The release of Assassin’s Creed Unity generated a certain amount of polarised reactionism in and around the popular games media. A sizeable portion of the negative attention Ubisoft garnered was focused around the release of this game. I’ve played and reviewed the Assassin’s Creed franchise from the beginning, so it would be fair to say that AC is as close to my gaming bailiwick as we’re likely to get. Despite the hammering this game has gotten from that verbal chunk of the fanbase, I’d like to assuage anyone believing either side of the hype. Assassin’s Creed Unity is not that bad.
I don’t usually start a review by talking about visuals but I think that Assassin’s Creed Unity is probably the best-looking video game I’ve ever played. I don’t claim to be an expert on such matters but I do have an idea about the technical challenges involved in the processes used in this game. The lighting solutions in this game utilise sophisticated global illumination and shadow mapping techniques that were developed for CG movies – running these calculations in realtime is frankly astounding, I still can’t believe a lot of this is possible. Caustics, bokeh, depth of field and fancy post-processing effects may have been par for the course for the PC crowd for years now but it doesn’t negate the fact that getting these things up and running is a serious technical achievement. I’m used to seeing lovely-looking video games but every now and then I like to take stock and appreciate just how far our industry has come, in such a short time.
The architectural modelling is insanely detailed. Bump and displacement mapping used in conjunction with enormous poly counts sees revolutionary Paris realised in unparalleled detail. Climbing Notre Dame for the first time was a breathtaking experience. By a country mile, Notre Dame is the best ascent in the Assassin’s Creed series. The climb is epic; hymns echoing around Arno as he clambers the tower, bells ringing in the belfy as the synchronise sequence plays out, the gigantic scale of the moment is truly a series highlight. I’m not being fatalist though, it’s not all downhill from here. In fact, the climbing element is the best it’s ever been. Diagonal climbing adds a touch of lithe elegance to the traversal – assassins no longer mount building in right-angles but organically scale the surfaces like dandily-dressed monkeys. No pitching off at right angles, no accidentally leaping to your death and a much more enjoyable experience to watch. Having spent a bit of time with Assassin’s Creed Unity though, gamers will see this mechanic is still flawed. Raff actually experienced player death after the pathfinding ironically botched up a Leap of Faith. I’ve gotten caught on scenery and Arno’s not known what to do, which really staggers the pace of an otherwise enjoyable climb. Accidents admittedly happen much less often though and the climbs are generally more enjoyable with a lot less of the what the hell are you doing?! flaws of previous games. These slender new assassins waste too much time showing off that middleware though. There’s just a touch too much flourish to the motions and not enough focus on trimming that running line. As with Mirror’s Edge, I prefer the rush of anticipating upcoming obstacles and striving for that flawless rooftop sequence. Perhaps Ubisoft is pandering to the casual element by showing players a slower, flowery pace. Perhaps they’re just getting their money’s worth of that expensive HumanIK code. In a games market where free running is ubiquitous, Assassin’s Creed Unity has to demarcate itself as market leader in one way or another.
All the acclaim I have for the technology under the hood in Assassin’s Creed Unity, though, is counter-balanced by some positively brobdingnagian flaws (like, really big). It’s like being presented with a top-of-the-range sports car, only to find out part way around the race track that certain parts of it have been made out of cheese. It might work when you switch it on. You might even get quite far around the track before you realise, but when the penny drops, you’re in too deep to do anything about it and the consequences could be disastrous. The list of bugs and glitches in the initial weeks after release is ludicrous, but considering I’ve not experienced many of them first-hand, it’s hard for me to have other people’s opinions for myself. There’s no question that Ubisoft rushed out an incondite game to capitalise on the Christmas rush. In its primary release form, the game was crude to say the least. Most likely the game was a release candidate, a final beta. Not just lacking refinement, the game was littered with game-breaking flaws which should have been picked up in testing. No doubt these bugs were flagged but the game was pushed out the door anyway. By pressing for that festive release, Ubisoft are guilty of selling a poorly-developed product undeserving of the AAA mantle. There are myriad considerations at play here but I’ll leave that rant for another day. The fact is we must take the state of the released game into consideration when reviewing the game. Assassins’ Creed Unity has since been patched and a large proportion of the positive features I mentioned earlier have been unceremoniously removed from the game.
It’s a good job then that the features which made it in are still enjoyable enough for the average gamer to have a decent time. One thing that cannot be faltered is the story. As is the tradition of previous Assassin’s Creed protagonists, Unity features the young gallic Arno Dorian, who suffers loss at the hands of the Templars and joins the ranks of the Assassin’s as a means to dispense vengeance. This is the origin of most of the characters we’ve met so far but the trick to the storytelling is how Arno fits into the bigger picture. The AC franchise has woven a rich tapestry and Assasin’s Creed Unity weaves itself neatly into that wider mythology with grace. The story (as per) is split into two strands; inside and out of the ancestor’s memories. Whilst the game largely dispenses with the unpopular “out of the Animus” gameplay, there is still a concious effort to tie the narrative into the modern-day war between Abstergo and the contemporary assassin order. Taking a cue from Black Flag, Assassin’s Creed Unity continues the story of the Sages, which I found to be a unique and interesting plot hook back then and is still meaty enough to draw out the story in Unity. Whilst I don’t think the self-deprecating quality or the genuine originality is as present in Unity as it was in Black Flag, the narrative and characterisation of Arno are sufficient enough to pull the player through the game. The rogues gallery and supporting cast are (as always) finely-plucked from history and serve as fine vehicles to push the whole thing forward. Ubisoft Montreal are still yet to invent another character as beguiling as Ezio so it won’t do to expect it. Arno though, is fine.
This time around, Arno is not alone. The assassin brotherhood is prevalent in Paris during this time and there are a number of missions that can be undertaken by more than one assassin at once. This is not the same gameplay method as Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood though. In Assassin’s Creed Unity, the co-operative missions can be undertaken for the first time by multiple human players. This is rationalised within the confines of the game’s universe as other real life assassin’s jacking-in to their own ancestors’ memories to help out. I find this to be a really nice conceit and something reinforces that “the game is actually the Animus” trend which has been building for a while. I dig the rationalism to it; Ubisoft didn’t need to write that in, but it’s a beautiful thing that helps the whole universe feel that little bit richer.
The multiplayer itself is an interesting departure. Raff’s done a lot more than me and he says it’s the best part. The co-op missions have a bit more variety than the single-player experience with the usual mission types of tailing and assassinating bolstered out with Heist missions on top. With four concurrent players, the missions stages are a lot bigger and there’s scope for four separate conflicts all happening at once, which gives the indication of a greater battle taking place, and makes much better use of the new engine with all those guards lolloping about. Who you play with though, severely impacts the enjoyment. As a co-operative experience, getting randomly paired up with a couple of initiates can really grate, as Assassin’s Creed Unity multiplayer doesn’t seem to utilise a matchmaking system so this is common. Using your friends list to secure decent partners and making liberal use of verbal communication via your headset is a must, especially in the Heist missions where stealth is absolutely necessary. Strangely, the lobbies for Assasin’s Creed Unity multiplayer seem to be oddly empty. There have been server issues but really it just seems that the co-op is not in that high a demand, leaving gamers resorting to expanding their searches to find anybody online who wants to play. Once you’re up and running though, it’s killer entertainment. Imagine four people playing Assassin’s Creed at the same time. That’s exactly what it’s like. Hopefully there’ll be some development of this in the future, perhaps with enough content to warrant a full, online co-op campaign.
As forward-thinking as Ubisoft want to look, Assassin’s Creed has enough good ideas in its back-catalogue that trumping out a few legacy mechanics has actually made Unity better than I was expecting. I recently replayed the first Assassin’s Creed game and whilst it’s infuriating to play, there was one aspect that I found to be lacking in the more recent titles and that’s the investigation angle. In Assassin’s Creed, Altair had to gather intelligence on his marks before making his move, a feature I missed in subsequent titles. In a fashion, that feature has returned. As a way of illustrating Arno’s Eagle Vision, the beginning of each assassination offers a glimpse of areas of interest which Arno will benefit from visiting. These areas feature tasks which will help in one way or another during the mission. Each assassination can be undertaken off the bat without undertaking these, but for flavour and ease it’s best to give them a look-in.
One other feature which has been resurrected is the welcome return of Assassin Tombs. I’ve been calling for these since ACIII and their inclusion makes me very happy. Admittedly they’re not really back, but there are some exploration and puzzle areas which are very reminiscent of the assassin tombs and the abandoned cathedrals of previous games. Earning the special armour suits has long been a favourite feature and it’s nice to see another legacy feature welcomed back. That said, earning the legacy armour plays second fiddle to a feature that this reviewer finds endlessly distracting – gear juggling. Perhaps with a satirical nod, the Parisian assassins are a fickle, fashionable bunch. Arno will likely go through a few hundred subtle costume changes over the course of the average single player campaign. Each hood, glove, trouser and coat give tiny abstract changes to Arno’s stats, meaning players are likely to spend a lot of wasted time making sure their build is perfect. Ezio’s robes felt much more ostentatious than Altair’s, certainly. His coquettish Italian styling shone through, but Ezio’s robes still featured armour plating; they had belts for throwing knives, pouches for bombs and so on, which at least gave the illusion of utility. Assassin’s Creed Unity just wants their assassins to look fabulous. Their close-fitting, voguish garbs come across as foppish and decadent. As aforementioned, perhaps this is indicative of the era but I prefer the diet RPG elements which the Assassin’s Creed series represents, not the in-depth gear-juggling associated with other franchises like Diablo and Borderlands. I lamented Darksiders II for doing the same thing and I truly hope this is a feature that’s dropped in future titles.
On the subject of dropped features, do you know what I’d really like? An Assassin’s Creed game with LESS stuff to do. At this stage I think it’s lazy game design just to use numbers as a crutch. Ubisoft’s game designers seem to be using bigger maps, more secrets and more side quests to lazily add content and/or value to their game. Content which it doesn’t need. I’d rather a more involved experience with a greater attention to the fine details and more emphasis on storytelling. A great number of the side missions are practically unnecessary and I’d see them dropped before the inclusion of yet more features. The core game ain’t broke but shoehorning more and more buffer content in just sees me run out of steam before I can finish it all. I’m happy to drop fifty quid on a rich, 25-hour experience; 500 hidden chests is not going to convincingly instil the illusion of value. Especially when a number of those chests require me to pair up the companion app, activate my Uplay account, purchase the DLC and offer a pint of blood to the great Owl at Bohemian Grove (probably). Whilst these practises aren’t particularly invasive yet, I find this practise to be insidious and I think we can track the growth of this now. It’s portentous of a dark future, where gamers have to spend more and more to unlock content in the products they’ve purchased and this is not something I find enjoyable about the modern AAA games industry. Perhaps I’m being a bit of a gadfly, but I don’t think any good will come of this. On the subject of pedantism, here is a small list of things that don’t affect the gameplay (and don’t warrant a proper write-up) but in this reviewer’s opinion could have been thought out more:
- Not enough French accents – ACII was fully pseudo-rascist Italiano. More of this please.
- Overcrowded GUI. Elements overlapping other elements proves that there’s just too much going on.
- Awful loading screen (load times notwithstanding, why can’t I muck about in the white room?)
In closing, there is nothing truly wrong with Assassin’s Creed Unity. In review, the game brings together a lot of elements from past Assassin’s Creed titles but ultimately doesn’t bring much new to the table. That’s no great sin though, the reason we’re all so fulsome about Far Cry 4 is because it’s perfect in its simplicity. You don’t need to set the world on fire, after all. Raff made a comment to me the other day, he said that Unity feels like the first Assassin’s Creed; it’s not incredible in and of itself but there’s a feeling that it’s hopefully a springboard for future content. With the now-leaked screens of next year’s Victorian London setting, perhaps we’ll see the murder mystery elements fleshed out and the game will take an interesting new twist. As a long-time fan though, all I really want is a game that knows its strengths and leans on them. Unity is worth picking up, but it’s a Far Cry from game of the year.