game. Taking side missions, say, with Charles Dickens to foil hypnotists and expose haunted-house fraudsters can be an engagingly eccentric experience.
If you’re wondering about how this game might deal with the franchise’s penchant for slipping through the shadows, parkour roof-running and assassination, well, here’s your answer: Those things are still the main thrust. There are scores and scores of missions to undertake in this 20- to 40-hour campaign, and the majority of them center on tracking people down with almost superhuman assassin skills and ending lives in some drive-a-blade-into-his-throat, blood-spouting way. Bones break, veins are drained, skulls are smashed.
Evie, being the smaller and more stealthy of the two, hooks and slashes victims with a steel-tipped cane and tends to end foes with sneaky, slushy knife stabs to the kidneys. Whereas Jacob generally takes a more bash-in-his-teeth, blow-out-his-brains frontal approach using brass knuckles, butcher knives and pistols.
And, of course, the twins aren’t the only ones splashing gore about. The evil Crawford Starrick is the sort who’ll shoot his butler in the head for disturbing him while he’s playing piano. Another baddie example is a doctor who tortures patients in his asylum through shock therapy, butchering one by drilling out large chunks of brain matter with crude tools.
It should be noted that this game makes a concentrated, political correctness-minded effort to include women in the mix of thugs and villains. And that results in a lot of guy-on-girl misogynistic beatings and murder. Breaking a high-def female gang member’s arm and slamming her face-first into a wall can feel … disquieting. And along those lines, Syndicate also features the transgender figure Henrietta Mary Wynn, also called Ned Wynert. Writes Jessica Lachenal for The Mary Sue:
“Assassin’s Creed Syndicate will have the franchise’s first transgender character, and his name is Ned Wynert. According to creative director Marc-Alexis Côté, his gender won’t be a plot point for anything; he’ll primarily be serving as a quest-giver. The character simply just … is trans. Having a character’s trans status treated as just a matter of fact is a notable move. They simply are what they are, and that’s how it is.”
All that’s left to say, then, is that there are misuses of God’s name and occasion spews of the s-word, “a–,” “h—,” “d–n” and “b–tard.” In a sentence, it’s everything we’re accustomed to confronting in an Assassin’s Creed game … and more.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.