Assassin's Creed Unity
- Street Date:
- November 11th, 2014
- Reviewed by:
- Levi van Tine
- Review Date:1
- November 14th, 2014
- Game Release Year:
- Xbox One
- Ubisoft Montreal
Xbox One disc version reviewed.
Ubisoft’s 'Assassin’s Creed' series began as an odd little freerunning historical murder simulator in 2007. Each title has (at least) two stories running simultaneously. Most of the playtime is spent as an Assassin, a member of a secret society, while they carry out shady dealings throughout history in the defense of human self-determination. There is also an overarching metacampaign set in the present, where modern-day Assassins fight against their nemeses the Templars by diving through the genetic memories of their ancestors. All the while, a race of long-dead aliens is influencing everything and trying to control both factions. It’s kind of like a hodgepodge of 'Ancient Aliens', Dan Brown, and history textbooks.
'Assassin’s Creed: Unity' is the first game in the series to be released solely on next-gen consoles (last fall’s 'Black Flag' appeared in both generations). Its hero, Arno Dorian, comes into the ranks of the Assassin Brotherhood at the height of the French Revolution, an extremely bloody conflict that raged in France for the better part of a decade at the end of the eighteenth century.
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
The 'Assassin’s Creed' series has come a long way since its humble beginnings seven years ago. At the heart of the gameplay is a parkour movement system that allows the player to climb, jump, slide, and swim through dense urban environments. Because Assassins work alone and are expected not to harm civilians, they are masters of camouflage and can blend into crowds if pursued. When cornered, they fight with handheld weapons, rudimentary explosives, and, as the series carries on chronologically, increasingly sophisticated firearms.
After some forays into the New World, the focus of this 'Assassin’s Creed' returns to continental Europe. At the end of the 1700s, France (especially Paris and its aristocratic suburb Versailles) was a very scary place. While I have always considered Ubisoft’s depiction of historical cities to be thoughtful and well-researched if not ultraprecise, this is the most visceral representation of history yet in the series. The entire city of Paris is depicted as essentially a decade-long riot, with frequent street fights, angry mobs, burning effigies, and of course, beheadings. There were so many beheadings during the French Revolution that the industry of decapitation took a quantum leap forward with the introduction of the guillotine. This is the world that Arno lives in, and it is a grisly, violent world. The power of the next-gen consoles allows for many objects to be rendered on-screen at once, and this makes Paris feel more alive than any setting in the franchise thus far.
Arno’s parkour abilities as an Assassin are far more graceful and intuitive than any of his predecessors. He can move up and down large spans with only a few button presses, and tends to move exactly where I want him. The movement is not perfect (notably Arno seems to have an issue entering windows quickly from an adjacent wall), but it is greatly improved. There are a great many activities to take part in, from the rote collectible rituals to murder mysteries and co-op missions. The deep customization is also a welcome change. There are a myriad of different choices for clothing, armor, weapons, and abilities, and much of the gear can be upgraded, either with in-game currency or a paid unlock. Arno’s training in the beginning is minimal and many skills have to be unlocked through gameplay, even franchise standards like the double assassination.
While 'Unity' succeeds as an open world, it fails as an engaging narrative. Arno is even less likeable than the controversial Ratonhnhaké:ton (Connor Kenway) from 'Assassin’s Creed III', and is mostly content to crack wise when faced with opposition. He is like the rakish young Ezio from 'Assassin’s Creed II', but unlike Ezio he does not turn into a more mature adult as the story progresses. The story that develops around him is equally confusing, with unexplained gaps and plot holes. In its defense, 'Unity' has dialed down the modern-day segments considerably, lessening the time that I spent away from Arno. I have always considered those segments some of the weakest parts of the 'Assassin’s Creed' experience.
Normally a strong open world and agreeable mechanics can somewhat temper an otherwise flawed game and make for an enjoyable final product, even if the plot is weak. 'Unity' suffers from a host of bugs and design decisions that, after only a few hours of play, take it from the frying pan and firmly into the fire. On several occasions I fell "through" the world and was unable to continue until I restarted. Guards would inexplicably drop dead halfway through an execution animation. A halberd that I had purchased remained sheathed on Arno’s back even after he had been admitted into a prison. Uninvolved passersby would be superimposed during cutscenes, much like a person standing up in front of my seat in the theater. The framerate plummets during times of excitement, like fights. Online connectivity is spotty, which was very problematic when I was trying to enjoy co-op missions. In addition to these bugs, 'Unity' constantly nagged me to do things besides playing 'Unity'. It wanted me to log into 'Initiates', the 'Assassin’s Creed' web browser multimedia experience. It wanted me to log into Ubisoft’s Uplay Xbox app. It wanted me to fire up a smartphone app and put together little puzzles. It wanted me to spend real money on in-game "time saver packs" so that I don’t have to play it as much to enjoy advanced rewards. Even the phone app has a paid unlock. I get that as gamers we have to put up with some bugs, and that microtransactions are here to stay, but this is too much.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
As discussed above, there are some visual flaws here. Some of them are minor annoyances, like weapons not rendering exactly in Arno’s hands or costumes that clip the wrong way. Some of them completely borked my game or abruptly killed Arno. Aside from these issues, 'Unity' manages to look very good on the Xbox One. The lighting in particular is beautiful, as I first noticed when I was climbing Notre-Dame and the stained glass windows perfectly reflected the sunlight. The draw distance has been expanded, demonstrated most effectively when synchronizing an acrophobia-inducing waypoint and the camera zooms out to an obscene degree. The modern-day cutscenes utilize motion capture to the point that it looked less like a video game and more like a TV show, almost reaching the "uncanny valley" level of mimicry.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
'Unity' is no slouch when it comes to the sound. Ubisoft’s production value is evident here, and the voice acting, score, and sound effects come together to solidify the experience. The soundtrack imparts the heat of the revolution, and most of the sound mercifully avoids the bugs that plague other parts of the game.
The large number of customization options provide diversity throughout 'Unity’s' playthrough and can be carried into the multiplayer (unless you wish to play as a female - it’s not happening, per Ubisoft). The co-op multiplayer is very engaging and, bugs aside, probably the most fun I’ve had in the game. The missions are well-designed, with lots of little nooks and crannies to explore and different avenues for the pairs or squads of Assassins to take. They are also quite long, sometimes approaching an hour, which works if all players can maintain connectivity for that time.
'Assassin's Creed Unity' is a conundrum. Some of its components have been put together well, like the visual quality of Paris and the co-op. Other parts are a bit uglier and have still made it into the final product, the glaring dearth of proper bug testing foremost among them. Ultimately, the latter outweigh the former, and this game can safely be passed over by all but the most loyal fans. The Assassins have seen better days.
- Online Co-op
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