In an early episode of The Simpsons, I think the season 3 Sideshow Bob one, a running gag was that a television show is doomed to repeat itself, runs out of original ideas and covers up the fact by spicing up the established formula with crap that doesn’t make sense. This joke was capped by Grandpa Simpson riding in on a motorcycle, totally out of character, shouting he was gonna haul ass to Lollapalooza. The rest of the family gleefully exclaims, “Here we go again!” while Marge reluctantly drones, half a beat off, bored out of her mind, “Here we go again…”
Playing Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, I felt like Marge.
Yet I can’t help but feel the community at large was the rest of the family, joyfully embracing Syndicate‘s well established, by-the-numbers formula — and asking for more. How else can you explain the mostly positive reviews, despite the fact Syndicate is almost the exact same game as the last several (which many reviews acknowledge, then cast aside in favor of praise) but with hookshots and horse carriages? Oh, and a train.
I’ll be honest: I stopped playing after only a few hours. After completing a couple main and side missions, beating the first gang and unlocking the mobile train base, an overwhelming feeling of deja vu made me turn it off. I had done all of this before. To be fair, I’d greatly enjoyed it a few years ago with II, Brotherhood, Revelations, Black Flag — even III, which many people disliked but I had a good time with (I skipped Rogue and Unity. See? I even took a year off!). That’s five games worth of doing what amounts to the same thing over the course of 25-30 hours. Add it up and that’s somewhere around 150 hours of my time. With Syndicate, I just couldn’t do it again. What was the point, really?
Well, that’s the interesting thing, isn’t it? I bet, had the story in Syndicate been an actual, compelling story, I would have stuck with the over-familiar, repetitive gameplay it to see it out. I play games, much like I read books and watch movies, to experience a story unique to games — or that’s my pie-in-the-sky dream, anyway. Sadly, most games don’t tell a story worthwhile, and they certainly don’t tell it in a way that’s unique to the medium. At best, games spin a yarn that would make a good movie, or a decent pulp novel. At worst — well, throw a rock in any direction and you’ll hit a game with a terrible story. Or a good story told terribly.
In Syndicate, you play as Jacob and Evie Frye, a pair of twins that are assassins…because they are. Say what you will about III (that its intro is way overlong and bloated, that Conner is involved in historical events he has no business being a part of) but it at least gives a compelling reason why Conner is an assassin. Same with the beloved Ezio in II, which delivers its conflict and personal stakes in a tight, compelling manner. There’s a reason Ezio is so beloved and it’s not because he was handsome and charming. It’s because the story made the player root for him. You wanted Ezio to kill the bastards who took his family away. It gave the player a compelling reason to want to be an assassin, which is exactly what Ezio’s story was about.
It didn’t help that Conner, the opposite of Ezio, was almost universally disliked — but that wasn’t his character’s fault. Conner’s a good character! Passionate, conflicted, caught between his adopted country and his still-alive-but-being-ground-out heritage? His story was a good story — but it was told (very) poorly and so Conner didn’t resonate with the audience. Ubisoft quickly backed off and gave us Edward Kenway, aka, Pirate Ezio but let’s keep it real, here. Black Flag’s story is bland tapioca. You can’t even hang a hat on it. The magical setting and rich history is completely squandered. The game was so fun though, thanks to sailing (and looting (and whaling (and treasure diving (and even the board games at the bars)))) that it made up for it — which was another bad lesson learned by Ubisoft. If the game’s fun enough, who cares about the story? Which brings us back to Syndicate.
I couldn’t tell you what the conflict is in Syndicate, other than “rich people control London — and the Frye twins aren’t happy about it!” There’s zero conflict, zero personal stakes, which amounts to zero interest on my part. This is a bad story and worse, it’s hooked up to a game I’ve played so many times before. Nary a ship in sight to save this bland mess.
I understand many gamers don’t play for the same reasons as I do. Many just want to climb historic landmarks and stab people. That’s fine — if the game is just about the gameplay. Many games are and I have a great time with them. Assassin’s Creed, however, always tries to tell a story. They spend millions of dollars attempting to do so. If that’s the case, it needs to learn how to tell one. Or relearn, since they got it right with II. Broken gameplay, I can deal with. Broken storytelling? That’s unforgivable. We need a simple, compelling reason why we want to stab people, beyond the fact it’s the new hotness. Until Ubisoft learns this basic, fundamental skill, I doubt another Creed will hold my interest long enough for me to buy all the historic real estate and fancy swords of another period piece.