It’s that time of year again, when Ubisoft encourage us to take a trip into the Animus to delve into the war between Assassins and Templars. The next-gen only Assassin’s Creed: Unity takes the story to revolutionary France, and another new Assassin joins the brotherhood.
Game: Assassin’s Creed Unity
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Ubisoft’s dominant open-world franchise had a bit of a revival last year with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Focusing on the naval adventures introduced in the lacklustre AC3, Black Flag drifted away slightly from the assassinations and dense city-based gameplay of the previous games and could have just as easily been launched as a new, pirate themed IP. Whilst a great game in its own right, certain things felt missing from the days of Ezio Auditore’s outings in Italy. Thankfully, Unity looks to reinstate the missing elements and let you run riot in a faithfully recreated 18th Century France.
This time out, you play as Arno, a newbie to the Brotherhood of Assassins but, typically, with hidden family ties to the shadowy organization. Arno all but banishes the memory of Conor and his monotone drawl, and definitely conjures up memories of gaming’s favourite Italian Playboy from earlier on in the franchise. There are a wealth of customisation options in the game as well, so you can make Arno look as sensible or as ridiculous as you’d like.
With this being the “true” next-gen debut of the Assassin’s Creed series, expectations have been set rather high. Particularly with Ubisoft themselves stating that they wanted to “avoid debates and stuff” with Unity, and setting the resolution at 900p and the frame rate at 30fps. It is an absolutely gorgeous game, regardless of that number, and I’ve seen games running at a native 1080p that look substantially worse than Unity does. Unfortunately, the game’s frame rate doesn’t hold up all that well. It frequently dips below 30 and chugs when things get busy on screen, which is a shame because it does look stunning, particularly when crowds of literally thousands gather on screen. There is also a lot of texture pop-in, particularly with the NPC’s in the aforementioned crowds. It can be a bit jarring when sprinting through the streets to have random pedestrians appear out of nowhere. Having said this, it’s by no means unplayable at any point.
With the bad news out of the way, let’s focus on what’s good about Unity, because there’s plenty of it. Firstly, as mentioned, the art design and graphical fidelity is fantastic. Interiors are well modeled, and for the first time since the feature was introduced in AC3, there are points when running through buildings during a chase that I wanted to just stop and look around. Additionally, the historical feeling of being in France is far removed from that in Italy, but in the best way possible. Maybe it’s because the events are a little more familiar to most, but the way in which actual historical events are tied into the game don’t feel as forced as they did for Altair and Ezio’s stories.
As with all of the AC series thus far, Arno’s story revolves around the conflict between the Brotherhood of Assassins and the Order of the Templars. Ubisoft appear to have taken criticism on board of the previous entries in the franchise, and have limited the sci-fi elements to very brief cutscenes and side missions. In fact, they’ve gone so far as to spoil what I considered to be one of the cooler moments of the game in the recent “time anomaly” trailer, a decision that utterly baffled me when I hit that point in the game. The story trots along at a nice pace and doesn’t feel too contrived at any point, unlike earlier games. It’s an enjoyable waltz through a violent time in French history. Also gone are the atrocious, yet previously persistent missions where you had to follow someone and eavesdrop. Yes, the “mission failed because you were 2m away from a circle on the floor” irritation has disappeared. In fact, the mission design in general is much more varied and impressive than it’s been in any of the previous games. Whilst there’s no naval missions to speak of (that’s for the previous-gen Rogue to deal with), there are a wide array of different activities, including murder mystery style investigations, heist missions and of course, the assassinations themselves, which leads me nicely onto my next section.
Assassination missions in recent AC games have been a bit lacking. There has usually been a set way to do them, with very little room for experimentation and maneuver. With Unity, however, you’re given a target whilst perched on a nearby ledge, you’re told roughly where they are and given a rundown of how many entrances, guards and hiding spots are available to you, and then you’re thrown at the mission. It’s an approach that I’ve been wanting from the game for a long time now, and it really hammers home the point that this is a game about Assassins. Whilst there is one restriction on these missions (You must use your hidden blade), the rest is up to you. In most of them there will be optional objectives that will make either the approach, the escape or both more straightforward, but if you want to go in and stab a bunch of dudes in the neck until you get to your target, that’s perfectly fine to do as well.
Gameplay is mostly the typical Assassin’s Creed style we’ve come to know and love, with one major exception. The combat has had a complete overhaul, so no more relying on parrying shots and then chaining one hit kills together to take down an entire army. The enemies in Unity make you think, with riflemen stationed on rooftops and guards with swords and pikes littered across the map. If you don’t dispose of them, they will remember you, and if you’ve annoyed the population, they will inform the guards of where you are if you’re hidden. It definitely keeps you on your toes as you try and get from mission to mission. The staples of the franchise return in the form of an upgradeable hideout and assassination side missions, but if you’re expecting the levels of wealth found in Monteriggioni, then think again, as this appears to have been much more well balanced than before.
For the first time in Assassin’s Creed history, the game features co-operative multiplayer gameplay. I was skeptical about this when it was announced, but after spending a few hours with it, it’s a great deal of fun. The mission types are plucked straight from the main game with neat little twists to ensure that you work together and compose a strategy to ensure you don’t meet a grisly end. If you do, however, your teammate/s can come and revive you, enabling you to get on with the task at hand. The best way I can describe it is “Brotherhood with other actual humans”. It fits well within the series as a whole and definitely makes more sense than the competitive multiplayer, which it replaces.
All told, Assassin’s Creed Unity is a great game that’s been let down by some technical issues. It’s a shame that Ubisoft drew attention to themselves with the quotes earlier on this year by implying one version had been held back, which judging on the PS4 version of the game simply isn’t true. It’s even more annoying to think that this will be the talking point when really it should be more about how Ubisoft Montreal have nailed the key things in the game and brought the best things from previous games to the table whilst whittling away some of the less well received parts. If you’re a fan of the series, Assassin’s Creed Unity is an absolute no-brainer. It distills the essence of the franchise into a campaign of decent length, with more variety than before and a much-needed revamp of the mission structure, and adding in a surprisingly deep and fun co-operative mode has revitalised the online side of things for the franchise. Much like a couple of other high profile franchises this year, Assassin’s Creed has its best entry in years with the release of Unity. If the technical problems can be patched out, then add a one onto the score.