The Assassin’s Creed games have had their ups and downs over the last few years, from the heights of Brotherhood to the lows of Assassin’s Creed III, and then redemption with Black Flag 12 months ago. This year is different though, because we’re about to see the efforts of the various Ubisoft teams on the latest generation of consoles. Assassin’s Creed Unity is here, and set in Paris in the late 1700’s during a massive period of upheaval for the French. Is it revolutionary, or just plain ordinary?
It’s with familiar territory that the game introduces itself. We’ve not visited this time period before, obviously, but the premise and setup is instantly reminiscent of Ezio’s story back in Assassin’s Creed II. A child, a trauma, an indoctrination into a bizarre world of intrigue and secrets; it’s familiar stuff if you’ve played the previous titles, and maybe intentional to try and capture that feeling the series lost after completing Ezio’s tale. You are Arno Dorian, an Assassin raised by Templars in 18th Century Paris who witnesses the murder of his adopted father, is blamed for the action, and thrown in the Bastille to await execution. The story really kicks in here as Arno discovers his past and starts working with the Assassin’s to figure out who’s destabilising Paris, and why. Continuing Ubisoft’s recent trend of leading characters, Arno is not relatable to in any way – he’s like Aiden Pearce from watch_dogs with longer hair, a shallow avatar that you really don’t care about. Much like the whole story in fact. I never warmed to any of the events, and didn’t feel like rooting for either side, the story just plodded along introducing you to more historical figures with nothing about them – with the exception of the Marquis de Sade and Napoleon, both of which get very little screen time.
It’s a good job that the city of Paris has more than enough character to make up for the main protagonists, and actually contains French people. I’ve no idea why the decision was made to have all main characters speaking the Queen’s English in revolutionary France – they didn’t do that for the Italian based Assassin’s Creed games – and it’s somewhat off putting. Getting out into the city though you find the real population and the lives they lead. There are NPCs in abundance when you hit the streets, each of them giving the impression of having an existence for the 3 seconds you see them as you run past. There are riots, markets, “encounters”, walks in the parks, and street crimes going on all around you, drawing you into the chaos of the world. It’s muddy after it rains, dusty as the sunsets and beautiful to behold in the dawn light. Head up onto the rooftops and you’re treated to the sights of how much effort has gone into creating this vision. It’s truly stunning what the teams have created.
Interiors are just as impressive as the exteriors with the decadence of the era shining through, literally in some cases with gold gilded edges catching your eye. There’s a lot more inside action too, possibly too much as you creep through palace after palace stalking your prey. Hopping in through open windows to infiltrate strongholds, or just pass through to the next street, does provide new gameplay options, and nearly all without any loading getting in the way. The move to the indoors though does mean that it’s easy to miss out on what the rest of Paris has to offer. The main story won’t take you that long to finish, and at the end it had only had me visit three quarters of the map. Reaching this point though is only 30% of the total amount of things to do, so your map is still covered with tiny icons to visit and take on additional challenges, as well as the co-op missions.
Implementing co-op into the series is a great idea because the open world aspect really lends itself to multiple approaches and tactics. Select a mission from your map, jump into the game session, and work alongside the other people it’s put you with. Each of the main missions has a story behind it so your actions are put into context, and the structure of them means it’s clear to see what your next objective is and where you all need to go. If you happen to desynchronise (die) then you don’t start from the beginning, you just join your teammates again and carry on which removes frustrations of poor performance from you and the others. If you opt for no voicechat things still work reasonably well and the emergent behaviour of you and the others, guided by the markers and mission itself, make the whole thing quite enjoyable. However, this still suffers from the same problems the single player does, the lack of innovation in the control scheme.
Controlling Arno has had some tweaks. There are options for ascending and descending now which make it better to get down from high places, and the animations are smoother enabling quicker climbing and traversing. Adding these to the new, more detailed environments, and getting around should be a joy, and it is… for Arno… because he pretty much decides where he’s going to go and what he’s going to do. About half the time the area you’re aiming for will not be the area you end up at, and the other half is spent stuck on one piece of scenery because you’ve not put the left stick in the millimetre perfect position to make the leap 2 feet upwards. It gets very frustrating when you’re trying to react quickly to guards around you, and the revised combat doesn’t help. Attacking is the same as previous games, minus the instant kill streak that we’ve got used to, but other games recently have shown how multi-opponent combat can be done smoothly, and here Assassin’s Creed Unity feels clunky and outdated. It’s not aided by situations where you’ve got at least one enemy that stands out of reach and shoots you, pretty much guaranteeing a restart from checkpoint. As the enemies appear to level up in difficulty alongside you there’s never a feeling of being a master assassin, and getting improved gear and skills is unnecessarily complicated.
For this iteration, Ubisoft have opted for using 4 different currencies to buy upgrades. Cash for the initial purchase, skill points for your abilities, assassin points for upgrading, and helix points for hacking and getting things for a lower cost. Sounds good? No, it’s not. Helix points are squarely aimed at the microtransaction market and the whole system is unbalanced. A sweet sword will set you back a huge amount of cash if you want to buy it (more cash than you’ll collect in several hours of play), though you can short cut with Helix points. Given that the packs of points can cost more than the game, and that you can finish the story with a 50% levelled up Arno, it’s a pretty blatant way of extorting more money from you because you don’t need it in the game. Helix points can be earned in certain levels which are bridging sections when you’re jumping from server to server – yes, the Abstergo meta-storyline is back, but much better managed this time and a nice nod to the way the developers have been taking the series. These distractions are self-contained A-B traversal challenges set in different time periods, and give you sneak peaks of the Abstergo home entertainment world.
I’ve avoided talking about the glitches and flaws so far, because I’ve not really encountered many. I had one point where I got stuck in a church steeple which I could fast travel out of, and the NPC pop in whilst running through Paris is quite amusing rather than distracting. Cutscenes have some delayed loading of objects, but again, nothing too bad. Framerate-wise it’s been pretty solid all the way through, with any dips really just being in dense interior areas and not at the detriment to gameplay. The only thing that I have found distracting is the amount of overlay information on the screen – so many things pop up and obscure each other that you can’t read what you need to at times. There’s also the amount of unnecessary information it gives. You can switch the display off, but then you’ll miss the useful information that does come up – particularly needed for the Nostradamus environmental puzzles where you have to track down landmarks and items based on cryptic clues.
There’s a lot that Assassin’s Creed Unity does right, and a lot that it gets wrong. The inclusion of microtransactions; adding chests that can only be accessed if you play the companion app (which also has in-app purchases); chests that can only be accessed if you’ve signed up to Initiates, which doesn’t work properly; the boring story; the terrible combat; these are the things that detract from the game’s greatest triumph – the world. This is without doubt the best looking game I’ve played on the new generation of consoles, and it’s a great foundation for taking the series further forward. It’s worth playing if you’re a long term fan, and it’s definitely value for money with the amount of things you can do (I haven’t even mentioned the investigation side missions), it just isn’t as good as I was hoping for.
A review copy of Assassin’s Creed Unity for PlayStation 4 was provided by the Ubisoft PR team, and the game is available now on Xbox One, PC and PS4.