In the course of asking Ubisoft for a review copy of "Tom Clancy's The Division" back in March, I somehow wound up with a copy of November's "Assassin's Creed Syndicate" instead.
Such clumsiness couldn't have been more appropriate: I mean, it's "Assassin's Creed."
I hadn't played a game in Ubisoft's open-world stealth series since 2012's "III," a misfire almost all the way down the musket volley. Bad movement, bad stealth, bad technical performance — it was a worse way to revisit the Revolutionary War than a Rush Limbaugh storybook.
"III" was the series' nadir (or at least it was until 2014's bug-ridden "Unity"). But its problems didn't exactly pop out of a haystack.
When I reviewed "Assassin's Creed II" in 2009, I compared maneuvering its protagonist to trying to punch someone in a dream. You can will it all you want, inputting whatever sensorimotor sequence would normally make it happen — but it just won't happen. In "Assassin's Creed," that means jumping off the ledges you want to dangle from and dangling from the ledges you want to jump off.
"Assassin's Creed Syndicate," to my disappointment, still feels like a noncooperative dream. Protagonists Jacob and Evie Frye still look as clumsy on the streets of Victorian London as Ezio in Rome or Connor in Philadelphia.
To my surprise, however, "Syndicate" is more like a regular dream otherwise. For all its problems kinetic and non, it's the most purely fun "Assassin's Creed" game I've played. (That doesn't include the highly praised "Black Flag," though after "III," its sailing-heavy setup didn't exactly sing to me.)
Jacob and Evie — but mostly Evie — anchor a bloody, sooty romp that's almost as polished as it is inspired. The heist-like assassination missions that tentpole the story feel like set pieces in a movie, adding fold after contextual fold to the series' usual in-and-out stealth. The final mission, in which the Fryes take down Templar industrialist Crawford Starrick, shifts the tone with a Westminster ball setting, trots out the game's cutest cameo and structures a boss battle around a new platforming mechanic that also accentuates Jacob and Evie's sibling bond. It's pretty thrilling.
The AI of the Fryes' street gang foes, the Blighters, is solid enough to make the game's stealth fairly airtight. Honest sneaking and stabbing is the only way around the Blighters' lines of sight, and when they dot the rooftops of Lambeth or Southwark, some top-down strategy should guide the Fryes' blades. Help comes in the form of their sublimely usable rope launchers, which allow them to dart in and out of the killing floor with slick air assassinations like Batman in the "Arkham" series.
"Syndicate" incentivizes stealth just as smartly as it designs it. Being caught means combat: And, with the game's leveling system, that means dying if you're caught by stronger or deeper squads of enemies. The game counterbalances with a more intuitive counter-based combat system styled after — yup — the "Arkham" series. ("Syndicate" borrows from the Rocksteady series even further with fear-based mechanics, Scarecrow gas and all, in the sterling DLC episode "Jack the Ripper.")
There's a lot to hack through in "Syndicate," at first: The story-within-a-story of Templars vs. Assassins then and now, menu after menu of upgrades and equipment, Ubisoft's usual map confetti. But whether it's one of the London map's many block-conquering side activities or a random Blighter carriage chase, you'll soon find your entry point into the game's pleasing rhythm.
No, Ubisoft Quebec's London isn't the technical marvel that Ubisoft Montreal's "Unity" was, but it also isn't the horror show the Parisian "Creed" chapter was, either. No, it doesn't have multiplayer or sailing, but after recent entries exhausted such novelties, who needs them?
What may be in need this year — due to the December release of the "Assassin's Creed" movie starring Michael Fassbender — is a new game in the series. "Syndicate" may not be new, but given "Assassin's Creed's" uneven history, it's as good a current reflection of the movie's source material as Ubisoft could have hoped for. And given the series' inveterate clumsiness, timing was never that much of a concern anyways.