Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Multiplayer: 2-4 co-op
Although I adored Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag there was no denying that the core mechanics of the series were falling apart, the once glorious parkour and stealth systems laboring to remain remotely relevant in a world where such things have been done so much better. Sailing the high seas was fun, but Assassin’s Creed needed to die and be reborn.
Cue Unity, one of two Creed games arriving this year, but the very first to be designed specifically for current gen technology, the aging systems rebuilt and redone in order to freshen the franchise up. It’s an often breathtakingly beautiful game, and while many of the flaws remain Assassin’s Creed: Unity succeeds in upgrading itself while remaining true to the core concepts of the series. The parkour system is smoother, the stealth is better, the combat a tad trickier and the assassinations more open and fun. Underneath the new facade, though, this is a familiar game and with that sense of familiarity comes a host of problems that have been with the series since the very start. More so than even the six games before it Assassin’s Creed: Unity holds the power to inspire loving adoration and intense anger at the same time.
Star of the show this time around is Frenchman Arno Dorian whose father was sadly killed when he was a child. As a result Arno is taken in by a Templar and falls in love with his guardian’s daughter Elise, yet tragedy strikes again when this father figure is also killed. Certain events transpire which lead to our hero joining the Assassin’s order and pursuing the people who killed his father. The plot is…safe, to say the least. The game doddles along with a tale of the Templars orchestrating the French Revolution and every note it hits is predictable, yet still well enough told that you’ll enjoy it. Sadly the beautifully envisioned French Revolution serves merely as the backdrop, and while you’ll occasionally get to witness parts of it and interact with a variety of historical figures it’s mostly just eye candy rather than a more integral part of the plot. Whereas Connor was actually the unsung shaper of American history Arno is kept well away from the French Revolution, which is a shame. Part of the fun of the Assassin’s Creed series has always been how the Assassins’ and the Templars have actually been carefully guiding our world.
This time around the story is actually quite small and contained, focusing far more on the internal politics of the Brotherhood while also taking a serious tone, forgoing most of the humour, a strange decision given that the lead character is a charismatic chap with an ear for a good one-liner. Second only to the legendary Ezio of Assassin’s Creed II Arno is the best protagonist to come out of Ubisoft yet, demonstrating a well-rounded personality with plenty of flair, charm and panache thrown in which runs in a similar vein to the aforementioned Italian master without ever feeling like an attempt by the developers to copy previous success. He’s a delight, to put it simply, and the man charged with voicing him delivers a great performance, as do, indeed, the entire cast. It’s Arno’s personality that carries the otherwise uninspiring story, dragging you along by sheer force of his character. That’s handy because outside of Arno and Elise there’s not any memorable characters.
Furthermore the story still suffers from the series trait of targets being introduced quickly and then killed with what often feels like minimal connection to the actual story. Despite playing the game I remain unsure of why I killed many of the people who I did or how many of my objectives actually matched up with the story.
So that brings us to the gameplay itself, starting with those all important big assassinations scattered throughout the story. Each memory series is punctuated by going forth to murder a Templar, and here we see a directed effort to return to the more open nature of the first few games. Your targets are located within relatively sizable areas and you’re free to take your time and pick a moment. Better yet there’s now opportunities to be found, created and exploited. Take an early assassination; the front door may be heavily guarded, but by swiping a key you can gain access to the doors on the upper levels. Not that you have to as there’s several other entrances to be used. Other examples include covering exhausts so that sewer tunnels become misty, obscuring the view of guards. There’s even a few unique kills to be found, although this are far too rare. Of course you could just ignore all of this and go charging in.
If there is but one flaw it’s that the game feels the need to inform you of where to find these opportunities, displaying them on your HUD and making the claim of “exploring” your surroundings to create said opportunities laughable. But this problem aside the assassination missions are a blast, finally granting players the sense of freedom that has been missing for so long in the series. You feel like an actual assassin again, plotting and planning and devising. A smokebomb here, a dart to the neck there and a stab to the heart and voila, you’ve successfully murdered some people in style.
Outside of the assassination moments the story missions tend to adhere to the now standard Assassin’s Creed template, chucking you into the always annoying tailing missions, although with less frequency. Mission objectives are standard stuff, then, but at least the game makes up for it by often giving you plenty of space to move around in. Infiltrating mansions is a favorite as you can carefully take out the snipers, scout the landscape and opt to either get in through an open window or head for the ground floor where locked doors can now be lockpicked.
The parkour system has had its underlying systems overhauled in order for it to better recognise what objects can be climbed and clambered, the idea being to rid the series of the obvious freerunning highways spread throughout the cities. Like before you can simply hold down the right trigger to send Arno sprinting madly and jumping automatically, but now you can also hold A in order to jump further and clamber upwards or hold B to enable a controlled, graceful descent, finally fixing the long-running problem of trying to get back down a building smoothly. Holding B while sprinting also lets you vault over low objects and even slide under tables. These are all fantastic new additions and bring a better sense of control to proceedings without abandoning the simplicity Ubisoft aim for within actually using the system. It takes a little while to reprogram your brain, but once you do you’ll wonder how you ever got by without being able to smoothly freerun down the side of a building.
The range and quality of the parkour animations have also been improved. Watching Arno move is a pleasure in itself, yet the series still retains some of its old flaws. You’ll still run into moments where Arno suddenly comes to a halt, the system unable to calculate a path through the city geometry, or where he’ll stagger and stutter through a section. Likewise Arno will still occasionally head in the opposite direction you intended or the system may react in a way you never could have anticipated.At best these moments are irritating, at the worst they may result in your death.
The best example, or worst, depending on how you want to think of it, of these problems comes during a side-mission where you wind up taking part in a parkour competition resulting in the most atrocious section of the entire game as all of the freerunning system’s flaws get compacted into a tiny and badly designed obstacle course. As you attempt to gracefully grab the flags before time runs out Arno becomes a stumbling, idiotic mess. You’ll end up leaping over hay bales when you wanted to climb a ladder, or won’t be able to make a seemingly simple diagonal jump to grab the last flag as the final seconds tick down, leaving you feeling pissed off to say the least. Arno will leap too far, or not far enough. He’ll stagger where he really shouldn’t, or fail to understand what you want him to do. You’ll fail countless times, not because you weren’t good enough but because the mechanics weren’t good enough.
The truth is that Unity’s parkour system, like the ones before it, is brilliant when navigating rooftops, but remains annoying when attempting more precise movement. This is true of the rest of the game, brilliant when allowed space and clumsy when penned in or demanding of precision. You’ll still find yourself cursing Arno has he runs up the side of a building rather than through the door way or won’t climb in a window.
Likewise stealth has been revamped with three new additions: an active cover system which works with a tap of A, the ability to crouch by pulling the left trigger and a ghost which displays your last known position and acts as a lure for guards. It certainly makes stealth feel a lot more natural than the stupid antics of previous assassins, but the cover system feels clunky and awkward to use, an embarrassment compared to the silky smooth systems of so many other games. There’s no way of moving around cover, for example, and getting into cover lacks the smoothness we’ve come to expect these days. Still, it’s a undeniable improvement over what came before. Likewise being able to crouch is something that fans have been calling for some time and is a clear step in the right direction, although it can’t be utilised with the parkour system so sneaking up on a bad guy on a rooftop is a strange procession of Arno crouching, then standing up to vault/drop/jump before going back to crouching. It’s a jarring transition that damages the immersion factor. The truth is that while both the cover system and crouch are improvements to the formula Assassin’s Creed: Unity still isn’t a very good stealth game, and the strange removal of the ability to move dead bodies is baffling, especially when trying to sneak through a mansion.
Combat has also changed in order to cut down on simply parrying everything. It works, to a degree. You certainly can’t rely on parrying any more, and actually achieving said parry requires quite precise timing. In the place of parrying is a heavier focus on swordplay and like both the parkour and stealth systems it’s better than what we’ve seen previously, but still not great. Combat has a strange, awkward pace to it, but serves its role.
Scattered around the wonderful yet incredibly dirty city of Paris is a staggering range of activities to take on. Finish up the story and gaze at the map and you’ll see hundreds of things to do, once again creating the infamous cluttered Ubisoft map. Activities can be discovered by simply running around, but if you can’t be arsed with that then you can head to a viewpoint as per usual and get everything shown to you. Paris Stories are small narratives that include such things as retrieving heads and infiltrating a cult of Baphomet so you can slay some Templars. . There’s even murders to solve where you have to search for evidence and attempt to accuse the correct person. Surprisingly these are actually pretty damn good. Other stuff includes the fun Nostradamus missions Throw in random events around the streets and missions to help fund and upgrade your own personal Cafe and you’ve got a game with a substantial amount of content, and for the first time the vast majority of it actually feels worth completing. The highlights are the Heist missions which are a blast to undertake, your eventual reward decreasing every time you’re discovered.The Paris Stories are a bit too skimpy on the narrative, but remain fun anyway. As for the Cafe upgrade missions they’re also a lot of fun.
Most of those missions will provide you with money, which in turn can be spent to either renovate your Cafe, purchase Social Clubs around the city or invest in new gear for the RPG-lite upgrade system. This time around not only can you pick from a decent variety of weapons but you can also purchase new hoods, chest pieces, trousers, belts and bracers, each of which comes with their own stats and can be upgraded. There’s only actually a few types of clothing to don, but they’ve all got several tiers of quality and look positively fantastic. It’s just a shame that their stats barely seemed to actually impact gameplay.
New skills do change up the way you play, though. Rather than granting new abilities as you progress through the story you’ll now be granted points to spend on unlocking things like poison grenades or double assassinations. It’s a solid idea but there’s not actually enough stuff on offer to make it feel like a substantial addition to the game and far too many of the skills remain locked away until you get to a certain point in the story, by which point you’ll probably have bought all the existing skills anyway.
Both this skill progression and equipment selection show a desire to move toward RPG territory, including a mission difficulty rating system which urges you to purchase better gear in order to tackle harder tasks. But right now neither system feels like it had enough time and thought given over to them in order to fully realise their potential within the Assassin’s Creed universe.
A fair chunk of the clothing is locked behind missions, many of which are co-operative. In fairness to the game co-op missions can actually be undertaken solo as well, if you fancy, but it does become apparent quickly that the game doesn’t rebalance itself for a single assassin, thus you’ll find enemy layouts that clearly need two or more synchronised kills in order to stealth your way through. Using the tools at your disposal will usually let you get by, though. Take the second co-op mission that I decided to attempt solo; the woman I was helping wanted stealth, although full-on assaults were also acceptable. Being a fan of the sneaky-sneaky, though, I wanted to keep things quiet. One group had two snipers set up so that they could both see each other, therefore killing one would alert the other, a setup obviously design for two people to perform a double assassination. By using the silent phantom blade, essentially a mini-crossbow, I killed one before quickly leaping down to finish the other. You won’t always be able to adjust for co-op missions in this fashion, but the option to tackle them alone is a welcome one.
If you can, though, taking some friends along is definitely worth the effort. Co-op fits neatly into the series, and calmly slicing through a dozen or so guards in perfect unison is a feeling that the rest of the game never manages to match. There’s not a massive list of co-op missions to try out, but there’s enough, plus all the Heists can also be done in co-op. A few co-op orientated abilities are also available like being able to drop a cache of gear or share your Eagle Vision with your friends. Sadly co-op seems to have come at the cost of the competitive multiplayer which is entirely absent, but ultimately the trade-off feels worth it.
Graphically the game is immensely impressive, the streets alive with an enormous number of NPCs who create the impression of a bustling city, one that is filled with plenty of gorgeous detail. The streets are covered in grime, mud, pieces of debris, water and more while the textures are universally fantastic and the lighting equally so. Mobs stand outside mansions baying for blood, while other NPCs simply walk the streets, chat to each other, get their boots cleaned or peddle their wares The game is at its best within some of the interiors where the level of detail and the lighting almost fools you into believing you’re actually there, and when clambering around the outside of famous landmarks which are recreated in such lavish detail that it’s actually a little scary to consider how many hours of work most have gone into them. It’s arguably the most visually impressive game we’ve seen on Xbox One or PS4 thus far, baring in mind it also sports a huge open world. For the first time in a while I found myself frequently walking through the streets rather than running, simply drinking in the visuals and enjoying the very well designed audio. Revolutionary Paris may be awash with mayhem, filth, death and lunacy, but it’s eye-candy of a very high order.
All this graphical power does come at a cost, though, as big framerate drops are a problem While not frequent enough to truly annoy or thankfully strike during important moments they do still appear more than they should, sometimes dropping down to somewhere in the range of 15fps. Outside of the big drops the game clearly struggles to maintain 30fps. I noticed it dipping quite a bit down to the 25fps region during busy scenes. There’s also a lot of visual glitches that rip you out of your immersed state, such as NPCs popping into existence, appearing out of walls, floating through the air and even standing at the top of a building for no apparent reason. Clipping is also a constant source if minor irritation, and for some reason while cutscenes look freaking gorgeous the game contains abysmal hair.
One big sin that has been plaguing the series from the very start remains annoyingly alive here, but it’s a problem with no single cause. Every Assassin’s Creed player is aware of it; no matter what the mission, something within the system always goes wrong. Barely a mission could go by without the parkour system mucking up at the wrong moment or an enemy behaving oddly. On one mission I lost most of my reward for remaining undetected due to Arno becoming unresponsive for a few seconds outside a hiding spot. Other times a camera will block your view because it can’t handle a tight spot, or the cover system will let you down. No matter there’s always a moment during a mission when you feel less like an assassin and more like a clumsy twat who missed several important lessons during Stabbing School.
The result is complete fucking frustration, a desire to destroy the game and its designers, as irrational as that may be. Though I died dozens of times when playing Unity I can count on one hand how many times it felt like my fault and not the games. Indeed, so many of my sessions with Assassin’s Creed: Unity ended with frustrating coursing through me, yet after a while it would give way to memories of when everything did come together properly. Few games manage to create such polarizing feelings of pure love and irritation at the same time. Given its many, many flaws you may be wondering why such a high score is sitting at the bottom of the page.
Other things tend to irritate like how there’s a massive overabundance of incredibly deadly snipers with huge ranges of vision and no reliable way to dodge their shots when trying to retreat, or how an important target will merrily wander away to check out your smoke bomb diversion while his guards saunter onwards.Sure, it makes the mission easier, but hat doesn’t stop it from being a bit odd.
Meanwhile the modern day side of the narrative feels like it is being slowly abandoned, barely getting a look in this time around, although at least the developers have thrown in some fun platforming sections that send you to different time periods, including a breathtaking clamber up the Eiffel Tower during World War II.
Like Black Flag before it Assassin’s Creed: Unity requires you to forgive so many of its flaws in order to have a good time. There’s just something about the Assassin’s Creed series. It has a charm all of its own, and if you’ve ever loved the series before you’ll already know that patience is needed to play them. Despite having been built up for current gen technology Assassin’s Creed: Unity feels like it’s still lagging behind in so many areas, its many systems a marvel that struggle to work together properly, suggesting that Ubisoft could probably do with focusing their efforts rather than tacking on more stuff. Regardless, though, it’s the best game in the series since Assassin’s Creed II, largely because it draws so much from it. In turn that means Unity is one for the fans, and not for anyone who has struggled to enjoy the franchise before. One could argue it deserves a lesser score, and frankly you’d be right in so many ways, but something in me loves it anyway.
– Framerate drops.
– Clumsy stealth and parkour.
The Verdict: 4/5 – Great
Go in with patience and forgiveness and you’ll love it. Otherwise steer clear or expect a lot of anger.