Assassin's Creed: Unity / 20th of November 2014
There’s not another franchise out there that’s quite like Assassin’s Creed, comparable to Call of Duty, at least commercially, and still able to consistently attain critical acclaim, despite the constant annual releases. Sports games aside, it’s an achievement that’s almost unique. And although the original didn’t hit the notes many were expecting of it, from Ezio onward every game in the series has been a hit, even if some of them won’t be remembered as fondly as others. The question is, have Ubisoft managed to maintain the streak going onto the next generation of consoles? After the various waves of self-inflicted bad publicity, the much criticised review embargo, and the communal wrath incurred as a result of the various gameplay bugs and glitches present within the game at launch, you’d be forgiven for already assuming Unity was a flop. The truth is, Assassin’s Creed Unity is somewhat of a failure, but surprisingly none of the aforementioned slip-ups or problems are the reason why.
No, the negative publicity and the evident lack of quality control didn’t help, but realistically things such as these don’t define whether the game is actually good or not. Red Dead Redemption had a donkey-woman you could saddle up and ride, whilst Skyrim had dragons that flew ass-first across the sky. None of these glitches broke the game, in fact sometimes they were even fun. The truth is they’re simply an inevitable consequence from making ambitious, large scale, open-world games, and Unity certainly falls into that category. And in any case most players will only experience a fraction of what you currently see making its way across the internet. In my thirty or so hours with the game, I’ve yet to come across anything resembling the wicked witch after water fight, or a cameo from one of Fallout 3’s ghouls.
However that’s not to say the game doesn’t have technical problems. The frame-rate will often drop noticeably, and pop-in for both character models and smaller pieces of scenery is unfortunately frequent. This, at least in part, appears to be a result of Unity’s various sub-systems constantly running throughout the duration of the game. Should you choose to switch off what you can from the game’s menus things do seem to improve, although this does come at the cost of locking out the game’s co-op mode.
As for the single-player, Unity will have you adopting the role of Arno, a French Ezio of sorts whose backstory takes its cues from both Romeo and Juliette, and The Count of Monte Cristo. Thankfully he’s a likeable enough protagonist, but in all honesty he’s playing second fiddle to the game’s setting. Eighteenth century Paris is a city that’s been so well recreated that it’s easily the most impressive world Ubisoft have ever built, and that’s no small feat. Not only is the city unabashedly beautiful, but being set during the build-up to, and events of the French Revolution allows for the city to feel more alive than any of its predecessors ever managed. It gives context to the number of characters on screen at any one time and is truly impressive, serving to make the world utterly convincing. As a result it’s not difficult to believe Paris was a hotbed for political unrest or mob violence at such a time, and sitting atop a church spire watching it all unfold is one of the most pleasing ways to do nothing in any videogame.
However if you do want to dive into the streets below then you’ll find more than enough to keep you occupied for weeks, if not months. In addition to the main storyline which runs somewhere in the region of twenty or so hours, there’s the oddball ‘Paris Stories’ for you to investigate, murder mysteries to solve, and property to renovate, not to mention the excellent co-op missions. If that’s not enough there are literally hundreds of collectibles, chests and ridiculously obscure riddles to uncover.
But all of this is what we’ve become accustomed to with each Assassin’s Creed, there’s now just more of it than ever. However Unity has changed significantly, the structure to the various assassination missions throughout the campaign, are now far more open and emergent than ever. You’ll often be tasked with heading to a location to track a target as usual, but before proceeding from your vantage point Arno will survey the area. By doing so various entrances and exploitable opportunities are highlighted, such as engineering a distraction or assisting an NPC in exchange for a favour. This along with the fact that the vast majority of buildings can now be entered and exited at various points makes for a much more varied experience and does something previous Assassin’s Creed games had failed in, namely to give players agency and control over how they wish to play.
All of this, the excellent recreation of Paris and multiple paths to take in completing missions is exactly what the series has been in need of for some time now, so it’s all the more unfortunate that Unity is still mired in problems. As I said earlier it’s somewhat of a failure, and that’s down to an almost limitless number of smaller problems that just haven’t been carefully considered, or good ideas that weren’t implemented properly. As I say the missions themselves provide a far greater range of freedom than they had in games previous, but the individual actions within them have not been given the same consideration.
During one particular mission I procured some poisoned wine to assassinate a heavily guarded target. Because I placed the wine bottle down before marking my target, the animation for the waiter, responsible for serving the wine to the target, never activated. I had done things in a different order to what the game wanted me to and my assassination was ruined. I had to rush the target and all my careful planning and sneaking up to that point had been wasted. In another incident I was somehow spotted and attacked by a dozen or so guards despite having assassinated my target with no one in sight. I later discovered I was supposed to have performed said assassination in a different, more public, location and the fact that I didn’t meant that the context specific action that should have triggered within a room full of witnesses, instead activated in an empty room. Problems such as these constantly plague your playthrough undermining any plans you might have and serve to do little else than act as a cause of intense frustration.
Unity’s combat mechanics have also been remade, something which again sounds like a wise decision considering how easy combat had previously been. However once again it has been handled badly. With no counter button players must parry and attack as normal, with the flashy kills coming against weakened opponents. This does serve to make things a little tougher, and so the developers have seen fit to slow down the animations, so much so that enemies now telegraph their attacks to such an extent that you’ll often have hit parry or dodge far too early, ending up dead as a result. On top of this mechanics such as the human shield for avoiding gunfire have vanished altogether, meaning you’ll often see enemies take aim at you whilst being unable to do anything about it. Ubisoft had identified a problem with the series’ combat, devised a sensible solution, and then went about implementing it about as poorly as possible.
Besides exciting hand to hand combat and the obvious assassinations, probably the most integral part of any Assassin’s Creed game is slick parkour movement that’s both simple and enjoyable. However even the beloved free-running hasn’t managed to come out unscathed. Unfortunately the goodwill behind adding the ability to take a downward trajectory when running doesn’t quite work either, as often you’ll find Arno too keen to skip the crucial ledge you needed to grab, hang from a balcony rather than having swung down and inside the widow you were aiming for, or generally just not do what you were trying to do. It’s a real disappointment that the game’s signature free-running is now so overly complicated and unreliable that trying to use it during any stealth situation will, nine times out of ten, end up in you having alerted a host of guards and cursing at your controller.
Flaws such as these are what serve to hold back Unity from being what we all know and want Assassin’s Creed games to be. Depending on your mood, when you switch the game on you could well be getting a game that feels utterly brilliant, or is so bad you’d rather gnaw off your own fingers than keep playing. The truth is Unity’s somewhere in between. Perhaps akin to the original game in the series, it’s a game you’ll want to love, but you can’t shake that feeling it should have been so much better. It seems for every two steps forward, Ubisoft manage to take one back, as a result holding back what should already be a far better game.