I’ve had a weird relationship with the Assassin’s Creed franchise ever since the original game’s release way back in 2007. I “get it”, so to speak, and I’ve always felt as though I understand exactly what the series is trying to be, despite sitting down with the latest iteration each fall and realising they still haven’t managed it yet. I love the painstakingly-rendered locations. I love how the story weaves a centuries-old, fictional conflict into recognisable portions of real-world history (even when, as in the divisive Assassin’s Creed III, it’s in an especially contrived way). I love everything Assassin’s Creed wants to be, and everything it potentially could be. I just hate almost everything that it actually is.
Unity is one of the series’ lesser offerings – potentially even the worst, though in a world which also contains Brotherhood and Revelations (the two wholly superfluous DLC-alikes); it at the very least has the advantage of being its own story in a new location and time period. We’ve finally reached the decidedly more interesting major conflict of the late 18th century, having now abandoned the American frontier and the pirate-infested waters of the Caribbean in favour of Revolutionary Paris.
It always baffled me that Ubisoft stuck the French Revolution on the backburner for so long, as it’s probably the ripest setting available to a series which is openly never venturing too far temporally north. After all, it’s stuffed full of everything Assassin’s Creed loves: arresting classic architecture to clamber over, iconic political and military figures to stab, sex, beheadings, and, perhaps most importantly, rioting crowds of peasants tearing everything to pieces.
It’s easy to identify what the singular triumph of Unity is as you peer down from atop one of the many peaks and spires: a city, still resplendent, yet teeming with hundreds of starving, angry rioters. It’s a gorgeous game, and one which is clearly tapping into the extra horsepower of the Xbox One and Playstation 4 (and PC). This is the first instalment of the series which has been developed primarily for the current crop of home consoles, and while the city being stunning is just about the only high praise I can offer Unity, it is nonetheless frequently beautiful to behold. Assembled from the gutters up, Paris is perhaps the most well-realized setting of an already well-travelled franchise.
I’ve spent a lot of time with Unity, and it’s one of the few Assassin’s Creed games – maybe even the first – that I didn’t feel better about the more I played. Usually the frustration sets in early, as I’m swiftly reminded that most of the series’ core mechanics don’t actually work very well, but there’re generally enough good ideas and interesting distractions elsewhere that I tend to forget about the shortcomings after a couple of hours. With Unity, the reverse happened. I was immediately ensnared by the world and its admirable attention to fine detail. Early signs pointed encouragingly towards a genuine retooling of the underlying formula. When I first took to the rooftops, they seemed more receptive to gymnastics than I was used to. There’s a new method of descent which allows you to free-run down, so to speak, and it’s tied to a different button than the more traditional parkour stuff. I seemed to be inadvertently leaping off buildings and splattering to my death far less frequently. Even the combat is slightly different. Gone are the effortless counter-kills, which sapped all the tension and challenge out of the swordplay in previous games; in their place is something slightly more robust, something which I suppose feels like a less optimal alternative to the sneaking and stabbing. You tend to avoid open combat because, for the first time ever, you feel less powerful with your sword drawn than you do while lurking in the shadows.
Unity is also a real stealth game, or at least closer to one than any of its predecessors. You can slink around its building’s interiors now, and actually take cover behind things. There’s a dedicated button for crouching/sneaking, which allows you to move around in a way that’s more familiar and useful than the dopey walk/jog/sprint system. The hidden blade is now entirely contextual, so you can creep around performing stealth kills without having to sift through your equipment first.
These are all welcome changes, and initially Unity feels better for them. But they’re facile, surface-level changes, and the longer you spend experimenting with them, the more they begin to fall apart. Skipping across rooftops is more organic, sure, thanks largely to a greater range of animations, but the free-running still relies too heavily on the game trying to pre-emptively intuit your next move. It’s still often wrong. The rapid descending, too, works well enough most of the time, but that doesn’t mean it’s immune to certain weird ledges or obtrusive bits of geometry. You’ll still frequently find yourself stuck, suspended a few feet off the ground.
Combat is admittedly much more challenging early on, which at least encourages you to play smarter. It doesn’t last, though. After a while I was lugging around so many smoke bombs that every encounter became a simple matter of dropping one into a crowd and slicing everyone to pieces with the ludicrously-expensive sword I wisely spent a few hours saving up for. I never needed another weapon, or any of the craft-able bombs, or any of the fancy new (and old) Assassin toys. Combat once again became trivial, and I once again stopped worrying about remaining undetected.
It’s just as well really, because the stealth mechanics put up more of a fight than any of the game’s many bad guys. Taking cover is fine in theory, but only so long as you don’t want to corner around something or switch from one bit of scenery to another. If you do, the only way is to unsnap from your current cover, which creates distance between you and it to such an extent that being spotted is significantly more likely, then shuffle over to where you want to be, and snap into cover again. It feels so clumsy and out-dated that the urge to just run around dropping smoke bombs everywhere quickly becomes too powerful to ignore.
Frustration is not unusual for this franchise, but it’s rarely ever felt so central to the experience. The niggles never go away; on the contrary, they continue to pile more and more irritating nonsense atop an already shaky foundation. Assassin’s Creed has always been like this, but I’ve forgiven it in the past when it felt like the rest of the game was picking up the extra weight. After the glorious open-waters of Black Flag and Freedom Cry, the return to dry-land urbanity feels stifling. Revolution might be the thematic backdrop, but Unity is far too content to rely on the tedious and overly-familiar. You’re still going to be tailing targets around streets without breaking line-of-sight. You’re still going to be backed into corners and forced to fight your way out. You’re still going to have to occasionally remain undetected, and you’re still going to be slapped with an instant failure if you don’t manage it. Needless to say, these well-worn scenarios still emphasise the annoyances of simply getting around, staying out of sight or wrestling with the stodgy combat system. It’s a relentless ouroboros of broken bullshit which seven years of iterative game design still hasn’t managed to address.
That’s perhaps the most irritating thing about Assassin’s Creed in its current form. After completing the main story, my in-game map was still blanketed by icons. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of things to do, see and find: side missions, treasure chests, asinine collectibles, riddles, murder investigations. But they’re all governed by the same archaic systems, and rather than fixing the issues inherent in those, Ubisoft Montreal have instead elected to just pile on more. There’s a greater emphasis on character customisation now, with individual weapons and bits of armour being not only visually distinct, but also attached to some arbitrary statistics which modify one or several aspects of being an assassin. A specific cowl might increase the range of Eagle Vision (which, despite being encouraged to use more, you’ll still likely ignore in favour of the mini-map); a fancy chest-piece may add another notch to your health bar; some flashy new trousers might have deeper pockets for carrying more smoke bombs. It just seems like busywork, though. The specific stats don’t feel particularly tangible, and there’s very little pleasure to be found in scrutinising spreadsheets. You’ll have to put up with it, though, because if you don’t invest in this stuff you’ll fall behind the difficulty curve, which is only steeper in the most thoughtless ways.
It needs completely stripping back. If any series was ever in need of a reboot, it’s this one. Unity is so cluttered that there are four internal currencies, one of which is a micro-transaction-fuelled way of unlocking the best gear much faster – about the crassest, most unmerited business practice I can think of. There are chests which can only be opened by signing up for the series’ community network, Initiates, and others which need you to download a fucking app. The interface has so many fussy overlays that tooltips frequently obscure one another. It’s the most digitally-oppressed I think I’ve ever felt, and I didn’t even know that was a thing you could feel.
Weirdly, the one area in which Unity shows restraint is its storytelling, and that’s where some more ambition and scope would have been most appreciated. It’s an assured tale, certainly, but far from inspired, and so familiar to those of us who have been around since the beginning that it’s becoming increasingly tough to distinguish each of these Master Assassins from the others. The one in Unity is Arno Dorian, who is essentially a broodier, less charismatic version of Ezio, all the way down to the swarthy appearance and the four-letter name with an “o” on the end. His sole interesting characteristic is that he’s in love with a Templar, the daughter of his surrogate father (also a Templar), whose murder he perhaps could have prevented. In not doing so, he learns that he was born an Assassin, and subsequently distances himself from his true love so he can better walk the long, dangerous road to redemption.
You don’t get any points for guessing in advance that the Templars are orchestrating the Revolution, nor do you get any for predicting some of the people Arno runs into along the way: Robespierre, the Marquis de Sade, various Louis’s, a young Napoleon Bonaparte. Some of these are devilish rogues, bristling with charismatic self-interest. Most of them are humourless, boring pricks. Bafflingly, for the most part Unity tends to focus mostly on the latter, offering up a lot of long-winded cutscenes centred on the internal politics of the Assassin order, which stopped being interesting after Ezio spent three long games whipping the thing into shape. The Assassins are doing alright, which translates to them spending a lot of time sitting around, complaining and poisoning each other for reasons I didn’t entirely absorb. Meanwhile, all the interesting stuff is happening in and around Camp Templar, but you don’t get to see much of it from your (arguably) morally-correct side of the battlefield.
Also, the modern-era story has largely been excised, save for a couple of intrusive dialogue exchanges and a bunch of text files buried in annoying mini-games you have to play multiple times over to gain complete access to. Not that I gave a single shit about Desmond, but I must admit I took great pleasure in walking around Abstergo during Black Flag, hacking into computers and reading people’s emails. Besides, after the number of hours I’ve invested in this series until now, I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in expecting some kind of narrative payoff. Unity has a hard-on for its meta-story – that you’re playing through Arno’s memories as part of a present-day Templar entertainment product – but it feels like token willy-waggling rather than something I’m supposed to care about. As far as I can tell Abstergo have commercialised the Animus in order to have unsuspecting consumers sift through genetic memories for them, but that’s information I’ve assimilated throughout the entire series, and it’s barely touched on in Unity.
There are certainly things about Unity I like – the character of Elise, for instance, who’s by far the most interesting component of the story, and she should really have been given more to do outside of being another backboard for Arno to bounce his ego off. I also like that the big assassinations themselves are a lot more open-ended, taking place in squared-off sandboxes with multiple ways to eliminate Arno’s target. These might offer opportunities to create distractions, for example, or lure unsuspecting royals into unique kills. My first was in a church confessional, ironically, but there are others. Not as many as I’d like, certainly, and there’s no more behavioural freedom than you have in any of the previous games when it comes to working out the specifics, but if nothing else these sequences provide a nice template for reworking how these things might actually play out in subsequent games.
Likewise, away from the main story and its traditional mission design, some of the ancillary content at least has a degree of personality. The Paris Missions add a nice narrative framework to chunks of standard gameplay, and the Murder Investigations are interesting enough to be reliably distracting. And, to Unity’s credit, its conclusion doesn’t confuse “leaving things open for a sequel” with “leaving the plot unresolved”, so at the very least things do get neatly tied up.
Ultimately though, as the seventh major instalment (they don’t always put numbers on them) in a series which has already seen its fair share of ups and downs, Assassin’s Creed Unity is nowhere near the game it needs to be in order to justify the franchise’s continued existence. Slight improvements to traversal and combat are not enough to distract from the ageing, creaking engine, and there’s no way it can continue to chug along without serious refinement. Couple that with a regressive approach to both setting and mission design, especially after the spacious seafaring of Black Flag, sprinkle in some decidedly underhanded business practices, and you have an atomised Assassin’s Creed experience; one designed to take your money, your time and your sanity with something that costs more and plays worse than everything else the series has to offer. All offence intended, Ubisoft – you’re going to have to do better than this.