It’s no secret that Assassin’s Creed has lost focus and gone off the rails a bit. Sure Black Flag was a good pirate themed adventure but I never felt like I was playing the next AC. So it’s time again to see if Assassin’s Creed is back on track. This time during the French revolution, a period that easily consists of enough turmoil and bloodshed for Assassin’s Creed.
Despite the interesting time period and the rich interlacing of politics and rebellion that undoubtedly shaped modern France, Unity focuses more on the internal plot of AC and the struggle between the Assassins and the Templars. It also insists that French people used to talk with either a cockney accent or an over the top British villain’s accent which seems unlikely. The usual plot ‘twists’ await; ‘Oh this person is actually a Templar’ and ‘the Templars are behind it all’. The plot falls flat long before the end. Almost as soon as you start in fact. Early on it’s difficult to associate with anyone simply because you don’t know who they are – and worse still it’s difficult to care. Characters other than Arno (our protagonist) are easily forgotten along with the plot.
Assassin’s Creed still has an identity crisis and insists on being ‘X Era Action Game’. To return to the internal plot and overarching story of AC we need a decent modern story intertwined with the historical one. Unity just ignores both. Unity also skips on any meaningful ‘outside Animus’ experiences and making out that I’m someone playing Abstergo games in my living room doesn’t cut it and breaking the fourth wall is unimaginative in the order of a character saying ‘this is just like a video game!’. It certainly isn’t even close to a replacement for the experiences we had in AC 1 and 2 with Desmond – minus the super pope.
Does anyone remember the first game? The reveal of Lucy’s hand. And when I used eagle vision at the end I swear I nearly passed out with excitement. I had so many ideas of where the franchise would go – none of which have happened. Until I get a meaningful protagonist outside the animus and those truly unique, genius moments Assassin’s Creed is ‘just another action game’. At least Unity doesn’t get totally distracted by the period drama but it forgoes a plot in either realm instead.
Getting into the action you see Unity’s most obvious changes. Countering and dodging are more difficult than ever and it is likely you will struggle to take on enemies that are a higher level than you. It does make a nice change not to have unlimited power from the start and actually gives you somewhere to progress to but too many times I died when a counter prompt was off screen. Like almost everything in AC It works well when it works but fails spectacularly when it doesn’t. It’s satisfying knowing you’re not fighting dummies that exist only for you to kill but when you die from an attack you couldn’t possibly avoid it’s just irritating. I can’t imagine why the counter icon isn’t above Arno’s head. It’s a particular problem when an enemy has a long reach and you have literally no way of seeing the incoming attack.
Moving past guards successfully is more difficult than before too. Stealth certainly has more strategy than just continually using whatever weapons is perfect at taking out guards silently and makes a pleasant change from the ‘whistling bush’ approach. During my first proper assassination I was also pleasantly surprised when presented with choices. As an example there are several entrances to consider and at least three logical ways to take your target down in the first assassination alone. And that doesn’t include the less obvious methods. The freedom granted by even just a couple of choices makes you feel more like an actual Assassin and less like a hired goon following unrealistically strict orders. I had by far the most fun on Unity when on Assassination missions and I’m so glad Ubisoft spent the time improving them. This is Assassin’s Creed after all and ironically the assassinations have been lacking for a long time.
Venturing into Unity’s co-op missions is dangerous and will potentially make you the source of much hatred. If you die the entire team fails and, if you’re lucky, will be returned to a harsh checkpoint. If you’re not you’ll be starting again. Knowledge is power and both the heists and the missions will switch from almost impossible to easy depending entirely on how well you know the mission. That stupid AI will scold you with ‘I told you to be quiet!’ both ironically loud and annoyingly patronisingly after she runs at some guards in the distance and alerts them despite the fact you could have easily taken them down quietly.
It rarely matters because quite often you’ll be insta killed by unknown sources and the entire mission will reset. For everyone. And then when you finally manage to learn the level, making it decidedly easy, you might lose connection to the Ubisoft servers and be returned to the world map after a lengthy loading screen. Drop in co-op would have been far better for AC and the co-op frustratingly adds little but extra stress to the game. An approach similar to Watchdog’s would have worked infinitely better.
Visually it’s difficult not to appreciate the shear scale of revolutionary Paris. Fast travelling to a perch really allows you to see just how immense the city is. There are a few shops and buildings that stand out and look great but for the most part I was underwhelmed. The PS4 version I played suffers from horrific frame rates, even after the 900MB day one patch. That aside most NPCs are drab with low quality textures and really just look like blocks of colour draped over a human frame. Again the scale is impressive and crowds are huge but they often make traversal irritating and further hinder the already poor frame rates. Unity certainly doesn’t look bad but it does look old. For such a high profile game made specifically for 8th gen hardware I was quite disappointed. I have to give a shout for Unity’s motion capture and facial expressions however which are amazingly accurate and subtle. Sadly they are relatively infrequent and so for the most part Unity looks decidedly average.
For traversing Paris free-running has been given a slight, but significant, tune up allowing you to hold ‘x’ to free-run up or ‘circle’ to free-run down. As veterans will know this makes a huge difference and for the first time I was able to descend with relative finesse. Undoubtedly a move forward but then it’s one the franchise should have made years ago so it’s difficult to be happy about something that should have already been there a long time ago.
As with most Assassin’s Creed titles Unity does some things right but not without missing out some crucial elements. The plot has taken a back seat to such a degree that it now basically isn’t there. The combat has added some much needed challenge but has also added unnecessary frustrations by having counter icons potentially off-screen. But assassination missions are amazingly fun and for the first time offer a decent amount of choice. And as ever there is a metric ton of missions and things to do to keep you busy plus meaningful customization in the way of weapons and armour. There really are loads of weapons and pieces of armour to play with. One of my biggest problems with Black Flag was the lack of attainable items and it’s excellent to see Ubisoft bring them back, and in a big way.
Still the series desperately needs a plot injecting into it and a protagonist of some sort wouldn’t hurt either. At least some major issues have been fixed, and fixed well. As ever I look to the next AC to be the one that finally lifts the series out of its mediocrity as I play another average instalment to this once great franchise.