Assassin’s Creed: Unity – Review

Title   Assassin's Creed: Unity
Developer  Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher  Ubisoft
Platform  Xbox One (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Windows PC
Genre  Stealth action
Release Date  November 14, 2014
Official Site

Assassin’s Creed: Unity hasn’t had the most successful of developments. Starting with the complete removal of a competitive multiplayer mode, followed by the controversy caused by a poor response to the question “why are we only allowed to play as identikit white men?”, the release was never going to be smooth. But as the big day drew closer, a tentative excitement crept in. Could it be another gem in the generally very good series? Or was there going to be more missing from the game than just playable female characters?

I’m going to go into this by straightaway saying that Unity is a truly beautiful game. The architecture has always been wonderful in the series, and with the power of the current-gen of consoles behind it, the game has the ability to show off some spectacular buildings and environments. The detail of main character Arno’s clothes is superb, and some of the facial animation is filled with nuance and feeling that it almost tricks your mind into thinking it’s real. This is where the game shines, with its gorgeous graphics and ability to draw huge distances and still retain a high amount of detail. What a shame, then, that the rest of the game is just a mess of ideas and repetition that feels like the design has regressed to the very first game in the series.

Let’s start with the story. The present day is now so overtly pointless that you can no longer exit the simulation, which is now supposedly running on a home console, meaning technically you’re playing a video game within a video game. Thankfully, Ubisoft refrain from using this is an excuse to pass off the plethora of bugs present, but we’ll come to that. Every now and then, the voice of “Bishop” will talk to you about all the great things you’re doing for the real world, and that’s your entire interaction with the present-day narrative. What’s the point? Cut out this entire side of the game and it would make almost no difference.

The actual plot is useful in that it drives the story along, but it’s almost as meaningless as the present-day narrative that you could again leave it out and still be left with a perfectly serviceable game. New kid Arno is the focus this time, a rich kid whose dad is murdered within the first ten minutes of the game, taken in by another family who end up with a dead dad around half an hour later. Feeling guilty about all the dads that keep dying around him, Arno joins the Assassins to kill a bunch of people and take revenge. It’s a paint-by-numbers story with few twists or turns, the ending to which is so obvious and unsatisfactory that you wonder if it was just a first draft that no one bothered to revise.

It might’ve been helped by some actually interesting characters, but even that was apparently too much effort. Arno is charming but smug, a lot like both Ezio and Edward from previous games, but his actions make him come across as such a whiny prick, and without a decent motive to act on, it’s almost impossible to root for him. Love interest Elise is more interesting, not least because it’s often difficult to pin down exactly what her motives are, but ultimately just becomes the pretty distraction that Arno practically screams “but I’m a really nice guy!” at in the hopes that she’ll love him. Almost everyone else in the game is a stuffy, old, one-dimensional man who wants power or money, with the only remaining interesting person being a flamboyant nobleman who appears twice and is probably a rapist. It’s not exactly an impressive cast, and backed by a flimsy revenge tale, there isn’t much to look forward to story-wise.

Of course, it’s all about playing with your friends in this instalment, so maybe it should be more about having fun and making your own stories? That would be fine, if the game wasn’t so shockingly dull to play. Single player mission structure has been scaled back dramatically, with each chapter consisting of about three missions at most, the last of which is usually an open-ended assassination mission. These final missions are actually quite clever, with an almost Hitman quality to them. You’re presented with somewhere to infiltrate, and it’s up to you to decide how you’re going to get in, kill the target, and get out. Side objectives appear to help you out by unlocking special assassinations, or by getting assistance with in fights or simply distracting the guards during your escape. It’s a refreshing amount of freedom for a series that usually has quite linear missions, but this is both a gift and a curse.

You could go in sword swinging and alert everyone to your presence, but this would be foolhardy, not least because of the revamped combat system. Gone is the ability to continually defend, replaced instead with an Arkham-style system of pressing the “parry” button when an opponent’s health bar flashes. It’s worked well in other games, but it doesn’t here, not least because you can’t cancel out of an attack to parry. This means that if you try and parry while you’re midway through a strike on another enemy, you’ll just get hit. This also means that insta-kill counters are gone, leaving fights to draw on longer than they ever have before as you have to whittle down each enemies health bar every time. Enemies no longer give you the courtesy of any breathing room either, so while parrying one attack it’s perfectly feasible for you to be hit by another. And because of the era the game is set in, every enemy has a gun and isn’t afraid to use it. You can dodge roll to avoid being shot, but again, it’s next to impossible to do so when attacking or parrying, so you will be repeatedly shot while trying to avoid getting hit by other attacks.

This wouldn’t be too much of a problem if not for the fact that health no longer regenerates, and has moved back to the Assassin’s Creed 2 method of using medicine to heal. Medicine thankfully fully heals you in one use, so you can let your health drop down as low as you dare before using it, but it’s now harder to tell when you’re about to die. Previous games gave you plenty of warning, with a slow-mo glitching of the screen, everything turning red, and so on. Now you’ll most often find out that you’re close to death because you’ve been run through with a pike and have collapsed onto the floor. This is probably because of the introduction of co-op, which makes huge screen glitches almost impossible because it would intrude on others, and also because co-op players can revive one another. But in singleplayer, it means you’ve got to keep a very close eye on your health meter if you’re going to survive. Medicine is also really, really expensive to boot, but that’s a story for another time.

If you can’t stomach the fighting, then you could try and use stealth to reach your targets. You can choose to enter stealth mode by holding the left trigger, which lets you walk around crouched and hide behind chest-high furniture and walls, though it makes you more obvious to enemies if you’re not hiding behind furniture, including when in a crowd. It’s also weirdly slightly faster than walking, so can be quite handy for getting close to enemies and stabbing them without being seen. You can also enter cover, and swap cover between two pieces of cover that are adjacent to one another. You can’t round corners, however, meaning you have to exit and re-enter cover, leaving you wide open to being spotted by the eagle-eyed AI. You can also no longer whistle, an action that previously drew enemies closer to you for easier kills. You can use cherry bombs to lure enemies closer to or away from you, but these cost money, and to aim one from cover you expose yourself to being seen. You could also use the new Phantom Blade, a long-range hidden blade that silently executes enemies, but these are expensive to buy and have to be aimed for maximum effectiveness, once again leaving you open to being seen. Also, the height that you’re aiming at from crouched cover changes when you actually fire, meaning that if you’re behind a chest-high piece of furniture and have aimed for an enemy’s head, when you actually fire the Phantom Blade you’ll stand up, shoot about a foot higher the their head, and put them on alert. Still, if you can deal with this problem, then the new weapon can be quite handy.

Or you can take the route that I chose for every mission – run straight past all the enemies, find the target, run right next to the target, throw a smoke bomb to confuse all the enemies, kill the target and run away, throwing more smokes bombs as you go. You can do this for every single assassination and it works every time. While this means that you don’t get the satisfaction of a clean kill, and usually fail every bonus objective, it does mean you can blast through the storyline in less than ten hours, stopping only to complete some side quests and earn money to buy new equipment. The game is therefore insanely easy, no matter what the difficulty ratings attached to each mission say.

That’s as long as you have the right equipment, of course. You now have a player level, which is equivalent to your lowest ranked piece of equipment. You can buy equipment for your head, chest, arms, waist and legs that all offer different looks and increase some stats, and each piece of equipment can be upgraded to unlock bonus stats that make it even more effective. You can also choose what colour you want your outfit to be, including a hilarious disgusting mustard yellow that made the closing moments of my personal playthrough that bit more ridiculous. The customisation choices are a nice touch, but you’ll most likely just choose whichever gives the best stats instead of what you think looks best, so true “choice” isn’t really possible.

Skills also need to be purchased to bring up your player level. These are broken down into four categories, Melee, Ranged, Stealth and Health. Melee skills give you extra attacks for weapons, Ranged skills improve your use of items and Phantom Blades and so on, Stealth skills give you the ability to perform double assassinations and level up your lockpicking ability, and Health upgrades your health. While levelling systems and purchasing skills are fine, it’s annoying that skills once considered key to the series, such as sitting on benches to blend with the crowd, are now blocked away until you reach the right chapter and have enough Sync Points to buy the ability. Lockpicking is also probably the most stupidly pointless skill unless you really want to 100% the game, for the simple fact that the world is designed for lockpicking to be optional. That’s to say that you will never find a situation where you need to use a lockpick – any locked doors you encounter will probably be just around the corner from an open door you can run through with no bother. Buying skills is annoying and unnecessary, and frankly did not need to be included in a series that has made do with unlocking abilities alongside mission progression.

You’ll need plenty of money to get your assassin up to the highest levels, and this is where the shiny veneer of Assassin’s Creed: Unity cracks to reveal its seedy underbelly. You earn money exclusively through playing side quests or co-op Heists online, which is fine except for the fact that the money you earn is pitiful. You need to keep your stock of ammo, bombs and medicine high while also purchasing new equipment, but the cost of consumables is frankly ridiculous. You could loot from the bodies of your enemies, but there’s no guarantee you’ll find anything useful or if you’ll survive the encounter. So what could you do? Buy equipment with real money, of course! Microtransactions are nothing new in Assassin’s Creed, but it’s now apparent that the game is designed for you to not have quite enough money without a few extra hours of side questing, making the whole experience a little more sickening.

The range of currencies available to you is also astounding in its number. Buying equipment and consumables uses Livres, which are earned through side quests and by looting bodies. Upgrading skills costs Sync Points, earned through completing story and co-op missions. Upgrading equipment costs Assassin Points, earned by performing certain assassin moves, like using a fast lift, performing an air assassination and so on. And there’s Helix Credits, the points you can buy with real money to skip all that “playing the game” crap and go straight to getting all the best equipment. There is no need for all of this. The series has worked well so far with one currency for all items, and plenty of ways to earn the money being given to you. It’s transparently greedy and ridiculous to expect players to use real money to buy items that actually allow you to progress through the game, instead of just going off for an hour or so and unlocking equipment the normal way.

There are plenty of things to do outside of story missions to help you earn that cash, alongside a huge number of activities that can burn in hell for eternity. Not content with suggesting you might want to stump up extra cash towards equipment, Ubisoft have given you the chance to use both a companion app and a companion website to unlock additional in-game content. Signing up for an Initiates account lets you open golden in-game chests, once you reach the requisite Initiate level and find the right chest, while the companion app lets you collect Nomad collectibles to open blue in-game chests. Or you can level up your lockpicking skill and go around opening the hundreds of chests that litter the world and take up so much space on the map that it’s often hard to find the actual quest you’re looking for. It’s regressed back to the original game’s level of “too many bloody collectibles”, and it’s worse because now you have to unlock the right skills before you can pick half of them up.

And it’s really a genuine shame, because there are glimmers of hope hidden amongst the piles of horseshit you have to wade through. Some of the story missions are fun and interesting, particularly the more linear ones that provide clever set-pieces to play in. At points the simulation breaks down and Paris in different eras bleed through, giving you a new and exciting area to play through and a change of pace from the rest of the game. The new Rift mode, which lets you revisit these bleed-through locations and run around collecting as many point collectibles within a time limit, are genuinely fun. The new Murder Mystery side quests, which task you with solving crimes by gathering evidence and accusing people based on your own logic skills, is a fantastic addition to the game and one of the only quests that I genuinely wanted to play.

You could feasibly just run around aimlessly, as the series has always let you, except with new free-running controls that give you the choice of free-running up or down. Holding down the right trigger puts you into free-running mode, which will automatically let you climb up smaller stepping objects and along swings and so on. Holding down the Free-Run up button lets you climb up buildings and jump further, making physically impossible jumps like never before. Holding Free-Run down causes you to climb down or simply slide over smaller objects on the ground, which can be useful for getting down from higher areas, but this also means that the ability to throw yourself off a building to almost certain death has been removed, a feature that used to be quite useful for making trial-and-error jumps to new locations, now replaced by an idiot-proof system that automatically jumps for you. Taking that control away from the player makes things easier, except for the times when it jumps in a direction you didn’t want to go, which is both a gift and a curse.

Overall, the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed: Unity hasn’t changed much, but somehow ends up being worse. The movement system changes have made it harder to get exact control but slightly easier to get around, the combat system has been made harder to use, stealth is largely unchanged, and the mission structure is largely the same as it’s always been but reduced to only a handful of missions that can be beaten really easily. To describe it in one word, I would simply choose “dull”. It’s the same game as always, only made worse by a constant need to redesign everything. There are elements of fun hidden within, but they’re buried beneath so many extra-curricular wastes of time that it’s next to impossible to find any kind of fun within.

I mentioned at the beginning that the game is beautiful, and it is… when it isn’t glitched. The game is filled with a number of graphical glitches and bugs, including framerate issues that cause the game to completely stop while you’re jumping around and NPCs popping into the world on top of carts and boxes. Crowd scenes can handle nearly a hundred NPCs wandering around, but as you walk through them their textures pop in and out of existence, while new members of the crowd appear out of nowhere and start walking around aimlessly. During one assassination mission in a closed off area, NPCs started running through the walls in a panic at a death they couldn’t possible have seen. There has been a patch recently that has fixed a small number of the problems, but it’s still a blight on an otherwise gorgeous landscape.

And then we come to the sound design, which is identical to the rest of the games in the series, down to half the sound effects being used throughout. The voice acting is good, even if the script is really quite poor, though I have to question the use of a British cast to play the entirety of Paris, especially considering Arno’s actor is definitely an American with a passable British accent, right up until he mispronounces “can’t” or has to raise his voice for any reason. And the soundtrack is an Assassin’s Creed soundtrack; strings rise and swell in the right places, there’s some electronic undertones to remind you it’s a simulation, it’s the same old music for the same old series.

Multiplayer is the biggest problem of the whole ordeal. The multiplayer design permeates everything within the game, leaving an empty feeling single player experience. And the mission design for the co-op missions is repetitive and boring to boot, meaning that if you actually manage to get into a co-op mission, a struggle in its own right at times, then you won’t actually have all that much fun within. You can actually just play the co-op missions alone if you wait long enough, and it’s perfectly feasible to do so too, so if you hate other people then you don’t even have to miss out on the content, which is nice.

There’s simply nothing here to get excited about. A couple of good missions and a beautiful environment do not warrant the purchase of a game that is riddled with bugs, poorly designed, and so grossly transparent about its intentions to rob you of all your money that it might as well come with a padded envelope addressed to Ubisoft HQ and a note inside asking for another £50. Its focus on the co-op multiplayer experience, at the cost of the wonderful competitive multiplayer, has ruined a perfectly good game series that didn’t require much changing to keep things ticking along nicely. When the bugs are fixed then it might be more acceptable to play, but until then I could only suggest it to a diehard fan of the series.

  • Paris is absolutely stunning
  • Murder Mystery and Rift quests are tons of fun and a good change of pace
  • Deep down, it’s still a good Assassin’s Creed game
  • Boring and meaningless storyline
  • Free-running and combat have been made worse
  • Mission structure is weak and repetitive
  • Far too many bugs

I can write thousands of words describing every broken aspect of Assassin’s Creed: Unity, every design problem that annoys me, every bug and glitch that got in the way of an enjoyable experience. I could shout and scream about the free running being dumbed down, the combat being changed beyond all recognition, and the mission structure being taken back to the style of the original game. But at its core, it’s still an Assassin’s Creed game that millions of people will buy. It’s probably the worst in the series so far, but parts of it are quite fun, and it is incredibly good looking. Millions will still buy the game, and who can blame them? It’s the same old game, just with some poor design decisions. If you’re looking for a great assassin experience, play any of the other games in the series. If you really, really want to experience it with your friends, then go right ahead and buy it. Just be warned, it’s not very good.

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