2014 was a confusing year for Assassin's Creed fans - when Ubisoft simultaneously took the series into next-gen with Assassin's Creed: Unity (complete with co-op mission multiplayer) while also releasing an old-gen installment, Assassin's Creed: Rogue, for gamers who hadn't yet upgraded to a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. While Unity was the better-selling, and more marketed title, the next-gen update was riddled with game-breaking bugs and crippled online multiplayer - whereas Rogue did little to improve upon the widely well-received Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag.
One year later, Ubisoft is back with Assassin's Creed: Syndicate - ditching co-op missions and competitive multiplayer in favor of a standalone tale of brother and sister assassins set in the highly anticipated backdrop of mid-1800s London. As a result, Syndicate has all the necessary pieces to deliver one of the best Assassin's Creed game experiences to date - albeit one that is limited by lingering gameplay hurdles (that have become firmly ingrained in Ubisoft's flagship series).
In the eight years since the first Assassin's Creed released, the series has seen a number of changes - both in storytelling and gameplay. Most players still consider the original Assassin's Creed to be more proof-of-concept than a polished game - a proof-of-concept that was significantly refined in Assassin's Creed 2 and its sequels Brotherhood and Revelations. However, following the Ezio Auditore da Firenze trilogy, AC game design has been a mix of inspired successes and over-complicated additions. Freeing-up AC series design teams to explore a wider variety of locations and stories, Ubisoft swapped out main protagonist Desmond Miles in favor of unnamed "initiates" while at the same time limiting development resources by adding competitive multiplayer modes and first-person segments set within present-day Abstergo Industries, among other ambitious but (to many players) superfluous supplements.
Thankfully, the series returns to form in Syndicate - prioritizing story, characters, setting, and unique assassination encounters over gimmicks. Instead of forcing players through another assassin origin tale, where an inexperienced character becomes an expert killer, Syndicate puts gamers in the boots of Jacob and Evie Frye, twin assassins who are already well-versed in the ways of their brotherhood - preparing to take on a Templar Grand Master, Crawford Starrick, that has London under his corrupt thumb.
Throughout the game, the pair learn fresh skills and acquire new tech (as well as more powerful weapons/armor) to aid them but, even at the start, the Fryes are capable warriors with a history of Templar butt-kicking - especially Evie. After courting criticism and controversy last winter, when Ubisoft claimed they didn't have time to include a female character model for Unity co-op, Evie succeeds as one of the most developed and adept Assassin's Creed heroes (regardless of her gender).
Players earn new gear and skills by collecting XP - borrowing from RPG-like "leveling" systems. The best gear is level-locked, meaning that the superior weapons and armor can only be equipped later in the game, forcing Jacob and Evie to mix-up their arsenals, and ensuring that players can't simply "buy" their way into premium gear. Even the game's divisive inclusion of micro-transactions (which allow for the purchase of in-game currencies and resources with real money) will only take flush gamers so far - since they'll be able to buy high-end weaponry but still won't be able to equip it until reaching the appropriate level through playing the game. In addition to gear, leveling up also unlocks skill points that give gamers access to new abilities. XP is earned across both characters - allowing for different specialization on each character.
To that end, certain skills are exclusive to each character - specifically, Jacob has unlockable perks that favor hand-to-hand combat and gun-wielding where Evie's skill tree includes exclusive perks favoring stealth and silent attacks. Though, the system is somewhat undermined by the game's story - which forces players to take each character into certain campaign missions. The interwoven (but separate) storylines ensure both characters make an impact in the battle for London but can, sometimes, cancel-out choices players make in spending specific skill points.
For instance, gamers could choose to invest in better horse-carriage handling on Jacob, only to get an Evie-exclusive mission that requires a lengthy carriage chase (or invest in new stealth abilities for Evie, only to get a Jacob-exclusive mission that forces the scrappy hero to stalk through an area unnoticed). Fortunately, players earn skill points relatively fast. Those who are willing to tackle some of the game's numerous side activities should be able to hit max level (fully unlocked skill tree and access to the best weapons) near the end of Syndicate's campaign. Most of the weapons and skills will be familiar to longtime fans of the series but Ubisoft has also included a few game-changers that fix long-running problems in the franchise, most notably a rope grapple that allows for speedy vertical traversal (and easy getaways).