In seven short years, we’ve seen nine main Assassin’s Creed games and a varied franchise history. Starting off a bit weak, Ubisoft really raised the bar with Assassin’s Creed II and main character Ezio Auditore da Firenze, who proved so popular he starred in a total of three titles. Trying to breathe new life in to the series, Assassin’s Creed III almost killed it instead, with its PS Vita tie-in, Liberation, arguably more popular with fans. Still, Connor’s adventures introduced us to the world of sailing, and Assassin’s Creed IV – and moreover, this year’s last-gen Rogue – embraced that functionality wholeheartedly. The first Assassin’s Creed of this current generation has done away with sailing – and the franchise’s traditional multiplayer – to essentially return the game back to its roots.
It’s a very good move.
Assassin’s Creed II is hands-down the best game in the franchise. I revelled in playing as Ezio, watching him charm women, parkour over rooftops and just generally be a cool bad-ass. He was a witty, charming rogue, supported by a diverse cast of characters including the man himself, Leonardo da Vinci. I took an almost perverse pleasure as Lord of Ezio’s Monteriggioni villa, improving the lives of its residents as I tried to thwart the Templars that lurked in every shadow. Moreover, I savoured the glimpses into the world’s modern era, with Desmond and his fellow Assassins in subtle war with the Templars of the evil Abstergo Corporation.
Now, after twenty five hours with Assassin’s Creed: Unity, I can happily say that ‘repose en paix’ is my new ‘requiescat in pace’.
Unity is basically Assassin’s Creed II with a much more powerful engine. Paris is breathtaking, its architecture perfectly suited for rooftop traversal and its streets packed to the rafters with citizens going about their everyday lives. Think Dead Rising III and its staggering amount of zombies and then replace those with lively Parisians (and their dogs). Buildings are far more than shells this time around, with a majority able to be entered and explored. When doing the all-too-familiar map synchronisation, the camera now pulls out about three times farther than in last-gen Creed games, knowing that it can handle the picturesque view. Without pop-in. Cutscenes are rendered in-game and are only bested by the magic that I call (rendered) KevinSpaceyCapture™ in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
New protagonist Arno Dorian is a mix of both Ezio and Black Flag’s Edward Kenway: charming, headstrong and dangerously rakish. Like Ezio, we first encounter Arno as a child and build him up to the Master Assassin that he is over twelve memory synchronisations. Well, eleven, actually; for some reason, this Assassin’s Creed keeps up the tradition of having you play as a different character altogether as the game starts. At any rate, Creed’s titular unity comes in to play as Arno realises his late father was an Assassin, and his adoptive family are Templars. In a time of truce between the two factions, Arno and his on-again, off-again girlfriend Elise – a Templar herself – are tasked to stop the mysterious powers trying to derail the peace. Elise’s character model is stunning; it’s as if she’s had twice the love and attention put into her model than any other character.
While the familiar Creed gameplay remains largely unchanged, there have been tweaks to both parkour and combat in Unity. While holding RT to free-run, all you’ll need to do now is hold the A button to climb, or the B button to descend. On a wall, A makes you climb and B drop — in a controlled fashion rather a death-dive – and while running, A will make you climb or B vault over or under objects. It’s much-improved over the parkour of old, but does come with a bit of a learning curve as you have to get out of your old Creed habits. Despite the improvements, the system isn’t perfect; I had trouble using B to descend buildings at times, and though I was told on-screen that holding LT would easily let me enter the open windows of buildings, I always struggled. Other times, despite having A held down, Arno was insistent on travelling down rather than up. All said, traversal has been hugely improved and I look forward to seeing what Ubisoft will do to build upon it next time.
Combat’s been overhauled so you can’t parry and insta-kill huge groups of enemies. Now, you’ll have to parry with precise timing and then land hits afterward. Enemies group around you, Batman: Arkham-style and are far less predictable than before… though, really, they still are. While I enjoy the new combat of Unity, it does take some getting used to. I found myself being run through and killed with a long weapon more times than not because the parry warning was flashing off-screen, unseen. Other numerous times, when facing down a single remaining enemy, Arno simply dropped his guard as if the fight was over. And then I died.
The changes to combat really do mean that stealth should be used wherever possible, and Unity does stealth better than any other game in the franchise. Well, eventually. New currency and XP systems mean that you’ll have to unlock skills in either melee, ranged, stealth or health categories using Assassin skill points. Your overall Assassin XP not only gives you new rankings, but points that can be used to upgrade weapons. Lastly, gear and weaponry are rated out of five stars (well, diamonds), and money is used to buy more-powerful wares. Arno is only as powerful as his weakest stuff, and his own rating can be compared to mission difficulty rankings so you can see if you’re prepared or not.
Those four skill categories lead me to believe that Ubisoft has envisioned groups of four friends playing the game together, levelling up characters to have four unique experts for the approximately twenty co-op assassination or heist missions offered in Unity. Or, better yet, four super-stealthy characters who’re all crap at fighting. At either rate, communication in the co-op missions I played was essential… so I struggled a bit without voice chat when teamed up with a friend, and even more so when I picked up a couple random public games. Those latter missions just had the two of us randoms deciding to kill people whenever we felt like, making the mission more a bloodbath than a tactical strike. Still, co-op missions remind me of Assassin’s Creed multiplayer Wolfpack fare, though this time around the stakes are far higher. It’s a great fit.
Back on your own, assassinations are far more robust in Unity, with Arno being challenged to investigate the area and take advantage of a number of possible exploits. You can take a number of different avenues, sabotaging the environment to flush a target to a specific location, or interacting with different groups of sympathisers who’ll help you… or at least will cause enough of a distraction so you can go about your own business unfettered. If that doesn’t appeal, you can always go for a run and gun. Err, stab.
Unity’s biggest failings really stem from problems that the franchise is suffering from. With Desmond out of the picture, you’re playing as an unnamed protagonist who, just like in Black Flag, is playing around with Abstergo’s Animus technology. As a result, that whole modern day setting is largely ignored. You’re trying to stop Abstergo by using the Animus, but you don’t really get to see how your actions effect the world. For someone who’s wrapped up in the whole modern-day Assassins versus Templars story, it’s a huge let down.
Rather than visit modern times, your Animus-using character has to travel through server rifts, avoiding Abstergo computer techs who’re trying to track you down. The server rifts are incomplete memories, taking place in different times in Paris’ history, and act as a bridge between one server and another. They’re basically like love letters to France’s capital, set in World War II, in medieval times and in a period where the Statue of Liberty was still being prepared for the United States. Kinda. After unlocking the rifts you can go back to run a bit of a parkour course for points and unlockables. While I’d have definitely preferred a progression of the modern Assassin Templar war, rifts were great fun to experience.
In terms of things to do, you’re never at a loss… to the point where it’s overwhelming. Looking at my map now, after completing the main storyline and hitting all the map synch points, I see a landscape covered in murder mysteries, chests, riddles and more. The Nostradamus riddles are neat, but the murder mysteries are a bit hit-and-miss; I largely just used Eagle Vision to find all the clues in an area and then just accused whoever I felt like. If you’re a completionist, you’d better be patient: in addition to tons of the things, you’re also going to suffer through excessively long load screens if you fast-travel.
The story of Arno and Elise is reasonably heart-warming, a little predictable and then kind of stupid near the end. Still, it’s fairly good in terms of Creed’s past titles. ‘Celebrity’ appearances by the likes of Napoléon Bonaparte and the Marquis de Sade also help to keep things interesting. Memory synchronisations are definitely tighter and trim compared to past games, which is also a welcome change. The game’s end boss battle – like the boss himself – is uninspired and hokey. It’s a shame, because the memory sequence immediately before it was intricate and worthy of being the endgame.
When the smoke bomb clears, Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a great current-gen addition to the franchise. At times, Assassin’s Creed seems as if it’s bitten off more than it could chew, but Unity does a great job of evolving the series while really taking a look at what drew players to it in the first place. My only hope is that with new DLC — and 2015’s yearly instalment – that Ubisoft decides to keep us in Arno’s world, Ezio-style, rather than just continue on up that ol’ timeline.
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Assassin’s Creed: Unity was reviewed using a promotional copy of the game on Xbox One, as provided by the publisher.
Assassin’s Creed: Unity