Where to even start with Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft’s series about angry young lads who skulk in the shadows and murder a bunch of equally vexed chaps because they have differing world-views? As a franchise it’s attracted a considerable amount of ire from fans and critics alike for its unwavering commitment to and codifying of Ubisoft’s now-ubiquitous open-world format and for its seemingly never-ending release schedule. Unity was the series’ first foray in the current generation of gaming and was infamous for its horrendous release, but has time improved it?
Let’s take a look.
Assassin’s Creed: Unity (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])
Released Nov 2014 | Developed/Published: Ubisoft
Genre: Action-Adventure, Stealth
Unity takes during the French Revolution; as a setting for a story about warring cabals of sneaky murderers you couldn’t do much better. The Revolution was an extraordinarily bloody time in history as the people of France deposed their monarchy and established a new French Republic. In Paris the Assassin Mentor Mirabeau and his opposite number in the Parisian Templars, de la Serre, strike a truce during the early days of the Revolution but both factions have warring ideologies within them that threaten to tear them apart. Like Assassin’s Creed III’s American War of Independence before it, this offers Ubisoft a chance to delve into the various sides of the war and show no one faction to be free of shadowy manipulators and both Assassins and Templars alike. Unfortunately, it’s a chance Ubisoft don’t readily take.
Our protagonist, Arno Dorian, is a bit weak. The plot mostly centres around him and his turbulent relationship with the Templar Elise; Arno fixates on her and his own need for revenge rather than worrying overmuch about the whole Assassins vs Templar conflict. Arno is also entirely detached from the French Revolution – he expresses no opinion one way or the other, which feels like a missed opportunity at character development. His love interest, Elise is alright but I found it difficult to care about her; she’s written competently but not exceptionally. Our main villain is utterly pedestrian, with a woolly motivation. The supporting cast are occasionally better; Napoleon, here portrayed as a sly bastard with a smart mouth, shows up for a cameo, while Arno’s grumpy mentor Bellec is probably the best character, making some tough decisions and trying to justify them, probably a more fitting character for the setting.
One of the biggest questions I had coming into the game was how it would perform. When it released Unity was riddled with some particularly infamous bugs but playing it now, a few years down the line and post-patches I found that although I experienced one or two hard crashes across two full playthroughs I had nothing on the scale of the bugs that it had at launch. There are some small issues I still have with the game. Unity features a cluttered UI that constantly overlaps itself on screen and the series’ long-standing eagle vision ability is now on a cooldown for no good reason. The advertising heavily featured “temporal anomaly” missions where you transport to Paris at a different time period but while they are cool set pieces in the game, they afterwards become pedestrian timed collectathons you can return to.
In fact, in a perfect example of the “Ubisoft” game the map is utterly cluttered with mostly meaningless shit to do. There’s a tonne of collectibles, ranging from chests (some of which were locked off behind a defunct companion app but are now blissfully just available in the game from the get go), viewpoints to unlock the map (but not everything on the map, annoyingly) and cockades to unlock new colour swatches. There are also a load of side missions – there are emergent events like fighting thugs or stopping shakedowns for a tiered set of rewards, as well as proper side missions. New additions include the Nostradamus enigmas, which are essentially a set of puzzles that take Arno on a tour of Parisian landmarks and Murder Mysteries, in which you can solve murders by finding, examining and analysing clues to try and correctly guess a crime’s murderer. All are a bit disappointing – the enigmas seemingly carry on the tradition of unlocking a great piece of armour but actually it just unlocks something cosmetic, while the mysteries are tedious and the side missions are stilted and limp.
The biggest draw is Paris itself. It makes for a compelling setting and the engine is used to great effect in crafting a hugely engaging city that bustles with life. Huge dynamic crowds fill the streets, offering lots of opportunities for crowd-blending stealth, particularly around major landmarks. Additionally, platforming has been revamped with addition of dedicated “run up” and “run down” buttons. In earlier games descending buildings could be a bit stiff but now Arno can swiftly and fluidly swoop down in a few short motions; coupled with Paris’ excellent variety in building types and heights, this makes the city an absolute joy to run around in.
Platforming isn’t the only core system that’s been fiddled with. Combat has also been changed; previous games used a counter-kill mechanic that made fighting very simple, whereas Unity opts for something closer to the Batman: Arkham games in which Arno is able to time parries in order to create openings to attack. He’s far more limited than other Assassin’s Creed protagonists; he only can use one weapon and a pistol while his hidden blade is restricted to assassinations. There is at least a range of weapon types and in-between fights players can use the extensive gear customiser to pick whichever weapon type best suits them. Arno also takes a lot more damage than other assassins; along with the parrying, combat has become a little more aggressive but much more challenging as well.
The game’s stealth has also been revamped. Because Paris features a staggering amount of indoor areas where freerunning isn’t possible, Arno can now snap to and sneak around cover. This is a sensible system that works a little better than earlier games’ attempts at stealth gameplay though snapping to and leaving cover is a bit finicky; also players can no longer whistle to attract attention, which doesn’t leave many options for players to get guards to come over for a stabbing.
Some light RPG mechanics have been added as well. Gear customisation affects a small pool of stats (stealth, health, ranged and melee) and players can also earn points to upgrade abilities tied to each stat such as more health or better lockpicking. That said, some abilities are worthless, especially ones that are only useful for the co-op missions. It’s worth mentioning here that Unity not only complicates its upgrading system by having four separate currencies for different in-game things but it’s also built to incentivise players to take advantage of Ubisoft’s microtransactions. Sure you can try and earn enough Francs to unlock that endgame armour, or you can just pay real-world money to get a special currency to buy it. It’s one of those insidious and frankly annoying additions to the series that sour the taste a little.
The big question is, is Assassin’s Creed: Unity worth playing? In short, yes. It’s not a great entry to the series, particularly from a narrative perspective as Arno and the cast trudge through trite and cliche dialogue. The game takes small steps towards the interesting meat of the Revolution and towards questioning the role that the Assassins and the Templars take in it, but the execution is flat and lifeless.
Where Unity shines is in the moment-to-moment gameplay and in the world that Ubisoft has constructed. The increased combat difficulty and limited options when fighting keeps encounters tense and engaging. Scrambling up walls, scrabbling over rooftops and leaping from street to street has never felt better; Arno moves with flowing animation and exceptional freedom. And then, once you descend down into Paris’ churned and fetid streets or into the wide, verdant boulevards and parks you quickly find yourself lost in the vast dynamic crowds as revolutionary songs roar from cafes and pubs nearby. The atmosphere is remarkable; this is a game where one can walk down a street, turn into a square and come face-to-face with a guillotine. You can stand and watch a condemned man fall face-first into mud before being hauled into the guillotine’s blocks and tied down. A momentary hush falls over the crowd; you can hear the clunk of wood and piercing scrape of the plunging blade before the crowd returns to life with a deafening roar as a severed and dripping head is presented to them.
You move onto the next mission; like Arno you leave the crowd and delve back into the weird world of Ubisoft’s conspiracies and tales of Precursors and artifacts. Behind you the scene plays out all over again, simply life in the French Revolution.
4/7 – GOOD. Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.