Assassins Creed is a series defined by sky highs and subterranean lows. It should then come as no surprise the first next generation exclusive game in the series, Assassins Creed Unity, is no different. Rather it’s the epitome of this rule. On one hand revolution time Paris is absolutely gorgeous; populated with dense crowds made up of a mind blowing number of NPCs and overflowing with missions to undertake. On the other hand series old control gripes persist despite Ubisoft’s attempts to resolve the issues. Unity also is home to the weakest narrative in the mainline series. Furthermore the removal of huge open explorable areas that predecessor Black Flag thrived on makes Unity feel like it’s taking two steps forward then one step back.
Where Assassins Creed Unity capitalizes on its next generation status most strongly is visual fidelity. Unity is hands down the prettiest Assassins Creed to date. Revolution time Paris looks stunning; Ubisoft’s intense attention to detail makes this most life like locale in the series to date. The technical power of PS4 and Xbox One caters perfectly to Ubi’s obsession of recreating historical locations with intense accuracy. Each suburb of Paris looks marvelous: hedonistic posher areas of Paris shine with decadence, a stark contrast to the poorer hovels which are painted with a far grimier brush. Each region is believably inhabited by the type of people you’d expect.
The way Ubi demonstrates the vast difference in quality of life around Paris helps to convey how unrest was born and evolved into brutal revolution. As revolutionist crowds begin to gather Unity gets a chance to flex another of it’s impressive aesthetic muscle. Assassins Creed Unity puts more NPC’s on screen at one time than any other game I’ve ever played. The swathes of bodies filling the streets are incredibly populous and dense, it’s an impressive technical achievement. This visual clout comes at cost though. Unity’s frame rate fluctuates between 25-30 fps consistently and the problem is noticeably worse in outside areas. Strangely it’s not always the large crowds that cause the slow down.
Amongst the bloodthirsty crowds you take your place as Arno who, like so many series protagonists before him, is a member of the Assassin Brotherhood. The young Frenchmen joins the age old sect hoping they’ll help him on his path to revenge as a mysterious figure has framed him for murder during the games opening hour. Sadly Arno is one of the franchises weakest leads yet. With a personality that wouldn’t be out of place in The Only Way is Essex Arno is a spoilt rich kid who’s difficult to sympathize with. His closed minded goals are difficult to relate to. During the games events Arno scarcely evolves never growing as a hero, and the little progression he does undergo is so boring I wasn’t bothered anyway.
Arno’s supporting cast doesn’t fair much better either. Like the lead they suffer from underdevelopment with most only ever appearing for a mission or two to spout a couple of lines of dialogue. As a result I was left with little interest in any of the characters; outside of adopted sister Elise and the eventual bad guy you’d be hard pushed to remember any of the cast by name. Except Napoleon who appears for one mission, I only remember his name because he’s Napoleon though – not because of AC’s apparently obligatory use of the French military leader.
Naturally the ever present Templar vs Assassin theme of Assassins Creed is back, but this time takes a backseat to Arno’s personal quest for vengeance. Sadly the tale is woefully lacking any real punch or excitement. It’s also really disjointed making it hard to follow, and Assassins Creed’s signature time travel nonsense only serves to further convolute the tale. Thankfully the time travel aspect is toned way back this time around with Ubisoft electing to never bring players out of the Animus and into the present day. A hugely welcome decision.
As Unity’s story firmly sticks to one time period so too does it’s exploration stick to one location. Paris. The city is considerable in scale feeling both vast and diverse. Each region brings something unique to the table. They’re farms, docks and massive noble houses to explore. It’s not all cathedrals and stone buildings – although admittedly most of it is. Unity builds on the internal exploration the series has toyed with a little in the past too. Many of the buildings in the city have open windows and doors which Arno can use to slip inside premises bringing exploration off the streets and indoors.
Paris is without a doubt the single largest city ever featured in Assassins Creed, but despite it’s vastness and it’s far smaller supplementary sandbox state “Versailles” Unity feels considerably smaller in scope than series recent entries. The omission of multiple cities or larger open areas seen in previous games feels like a missed opportunity. In particular I found myself longing for something similar to the fully explorable Caribbean of Black Flag. I can’t understand why Ubisoft chose to leave behind such a large part of what made the last game so great. The single city choice actually makes Unity feel like a step backwards rather than forwards, unfortunate for the first next generation exclusive in the series.
As ever getting around the city is handled by Assassins Creed’s iconic parkour, which as per usual has it’s problems. This is however the first time in a while Ubisoft feels like they’ve really tried to iterate on previous designs and resolve long complained about issues. Climbing around is generally better than before, you’ll still find Arno grabbing the wrong ledge now and then, but this happened to me less than in previous installments. Additionally a downward parkour movement system is now in place making climbing down buildings as easy as scaling them, for the first time ever playing Assassins Creed I never once accidentally threw myself off a building to my death; that feels really good.
Unity also attempts to fix the series long bemoaned mission structure. Story missions are no longer padded out with infuriating tails or humdrum tasks invented to kill time, the campaign is leaner and more enjoyable than ever. Each chapter ends with an assassination mission reminiscent of those from the first Assassins Creed too. I would be sent to a location, given a target and told to assassinate them. How I went about my achieving the goal was up to me, though the game would give me some less than subtle suggestions to help. Some assassination have special executions and pulling them off is incredibly rewarding. Crashing celebrations, breaking into prisons, storming castles – assassinations are easily Unity’s single player highlight.
Those old problematic and tiresome missions haven’t been removed completely though. Ubisoft has simply moved the issue elsewhere. Tailing missions, irritating stealth missions and other old “favorites” have been mostly relegated to the role side missions. Unity does try to make these missions more palatable, but they remain as uninspired and dull as ever. The long awaited implementation of an actual crouch/sneak button does somewhat relieve the frustration of missions that require stealth but the mission structure is still unengaging.
On the flip side many of the newly introduced mission types fair better. A new favorite of mine are the murder mysteries. These sections had me visit crime scenes all around the city, investigate the clues left behind, question witnesses and ultimately solve the grisly murder. Each crime is it’s own self contained story and are really enjoyable, they help you really get in to some of the more personal tales of the cities inhabitants. It’s really a shame they aren’t more of them.
I was less fond of Assassins Creed’s new found love of co-operative missions. They are loads of these scattered throughout Paris which are to be undertaken by between 2-4 players. Most of Unity’s biggest set-pieces are confined to these multiplayer segments, and whilst they are fantastically put together and great fun in their own right, it’s near impossible to do them alone. It’s sad to see players penalized for wanting to play alone, it’s especially sad to see a predominately known for it’s singleplayer series make it’s best bits co-op multiplayer only.
Unity expands heavily upon the old Assassins Creed upgrade system. Instead of players unlocking abilities by playing through the story they are now bought and upgraded using skill points earned through missions. Gear too is handled differently, players can buy new gear through in-game money, real life micro-transactions or through completing missions. The new options add depth to character to customization but once again penalize players who opt to play solo as some gear and a section of skill points can only be earned though co-op play. If you want to max Arno’s skills you must play co-op.
Assassins Creed Unity really is a mixed bag. It does so much right whilst simulataneously doing so much wrong. It’s sprawling realisation of revolutionary Paris is nothing short of amazing and bustling crowds make it feel alive. Yet at the same time the lack of other locale and open areas make it feel claustrophobic despite it’s larger scale. It’s story is lacking even though it let’s go of the time travel drivel. It’s controls are still far from perfect despite being improved upon. It’s beauty is routinely let down by a choppy frame rate. And great new mission ideas are overclouded by returning annoyances. Unity despite these issues is a good game, just one that could have been much better. Assassins Creed’s next generation exclusive debut takes two steps forward, and one step back.