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Assassin’s Creed Unity Review: Half-Assed Creed
I stalk silently, bounding from roof to roof, unseen by the writhing masses below. They are caught in the grasp of revolution and have no time for a shadowy figure floating through the night. I reach my destination, a spire far above the crowds. My target, a member of an ancient order, is making his way out of the church. I glide down to ground level, slipping unnoticed through the crowd. Waiting until my target is nearby, I throw a pack of coins onto the floor; the crowd immediately begins to scramble for the loose change, desperate for anything to feed themselves. In the mayhem my target’s guards are swept away by the bulging crowd. Seeing my opportunity I shuffle forward. He looks around hysterically for his guards, but it is too late: my blade finds his throat and suddenly everything stops. I frown. Everything has stopped! I mash buttons, I shout, I beg—it is all to no avail. My game has crashed…again.
Unfortunately, this is the situation that best sums up the experience of Assassin’s Creed Unity, a game that is fantastic in scope and vision but hindered by enough technical issues to make one consider hanging up their hidden blades for good.
Set in the tumultuous time of the French Revolution, Assassin’s Creed Unity places us in the pampered boots of charming rogue Arno Dorian as he sets out to avenge the death of both his father and his adoptive father. Arno must discover the identities of the conspirators who killed those close to him through the usual mixture of assassinating, side missions and fetch quests. All told, the plot of Unity never rises to any great height, the tale it weaves is pointlessly convoluted, whilst at the same time managing to be painfully over simplified in key areas. New characters are brought in and taken out with such speed it makes you wonder if the voice actors were only available to record a paragraph of dialogue each. Arno himself is serviceable as a protagonist (if somewhat forgettable), his personality never quite lives up to his starting charm, and while he reaches for an Ezio-esque suave he simply abandons it too quickly in order to moan about revenge, and his star-crossed relationship with his childhood sweetheart does little to build him (and her) as an actual person.
The general muddiness of the plot is to be somewhat expected of an Assassin’s Creed game. Since the wrapping up of the future storyline in III, there is very much a feeling of padding going on in both the ‘historical’ story and the ‘future’ segments. The ‘future’ segments are now relegated to voice-overs and occasional special missions that take you to various eras of French history. Unfortunately, these missions do little other than let you climb a famous monument and seem to rely heavily on the novelty of time travel to hold your attention.
This feeling of padding and confusion unfortunately bleeds over into the world of Unity itself, for while the game charges you with bringing order to Revolution, its approach to side content is painfully anarchic.
From the moment you climb your first viewpoint you will be swamped with side activities. The map is positively buried in chests to open, people to kill, artefacts to find, enigmas to crack, property to buy, and murders to solve. The masses of barely sentient people that crowd the streets are a testament to Unity’s design problems—big, bloated, and confusing.
The feeling of information overload settles in quickly. There are literally hundreds of side activities and you are given no idea where to start. Four different types of currency and two different companion apps that are required to unlock side content only compound this feeling of overload. Old fashioned as it may be to complain about companion apps, when a game explains its side content to you this poorly, being told I need an app to open a chest is ridiculous. Most content is locked at the beginning of the game and the thrown together nature of upgrading robs the game of a basic pleasure. With so much going on at once, it becomes too much to hope for a coherent upgrade path. Asking me to master one game is understandable. Asking me to master an app and an entire series of games (plus Ubisoft’s famous Uplay troubles) is too much.
The inclusion of co-op does little to alleviate Unity’s problems, for while the concept of having more than one assassin tackle a mission is a sound one, in practice these missions will most likely descend into barely functioning brawls that offer little value outside of the upgrades they unlock and there is little reason to partake in their offerings outside of novelty and occasional gear.
A great deal was made before release about the introduction of a new engine to the franchise and the approach of back-to-basics does shine through in the gameplay. Veterans of the franchise will likely balk at having to buy basic maneuvers they have been using since Ezio, and the poor explanations you receive from the game towards how to earn abilities only adds to the frustration. While it is in a way fun to build an assassin from the ground up, the fact that you must buy an upgrade to sit on a bench (a trick available since the series’ inception) fuels the frustration and seems to be designed to slow the progress of upgrades by forcing you to expend points on what should be standard movements.
This back-to-basics approach extends to the combat, which has been simplified and condensed into a more satisfying package. Combat flows well on most occasions and once you get the hang of parries and dodges standard enemies will rarely defeat you, although large groups will still pose a risk. The problem with combat, however, is that we live in a post-Arkham world. Though the combat is serviceable, compared to the Arkham games or the recent Shadows of Mordor, it feels stiff and too solid. There are too many stop and starts and too little flow.
The same can be said for the redesigned stealth mechanics. The inclusion of a crouch button as well as a cover system mean that Arno feels a great deal more like an actual assassin than his predecessors. However, this is undermined by the unpredictability and occasionally downright stupidity of enemy AI. In numerous missions I would be attempting a stealth approach and make a mistake, which would cause guards to swarm in and a brawl would ensue, Fully expecting to have blown my chance at stealth, I was disappointed to discover that after I had slaughtered these men with pistols and bombs my target hadn’t even moved from his seat, one room over. Instead he was continuing to talk casually about wine, despite the numerous gunshots and screams emanating from a room not two feet away.
Perhaps the best way to understand the feeling of frustration you will feel with Assassin’s Creed Unity is go back and play any entry in the series. There was a point in these games where you would be scaling rooftops in an effortless chase, completely caught up in the action, and all of a sudden you would take a wrong turn and your assassin would decide to leap nearly five stories to their death on a sidewalk. That is how it feels to play Unity. The game will provide you with enjoyment, the assassination missions being a standout, but it is marred by hard crashes, crippling bugs, missing faces, and a confusing upgrade system.
As a first game in a series, it could be forgiven for being incomplete and buggy, and as a first step on next generation hardware it is a decent building block (much as the first Assassin’s Creed was), but as a major installment in a famous franchise it suffers from too many problems to be anything more than a barely passable AAA title.