Review: Assassin’s Creed Unity

With a new generation comes new expectations. We want our AAA games to look better, run better, and most importantly, play better. Now is the time where ambition meets reality, where the previously impossible becomes possible. Assassin’s Creed Unity, this year’s current generation entry into the massive annual franchise, shows its creators’ ambition constantly. From its massive 5000-person crowds to its insane number of environmental assets, it’s a title that would send smoke billowing from a last generation console. However, for all of its commendable envelope-pushing, Assassin’s Creed Unity loses sight of one of the most obvious staples of great video games: if your game doesn’t run properly, it really doesn’t matter how ambitious it is.

The star, and saving grace, of Assassin’s Creed Unity is Arno Dorian, who is perhaps the best protagonist in franchise history. Rather than being driven by a superhuman drive for revenge or an overarching sense of self-righteousness, Arno’s fuel comes from a combination of love and regret. Being that he was inadvertently involved in the death of his love interest Elise’s father, who had adopted Arno after he was orphaned at a young age, he sets off on a quest to make things right. This isn’t necessarily because it’s the correct thing to do, mind you, but simply because he desires to prove to to Elise that her life is more important to him than his own. The result is a stunningly complex character who feels far more human than any assassin the series has seen since Ezio Auditore da Firenze took the world by storm in Assassin’s Creed II.

It’s no secret that the Assassin’s Creed series is loaded with machismo-heavy, violent badassery. You’ll launch yourself from rooftops onto unsuspecting enemies below, cushioning your fall with their bleeding corpses as you slice their throats. Winning a one-on-three sword-fight via perfectly-timed parries and jugular slices is commonplace. Shooting drug-laced blades into the abdomens of brutish fiends before watching them slaughter their allies proves, time and time again, to be an exciting strategy. Yes, Assassin’s Creed has always been a borderline sociopathic franchise, which is why the charming love story between Arno and Elise feels so refreshing and enjoyable. From the moment they first meet, mere moments before the death of Arno’s father, it’s clear that these two characters fuel each other. Their dialogue exchanges never feel corny or overly-dramatic; their care for one another is always genuine, through good times and bad. Through this love story, players are given a window into one of the only instances of beauty in the midst of this version of the French Revolution, a decidedly ugly time period.

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For as interesting of a setting as the French Revolution is, the overall narrative placed within it is fairly forgettable. The entire story essentially boils down to Arno working his way up the Templar ladder, starting from the man who murdered Elise’s father. It’s a simple lather, rinse, repeat tale: kill a character, see their memories, kill the superior seen in their memories, then do this again and again. Without Arno’s gripping character traits and his love story with Elise, Assassin’s Creed Unity would make a solid case for owning the series’ worst story. The characters Arno is tasked with assassinating feel woefully underdeveloped, so much so that by the seventh sequence it becomes difficult to understand exactly why you’re murdering these people. Unless you’re actively reading the side-stories that pop up constantly, prepare to feel slightly confused. With all of the constant disease, murder, turmoil, and hatred surrounding the French Revolution, it’s hard to call Assassin’s Creed Unity‘s simple ladder-conspiracy tale a success.

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The numerous gameplay changes that Ubisoft Montreal has made for Assassin’s Creed Unity vary from extreme hits to extreme misses, depending on the circumstances. Being able to complete multiple missions entirely based upon assassinating people (go figure) marks a return to one of the more exciting aspects of the series’ origins. During assassination missions, players are given a smaller sandbox (say a palace or the scene of an execution) and are simple tasked with killing a single enemy. A number of optional tasks are available that can assist one in their overall goal, such as procuring tainted wine to poison the target or covering smoking sewer grates to allow for a smoke-filled escape. Being able to accomplish a singular goal in so many different ways allows Assassin’s Creed Unity‘s assassination missions to stand out as the highlights of its design. Dedicating more time to improvisation as opposed to constantly tailing enemies or escorting allies (both of which are still technically present, mind you) makes Unity‘s campaign to feel like it’s your own story.

Climbing, a blatant staple of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, has seen dramatic changes, for better and for worse. Assassin’s Creed Unity sees the introduction of a specific command (pressing A while holding RT) to run up walls and descend walls, thus minimizing the series’ long standing problem of sudden, unwanted climbing. This doesn’t change the fact that you’ll still run up small ledges without warning, but the opportunity to avoid part of a major problem is appreciated. Pressing B while holding the right trigger allows Arno to embark on a controlled descent down buildings, thus reducing the always peculiar number of haystacks present in any given Assassin‘s Creed world. For all of the benefits that these new commands introduce, movement can still feel a bit clunky at times. Players will often find themselves unable to climb to seemingly reachable ledges without trying a number of different commands, and the more complex mechanics can often make it more difficult to do exactly what you’d hoped you would.

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Being able to wield a number of different weapons, including short swords, two-handed javelins, maces, and more definitely changes the way Assassin’s Creed Unity‘s revamped combat functions. Likewise for the numerous gear customization options, which alter player stats, and purchasable skills. Gone are the days where you’re able to take on hordes of enemies like some sort of past-era superhero through relatively simplistic combat. In its place is a slower, more strategy-intense system that places emphasis on perfect parrying, attack anticipation, and well-planned offensive maneuvers. These new mechanics boldly change the overall direction of Unity, as players are forced to play more stealthily. Taking on ten enemies is sure to lead to death, and running away is a more viable option than ever. Unfortunately, fighting in Unity‘s gorgeous building interiors is marred by wonky camera angles which place enemy attack indicators out of the frame. Because combat and camera movement both take place on the same side of the controller, it’s often difficult to correct these camera issues before it’s too late.

In theory, Revolutionary Paris is an exciting virtual city to explore, and Ubisoft Montreal’s attention to detail can be fairly astounding at times. Unfortunately, Assassin’s Creed Unity‘s over-world struggles when it comes to navigation, as every building pretty much looks the same. Sure, it’s possible to wander around building interiors, but even these gorgeous indoor environments start to feel repetitive. Consider the world of  Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, where each individual settlement seemed to have its own identity. While a lot of the smaller islands looked the same, the level of environmental differentiation made combing over the world for collectibles addictive. You might be underwater, on a beach, or in a bustling shantytown. What’s more, it was simple to find landmarks without having to constantly bring up the map every five seconds. In Assassin’s Creed Unity, there’s certainly a lot to explore, but it’s often difficult to purposely find the same area twice without having an unrealistic level of map memorization. Nowhere is this more apparent than when players attempt to solve a series of riddles written by the great Nostradamus, with each one describing an individual area players have to find.  Instead of creating a fun challenge that players complete while wandering around this bustling metropolis, these side-missions become an exercise in getting lost in the largest video game maze of all-time.

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Still, even with its labyrinthine streets and largely average narrative, it’s should still be gripping to lose oneself in this engrossing world, right? After all, the best part of Assassin’s Creed games isn’t necessarily the story or the gameplay, it’s existing in a world that you genuinely want to remain in. Sadly, any sense of immersion that Assassin’s Creed Unity could have created is destroyed by the unstoppable barrage of bugs, glitches, and overall lack of polish it features.

What’s the point of having thousands of character models on the screen at any given time if they pop-in out of nowhere every few seconds? Do incredibly gorgeous textures matter if your character constantly clips through them? Assassin’s Creed Unity features a collection of hundreds of bugs and glitches that, when added up, make the entire game feel like one big bug in it of itself. You might see French flags appear out of nowhere in those vaunted thousand-person crowds. The framerate seems to run sub-30 frames-per-second during panoramic synchronization animations. Framerate stutters and freezes are commonplace when the screen is loaded with assets. It’s not uncommon for Assassin’s Creed Unity to completely crash, leaving players staring at their home screens in utter confusion. There’s not a single cutscene where something isn’t randomly popping in in the background, and the character models themselves feature bizarre bugs (Arno and Elise have a strange case of the hair-vibrations). You’ll see non-player characters sink through the streets and get stuck inside wooden stands, and you’ll find yourself warping around walls while climbing. Oh, and let’s not forget the outrageous loading times that players see more often than not. Assassin’s Creed Unity feels like a game that should be released in three months rather than right now.

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Two of the most memorable cutscenes are actually ruined by awkward bugs. At one point in the campaign, Arno and Elise proclaim their love for one another while looking down on Paris from above. What would be a beautiful exchange between lovers is sullied by half of Arno’s face clipping through his collar, creating some sort of bizarre shirt-goatee. What’s worse, he and Elise share a passionate kiss while clipping through the side of his shirt, turning a touching moment into a horror show. The final cutscene before the credits, which had the potential to be one of the most powerful endings in series history, is marred by Arno talking without making any sound. After a line or two is lost, he continues to move his mouth constantly until the credits roll. Needless to say, this takes the emotional peak of the story and transforms it into utter nonsense.

Assassin’s Creed Unity marks the first entry in the franchise to support cooperative play. Getting into a match proves to be just as big of a challenge as the actual missions themselves, as five of our first seven matches resulted in full-game crashes. One of those seven attempts saw Arno fall completely through the world, causing him to swim through invisible water until he fell into the abyss for twenty seconds before dying. Getting into a workable match is definitely challenging, but it can be done if you’re willing to put up with a myriad of setbacks. It’s also not uncommon to see the server completely drop players from a match entirely, only to have an infuriating server restoration notification appear moments later. Though it suffers from the most glaring issues of any aspect of Assassin’s Creed Unity, co-op does have its moments (when you’re actually able to get into a match). Fighting through crowds of enemies alongside friends feels epic when it runs smoothly, though the framerate, animations, and sound often undermine these great sequences. It’s also a shame that one can’t play through the campaign with a friend, as cooperative missions are limited to smaller, stand-alone stories.

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Closing Comments:

What could have been the definitive entry in the Assassin’s Creed series is actually the definitive example as to why releasing an unfinished product is always a bad call. Assassin’s Creed Unity has all the makings of an expansive, ambitious title that fully takes advantage of current generation technology, but it’s marred with countless imperfections. From it’s lackluster narrative that utterly wastes a well-written love story and outstanding main character to its myriad of technical issues, this is a title that should be avoided until it’s sufficiently fixed. Cooperative play, it’s most exciting addition, proves to be a disaster, as crashes and server drops are just as likely than smooth missions at this point. Assassin’s Creed Unity has made the tragic journey from one of 2014’s most exciting games to perhaps its most disappointing.