written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
Though mired in controversy after the “women are too much work to animate” debacle, Assassin's Creed: Unity marks the first exclusively next gen Assassin's Creed game for publisher/developer Ubisoft. Released on PS4, Xbox One, and PC; you control Arno Dorian, a young French man who takes up the hood in order to investigate the murder of François de la Serre, the man who took him in as his ward after Arno's father (unbeknownst to Arno was an assassin) was killed. To add a bit more intrigue to the whole story, François de la Serre was also the Grand Master of the Templar Order who fell victim to a coup d'état by his fellow Templars, forcing a shift in power and core ideologies.
Set in Paris during the French Revolution in the late 18th Century, this game is huge and rightly so. Unlike other open world games that create approximations of the cities while retaining some key landmarks, Ubisoft Montreal went to great lengths to create a 1:1 Paris for Arno to run, jump, and climb around. This... along with the sheer number of NPCs they managed to fit in a scene is impressive enough.
The most positive aspect is the game's setting, after Assassin's Creed III and Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag brought the ongoing Assassin vs Templar fight into a setting wrought with lush forests and smaller cities, it's wonderful to be going back to a large city with with tall towers, full of history. Running around Paris reminded me so much of romping around Italy as Ezio in Assassin's Creed II and Assassin's Creed Brotherhood (my personal favorite games in the franchise). Much of the story feels similar to Ezio's tale, a young man who's forced to take on his father's legacy after discovering the truth about who he was.
Overall though, the narrative felt weak... it was like Arno was a literal ripoff of Ezio. Also, the decision not to use accents left me baffled. I loved hearing characters talk in the Ezio trilogy, though they were speaking English it did help the with immersion when they spoke with Italian accents or threw in random Italian words/phrases into dialog. While the denizens in Assassin's Creed: Unity did throw random French words/phrases into conversation, the British accents just seemed out of place.
Gameplay is what you'd expect from an Assassin's Creed game, not much has changed over the years. Combat still plays out as a parry/counter-attack fest, which is a bit disheartening... what with it being the same thing every time with very little variation. One major change they made was to remove counter-kills, instead forcing the player to attack after a successful parry, they stated they wanted to make combat feel more realistic but as I was playing I felt like they severely nerfed Arno after getting used to how an elite assassin fights in every previous interation. After playing a game like Shadow of Mordor that borrowed quite a bit of DNA from the stealth and assassinations of the AC series... all the while incorporating a more fluid combat system akin to the Arkham series of games. In light of what has come out in the last year, the combat in Assassin's Creed: Unity feels dated... here's hoping they figure this out for next year.
Assassinations still feel like a puzzle game, trying to find the most efficient way to complete an objective. Ubisoft has adopted an Adaptive Mission Mechanic when tasked with taking down a mark, if you choose to chase after a target rather than go the stealthy route... the target may instead make a break for it rather than forcing desynchronization. Like previous games, each mission comes with several optional tasks that increase the player's synchronization percentage. This is a godsend and something that the series needed for a while now, especially after each time the rigid mission mechanic of previous games made me feel like pulling out my hair. Eagle vision changes the most from previous games, no longer can you activate it for as long as you want. Instead the skill is labeled Eagle Sense and after activating, it requires a short cool down period until you can use the ability again. This isn't too big of a deal breaker, but after years of games that allowed you to be able to keep eagle vision on as long as you want, this felt like a step back. The trade off was that enemies you had identified will still appear in your “vision” shortly after the skill has gone into cooldown, removing the constant look-and-tag Eagle vision from previous iteration.
What bugged me the most about the combat was how they handled gunplay. After the impressive way Edward Kenway utilized multiple handguns in Black Flag, Arno's approach harkens back to a more slowed pace. You can equip a pistol or a rifle and while you can pop off a quick shot, the ability felt crippled after the way Edward used firearms in the last game. One of my major gripes with arming Arno come with his rifle, with the rifle equipped you are forced to only use that and when fighting in up close and personal, you use the rifle like a club to incapacitate enemy soldiers. Also gone is the ability to use your hidden blade as a full offensive tool, in previous games I fought many a battle with just the hidden blades because I found the combat to flow much faster than with a sword. Why they decided to remove that from Arno's abilities baffles me.
His new arsenal does make for more options when devising a strategy for battle. The Phantom Blade is an upgrade to Arno's hidden blade, allowing him to silently take out guards with ruthless precision, the berserk blade upgrade to the Phantom Blade does what the berserk dart did in previous games. In addition to the trademark smoke bombs, you can also deploy a cherry bomb to draw guard's attentions or poison gas that slowly drops enemy's health or kills weaker enemies. The absence of a sleep dart is a bit of a let down, and while I did fine without it... there were a few missions where I wished I could just send a guy to dreamland.
Controlling Arno is no longer contextual; with the press of a button, Arno can go into a crouched sneaking position or take cover behind an obstacle. This felt like a good step forward for controlling the character, I can't tell you how many times I got frustrated with Edward or Connor when trying to get them positioned perfectly to take cover around a corner. While taking cover as Arno isn't perfect, it's a big leap forward for the dated system that Assassin's Creed has used since it's first outing in 2007. Free running also received a bit of an update, while free running you can hold down one of the face buttons to either have Arno leap further or safely descend. The safe descent is a bloody godsend, we've all been there before... we think we can jump into a haystack only to leap off... straight into desynchronization. While safe descent is active, as you move forward Arno takes the safest route down; hanging, jumping, and dropping until you make it to the ground.
Noticibly missing are a few skills assassins had in the last couple games. Most notably missing is the ability to pick up and hide bodies. I don't know about you, but in previous games I used dead bodies as a way to lure guards to my position. Speaking of luring guards, the whistle ability is gone as well. All isn't totally lost, a new technique for luring guards now involve getting their attention and engaging them, running of and breaking line-of-sight leaves a ghostly sillouette behind that indicates the last position the guard saw you, you've got to act quickly but this ends up as one way to lure guards to your position without the use of cherry bombs.
Interiors are FINALLY utilized as I hoped they would, after feeling slighted by how interiors were used merely as a transition for Connor in Assassin's Creed III, finally I can run into an open window and actually stay there. This opens up the exploration greatly and gives the player more options when approaching an assassination mission. Loading between interiors and exterior is seamless with loading screens popping up only when you have to enter an enclosed building without any open doors or windows to the outside. Speaking of those loading screens... though not as frequent... you better get used to them because the game chugs at a snail's pace when loading.
Gone are the “real world” missions from previous installments. I liked how Black Flag handled the (spoilers) death of Desmond Miles by making you the player out to be the one who accesses the animus. In a stroke of absolute meta commentary, Abstergo acts as a game development and entertainment company whose employees dive into the past to create historical entertainment products while (unbeknownst to most) they further the Templar agenda. While you still act as an Abstergo employee, you are contacted by Rebecca and Shaun to join the Assassin's Brotherhood, you never get to explore Abstergo in between memories. Sometimes the system tries to shut you out from Arno's memories and the player is forced to take Arno to a portal that transports the player to a timeline outside of Arno's own (like occupied Paris during World War II). While Rebecca and Shaun talk you through it, you have to find a portal to make it back to a stable memory sequence. These reprieves in the narrative felt tacked-on and further pulled me out of the overarching narrative. While it was interesting to see Arno dodge subway trains and fighter planes, these missions were not very enjoyable. There;s a point where Arno is forced to use a turret to take out Axis aircrafts on the Eiffel Tower (yes it happens) I pretty much put my hands up and just said a few “nopes” with some choice expletives. Noone likes a forced turret sequence in games... this trend needs to stop.
Customization is key here. Arno has around 200 choice combinations of gear to equip... each with stat boosts to melee, stealth, health, and ranged attacks. Unlike previous iterations where you can purchase a whole outfit or color scheme, Unity gives you the chance to mix and match everything from Arno's hood, his chest piece, all the way down to his gauntlet. The choices can be a bit staggering in its scope, but to their credit this allows you to be able to customize your load out to fit the mission; you can don a different hood to increase your sneaking ability in stealth missions or don heavier armor when forced to battle waves of enemies. Various skills can also be purchased with skill points earned after mission, these span the gamut from different forms of ranged weapons to varrying ways you can blend into a crowd. Puzzling though was how the ability to sit on a bench to blend in or lean against a wall are actually skills you need to earn rather than being part of his existing skill set.
Visually, the game is stunning (when it works). Paris is rendered beautifully with amazing attention to detail in some of the more historical locales. The draw distance is incredible and the developers further show this while synchronizing a viewpoint. Character models are gorgeous, the series has always crafted great character models, but the wonderfully rendered characters in Unity stand out among the rest. As I said prior, the game is beautiful when it works... but game breaking bugs and hilarity like NPCs that seem to run like Gumby break my immersion quite a bit. The decision to lock the frame rate and resolution among all platforms does make a difference, as an avid gamer I really notice it when the frame rate drops, and this happened more times than I would like. When facing multiple enemies or during any point where throngs of NPCs populated the map, this ended up causing dramatic drops in frame rate. Glitches and an unstable frame rate end up leave a noticeable blemish on an otherwise beautiful game.
One of my biggest complaints has to be how Ubisoft aggressively tries to make the player sign up for Initiates and download the companion app. There are chests in the game can can only be opened after attaining a high enough rank in Intitiates (gold chest) and chests that can be opened only after doing something in the companion app. Personally, I didn't download the companion app out of principle. It's one thing to include added bonuses for signing up for a service, but to litter chests all over the world that can only be opened after signing up for some online account or downloading an app feel uncomfortably aggressive. It's one thing if this was a free-to-play game... but in a retail priced game, being bombarded with “sign up here” or “download this” left a sour taste in my mouth.
Not just limited to blatant self promotion, the decision to sell “Helix credits” in the store for real money frustrated me that this was in a retail priced game. Helix credits can be earned (slowly) while playing and can be redeemed in order to purchase some high level weapons or upgrades without using the currency you earn in game. Maybe I'm just imagining this; but earning funds in game felt much slower than previous games, couple that with prices for gear and weapons seeming to be higher than previous games... I can't help but feel like Ubisoft really are Templars, at the very least they have grown to EA levels of “not giving a shit about customers.”
The co-op multiplayer is the newest mode added to the franchise. You can match up with random people online or invite friends into matches. Each mission plays out like one of the single player objectives, but scaled to be played as a four assassin team. Rather than being a separate mode you accessed from the main menu, co-op multiplayer missions play into the core narrative. Think of them like side-missions with friends. You always play as your Arno while your teammates each control a different assassin, by that regard you show up as “Random Assassin B” while in another player's game. While interesting, I never strayed much from the main campaign much, but much like other online co-op games... a good party make for a dramatically different gameplay experience. After playing the co-op, I fully understand why Ubisoft did not include female assassins. You will always play as Arno while in multiplayer so it makes sense that they didn't create a female avatar to use... if this mode was seperate from the campaign I would be right there with everyone who were up in arms with Ubisoft's decision, but seeing how multiplayer fit into the whole narrative does shed some light on why... and I can accept that.
Assassin's Creed: Unity is an ambitious project, Paris is a blast to run through and the co-op multiplayer mode fit in nicely. But the dated combat and all the bugs and SMDH worthy glitches make me wish they pushed this one back a couple months. I get it that they want the game to come out every year at the same time, but right out the box on launch day the game was essentially broken. The aggressive marketing and the decision to sell Helix Credits for actual real life money left such a negative taste in my mouth I found it hard to truly enjoy the game. It's a shame because I was really looking forward to it. A weak story and the British accents were just the tip of my disappointment ice berg. Here's hoping next year will be better.
+ Paris is beautifully rendered
+ Improved free running
+ gorgeous visuals
+ ... Elise
- Dated combat
- Lacking polish
- Weak narrative
Story 3/5: One of the weakest narratives yet, even weaker than ACIII, while it was great to go back to a big city, I never felt fully invested in Arno's story.
Graphics 4.5/5: Though glitchy at times, when it did work it looked gorgeous. Amazing character models and a sprawling cityscape made for a delicious visual feast.
Audio 4/5: Though background audio and dialog would at times overtake the main dialog, the music fit perfectly and every sound in the city made for a bustling and truly living city.
Level design 4.5/5: Romping around a big city again felt sweetly nostalgic. Interacting with your surroundings felt fluid. Everything from interiors to exteriors made for a wonderfully interactive experience.
Set Pieces 3.5/5: Much of the scripted set pieces felt exciting, but these moments do get repetitive after a while. One scene that seemed like it was pulled right from a Michael Bay film was just as much awesome as it was “srsly?!?”
Polish 1.5/5: Glitches galore... shoddy frame rate... this game needed a few more months to cook.
Controls 3.5/5: Though the gameplay is arguably dated, controls felt snappy and Arno controlled well. The improvements to free running were greatly needed.
Gameplay 3/5: This game seriously needs a new gameplay engine. Everything feels dated, even in 2007 the combat was never optimal... though it has gotten better it's a far cry (see what I did there?) to what it could be.
Extras 4/5: Multiplayer is fun and coming across collectibles the shed a bit more light on the world around you were interesting to thumb through when not assassinating Templars. Though the value of the multiplayer alone I feel isn't enough to make the extras a compelling package.
TL;DR: Basically, hopefully with a few patches it can be the game I hope for it to be... they patched the PS4 version of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag to run at 60 frames per second so here's hoping they can with this one... but right now the shoddy framerate make it a hard game to stomach... despite all the positives.