Assassin's Creed: Unity is a beautiful game. Sat atop the towers of Notre Dame, it's hard not to admire the scale of the Paris that Ubisoft Montreal have painstakingly recreated here. Perhaps more so than in any other Assassin's Creed game to date -- the edifices and porticos of Rome excepted -- Unity captures the essence of its setting perfectly. The streets throng with disgruntled citizens, loudly bemoaning everything under the sun in snippets of French. The power of the new-gen consoles has been harnessed spectacularly when it comes to populating the streets, and in later stages, when the guillotine blades start to fall and the masses crowd round to watch the bloody spectacles, the sheer number of NPCs onscreen boggles the mind.
Unity is a game that also seeks to fix some of the issues of previous instalments in the series. Arno, the game's protagonist, can now free-run up and down, depending on the button you're holding. It means that accidental, suicidal plunges are now largely a thing of the past, and that scampering around the city needn't see Arno climb atop the clutter rather than bounding over or sliding under obstacles. It's a system that works relatively well, even if it does take a little bit of getting used to. That Arno will still clamber onto low-slung tables when you're just holding down the sprint trigger is a bit annoying, but at least there's a quick, safe way of getting down from high places that don't have convenient straw piles lying in wait for a Leap of Faith.
Continuing on, it seems ludicrous that a series that sees you engage in clandestine murder should have lacked a dedicated crouch or "stealth" button for this long, but Ubisoft have finally fixed that. Now it's possible to slink about restricted areas in the manner of a cartoon robber, and you can snap in and out of cover at the touch of a button. There's also a dedicated button for helping you slip in through a window rather than jumping up and bypassing it completely as might have been the case before.
The combat system has been made clearer and more readily defined too. Instead of watching the behaviour of your enemies, you can now parry attacks easily thanks to massive, glowing indicators that tell you when you should execute the perfect parry, and when an unblockable attack is coming so you can roll deftly out of harm's way. Pleasingly enough, it feels more solid than combat in recent years, but it's still not really a patch on Ezio's finest work.
In fact, none of it is.
In fact, it's making me think ever more fondly of Assassin's Creed 3, and that's not a good sign.
You see, as shambolic as Assassin's Creed: Unity was on a technical level when it released (and it's still not exactly a solid game at the time of writing), as easy as it would be to merely write the game off as a release that could have used a QA department that worked, the fact of the matter is that the bugs aren't the only things wrong with this game. In fact, they're not even the worst offenders.
The free-running is improved on a vertical level, but lateral movement has been butchered. The fluid transitions you used to be able to make between adjacent pillars or chandeliers, are now sticky, dicey affairs. There's an imprecision to Arno's clambering moves that feels hideously clunky, one that struggles against the impressively expanded animation sets, and it limits the freedom of movement at the highest level. That might be a concession towards acrobatic realism, but that makes no sense when Arno can drop forty feet onto a thin stone wall without difficulty, or make absurdly long jumps that see him hang ever so slightly in the air. Is it graphical slowdown or a subtle special effect? It's hard to tell. It's just as well that the parkour puzzle rooms of previous games are nowhere to be seen: in Unity, they'd be torture chambers.
The stealth stuff is worse. The cover system is laughable -- you can't move around corners in cover, and detaching (even when crouched) pretty much makes you instantly visible. And while we're on the subject of cover, where the hell has whistling gone? Attracting a guard's attention for murderous purposes now forces you to leave cover, get him to notice you, and then scurry back into the shadows as quickly as you can. Even when you get into a position for a silent kill, the trigger boxes for assassinations seem more inconsistent than ever before, and the blended assassinations can have you invisible one time and then suddenly putting everyone on high alert the next. Add to that the fact that you can't manually select your hidden blades, and hostile encounters are a recipe for disaster.
There is a new disguise skill, though, but it's only temporary, which the game rather fails to mention, and it kind of takes the piss in terms of have any semblance of realism. But that's okay, it's excusable because you're in the Animus. Or Helix. Or whatever meta-tomfoolery Ubisoft are trying to pull this time. Actually, to be fair, the meta-narrative allows for of the coolest bits in the game, and it takes a nicely unobtrusive backseat to the period setting, save for the entertaining moments when you have to jump server, and you end up running through Paris in alternate time periods, one of which sees you climbing the Eiffel Tower and fending off German planes in WWII. As an interlude. Even I had to take some time out from grumbling about the game's many sins to appreciate that moment.
Ah yes, the period setting. As much as Ubisoft have done a fine job of recreating the scenes of Revolutionary Paris, they don't know what to do with it. For all of its bloat, at least Assassin's Creed III made you feel like a vital, albeit shadowy, part of history. Unity, however, takes one of the most interesting historical settings ever, and reduces it to mere window dressing. Oh, you'll bump into the Marquis de Sade and Napoleon, but those introductions will be ruined by a Database pop up before they happen, and those encounters feel more like forced cameos than anything else anyway. It's only in the game's final quarter that the Assassins-vs-Templars struggle really threatens to become moderately interesting, situated within the events of the Revolution, but by then it's too late, and over before you know it. As for the plot and the characters themselves, I'd talk about the story and how Arno is a well-performed character undone by a script that turns him into a non-entity, or how the cliched tales of love and revenge are hideously underwritten and bereft of any originality or surprise, or how it's weird that the extras in Paris all talk in French accents while the main characters chat in clipped British dialects... but, frankly, if Unity can't bring itself to give much of a toss about its story, why should I?
There are saving graces to Unity, but they really only mitigate rather than elevate. The mission design is vastly improved, the assassination missions are excellently set up and laced with opportunity. You can work out your own route to your target, but there are little side objectives that can present new avenues, escape routes, access to prime vantage points and so on. The lack of hand-holding is splendid, but it's all undone by the unbalanced, clunky stealth and the inconsistency of this game's systems. I do like the variety in side-missions, however -- the Nostradamus glyph hunts are excellent, with the riddles they present tasking you with really scrutinising the world around you. This wouldn't be possible if Ubisoft hadn't done such a damn fine job of recreating Paris -- it's like a city-wide Easter Egg hunt, and it's fantastic. The murder mysteries are a nice little change of pace too, even if they are all a bit linear and straightforward, and the collect-em-up Rift levels offer up welcome parkour playgrounds to test out Arno's skills under pressure.
But it still feels entirely too cluttered. Black Flag's map was littered with icons by the time I'd clocked the main story, but I wanted to go back and throw myself into all of them because it was fun to play on a moment to moment basis. By contrast, Unity was uninstalled from my PS4 as soon as the Gold trophy popped. To be fair, the addition of co-op actually works pretty well, with dedicated co-op missions allowing you to link up with friends, and I like the fact that you can opt to try these missions solo if you want. It feels as those missions have been purposefully designed with multiple players in mind, and that's a good thing, although it's not something that I opted to try out very often. It's nice to have the choice, though, I suppose.
Less appreciated, though, are Unity's incessant attempts to make you go play with the companion app or get stuck into Initiates on the web. It's bizarre -- this is one of the biggest games of the year, and what it really wants me to do is stop playing and go muck around with the mobile app. Unity is an example of Ubisoft at their very worst in this regard, with chests that can't be opened unless you've plunged hours into some associated piece of peripheral software. What's truly lamentable, however, is the manner by which they've introduced microtransactions. At first I thought that the choice of armour and weaponry and skills was a good thing. After all, we've had unlockable weapons before. But the more I played, the more I realised how badly Unity's balance is affected by Ubisoft's changes this year. I shouldn't have to grind my butt off in side missions or in companion apps just to be able to buy a second mid-range sword. In a free-to-play game, this would be understandable, perhaps, but not here.
This is a game that no longer rewards you for exploration. Assassin's Creed: Unity doesn't want you to play about with its systems -- with good reason, most of them are broken or filleted in some fashion -- or to root out interesting places. Aside from the dynamic missions, and even those scream imperatives at you from the HUD, Unity wants you to engage with its cluttered map and little else. There's no thrill to things any more.
Assassin's Creed: Unity is a rare beast: a triple-A game that manages to undermine itself with a lack of polish and failures in terms of execution. It's a game that cares little for its own plot in a series strong in narrative -- a historical title that chooses not to weave its way into the French Revolution in a meaningful fashion, instead using Paris and her people for fanciful decoration and little else. It's a new-gen release that's seemingly lost for direction, confused about where to go next, and therefore resorts to making everything bigger and busier, before hoping for the best. It's a bloated blunder of a game, quite frankly, bereft of mechanical competency let alone satisfaction, its potentially interesting design choices scuppered by an inconsistent set of controls and botched stealth, abandoning the best parts of its history to deliver only disappointment.
- Paris is beautiful
- The next-gen crowds are truly impressive
- Assassination missions are pleasantly open
- Side missions are nicely varied
- Cool little time-bending, server-jumping interludes
- Hefty content package
- Parkour has been fixed in some ways and needlessly broken in others
- Stealth options have been nixed from previous games
- Buggy as hell, even after patches
- Forgettable characters and story -- the Revolution is basically set dressing
- Bloated systems -- four currencies, gated chests, RPG skill system is pretty horrible
- Microtransactions unwelcome
- Combat is still worse than in AC2/Brotherhood
The Short Version: Far from pointing the way forwards for the series, Assassin's Creed: Unity is a model of creative indecision and corporate policy -- a corpulent, broken mess that plays neither to its own strengths nor to its fanbase. There are flashes of promise here, moments when everything comes together, and the game's content package is hefty, but ultimately Unity proves to be a mercifully forgettable disappointment.
5 – AVERAGE: Average games are exactly that. Neither good nor bad, some clever ideas have probably been marred by patchy execution, or strong mechanics let down by a lack of scope, new ideas or ambition. Often reserved for the completely unremarkable, the realm of the apathetic, you'll also find games here whose good and bad qualities basically cancel one another out.
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed) | Xbox One | PC
Developers: Ubisoft Montreal