As someone with an almost unhealthy fascination with videogame reviews whenever a title is released that creates a massive split in opinions and scores I become genuinely excited. Reading about a universally liked or disliked game is enjoyable, and indeed seeing that sort of unity across critics and gamers alike is fantastic, but examining reviews from entirely opposite ends of the spectrum is, to me, far more interesting because it perfectly demonstrates just how subjective one’s experience with a game really is.
Case in point Assassin’s Creed: Unity. Having played the game I wrote a relatively long review and scored it a 4 out of 5, a number that on my own system means the game is describable as “great”. On the other end of the spectrum I just this morning opened up my copy of Games TM and thoroughly enjoyed reading their quite scathing review in which they awarded Unity a mere 4 out of 10. Of course reading something such as that from a group of clearly more skilled writers than I always makes me doubt myself, but above all perusing the text was a great way to start my morning. Here was a strongly contrasting opinion to my own, one which actually went against many of what I considered to be the game’s positives aspects. Such work challenges me to think differently, to consider my own writing from another perspective.
Before we get into the more nitty-gritty of subjectively examining mechanics and characters, though, let’s talk about the biggest point that has garnered Unity such harsh criticism: bugs and glitches. After having published my review I unsurprisingly and understandably received Emails demanding to know how I, someone who continuously argues against any anti-consumer activity, could warrant speaking so highly of a game that was so clearly broken. The only answer I can give is also the most simple: it wasn’t broken for me.
In the game Games TM review they list encountering several problems, including the infamous frame-rate drops. As mentioned in my own review I did encounter frame-rate drops but they weren’t that frequent or that strong, with only two or three examples of the 15FPS Games TM speaks of. The magazine also ran into a glitch where attempting to collect a trinket mid-mission caused an instant failure, but this never happened to me. They also sadly ran into a bug where Arno would fall through the ground and fall endlessly through a strange void, a problem that has severely damaged a lot of people’s experience with the game. So why didn’t I mention something so bad? Because it only happened to me once, and that was just two days ago when playing a random Paris Story mission. Likewise I’ve not once had the black loading screen.
Therein lies an inherent problem with talking about problems in videogames. While the Internet loudly proclaims reviewers and critics to have been paid off or bribed for not mentioning such glitches the likelihood is far simpler: they didn’t experience them, and ergo cannot talk about them. Stumbling upon any major glitch in a linear title like Call of Duty is pretty easy since players are funnelled down tight corridors, but in more complex games, especially those with open worlds, it becomes a far harder task because certain bugs may only affect people who approach something in a very specific manner. No reviewer could possibly be expected to replay even a five-minute mission ten, twenty, fifty or a hundred times in order to attempt to trigger a problem by taking every conceivable route. And as a rule of thumb I will not talk about any glitch I didn’t experience first-hand.
And then we enter the uncertain zone of subjectivity. We can all safely say that a game with a glitch that literally halts all progress and affects the vast majority of gamers is terrible and deserves to be criticised heavily. But what about the lesser problems? Falling through the ground, for instance, is a pain in the arse but it doesn’t break the game: you can reload and carry on with what you were doing, making it an annoying inconvenience. So how heavily should such a problem skew a review? The answer is different for everyone, and will depend on the frequency of the problem. If two reviewers encounter the very same problem twice each, they’ll still have different approaches to talking about it. One may be forgiving and barely allow it to influence a review past a brief negative sentence, and the other may berate the developers and have it more negatively impact his or her assessment. Neither is right, neither is wrong, they’re simply offering differing opinions based on personal experience.
Personally I tend to be fairly forgiving of glitches and bugs in favor of talking about the complete experience. I look toward the whole experience rather than becoming frustrated with bumps in the road, a viewpoint which I fully admit is somewhat against my other ideal of fighting against games being broken at launch. As someone who constantly argues against so many modern videogame practices I should take a more critical stance in my reviews and to a degree that’s something I’m working toward doing, but it requires essentially altering a large chunk of personality and in doing so presents a concern that it could quite badly impact my own personal enjoyment of games. The point is I tend to be more forgiving of glitches provided they never go beyond being an irritation. How would the same problems that affected Games TM have impacted me and my review, then? The answer is quite a bit since they were obviously fairly serious in the magazine’s case. I have no doubt my own review would have taken a darker, harsher tone and the final score dropped to perhaps a 3/5.
If such obvious problems can be so divisive just imagine more unclear issues being tackled. Take the beginning of the Games TM review which clearly higlights a radically different approach to reviewing a game than my own. The review opens by praising both Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed III, one for its riveting naval combat and the other for placing its protagonist in the centre of a pivotal historical moment, thus setting the tone for comparison whereas I prefer to tackle a game on its own merits. Yes, the loss of the sublime naval combat is a shame, but that was Black Flag’s domain, not that of Unity which is aiming for more of a return to the series assassination roots. Yet for Games TM the loss of naval combat is a substantial blow to Unity.
The Assasin’s Creed III point is a valid one. Games TM argues, “Assassin’s Creed III, for all of its many flaws, began with you unwittingly flung into a braying mob of people headed straight for City Hall; provoking the brilliantly uneasy feeling that you were stuck of a community of people who were about to reach an unmanagable boiling point.” In contrast the French Revolution of Unity is a backdrop to what is a much more focused story about lead character Arno. It’s not a point I feel inclined to argue against because it’s actually quite right, yet I hold that my own view is correct, too: the Assassin’s are a force which may exist within these events and exert a degree of force, but their very nature also means they are never truly a part of these events except in certain circumstances. Connor became heavily involved, but then he was rarely fighting for the order, rather he was fighting for his own people and land. Arno isn’t fighting for or even against the Revolution ultimately, he’s simply seeking revenge for a deed that was partly due to the Revolution. His parental figures died because of Templar and Assassin schemes to use the revolution, thus driving the story, but Arno himself is far less interested. Indeed, as the story itself tackles at one point he’s rarely fighting for the Assassin order and their beliefs, he’s fighting for himself and vengeance. It may seem strange given the title of the game, but Unity is less about the Assassin’s and far more about Arno, Elise and Arno’s eventual views on both the Assassin and Templar orders.
While I do mention the Revolution being little more than a pretty backdrop in my own review, and somewhat lament that we never get to be more integral in its events like Connor was in the civil war that took place, ultimately there’s nothing wrong with such an approach. The Revolution provides texture to the world, but it never was the focus of the story and thus criticising it for that very reason feels alien to me, yet remains an understandable criticism.
That also brings Game TM to their view of the story and, more importantly, to Arno, where we see a relatively similar opinion and a very, very different one. They describe the plot as, “terribly uninteresting” and having, “less narrative momentum here than there ever has been.” I, too, had issue with the overall narrative, although not quite to the same degree, viewing it as merely okay with some definite pacing problems. However, where our views again differ is that I put forward the idea that Unity is more of a character driven affair, the overall narrative made interesting through the existence of Arno and his relationship with Elise. I found Arno to be charming and instantly likable, easily the most relatable character since the days of Italian stallion Ezio. His flair and wit do get underused as the game goes on, but nonetheless he’s a likable lad and his connection with Elise was always fascinating. It was the desire to see what happened to Arno that kept me wanting to move the narrative forward, though Games TM are quite right in pointing out that it can often feel like a sequence of scenes that don’t belong together. Unlike me, however, the magazine had major problems with Arno, their own review spending very little time on his personality in favor of describing him as a, “full-blown dullard.”
It’s an opinion I struggle to understand somewhat, but one that I can nonetheless respect. This difference in view also acts, I believe, as the primary reason for the differing verdicts on the narrative: through Arno I found the story mildly interesting, his personality keeping me at least partially invested in events. On the flipside the author of the Games TM review found Arno to be a dull lead character and through that was bothered more by the narratives pacing issues. Without a lead character that he or she could connect with the lackluster narrative become even more of a problem. It’s a perfect example of how one problem can influence other areas and in turn change the tone of a review.
Of course there were other areas of the game where Games TM took issue in order to justify the low score. The more open assassination missions, for example, clearly didn’t interest or impress them, and indeed the mere existence of them is relegated to a small paragraph; “You’re launched, time after time, into a hugely overpopulated environment, given a few lame opportunities to manipulate the situation (by bribing a cleaning lady into opening a window, for example) and asked to assassinate a character surrounded by suspicious foot soldiers.” Oddly that’s all that is said about the assassination missions, a surprising gloss over a major element of the game when one considers the name of the series. Again we find a differing opinion as I clearly enjoyed the assassination missions, praising the level of freedom and the step-forward taken by including opportunities to change things slightly, even if the game announces those opportunities far too loudly. They present a return to the initial ideals of the series, namely actually assassinating people. I’d love to get more detail as to exactly what didn’t work in the assassination missions for Games TM in order to compare opinions and figure out exactly where our experiences differ. Perhaps these moments were too ruined by glitches and bugs, robbing the author from the satisfaction of a clean, elegant kill. Perhaps they struggled, like I did on occasion, to perform the mission stealthily due to the sheer number of enemies with patrol layouts that don’t seem to emphasise sneaky tactics as much as they could or should.
The review mostly uses this description of the assassination missions to segway into talking about the abundance of enemies and how being spotted almost acts as a fail-state, the likelihood of escaping small. IN some ways it does echo my own feelings: while escaping was something I found to be less of an issue, mostly because a well-placed smokebomb can allow for a quick exit, the sheer amount of enemies is a point I can agree with as they make stealth feel awkward. IN particular the amount of guns is absurd given that there’s no way of dodging them while trying to retreat and foes have a terrifying degree of accuracy. Snipers in particular are a deadly force to be contended with, their positioning often making it difficult to take them out.
Within side-missions we again wind a difference of opinion with Games TM describing them as being, “uncommonly tedious” and becrying the sheer number of them cluttering up the map. Again, my own experience was that while the map was overly cluttered, a nasty side-effect of Ubisoft’s current design template, but the actual missions themselves were worth completing, the Paris Stories providing nice little bites of narrative and the Murder Mysteries pretty interesting. I can only assume that Games TM found the design of these side-missions to be repetitive, and that’s entirely true as none of them introduce new ideas or mechanics, instead opting to send you to steal something or kill someone in most instances. Unlike Games TM, though, I found that the gameplay was generally interesting enough to keep me moving through the Paris Stories, their bite-sized, simple narratives simply providing a small amount of texture.
Above all it seems that it really was the technical issues that put the nail in the coffin, the final chunk of the review dedicated to describing them and rightfully so. Unity clearly needed to delay Unity and has managed to tarnish what was, in essence, a re-launch of their flagship series. It likely won’t affect sales of next years entry in the series, but there’s growing dissent among gamers who would like to see the franchise take a short break.
The point is reviews are subjective and that’s a good thing. As a species we’re entirely incapable of pure objectivity and it’s our subjectivity which makes us truly passionate about things like videogames. The man known as Jim Sterling did a video entitled the “100% Objective Review” in order to demonstrate why we would never want such a thing, a series of dry statements which blandly explained what the game was and did, but never how it felt to play or whether it was actually good or not. Not even glitches and bugs can be talked about in purely objective terms except to merely state their existence. Their impact on a gamer varies massively, especially in larger games where the amount of player interaction with the world is huge.
Instead we can strive to be fair, an arguably far more challenging task, one that, much like perfection, can never truly be achieved. We can strive to be fair in our assessments by attempting to analyse mechanics and story elements from multiple viewpoints, and by assessing games for what they are rather than what our expectations demanded them to be.
Assassin’s Creed: Unity and the Games TM review provide a chance to look at how entirely different opinions can be, while still being entirely valid in their own rights. At least, I hope the points I made throughout my own review were valid as the ultimate goal of any review is to justify and explain the final opinion of the author. In the case of this game while it’s easy to yell bribery or some other nonsense it’s worth considering that the author in question simply had a very different experience. While forums are filled with those who encountered serious problems, there are also people posting to say that they have had minimal issues with the game, hence, I believe, the quite wide gap in review scores and public feeling.
Of course my own personal experience does not excuse nor defend Ubisoft. Clearly they have released a messy title which many, many people are unable or struggling to enjoy due to myriad technical problems. Even without the technical issues there’s plenty of questionable mechanics, like how the parkour system still has a nasty habit of sending you completely off in the wrong direction or acting in ways you did not anticipate. Games TM obviously had a bad time with both the technical problems and gameplay issues like struggling to get away from guards or being unable to handle the parkour, whereas didn’t find either to be overly annoying. Sure, the parkour system messed up, but not seriously, and guards were a pain with their insane aim but a smoke bomb and some clever use of the environment meant escapes were more than possible.
Two reviews, two scores of four, but with radically different connotations and opinions attempting to justify them. The world of videogame reviews can be a harsh and frankly abusive one, but things like Assassin’s Creed: Unity with its glitches and sheer amount of differing reviews offers a chance to delve into criticisms in order to better understand the industry, reviewers and gamers.
While I would argue that Games TM’s review is a little lackluster in comparison to most of their work, skipping almost entirely over things like assassinations, improved parkour, heists, co-op missions and many other things in favor of focusing almost exclusively on negatives, it still raises a lot of valid points and offers up a view that while different from my own is just as valid, or more so given the years of experience behind the magazine. Perspective and one’s personal experience with any given game color the entire review and rightly so, as such articles are entirely subjective. While Games TM were plagued by a slew of technical problems and therefore understandably and correctly slated the game for it I experienced something different, a game which frequently seemed to hate me but that was truly glorious when it all came together. It’s a game where the good and the bad are balanced just so that for different people it can swing either way.
Don’t be another Internet troll incapable of using your brain for anything more than spewing hate. Consider why reviews are different and appreciate that today we have access to such a wide range of differing opinions. Appreciate when critics seemingly unite to praise or condemn or when the public do so, and equally appreciate when they do not, because both are valuable and wonderful in their own way.
As for Assassin’s Creed: Unity it may be rough, but if nothing else it does provide an interesting platform for the series moving forward, a glimpse at what the franchise could be and arguably was always aiming to be.
And as for me, maybe I’m just an idiot for giving it that score. I’m not ruling that out.
Categories: Opinion Piece