#526: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

Grand Theft Angl- oh to hell with this, it’s almost literally just Victorian GTA innit?

june gloom
6 min readSep 6, 2023

Initial release: October 23, 2015
Platforms: PlayStation 4, XBox One, PC
Developer: Ubisoft Quebec

Throughout my time with the Assassin’s Creed series, I frequently made joking comparisons to Rockstar’s landmark Grand Theft Auto series, a comparison more apt with some games than others. (Looking back on it now, it occurs to me that Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, my first Assassin’s Creed game, is more accurately described as a Greek mythological version of The Witcher 3.) Having finally sat down to play through Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the 9th game in the prolific stealth-and-murder series, I can’t help but think that the comparison is barely even vague. Syndicate pretty much just is Grand Theft Auto. Or Grand Theft Horse-Drawn-Carriage, as you will.

h/t mobygames for the screens

Sure, once you dive deeper into it, the comparisons to previous games in the series will be obvious. At its core, it’s still an Assassin’s Creed game, for good or ill. But Syndicate strikes a vibe unlike the rest of the series. Set entirely in 1868 (a banner year for London, a city and empire at the height of its power, a time when multiple famous names were all in the city at once) it tells a story of a dark London under the control of a cruel industrialist with a fashy haircut and an overall appearance clearly inspired by Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York. Its heroes are a pair of plucky twins with radically differing focus: Evie Frye, the first fully-playable female protagonist in a mainline game* and a stealth-oriented traditionalist fixated on tracking down Precursor artifacts; and her brother, Jacob Frye, a combat-oriented pugilist who was never terribly interested in the sundry details of the Assassin stuff and mostly saw the war on the Templars as an excuse to build a gang. That’s right: someone at Ubisoft said “yeah, the technothriller and historical fiction stuff is all well and good, but what if we did crimes!?

*Technically Aveline de Grandpré predates Evie, but let’s be honest here: Ubisoft, with its infamously boys-club office culture, only let Liberation happen because it was a spinoff.

To that end, a major focus of the game is the slow, steady conquest of London. Divided into seven boroughs (including the docks and ships of the Thames,) London is a sprawling urban maze, from the grassy lawns of Westminster to the dark alleys of Whitechapel. All of it is under control of a gang called the Blighters, who dress themselves in red and do all sorts of sordid shit, from illegal smuggling to running factories that utilize child labor. And above them are the Templars, run by one Crawford Starrick, perhaps the most powerful man in London, with fingers in every pie and on the hunt for a mysterious precursor artifact.

Jacob and Evie have two differing approaches to this mess. Jacob sees the chance to start his own gang — green-clad toughs called the Rooks — and systematically tear town Starrick’s influence over the city, block by block, borough by borough, wresting control of important businesses and supporting those who would see the Templars gone. When you’ve cleared out a borough of its Blighter domination, it triggers a gang war event; win the fight and the borough is yours. Evie is more direct: to her, the overriding concern is finding the artifact (a shroud that heals the wearer, apparently) before Starrick does. Though aided by the Indian-born Assassin Henry Green in her search, several times she’s forced to drop what she’s doing to clean up after Jacob’s messes, such as when his assassination of a Templar banker triggers an economic crisis.

As you might expect, Jacob and Evie play slightly differently as well. As you progress through the game you’ll gain skill points; spending them on a trio of skill trees, you’ll gain more powerful buffs and abilities, though some are exclusive to either Jacob or Evie. Jacob is combat-oriented, a fighter who focuses on pugilism and longevity. Evie, the more traditionally stealth-oriented character, is more fragile, but not defenseless.

The city is crawling with horse-drawn transport of all types and sizes; you can hijack any of these and make off with them, and often you’ll find yourself needing to to get somewhere quickly. (Oddly enough, running over pedestrians doesn’t incur a penalty like other forms of endangering civilians would.) As you travel around the city, there’s plenty of collectibles and other icons for you to squash (the Ubisoft style in action.) While the game does have plenty of landmarks, some with their own secrets, much of the map has a similar problem to Assassin’s Creed Unity: it’s all the same, more or less. There’s maybe a handful of distinct interiors; the rest are prefabs copy-pasted all over the city to stand in for everything from run-down townhouses to Scotland Yard itself. Even the factories are all alike; the only truly unique interiors are a few specific landmarks, usually involving main storyline quests.

There’s a lot to this game; in addition to a litany of activities you can engage in to take back the streets from the Blighters, there’s a pile of side quests ranging from helping out Charles Darwin to solving supernatural mysteries with Charles Dickens; if you have the appropriate DLC, you can solve murders much in the same fashion as in Unity, plus there’s an entire questline — seemingly set after the main storyline — where you help Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire.

In a lot of ways, Syndicate is what Unity should have been. It plays better, it runs better, the quest design is more fun, the characters are more entertaining. The setting is a bold choice considering the much more popular period of the late 1880s and 1890s (and don’t worry, Jack the Ripper gets his own DLC, which I’ll cover eventually.) It’s also less aggressively revisionist; where Unity depicted the French Revolution as a plot by the Templars to scare the plebes into accepting the stability of a monarchy again, Syndicate is more direct in its criticism of capitalism and the kind of people who are capitalists. London suffers under the yoke of rich bastards exploiting people, and the game makes sure you know it.

While the series had been getting more and more RPG-like — complete with equipment that you can unlock as you level up — Syndicate might be regarded as the last “traditional” game in the series. The modern-day storyline at this point had become borderline non-existent; with the end of the Desmond saga, Ubisoft seemed to have been floundering in the search for some new animating focus. They wouldn’t find it until the introduction of Layla Hassan in Assassin’s Creed Origin, which serves as a sort of reboot for the series, going further back than we’ve ever been while also launching a new era. Syndicate might arguably be considered filler in the broader context of the series, but it’s good filler.

I enjoyed my time with Syndicate; not counting the Jack the Ripper DLC (stay tuned for my review of that!) this will probably be my last outing with the series for some time, but it’s as good a send-off as any.




june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]