By Leo Stevenson
For a series about murdering from the shadows, Assassin's Creed has never really handled stealth too well. You've not even able to crouch or take cover... until now, because thankfully Unity is first and foremost about stealth. It's focused on sneaking silently and every decision made by the development team seems to be in service of delivering the ultimate stealth Assassin's Creed experience.
In a crowded E3 booth, I watched as a developer walked me through the single-player demo I'd seen the previous day at Ubisoft's media briefing. Paris is in the grip of the revolution and assassin Arno Dorian's target, a military Captain, is somewhere in the city. Paris is rendered in stunning detail as Arno perches atop a gargoyle branching from Notre Dame, the city spreading out beneath him. It's immediately clear that the scourge or cross-gen is nowhere to be seen.
Crowds gather below as the city goes about its business. Paris is alive in Unity and while the cities in the franchise have always played an important role, none have ever featured so heavily as a character in their own right as Paris does now. Arno swoops down from the cathedral, showing off the new parkour system. Holding the right trigger enables parkour mode, but by holding either A or B Arno can now parkour up and down respectively. It's a subtle change at first, but after seeing it in action it's clear it's a massive change that will affect the very fundamentals of Assassin's Creed.
Once his boots are on the ground, it's clear that Arno's Paris is superior -- from a gameplay perspective -- to Altair's Jerusalem, Ezio's Rome, Florence, Venice or Constantinople, Connor's Boston or New York and even Edward's Caribbean. As the dev walks Arno through the city streets radiant quests pop up at an alarming rate and not the same old "catch the tax collector" type seen in previous games (though they still exist too).
These are quests that occur on the fly and can be saved for later or taken up in the moment. The dev doesn't participate in any of the ones that occur, but promises that any of these events that occur can be interacted with now or later and will shape the way the citizens and governance of Paris view Arno and the assassin's. It's also pointed out that with the newly introduced quest log, anything that a player doesn't want to tackle immediately can be saved for later, with its location marked on the map.
Spotting a group of aggressors up ahead the dev ducks into a nearby building to avoid them. He tells me that in a first for the series Unity features navigable interiors that don't require any loading. Arno can go between exterior and interior without any pesky loading screens and without the interior being a canned animation like in previous titles. The inside of the building isn't any safer, being filled with enemies, but rather than fight his way out, the dev chooses stealth.
Combat has been changed for Unity. Gone is the one-hit kill counter and in its place is the parry system. Players will now actually have to fight with skill when they do battle and the dev tells me that in the early stages of the game fleeing is usually the best option. Arno's skills are not finely tuned yet and if the player takes on too many enemies at one time they will find themselves in a world of trouble.
Taking a page from both Watch Dogs and Splinter Cell, Arno can take cover and avoid the line of sight of his enemies, he's also able to crouch. It may not sound amazing, but seeing it in action makes you wonder why it's been absent from the series for so long. Successfully moving through the building and past the enemies, Arno comes to a square where a crowd has gathered to see an execution by guillotine. The target is nearby and by using eagle vision the dev spots him. He's surrounded by a contingent of guards and so a head on attack is ill-advised.
The dev tells me that Ubisoft is attempting to provide a "360 approach to assassinations" and allowing players to complete them in any fashion they choose. Using the new parkour up move, Arno runs parrallel up a wall and reaches a nearby rooftop. I see the executioners loading the victim into the guillotine and ask if we could save him if we chose too. I'm told that if we wanted to we could, but for the purposes of this demo he has to die. With a sickening "thunk" the guillotine lops his head off as Arno leaps to perch on top of it. The captain is below, addressing the crown. Arno leaps off and plunges his hidden blades into the captain's throat. The camera zooms back and seamlessly transitions into a cutscene. The crowd disperses and life in Paris goes on.
Unity looks -- like Watch Dogs -- to be a culmination of everything Ubisoft has learned from it's titles. It also looks truly current-gen not just graphically, (although it is gorgeous) but also in the way it offers players choice and provides options for how to play. Players won't be funnelled in directions the game wants and forced into fail states. They'll be given the freedom to choose. Maybe finally the game will live up to the Assassin's mantra and prove that nothing is forbidden.
Assassin's Creed: Unity will be available for PC, PS4 and Xbox One on 28 October 2014.