Should we start a revolution? Or let them eat cake instead…
Assassins Creed Unity is the first dedicated outing for the series on the new generation of consoles. Climbing, jumping and slaying enemies is still at its heart, though underlying issues of poor technical performance and ‘safe’ game design may test the dedication of many budding Assassins.
The title’s setting of 18th-Century revolutionary Paris has been created on a huge scale. While the narrative is tightly focuses on a small group of characters in an intimate story of revenge, all told amidst the re-birth of France as a nation. It’s a wonderfully refreshing setting for a video game and gives gamers a glimpse into the past.
The latest hooded protagonist Arno Dorian, begins his story as a young orphan and ward to a secret Templar leader. When Arno becomes an adult, he discovers his Assassin family roots and heads down the pathway of becoming a Master Assassin, hunting Templars in Paris. To complicate matters, Arno must also balance his new found Assassin Brotherhood with the love of his life, Elise, who is a Templar agent by birth. Unlike the inert Connor from Assassins Creed 3, Arno is impassioned, cocky and brazen, but in a likable way. He is one of the most well realised Assassins Creed leads of the series since Ezio. Arno, as with all the main characters, is wonderfully voiced and the underlying story of mystery and love feels relatable and grounded in humanity. That said, considering the setting is 18th century Paris, some suspension of disbelief is required, as the characters and occupants of the city seem to have very strong British accents? Ubisoft have crafted a truly amazing open world city, thriving with life and exquisite detail. The map is littered with activities, collectables, Co-Op missions and spontaneous crowd events. All of which add to four various currencies used to level or mod Arno, his clothing, skills and weapons.
Finally, the ‘Outside the Animus’ gameplay sections have gone by the wayside. So not to completely throw away the setup from the seven previous Assassin games. Some minor cut scenes and interesting time period ‘jumps’ occur, these are just enough to maintain the overall story arc of Templars and their modern day operations as “Abstergo”. The introduction, then ‘origin story’ for Arno plays out over the first 2-3 hours and though interesting in terms of the main characters development. The incessant desire by developers to break up these narrative portions with laborious, ‘fail state’ heavy gameplay sequences is the first hint as to the lack of imagination and development Unity suffers from.
That said, Paris soon opens up and the true Assassin work begins. The core campaign missions are basically detective-like murder mysteries housed within chapters. Each chapter works towards Arno dispatching a dastardly Templar. To Ubisoft’s credit, players have been given free range in planning how to create a spectacular Templar kill. A ‘mission area’ is highlighted and the player decides how best to use the environment, skills and Arnos tools of the trade. It’s clear that a leaf has been lifted from Splinter Cells games, with versions of – ‘last seen position’ silhouettes, stealth posture on the left trigger and a functional Assassins Eagle Vision (aka: Sonar Goggles) being bought across to allow for more effective planning and executions. When it all comes together, it works ……..and the feeling of being a badass assassin is palpable.
Unity was poised to be the refocusing of the franchise, with no sail-ships or huge open areas. Just getting back to target focused, stealth orientated kills to change the course of history. But at its very core of player interaction – the vertical traversal and melee combat gameplay- the change hasn’t been as well considered. Arno can climb up buildings and now even descend under control too which saves those unintentional leaps of death. Also, he can move through open windows into detailed building interiors which in theory sounds like a solid improvement, but getting in the bloody windows is far from fluid. Unfortunately the constant battle of trying to control and guide Arno during traversal is a huge let down.
In a traversal-stealth game it’s infuriating having a perfectly planned assassination turn into a clunky sword fight due to a failed jump. When it does go pear shaped, Arno ends up fighting on the ground sword in hand, using timing and counters against multiple enemies. Combat is laboured and imprecise, and has no hint of being intuitive. Other recent 3rd person titles, such as the Arkham games or Shadow of Mordor have mastered fluid melee combat. Unity in 2014, feels like it has the same combat model developed for AC1 in 2007. Perhaps Ubisoft have purposefully persevered in this way under the premise of realism, but it’s at the expense of fun.
I have great admiration for the risks Ubisoft have taken over the years, in creating games in so many varied historic settings. AC Unitys sense of place within Revolutionary France is just another beautifully realised example of this risk taking. It should in fact, have been the new standard for Assassins Creed games. But, it is literally stunning in one hand and ‘controller throwing’ frustrating in the other. There is nothing at Unity’s core which is substantially better than any of the Assassins Creeds that have come before. Playing the game in a way that avoids ground combat and city traversal under-pressure, has allowed me to have a great time, but upon reflection, should I have to do that? Assassins Creed Unity is a true ‘next-gen’ game that is supremely pretty, but not revolutionary.