Assassin’s Creed Unity Review
“We believe ourselves redeemers, avengers, saviours”
Assassin’s Creed has taken a fair battering in recent times and it seemed to all come to a head last year with the release of the newest instalment in the franchise, Assassin’s Creed Unity. Built specifically for current-gen hardware, boasting a French Revolutionary setting and a pledge to get back to actual assassinations, it seemed to have everything going for it. Yet it was released to a very lukewarm reception, among critics and fans alike, with severe technical issues and now infamous glitches plaguing its reputation thereafter.
Having now completed it nearly a year after release, I would have to concur with the general perception that this is an extremely disappointing game, perhaps even the worst in the entire franchise. The gameplay may have been reworked with regards to movement and combat, yet problems that have persisted in every Assassin’s Creed game are still present, such as failing to navigate smaller obstacles in your way smoothly. However Unity has far bigger problems than these annoyances, the increased focus on stealth does not mesh with the game’s structure or gameplay mechanics at all.
Ultimately it’s a game that has a kind of smothering feeling, there’s so much content available, blanketing the screen with an absurd amount of icons. Yet, the more you play the more you’re aware of the game’s failings in major aspects, it becomes impossible to enjoy.
Enough doom and gloom for the moment though, let’s start with the one aspect that Unity truly excels in, that is the artistry and general presentation. The game’s recreation of revolutionary 18th century Paris is absolutely astounding, the environment is easily the most authentic and beautiful I’ve ever seen in a game. From opulent mansions detailed with exquisite décor worthy of the noble aristocrat elite, to the filthy slums and eerie back-alleys, Paris is a painstakingly well-drawn façade of virtual architecture. What’s more unlike many other environments, Paris has a real depth and verticality to it. You can now go into fully realized interiors (there’s a lot) and buildings have a sense of scale as you attempt to reach the summit. To add to this point, the detail in the architecture extends to where you’ll rarely have a ‘simple’ climb when navigating landmarks like Notre Dame. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still holding a button to go up, but the buildings have more thoughtful designs overall; for instance you’ll have to shimmy around say beams and pillars, before working your way around ledges to find a foothold to get any higher. That’s maybe not a great description to be fair, but it’s a lot more ‘organic’ than previous games.
Unity also boasts the best lighting system I think I’ve ever seen, radiant sunshine bathes interiors in glorious light, while shadows form in splendid detail. So I guess all these visual accomplishments are in one way, perhaps the biggest shame of Unity. The astonishing recreation of Paris and breathtaking artistry is ultimately overshadowed by frustration with the gameplay mechanics.
(Note: Version played was Playstation 4 and I did not encounter any serious glitches or performance issues, however it has been nearly a year since release and multiple patches have released in this time. Therefore I do not mean to downplay its documented issues at the time of release, rather I am reviewing the game based on its current state)
Your lead in this tumultuous setting is Arno Dorian, a young man of aristocratic descent who joins the Assassin order after experiencing personal tragedy. The parallels with fan-favourite Ezio Auditore are striking, unfortunately however Arno is nowhere near as charismatic or likeable. For starters, it’s never quite clear why Arno even joins the Assassins, he doesn’t believe in their greater mission and doesn’t particularly care about the war with the Templars. See, after Arno’s father, an Assassin seeking peace with the Templars, is murdered, he’s taken in by the Templar Grandmaster Francois De La Serre who was attempting to broker peace on their side. He’s also assassinated when Arno fails to deliver him a warning in time, and basically the whole reason for him joining the Assassins is to get his revenge against the killers of a Templar Grandmaster, it really doesn’t make much sense at all.
I suppose it’s fair to say that hardly any of the Assassin’s Creed games have good narratives, but Unity especially seems a desperately weak attempt at forming a parallel story along big historical events. As mentioned above, Arno has little to no reason to become an Assassin, if only to fit in with the simple ‘Assassins are good guys’ mantra that is forced upon the player to accept, even if it’s contradictory to many events that transpire throughout the game. Elise De La Serre, daughter of Francois, is Arno’s love interest and she like her father is a fervent Templar member. It doesn’t seem like the Assassins should be the focus of this game at all, instead it seems more relevant to take the role of a splinter faction from the Templar Order.
All this nonsense could have been saved if there were rich characters and fun scenarios, but Unity has neither. Arno is thinly-developed and honestly, a complete twat. He has all the cockiness of Ezio but none of the charm, a more apt comparison would be a snarkier version of Connor from III. It’s troubling that the protagonist is this unlikeable and it gets worse when the game packs a terrible romance plot in for good measure thanks to Elise.
The modern-day narrative is back, although someone must have told Ubisoft at the last minute that yes this was something that happened in earlier games because they’re clearly desperate to forget all about it. It’s been stripped away to the bare bones with only a short modern cut-scene setting up playing as Arno and strange time rift sequences which explore Paris in other eras, basically an excuse to give the player the chance to climb on the Eiffel Tower. These memory simulations aren’t frequent and you never relinquish control of Arno, this addresses a big complaint among many who hated the modern-day segments and just wanted to stick to the historical action.
For me though, the weird modern twist gave Assassin’s Creed additional intrigue, it offered something different and it crucially gave the impression that everything was connected, namely in most of the games through Desmond Miles’ ancestry.
I’m going to go on a bit of a tangent here, but let’s face facts; the twist in II in retrospect completely derailed the modern day narrative. It was so big a leap that it could never be undone if they were backed into a corner which they subsequently were judging by the pathetic conclusion to Desmond’s story in III. The signs that Ubisoft were losing control or interest in this side of Assassin’s Creed one would argue started with the annualization of the franchise. Brotherhood and Revelations had disappointing cliff-hangers for endings and it smacks of the teams not having enough time to figure out what to do or plan ahead in good time.
Assassin’s Creed has always been a theme-park ride through history, with a focus on entertainment first and foremost. That’s totally fine when you position these historical events as being influenced by two opposing sides, Assassins and Templars. The game is merely a tour of virtual history, along with caricatures of historical figures. A simple conflict and campy scenarios can make the baffling, enjoyable. However Unity forgoes most of this for a far darker, more grounded (than other AC games be it) tale, yet it crucially doesn’t have the writing or characters to pull it off. It becomes unbearably boring and forgettable, rather than ridiculous but fun.
All this narrative bollocks might have been overlooked if the gameplay was up to scratch, but I’m afraid Unity is a real mess on that front too. Chiefly among the problems is how the focus on stealth isn’t adequately supported by the actual mechanics. Sure there’s finally a designated crouch button which is so overdue for this franchise, however the cover system that goes hand-in-hand with it is absolutely woeful thanks to how clunky it is. Arno has all the grace of weaving through cover as a bucking bronco, what’s more button presses to go in and out of cover seemed somewhat delayed, it was like he was on LSD or something.
Another problem with the stealth is the guard behaviour, you have far little time to predict where they’re going to go and how long for. In addition, enemies spot you too quickly, be it on the rooftops or inside buildings, they’re like hawks. Getting stealthier equipment can help but not to a significant degree, you never feel empowered in the right way as an Assassin in this game. You may cut down a dozen guards in open combat but that’s not the style the game itself wants you to work towards, however the problems in basic mechanics mean that actual stealth is so difficult to actually execute.
Movement controls have also seen a big change, with separate commands now in place for freerunning up and down buildings. This is a good idea in concept that does away with the old issue of jumping to your death in other games, it also boasts some excellent animation as Arno vaults fences and clambers up beams. Despite these advances, it doesn’t work consistently, with movement in all directions lacking real precision. You’ll find soon enough that the window is your true nemesis in this game, boss battles are a piece of cake but entering the damn window holy shit. Arno will climb alongside it, jump around it, drop below it, do anything but get himself in there. This may sound rather trivial, yet it’s actually a pretty big issue considering many of Unity’s missions have you infiltrating buildings to reach an assassination target, navigation woes like these mean Arno will get caught and have to fight a massive brawl because the controls won’t let you do what you want.
The last big alteration in Unity is to the combat system, the counter-heavy style of previous games has been reworked so you can’t just stand still in the middle and counter until everyone is dead anymore. You’ve got two basic moves now, the parry and strike. Parrying replaces the counter, time it well and Arno will knock them off balance to leave them open for follow-up strikes and eventual executions. This is a far harder task now though, with enemies way more aggressive, Arno can’t take much damage himself until you’ve equipped better gear later in the game, thus squaring up against more than a few guards is not a good strategy. There’s quite the variety in weapons at your disposal which is cool, ranging from swords to long weapons like spears, to heavy weapons like enormous axes and clubs. In sum, the combat has had a bit of an overhaul to dramatic effect, downplaying your usual role from an overpowered warrior to a more vulnerable mass-murderer. It makes encounters feel more intense, which they haven’t in this series for some time.
Pretty much the entire game is set in Paris and it reflects how much more ‘stripped-down’ the structure of the game seems compared to previous instalments. There’s no sailing, or Assassin-training for instance; Unity instead keeps its focus on the assassinations. To underline this further, targets are located in sandbox locations with the player having the opportunity to tackle the mission however they wish. To a degree, this stands true and you won’t fail a mission if you don’t fulfil an objective or get spotted for example. But again, gameplay flaws prevent the levels from shining as much as they should. If you attempt to be sneaky and get in from a window left ajar for instance, the poor cover system and guard behaviour will likely stop you achieving what you were planning.
Unity doesn’t skimp on content though, there are tons of side-missions, collectables and challenges dotted throughout the city. There are so many icons on the map, it’s actually overwhelming, thankfully you are able to toggle the options to only show relevant waypoints. Generally these activities are simply filler, with a multitude of boring escort and tailing missions. Although there is one exception, the murder mystery missions are good fun if very basic. Arno assumes the role as detective, using his eagle vision to locate and interpret clues at a murder scene. As he continues to investigate, he’ll get the opportunity to gather statements from witnesses and eventually able to accuse them of the crime. There are lots of people to accuse however, and the cases present a few red herrings, hence it’s for the best to investigate every clue you can before delivering an accusation. One notable case has Arno working to discover the identity of a killer who targets descendants of feared torturers.
For the first time in the series, Unity introduces online co-op up to four players. You have the opportunity of doing specifically designed co-op missions and heists, or just freely explore the city. Finding games seemed quick and easy but more human players just seemed to add to the chaotic gameplay. Taking out enemies quietly was usually shelved in favour of rampages, and the actual objectives to the missions were dull.
It’s clear that AC Unity really needed another year of development, the fundamental changes they attempt to introduce are good, but the level of execution required just isn’t there. The increased focus on stealth badly exposes the faltering mechanics at its base. Such issues also sadly dampen the more open-ended mission design. The story is the weakest it’s ever been and most secondary content is incredibly tedious to complete.
It may look stunning artistically, but Unity is a tarnished shell of a game that provides further proof that this franchise is looking very tired indeed.
+ Paris is absolutely stunning
+ Combat has been improved
+ Murder mysteries
-Stealth is poorly executed
-Movement still isn’t good enough
– Nonsense story and forgettable characters
-Tedious secondary content