Since the second game in the Assassin’s Creed franchise went to the Italian Renaissance period, speculation on where each subsequent game would go has been the topic of big debate among fans. Going to the American Civil War and Pirate eras was an obvious choice, but also speculated were Victorian London and the French Revolution. While we have to wait a year before we get to skulk the times of Jack the Ripper, this year sees us exploring a Paris under siege from its own people, a monarchy deposed, and a revolution that changes the course of history.
We follow Arno’s journey from young lad witnessing his father’s death, the assassination of his guardian Francois De La Serre, and beyond. He is framed for his De La Serre’s murder and thrown into prison with a man named Pierre Bellec – a man from the Assassin order who eventually brings him into the Brotherhood. Unfortunately, it seems De La Serre and his daughter Elisé were Templars, but all is not black and white with either order.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité
Arno is a great character, about as cocky as fan favourite Ezio Auditore, but whenever Elisé appears on the scene his confidence dissolves into a lovesick sap. Elisé, despite her absolutely impossible accent, steals most scenes where she appears. As for the overall story though, it never really crafts something worthwhile beyond the historical events. Sure, that’s dramatic in its own right, but it never once reached the levels of Assassin’s Creed II or Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Conspiracies add twists, but few are worthwhile. Historical figures do creep up occasionally as well, giving a sense of authenticity to the time setting, but the overall Assassin plot is just not gripping.
A great amount of effort has evidently gone into the visual fidelity and in particular the motion capture. Arno moves in mostly fluid ways, climbing into windows, using walls for kills, and all sorts of other actions. Assassin’s Creed games have always created an accurate scale model of the locations each game is set in and Paris shows that their attention to detail is still there. Some forgiveness for minor technical issues can be made for the fact it’s an open world game, but the pop-in is ludicrous. Sometimes people will appear mere feet from you, or in very occasional circumstances at your feet.
What doesn’t work so well are the accents. For some reason we have French speaking locals, but whenever someone of interest speaks, they use an English accent. Guards frequently sound like they’re from the West Country, while named characters speak with increasing levels of posh accents. Sure the hammed up French accent would have been stereotyping, but Ezio had Italian twinges that didn’t break immersion; occasionally slipping into Italian. Here it just feels out of place.
Qu’ils mangent de la brioche
More often than not though I found playing Assassin’s Creed: Unity a frustrating experience due to the horrible controls. The idea is that running while holding one button raises your elevation, while running and holding the other button lowers your elevation. In theory this sounds great. In practice it is an absolute mess because there will be times where Arno won’t go up or down, despite you pressing the right combination of buttons. The lack of full control is most apparent when chasing down an objective and Arno does something unexpected, like diving into the Seine or clambering on top of a cart. I found myself barking orders at Arno to “Get off!” or “Get up there!”
Part of the problem is down to the low frame-rate and how input of controls creates an unworkable time delay. With countering you have to time your button press with the flashing of yellow on an enemy’s health bar, but thanks to the delay, you have to pre-empt even that. When it gets really busy, the frame-rate drops even further, making it even more unbearable to play. No mission sums this up more than a mission in the ninth sequence where you must chase after a boat down the Seine. This boat moves fast and one misstep due to the controls is enough to fail that segment. It’s far from an isolated case and it’s almost enough to throw your controller at a wall.
Controls aside, the game is prone to a large amount of bugs. Crashes are frequent, loading times are way too long, odd NPC behaviour is around every corner, and you will find glitches that are beyond comprehension. Most frustrating of all are the inconsistent checkpoints that erase part or all of your progress upon death, sapping all of the fun out of the game by putting you back to the start. It all serves to give the impression that this new Assassin’s Creed lacks polish. The amount of people on screen is impressive, but when it is to the detriment of performance, it takes a lot of the shine off the overall game.
But what about the actual missions? Main missions after a certain point allow you to tackle them in any way you choose, but they have Hitman style side-objectives that allow for opportunities to arise for easier access or easier assassinations. These are the meat of the campaign and definitely a highlight. Side missions range from the typical ones seen throughout the franchise, including glyph missions that serve as elaborate treasure hunts; but murder investigations add a nice twist to the proceedings. They’re not especially hard though as some murderers essentially confess with their testimonies, so it would have been nice to have false leads and more cryptic clues.
Presque une révolution
The main campaign is broken up by fourth wall breaking interactions with the Assassins trying to decipher from outside the simulation. Occasionally, you will be forced to travel through rifts that place you in unstable time periods throughout the location’s history. While amazing in spectacle, the subsequent rift rescue missions are merely boring time trials that house the only competitive element of the game and thus are a missed opportunity. With a plethora of things to do, this is a huge open world game, but the activities are divisive in terms of interesting gameplay.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Unity is that it feels derivative. We were spoilt a bit with the ship segments in Assassin’s Creed III and Black Flag, but they had decent segments dedicated to a new gameplay method to breathe life into the franchise. Unity has some good ideas that feel undercooked, but otherwise it’s the same game you played before.
Speaking of multiplayer, there are co-op missions available where you team up with other Assassins to steal, kill, and eventually escape the confines of each mission. They act largely like the side-quest missions, but are limited in number. Rewards of the heists in particular are based on how many times you were seen by the guards. For the missions played at least, it was hard to find players, though the game does eventually allow you to undertake these missions on your own.
Never has a game been more polarising in terms of its quality than Assassin’s Creed: Unity. On the one hand we have an expertly crafted game that tries to take some risks with the mission formula and a greater tie to historical events. On the other hand though we have a buggy mess with controls that at times feel like pulling hens teeth. But above all else, this game is the same game we’ve played for many years and signifies a step back for the franchise. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that! Hopefully the menagerie of bugs can be fixed, but even so this is hardly a revolution for the franchise.