A lavish game that nonetheless possesses little ambition and plenty of bugs.
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Format: PC, PS4, Xbox One (reviewed)
Released: November 11, 2014
Copy supplied by publisher
While undertaking a heist mission in Assassin’s Creed Unity alongside two Ubisoft employees, the topic of Dynasty Warriors came up, and jokes were had about how many games Koei’s series had released over the years. There was much derision toward the Warriors games’ tendency to saturate, but I had to retort by stating that, in the seven years since Assassin’s Creed launched, incredible strides are being made to catch up to Koei Tecmo’s numbers. We’re now twelve games and four novels deep, and Ubisoft shows no signs of slowing the annual Creed train down. My co-op partners did not really have a rebuttal to that.
Assassin’s Creed Unity is the more significant of two releases this year, launching next to Assassin’s Creed Rogue. The PS4 and Xbox One game takes us to Revolution-era Paris, as yet another hooded man stalks the historical streets and uncovers conspiracies while a corporation tries to stop you playing a Total Recall simulation. Players will experience the life of Arno Dorian as he tries to find out who killed his father (Ubisoft presents another revenge plot) and deals with influential figures stoking the fires of the French Revolution. Along the way, he’ll bump into such famous folks as Marquis de Sade and Maximilien de Robespierre, in a digestible, if somewhat by-the-book story. As for the sci-fi metaplot? It feels less relevant than ever, to the point where it concludes itself as an afterthought during the end credits, and its interruptions mid-game feel like an irritating imposition.
The core of Unity remains the same as it always has, with very little appearing to have changed from, well, any of the previous games. Expect to leap across rooftops, blend into crowds, stab soldiers in the back, and get into the occasional counter-focused melee fight as Ubisoft continues to make its game structurally indistinguishable from each other. Unity is disinterested in providing much in the way of freshness when it comes to its single-player campaign. It’s a content-led production, where “more” is preferable to “new,” and there’s certainly more nebulous stuff to collect, discover, and play. Checking out the in-game map with all the points of interest is overwhelming, as sidequests, stores, treasure chests, synchronization points, and tons of other icons utterly flood the streets of Paris. It might be familiar ground, but at least there’s miles and miles of it to cover, if abundant busywork is what you’re into.
Speaking of “more,” one cannot deny that the streets of France are absolutely littered with activity. A big part of the game’s appeal has been in how much is going on in any one scene, and the huge crowds of non-player characters are seriously impressive. Hundreds upon hundreds of angry French peasants and simpering nobles can appear at once, and none of it’s background fluff. Arno can wander into these massive groups, cutting his way past anybody who might point him out, and there’s enough variety in the models and their activities to where it doesn’t look half as fake and scripted as I expected it to. Unity is most certainly bigger in every way. The trade-off, however, is that running through the streets is kind of irritating now, as there’s always some asshole in Arno’s way. It’s not like bumping into people slows one down to an excessive degree, but it’s like trying to run through any populated enough area – it’s just a constant, minor annoyance.
With a likable protagonist and some pretty well structured story missions, Assassin’s Creed Unity is perhaps the best presented game in the series. I cheerily confess I’ve discovered a lot to like in this one, and it helps that I find the Revolution period particularly fascinating, a perfect setting for this kind of game. The character customization options, with a huge range of weapons, costume pieces, and colors to choose from, have helped maintain my interest as well, and there are many reasons to pursue optional content to acquire currency and skill points.
Unfortunately, Unity suffers as a result of the series’ age. In the time since the Assassin’s Creed first launched seven years ago, excellent strides have been made in sandbox acrobatics and predatory stealth. Batman: Arkham City and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor have both done beautiful work in improving the gameplay Assassin’s Creed ostensibly formalized, making it faster, swifter, and infinitely more satisfying to traverse open-world environments or take down foes from the shadows. These improvements have been largely ignored by Ubisoft, to the point where playing Unity after Mordor feels positively archaic. It’s hard to go from the fast-paced fluidity of Monolith’s latest release to a game where the main character stodgily clambers up the side of a house and gets confused near windows because the rudimentary controls are trying to make him do a dozen contradictory things at once. Arno regularly sticks like glue to obstacles he brushes against, blinks from one spot to another when the animations screw up, and jumps in unexpected directions because the one-button-does-all approach forces the game to guess where you’re trying to go. Similarly, the tight balance of attacking and countering refined by Rocksteady’s Arkham games only serves to further date Unity‘s ponderous, unresponsive alternative.
The over-animation doesn’t help, either. Yes, it’s impressive just how life-like Arno’s movements are, full of subtle motions that are gorgeous to watch – even if they’d be more lovely at 60 frames-per-second. However, every unnecessary backflip onto a rooftop, every skid when turning, every flourish of his sword, it all adds to the time between instances of you getting to do anything, making an already sluggish game moreso. There is such a thing as too much animation, and Unity has found it in plenitude. I’d do without Arno dramatically waving his bloody weapon about if he’d actually just stab the frigging enemies with it when he has the chance. Instead, combat feels more like a pretentious dance than an actual fight. And it’s slow. Gods, is it slow.
Despite the aged feeling and overly familiar ideas, Assassin’s Creed Unity does provide one major addition, and it’s significant enough to prove a difference-maker – cooperative multiplayer. Up to four players can share Paris, running around the open world together, and take on a number of specific co-op missions designed for either two or four colorful Arnos. Story-based missions allow players to perform various assassinations, escort jobs, and infiltration, often with their own little self-contained stories that revolve around the time period. Meanwhile, Heists are neat little robbery quests in which players must sneak in, locate a valuable item while eliminating fake versions of it, and get out. As well as a cash reward for completing the job, players also get their own bonus money, which decreases in value if they get spotted and remain in combat.
Tying the cooperative experience together are social clubs, which allow players to group up based on preferred online activities and have their own challenges that can be completed for rewards. It’s quite clear that Unity is designed with the online experience in mind, and it injects some tangible life into the series that tempts me to return, even after getting through the main campaign. The big rewards for cooperation are also crucial if you want to avoid the temptation of microtransactions.
Yes, because Ubisoft has no shame, you can use real-life money to obtain Helix Points, a premium currency in a full-priced retail game that lets you buy weapons, clothing, and temporary gameplay “boosts” without having to grind for the chump money. Thanks to the amount of Livres (the “free” cash) you get in co-op, it’s fairly easy to ignore the game’s attempts to frustrate you into opening your wallet, but the fact remains that it’s a shameless and sleazy little practice that has no place here. Between this, and the game constantly harassing you into using the Unity Companion App and Uplay, I care very little for the overbearing business practices that are unsubtly put front and center of the experience.
I care even less, though, for the game’s glitches, which prove to be the game’s most persistent Achilles’ heel. Among the more egregious problems encountered are three instances of the game freezing and outright crashing, one instance of Arno falling through the game world’s floor and getting stuck outside the map, one instance of a co-op partner falling through the game’s floor and getting stuck outside the map, one instance of having to restart a mission because Arno became permanently affixed to a wall, numerous instances of laggy combat animation, and countless instances of the game not responding to commands. I have literally had no session with the game where multiple bugs of varying severity did not occur, and while Ubisoft has been churning out patches (because that’s how you finish making a videogame now), the fact remains that Unity is a grossly damaged product.
Assassin’s Creed Unity is a beautiful game that’s fun to play with friends. It’s also an outmoded mess that incenses with its dated controls and shoves Ubisoft’s executive-minded priorities directly in the player’s face. It’s not difficult to see why some people refer to this publisher’s recent releases under the blanket name of Ubisoft: The Game, because the company makes itself hard to ignore in every experience. The unoriginal revenge plots thrown into every single game (we get it – dudes become angry when a family member is murdered), the constant securing of communication towers/propaganda towers/towering towers to unlock maps, the rising encroachment of microtransactions, the plastering of Ubisoft-branded proprietary accounts and apps over everything. Worse than a game franchise that keeps repeating itself, Ubisoft’s entire library is becoming one huge, interconnected franchise with a single recognizable, overly familiar flavor – and its a flavor that seems to have little respect for its audience.