Paris is gorgeous. There’s no denying that cities in the Assassin’s Creed franchise tend to take centre stage, especially when the lead has the possibility of being Connor from Assassin’s Creed III. Luckily not only does Assassin’s Creed: Unity feature astounding visuals, but it feels as though every complaint, every star rating assigned to a mission and every reassessed verdict damning Connor’s bloated saga has been heard by Ubisoft. Compile a checklist of complaints surrounding the franchise and you’ll realise Unity has taken steps towards ‘fixing’ these issues, occasionally at the detriment of other aspects of the game. As a piece of historical digital tourism, Unity is unparalleled. As a continuation of the series, it isn’t quite a leap of faith.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was a rollicking adventure, a breath of fresh sea spray after the dour and plodding III. Naval combat was intensely exciting and rightly prioritised, yet there were problems. Eavesdropping missions were exasperating, managing to be both boring and frustrating, while the quirky present-day sections had some fans decrying that meta isn’t always better, even if it did break up the pacing with some degree of levity. Well, good news everyone, both have been almost entirely excised from Unity. If you’re after the purest form of Assassin’s Creed since Altair first wondered whether a hay bale could break his fall, you’re in luck.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Ubisoft’s love for a certain type of hero; Arno Dorian is a roguish cad with Disney prince looks somewhere between Jean Dujardin and Bradley Cooper and a personality that shares a lot of DNA with Ezio Auditore and Edward Kenway. Fair enough, they are of the same lineage, but the plot is rather familiar. Arno falls into the Assassin Brotherhood with all the same nonchalance as Edward stealing a dead chap’s clothes. The eternal battle between Assassins and Templars underscores the French Revolution, with Arno caught in between rival factions and childhood sweetheart Elise, as capable a fighter as Arno himself.
The Forrest Gump approach to history remains one of the most interesting features of the franchise, even if Assassin’s Creed III overdid it by painting Connor as the proponent in every pivotal moment in American history. Unity dials this back – there’s less of a sense that history bends its will to the ways of Arno. Nevertheless, witnessing the progression of the French Revolution alongside historical figures including Napoleon, Robespierre and the Marquis de Sade holds your attention, as if this is the best history class you’ve ever taken. Unfortunately, the story as a whole is underwhelming, hitting too many beats we’ve seen already. With so many factions vying for power, either on the streets or in the shadows, it can be very easy to lose track of allegiances or characters’ motivation. A few moments also feel wholly out of place in terms of pacing and content – one drunken recollection is portrayed as a jolly jape despite painting Arno in a wholly darker light.
It is evident that Ubisoft have listened to fans tired of the modern-day framing as these snippets have now been relegated to little more than a smattering of cutscenes and written entries buried away in the database. Instead of a compromise it has almost been dropped entirely – a shame when it felt as though Black Flag had very nearly hit the right balance between these sections. Instead there are glitches in the Animus – breakdowns between servers that see Arno whisked away to other versions of Paris, the World War II era having been advertised in trailers already. These sections are fascinating but far too short and little more than climbing/running sequences. Despite this, these Rifts are tantalising, indicating just what potential scenarios the franchise could tap into in future instalments. It also again seems like an answer to constant requests from fans – enough to show the developers are listening, albeit in a teasing fashion. These areas do return in a data collection mini-game, a time-limited scramble for points that also allows a little more time to be spent marvelling at these new timeframes.
If you’ve ever played an Assassin’s Creed you’ll be familiar with the mission types prevalent throughout the series. While eavesdropping has got the chop, tailing, escort and assassination missions are present and correct, with some minor adjustments. Assassinations will present the player with optional secondary objectives that will assist in certain strategies – distractions, contextual modes of dispatching your target and such – but other than that your approach is very much open. Occasional missions break up the rhythm of stalking and killing – one chase over Parisian rooftops is excellent – but the game is missing something akin to Black Flag’s naval missions; something wholly different to break up the gameplay loops.
As with most of Ubisoft’s open-world titles, icons bury the map beneath hundreds of things to collect, see and kill. It’s surprisingly daunting at first, with some familiar distractions slightly altered to offer more of a challenge. Chests are no longer open to all – some require master lock picking skills while others are tied to the companion app. Cockades – rosettes – are the latest in a long line of pointless tat to pick up, after flags, feathers and Animus tokens. By far the most worthy additions are Nostradamus riddles and murder mysteries. The former are pretty taxing puzzles requiring a good knowledge of Paris architecture and history, finally giving players a reason to venture into the database in search of clues. It says a lot that a walk around the real Paris informed the answer to one such riddle – if there were any part of the game that asks you to really look at the city, it’s this. Murder mysteries don’t quite live up to their intriguing potential. Special investigation zones can be searched using Eagle Vision, highlighting witnesses and evidence to be examined. While some of the cases are real historical events, all are quite easily solved thanks to some poor characterisation of the suspects. If you’ve seen an episode of Columbo, you’ll be able to point out the culprit after the first few clues. It’s no LA Noire, then – more akin to Murdered: Soul Suspect in practise.
Thankfully, Paris and Versailles – the two locations you’ll visit – are awe-inspiring in their scale and beauty. The first time you see Notre Dame, with all its intricate carvings and stained glass, you’ll be rightly awed. Even the higgledy-piggledy rooftops of Paris are beautiful – look out on the dense streets and you’ll instantly start planning the best route across. While not entirely fixed, the problem of traversing the unique slate rooves and chimney stacks has been made easier thanks to a change in the typical Assassin’s Creed controls. Rather than mashing the trigger to climb, in conjunction with RT the A button (or equivalent) will enable Arno to climb while the B button sees him make a controlled descent, no matter what the building. It take some getting used to and can result in some frustrated misses but, once mastered, the slight tweak reaps dividends, especially in chase scenarios. Gone are the days of unintentionally leaping away from the wall – that’s been relegated even deeper within the controls, making it far more precise. It’s still not as fluid as it should be - entering windows is a right pain most of the time - but that descent mechanic at least means you won’t die climbing down from buildings as much.
Combat has also seen a slight change. Guards no longer attack in turns and the ability to counter at any time has been replaced by a glowing bar atop enemies about to strike. Hit it when the bar is gold and you’ll knock the enemy away, allowing for either sustained attacks or a brief moment to charge up a heavy hit. Weapons can be customised and the usual equipment returns, from darts and pistols to smoke bombs and poison gas. Clumsier in implementation are boosts and skills that have to be purchased using one of the three currencies in-game – including familiar moves such as double assassinations and even blending in with seated civilians. Why Ubisoft felt the need to have these purchasable instead of unlocked through story progression is odd but at least the option is there. Some skills have also been taken from multiplayer, not quite blending in with the single player campaign. Disguise is one – seeing Arno blink into resembling any nearby civilian is as unbelievable as it is ridiculous. The other currencies can be used to equip Arno with new gear, purchase and renovate cafes (complete with watchable plays!) and stock up on medicine and other consumables. It’s telling that one of the currencies amounts to little more than microtransactions, for players eager to boost through the game – thankfully these aren’t intrusive.
This inclusion of multiplayer elements into the single-player campaign is a sign of the new push towards co-op play, highlighted in most of Unity’s marketing. Alongside the main story are a selection of missions and heists for two to four players. Designed to encourage coordination and strategy, each mission begins with an introductory cutscene often featuring a real historical figure. If you’re looking for Marie Antoinette, for example, it’s in co-op that she’ll be referenced. The missions themselves are standalone from the campaign but feature objectives that are similar to those found in the main missions. A few of the co-op missions stand out – a tournament, including an obstacle course, is a highlight – but more than a few are simply ‘steal this’, ‘fetch that’ tasks expanded to four players. With the right band of friends and much-needed communication the co-op can be exhilarating; if you’re wholly after solitary immersion then at least they can be played alone (although they’ll be a challenge). Is co-op the standout feature of the game? Probably not, but it’s a welcome inclusion given that it isn’t mandatory to complete the story. Trophy and achievement hunters will need to dip in to the mode for completion’s sake.
What Ubisoft have achieved on a technical level is incredible. Even playing on the Xbox One – considered by many as the slightly less powerful alternative compared to the PS4 – Unity looks a treat. The lighting as it filters through the stained glass windows of Notre Dame is beautiful and this attention to detail is felt throughout the city. The new crowd system crams the streets with teeming masses; you can sit back and leave the game running – it’s that interesting to just people-watch. This beauty and dense detail does come at a cost – there were plenty of moments where the frame rate dipped, especially when running through thepacked alleyways. However, the beauty of Paris very nearly makes up for all of the problems of the game – Ubisoft excels at world-building and Paris is arguably their finest city to date. Special mention should also go to Chris Tilton and Sarah Schachner for a fine soundtrack that incorporates Jesper Kyd’s themes with a baroque-classical flourish. Battling guards against a harpsichord melody is inspired.
More than any other Assassin’s Creed title, it feels as though Unity is a true response to the criticisms and suggestions of the fans. Unfortunately, democracy isn’t the revolution it’s often promised to be and, in bowing to the masses, there will undoubtedly be a few who are sad to see a lack of Abstergo-related gameplay or those who pine for the semi-broken joys of competitive multiplayer. In some respects it feels as though Unity doesn’t move things forward in anything but looks; it merely drops the chaff and reverts to tried-and-tested elements from previous entries. In doing this, Unity is not the huge leap forward that a next-gen Assassin’s Creed promised it would be – rather it’s a familiar adventure dressed in exceptional decoration. The artistry to be found in Paris far outweighs the by-the-numbers story. In essence it’s more Assassin’s Creed, then – that will tell you all you need to know if you’re mulling over a purchase. Perhaps this is why this Assassin’s Creed feels as though, like its time-spanning storyline, it has one foot in the future and one in the past.
This review is based on code provided as well as a closed review event provided and paid for by Ubisoft.