WARNING: This is a bigg’un :p.
It’s Pronounced Ahh-Noooo.
I am a big Assassin’s Creed fan, I love the franchise and I don’t begrudge it’s annual releases as I look forward to the new locations and stories each installment brings to the series. However, I find myself struggling with the series’ next-gen debut, Assassin’s Creed Unity. Unity has a number of good elements and welcome additions to the series that are tarnished by frustrating controls and poorly executed gameplay. Unity takes players back to revolutionary Paris in the late 18th Century, where they relive new Assassin Arno Dorian’s memories to uncover a Templar conspiracy surrounding…something. To be honest I couldn’t tell you what the whole point of the story is but I’ll come to that later.
But let’s start with the real star of the show which is the city of Paris itself. The largest city Ubisoft have ever recreated, Paris is a fantastic setting and credit given where it’s due, the detail put into the buildings and their interiors is fantastic. Scrambling up onto a rooftop and seeing the massive expansive of city all around you in beautiful detail is a sight to behold. Many of the buildings have accessible interiors which allow you to cut through buildings and explore entire palaces without encountering a single loading screen. On a nearly 1:1 scale, Paris is a joy to wander, aided greatly by the thousands of npc’s roaming the city streets. People dance, riot and drink as well as have conversations with each other about current events in the revolution. A few of the missions in particular are set up to show off this new technology and it really does make for a great visual spectacle, especially when you can hop down to street level and mingle seamlessly with the people of Paris truly becoming just a blade in the crowd. Random crime events that occur as you walk the streets allow you to help random citizens and make the journey from A to B more interesting than just a simple sprinting exercise. Hearing the volume get higher and higher as you approach a mob of hundreds and then dissipate again when you head off down a quieter side street gives you the impression that the city will carry on with or without your input. As the story progresses alongside the revolution streets become filled with barricades and bodies, guillotines appear with executions occurring regularly and crowds wave flags and pikes topped with the recently severed heads of the nobility. All of these things make Paris feel more alive than any environment Ubisoft has created before.
The problems appear when you start to look closer however. As you may well know, Unity has had it’s share of bugs and glitches since launching nearly a month ago. Arno has been reported to get stuck inside hay carts, banners, floors and walls, characters faces have been known to disappear during cutscenes and player movement is less than stable. In fairness on the Xbox One I only encountered a few hiccups, occasionally the frame rate would drop into slow motion on random segments of wall and some npcs managed to traverse huge obstacles without breaking their stride. A higher frame rate overall would have been preferable as movement can appear very jittery at times, especially when I switched between Halo: MCC’s 60fps and Unity it took some time for my eyes to adjust to the lower frame rate. The huge crowds whilst impressive at a distance do appear quite unstable when walking amongst them, very often npc’s would change clothes or even gender right in front of me. These issues just break the immersion that I like about AC games, I love to turn the TV volume up and just roam the city watching and listening to the city’s inhabitants. There’s lots to see and do in Paris, there are riddles to solve, crimes to stop and murders to investigate all alongside AC’s usual slew of collectibles and challenges. I really liked the murder investigations….at first. You come across a crime scene, gather clues and verbal npc accounts and then have to decide who to accuse. I took my time with the first of these investigations because I wanted to ensure I accused the right person, this meant I spent time reviewing the evidence and actually thinking about the crime. On my second investigation I got the accusation wrong and well… nothing really happened. Every murder investigation can be solved by simply asking each suspect if they did it. Handily they even confess outright if it was them, yes there is a penalty to your reward for accusing the wrong person, but it’s not enough to dissuade you from simply accusing everyone til you find who did it.
Running around the city and happening across things to do was great fun, as money and earning ‘Creed Points’ allows you to improve and customise your equipment. I was driven to find ways to make money so that I could get that new coat or hood, maybe a new colour scheme, I loved being able to customise my Assassin and there’s hundreds of combinations on offer. But as usual Ubisoft can’t do anything without shoving Uplay or any of their other online waste-of-space programs in players faces. Every other option on the menu takes you out of the game and loads in a separate program. There are chests and unlockables that can only be accessed if you play the companion app (which doesn’t work) or by signing up for AC Initiates (also doesn’t work). I went through the palava of Intitiates during my time with Black Flag, it worked ok-ish then but it did at least recognise my experience with previous titles. You would have thought that these would carry over into Unity but Initiates is so broken it doesn’t recognise you’ve even played an AC game before. This is hugely frustrating as some items are unlocked by having a high enough Initiates level, which I had before I started playing Unity. Thereby when exploring the city you’ll frequently come across chests (that appear on your map regardless of whether you have the app of Initiates) and be unable to do anything with them. It makes me so angry because Ubisoft are denying players content that they should have and have payed for all because they want you to jump through these hoops and sign up for these broken programs.
Stopping myself before this turns into a moral business practice rant let’s have a look at what changes Ubisoft have made to how Arno handles in comparison with his former Assassins. One of their best ideas yet is the ability to parkour down. Good God it makes building traversal so much better, rather than having to fling oneself from the roof and hope you have enough medicine to heal your broken legs, Arno can clamber down buildings as well as up making for smoother and more finessed traversal. The parkour movement overall is much faster and fluid, and when it works as it should, really makes you feel awesome. But for every awesome moment you achieve Unity likes to add two parts of frustrating helplessness. Unfortunately the AC series has a history of ‘OH MY GOD I DIDN’T WANT YOU TO DO THAT!!!!’ moments, there has been many an awesome assassination ruined because of a jump in the wrong direction or an aerial assassination on the man stood next to your target. Unity takes this frustration to new heights, with Paris offering a more intricate and explorable playground the controls really needed to be more accurate. I found Arno would often struggle to go through a window or up a ladder, or that he would without prompt climb benches, chairs, boxes and cannons. As you can imagine this makes stealth rather difficult. I was glad to see the addition of a designated stealth button (previous Assassins all lacked the ability to crouch unless there was a convenient bush nearby), however sometimes Arno would lock in crouch mode and I had to mash left trigger til he snapped out of it.
Likewise there is a cover system similar to that in Ubisofts Watch Dogs, but it’s very unstable and pretty much never works effectively. Ubisoft said they wanted to get back to the series roots of stealthy assassinations which require thought and planning, all of which counts for naught when Arno won’t even stand the hell up or get off of a wall. Each sequence usually ends in an assassination where the player is placed in a small section of the city where you have to locate and then eliminate your target. Breaking away from the series’ usual instant-fail approach, players can attempt these assassinations in their own preferred way. They can explore the area and create opportunities that generate more options for how the mission plays out. Or at least that’s the theory. The problem being that the controls don’t support a stealthy approach well enough for it to be as awesome as you think it might be. To encourage slow, stealthy gameplay combat is now much harder. Arno cannot grab enemies to use as human shields making you extremely vulnerable to gunfire. Enemies are expert marksmen, even as you escape into a crowd of hundreds bullets will hit you with no account for the number of people between you and your attacker. Being shot in the arse as you’re forced to flee (despite smoke bombs) doesn’t make you feel like the most bad-ass of Assassins. Gone are the chain kills of previous entries, with the focus now being on timing and ‘skill’, as enemies attack there is a small window to deflect their blow with a parry, this ‘perfect parry’ system requires players to counter when a gold flash appears above enemies heads. Unity struggles when there’s alot happening on screen and very often the parry indicator just doesn’t appear leading to frustrating deaths and button mashing. I found combat an irritating and a rather clumsy affair, having to resort to cheap tricks such as smoke bombs to score kills. None of which left me thinking I was an assassin with years of training.
Ranged weapons are short on ammo and by the end of the game do little but irritate enemies, free aiming is uncomfortable and difficult (I very often couldn’t see the aiming reticle which is a single white dot), Arno’s signature ‘Phantom Blade’ fires normal and beserk darts and proves useful for stealth but requires free aim to be of any real use. Ubisoft have done a great job of encouraging you to avoid combat by making it horrible but due to the shortcomings of the stealth mechanics you will almost always end up in a fight anyway. I can’t believe this is coming from the company behind Splinter Cell Blacklist. That game had great stealth mechanics (as it should) with a variety of options and tools for you to use and so going into Unity I was expecting much much more. If you’re going to focus on having stealth as a viable option it needs a rock solid control scheme and tools that allows improvisation and strategy for players. Arno may have the ability to crouch but he apparently cannot whistle, unlike in Blacklist, Black Flag, or AC3 players can no longer attract enemies to their location in order to take them out quickly and quietly. Those trademark haystack assassinations only now occur if you’re lucky enough to have an enemy wander past, many a time I was in cover and the enemies would walk along their preset patterns never allowing a window to take action without revealing myself. In it’s tutorial Unity encourages you to let enemies see you and then go into hiding to lure enemies toward you, which feels terribly unprofessional. It’s frustrating and when I attempted to make my move it was clumsy and frequently got me killed. Ubisoft claimed that Unity would allow players to play how they wanted to, earning experience points forces you to choose between health, melee, ranged or stealth skills. But boy oh boy does it want you to sabotage you with the lock-picking skill. Your options are very limited unless you have at least level 2 lock-picking, many a mission (particularly co-op missions) require lock-picking to even reach your objective. Obtaining the lock-picking skills will eat through your experience points, forcing you to sacrifice other essential abilities.
The co-op and heist missions are a nice addition, recent updates have made joining games far more stable and when you have friends to work with it makes for some good fun, but you will find that the majority of people just run off and do their own thing. Unity’s story is pretty to watch, character models look great even if the frame rate does make some of their movement a little unnatural. As I mentioned earlier I have no idea what the point of the story is, there’s conspiracy and murder and a love story with Arno’s childhood sweetheart Elise, who is a Templar. Another sage appears and is never really explained, but none of the story elements ever really come to anything. Upon finishing the story I felt pretty much how I expected to, a sense of ‘oh well’ was prominent. Characters are boring and predictable, Arno appears to be an attempt at another Ezio but lacks the charm (and the accent, everyone’s very British in Paris). There’s more rubbish about Pieces of Eden and precursors (thankfully not too much) and the modern day aspect is barely there at all. It feels like Ubisoft have finally lost interest in the modern day story line altogether, it serves now only as a loose excuse to explain why the animus exists and who’s using it. I was intrigued by the idea of a fully fledged Assassin brotherhood headed by a council, but they’re all just a bunch of assholes who have no real impact on anything it seems. Thankfully the French revolution serves as a backdrop to Arno’s story rather than being the story itself, AC3 suffered from a very linear presentation of the key events in the American war for independence. It’s just a shame that the French revolution ends up being the most interesting part of Unity’s narrative.
Unity saddens me because for all of it’s steps forward, there are too many that take it backwards. I adored Black Flag, I put so much time into exploring and collecting (coming from someone that hates collectibles) everything because it was just such fun. Maybe that’s because it was closer to being a pirate simulator than an Assassin’s Creed game but I feel that it still remains the best recent entry in the series. Unity could have been great, but the lack of a solid stealth and combat system coupled with illusions of choice and Ubisoft’s relentless pushing of money-making schemes (micro-transactions make an ugly appearance) sabotage what could have been a fantastic start to the series on this new generation of consoles.
Assassin’s Creed Unity receives a score of : 6/10
Reviewed on Xbox One