Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Review

Speaking as a big fan of Assassin’s Creed, it really, REALLY needs some time off. Of the nine main console releases only three of them are really good, “Unity” messed up as many things as it fixed, and the interesting counterpoint “Rogue”‘s story offered was quickly dropped in favour of business as usual. I’ve been hoping for Victorian London for quite a while now, but not the way the series is currently being developed. Pulling back for a minute: AC Syndicate does have good points, and I’ll be elaborating on them shortly, but I need to preface the review by saying that even I’m starting to get sick of yearly Assassin’s Creed. Right, on with the review. SPOILERS ahead.

After gradually moving away from Historical accuracy (was of course has been skewed since the start), Syndicate takes a sudden left turn and drops you into a Victorian London that’s been taken over by the cast of “Gangs of New York”. Two twin Assassins Jacob and Evie Frye decide to ditch their responsibilites so they can hop on a train to Lahndahn Tahn and take down the law and order-centric society the Templars have built by creating organised crime. Brilliant. This may seem like I’m oversimplifying things, or approaching the story with a Templar bias, but the game seems to agree with my position- Jacob kills several high ranking Templars and as a result brings England literally to the brink of complete and utter ruin. Evie has to go around fixing everything so the entire country doesn’t collapse. That’s pretty much it, story wise. Jacob kills a load of people that run London, Evie sleuths around trying to find a magic cape, they have a falling out then at the end their goals collide when they murder the head Templar who happened to be using the magic cape. Also Queen Victoria turns up because of course she does. Other historical figures include Sergeant Frederick Abberline who is now a Sherlock Holmes-esque fan of disguises, Charles Dickens, who just wants to investigate ghosts, and Karl Marx, whose presence has made a load of whiny white men on the internet lose their minds and cry all over twitter. I quite liked how the game showed the Assassins to be a clumsy instrument of destruction but it’s all neatly wrapped up in the end. Also the game had an absolute belter of a villain- a man who ran a theatre, was willing to burn children and was madly in love with Jacob, but he’s barely in it. Wasted opportunity. Jacob and Evie themselves aren’t too bad at all. Jacob is much less the complete lunatic the initial footage made him look and is more a brash, well-meaning thug, and Evie is pretty much just the token sensible team mate. It’s nice to have another female protagonist though, especially after how badly Unity handled Elise, and both Twins are miles ahead of pretentious arsehole Arno. On the future side of things it’s now completely inconsequential and trivial, which is ironic considering they’ve gone back to having an actual story and not just having a faceless Ubisoft employee QA testing the new AC game. All the future elements are cutscenes seen through the eyes of drones and look really, really similar to the cutscenes in “Advanced Warfare” in terms of graphics. Main difference is these ones are all a complete waste of time.

Gameplay wise it’s a marked improvement over Unity, though it still has its share of problems. Firstly let me point out that while I only encountered two or three bad glitches, other sources have encountered an unplayable, buggy mess. The stealth is still solid, the combat is much quicker and leaner compared to Unity’s “Block, then wail on them with a blunt sword” fighting system, and they fixed that ridiculous bollocks with the hidden blade. Now you can finish off a target with any weapon, or just shoot them with a Colt Single Action Army, which wasn’t around at the time the game is set but its presence is still welcome. The actual assassination missions are as open as they were in Unity but are easily solved by sprinting in and battering your target into submission. London itself feels a bit similar to Unity’s Paris, but somehow less lively- it feels quite open and sparse. Weirdly, as depictions of Victorian London go, this one actually feels less convincing than “The Order 1886”, which had more focus on detail and tone and didn’t spread itself too thin. It does have its moments though- you can cross the Thames by freerunning across loads of boats and barges (some of which have cargo to steal and ne’er do wells to stab), but the new grappling hook launcher thing trivialises movement, and the new kidnapping element makes no sense. Basically you hold an enemy’s arm behind their back and walk them past all their mates, walking slowly to prevent the sound ring around you alerting enemies. This is fine in theory, but falls down when you consider that the enemies only react to sound, and completely ignore the sight of a person they’ll all attack on sight literally strong-arming their friends. Also this might seem like a nitpick, but the sewers are completely the same as the ones in Unity, despite the fact they made a big deal of exploring the Parisian sewers last time around.

Overall, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate feels like a holding pattern. It’s enjoyable, sure, but what’s enjoyable here was enjoyable in other games. It has no leap forward for gameplay (AC4) or story (Rogue), and the interesting elements it does have don’t make it stand-out. It’s a damn sight better than Unity, but as I said at the start of the review- it really needs to take some time off. Give it a few years to work on a new engine and refine the mechanics, drop the future nonsense and set it in Feudal Japan.

By James Lambert

Thoughts on… SOMA

Image result for Soma

This one was a surprise, all told. Frictional Games, developer of Amnesia the Dark Descent, an underwater setting, and an intriguing plot about robots who think they’re human? Open goal. Open goal with the Keeper sprawled out on the floor and you’re on side but none of the other team’s defenders are anywhere near you. Somehow, someway the ball got blasted clear over the net though- SOMA is a big disappointment. Now you may be wondering why this is a “Thoughts on…” rather than a review. That’s because while I know what happens in the story and how it all ends, I’ve only actually played up to around half way through. I got to a point where I’m wandering around dark hallways covered in meat moss, while a big, walking mass of tumors wanders around and occasionally charges at me and I’ve lost all will to go on. So this will be a general discussion on the game, but not any kind of definitive opinion. SPOILERS follow. You’ve been warned.

You are Simon, a whiny Canadian man who goes to have an experimental brain scan to help with the damage he suffered in a car crash but instead wakes up UNDER THE SEAAAAAAAAAAAAAA (wiggles fingers spookily). He’s in a research base that was cut off from the rest of the world when said rest of the world was completely annihilated, which lead to antisocial and lovely Scientist Catherine to create “The Ark”.  Put simply The Ark houses a simulation populated by copies of every crew member’s personality, and the plan is to shoot it into space. Interesting idea, that. Given some spice by the fact that due to the influence of one mad person, people keep killing themselves immediately after the upload because they believe that they will then take over the version of themselves uploaded to the Ark. Anyway Simon’s an A.I trapped in a robot body, and he and the A.I of Catherine traipse through the different bases to try and get to The Ark, which failed in its lofty aspirations of space exploration. Along the way they sometimes have to avoid monster proxies carrying out the will of the “Cancerous” (Paraphrasing) A.I that’s corrupted the base. Now I quite like the story, or at least elements of it. The A.I copying is a neat idea, I like the “Dead Space” style cult and the A.I not being a SHODAN-style computer and instead just a cancerous, technological growth spreading all over the station and keeping people alive against their will. I also quite like the robots who think they’re people- blocky things sitting on the floor, immobilised and seemingly completely unaware of what’s happened to them. My biggest problems with the story are that the good parts are few and far between- most of the time you’re stuck with Simon, who’s just annoying really. Second problem is that, like “Tales from the Borderlands”, the story and presentation would work just as well in a non-interactive medium. There is one potential scare you can get that works best with interactivity, but for the most part the plot would work just as well as a short story or a novella.

Gameplay wise is where things really fall down. It’s a horror game in the style popularised by Frictional’s own “The Dark Descent” and that lead to the likes of “Outlast”, “Slender” and all those Steam rip-offs. You sneak past enemies that you can’t look at for no reason (you can’t get near them because they’re giving off an EMP, I have no idea why you can’t look at them), you solve the odd puzzle and sometimes you go outside and have to path find underwater, which is never not irritating. Let it be known that SOMA is the game that finally made me think that this type of horror game could do with a rest. Weirdly now that Outlast 2 has been announced and I played the demo of “Layers of Fear” I’ve reversed that position, but my point stands; SOMA’s gameplay is just so dull, and most damming of all; not scary. The monsters aren’t scary at all, the only tension you get is in walking around the levels wondering what might pop out, but then it does and completely spoils the atmosphere.

SOMA couldn’t hold my attention long enough to make me finish it, but it does have some neat ideas sprinkled in among the dull, stale gameplay and boring stretches of story. Those with a predilection towards Sci-Fi might be able to power through for the story, but otherwise there’s little here that can’t be enjoyed on youtube and in the plot summary section of Wikipedia.

UPDATE: I went back, restarted the game and finished it, and I have some further opinions on it.

First of all, I was being too hard on Simon, he’s not that whiny at all really and I’m not sure where that came from. My criticism about the monsters stands, but I enjoyed the section in Theta with Terry Akers a lot. I didn’t take the broken window bait and instead took the longer, safer way. He spawned in and walked past a doorway just as I was listening to an account of his time in the infirmary so that was a cool set-up. The part after; Theta Maintenance is where I gave up last time and I didn’t enjoy it this time but got through it okay. The biggest disappointment for me was the much-hyped angler fish, whom I sprinted at to see what would happen and it resulted in said fish, who was a lot smaller than I expected, bumping into me and running away. I found the Leviathan similarly disappointing, and more irritating than scary. I found every enemy encounter far less interesting than all of the existential questions about humanity and world building. The ARK project and the suicide cult surrounding it are far more engaging and well developed than everything involving the WAU. The WAU’s refusal to let any human beings die, no matter how damaged their bodies are is a great idea, but the monsters it creates are nothing special. Overall I have a greater appreciation for SOMA’s story and imagery but all the enemy encounters detract from that, apart from that good Terry Akers encounter.

By James Lambert


Mad Max Review

I have to admit, I was surprised when I heard Mad Max was going to be released the same day as MGSV. It looked like a decent open world game but certainly not a real competitor to the absolute beast that is The Phantom Pain. It also runs into an age-old problem for video games in that while not a direct adaptation of any one story, it is based on a film series. A cursory look at other games based on films will paint the kind of picture a drunk with no hands might produce, so Mad Max had quite a hill to climb right out of the gate.

Set before the recent and excellent “Fury Road”, Mad Max starts with Max being chased down and stripped of his iconic car, one-sleeved leather jacket and sawn-off shotgun by son of Fury Road’s villain Immortan Joe and left to die. Fortunately he comes across a small, hunchbacked man named Chumbucket who thinks Max is the prophet in his car-based religion. He just so happens to be working on the best car ever made, he wants to make it for Max, Max wants to kill the villain and ride off into the sunset. That’s pretty much the whole plot; “Max needs a new car.” To be fair to it though that’s all the framing the game needs really; a framework on which to hang the car combat and pattering gangs of Australian cancer patients. The one thing that does really stick out about the story parts of the game (the cutscenes in particular) is the jarring lack of Australian accents. Before the game was released public pressure got Max’s accent changed from generic American to Australian, but the rest of the characters in the game have stayed Yanks. Mad Max is a series that’s been deeply routed in Australia from the start, so to encounter enemies with broad Southern American accents seems really odd, particularly when Max growls back at them in a half-Gibson, Half-Hardy drawl. Speaking of half and half, that’s the best way to describe his character design as well; his face is a mixture of the two, his jacket is straight out of Fury Road but the rest of his outfit is more Gibson. Anyway the story is light, and contrasts the films by having loads of different characters who recognise Max’s skills and want him to help them, as opposed to one or two who are skeptical of him but come around after a while.

Gameplay wise, it’s remarkably similar to Batman Arkham Knight, but in the desert and you murder people. Car combat makes up less of the game than I expected discounting free-roam, but what there is is functional enough. The car Chumbucket is building- dubbed “The Magnum Opus”- is completely customisable; armour, spikes, Boadicea wheels, even flame jets of all things, as well as aesthetic things like the body type and paint. Car combat largely consists of using harpoons to tear things down/tear things off cars and lobbing explosive spears (unironically called “Thunderpoon”) at things. The only time I really needed the car was to remove defenses from gang camps and outposts, which is where the other main gameplay element comes in. The game has what was originally a “Batman Arkham” combat system, though with its striking system it’s more like a “Sleeping Dogs” combat system; combos made from repeatedly tapping the attack button and holding it at various times, and another button to counter. The countering works fine for the most part but your the timing can be frustratingly specific, but the moves have a satisfying, simplistic brutality to them. Well, except for the occasions where Max pulls a flying armbar out his arse, which just seems out of place. It all plays like a Ubisoft game- there are hot air balloons with which to scout out unexplored parts of the map, gang camps to batter your way through and liberate, and of course, the open world itself. The map fits the tone of Fury Road very well- desolate, brutal desert stretching as far as the eye can see, the only structures monstrosities cobbled together from scrap.

Overall, Mad Max is a solid, enjoyable game. It plays it very safe, but then that’s no bad thing given the aforementioned mountain it had to climb. The story is forgettable but by no means bad, the driving is functional and the hand-to-hand combat is brutal and fun. If you’re a fan of Mad Max, there’s definite enjoyment to be found here, and if you’re looking for a decent game to mess around with this is a good shout.

By James Lambert