Despite Stumbling, Assassin’s Creed Unity is Free-Running in the Right Direction

We all know Assassin’s Creed Unity has its problems. It’s buggy, broken, and unfinished. It crashes, it can’t maintain a solid frame rate or even the integrity of its characters’ faces. French people caught up in the French Revolution speak in thick English accents. But now that some patches have dropped and the game is (more or less) playable, we can finally see its good side: it’s shockingly ambitious, even bold, and all sorts of fun. It also makes tons of smart changes to the series, fixing or at least addressing many long-standing problems.

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Ubisoft’s decision to use British rather than French accents makes no sense. Ubisoft claims that the Animus translates the French dialect into English for the user viewing the memories, but why would the user even need a translation? They’re accessing the genetic memories of a French guy who presumably knows French. Ubisoft’s explanation is outlandish:

The answer is simple. When trying to figure out what accent would be best-suited to the time period and the location, the development team took a tip from Hollywood. British accents, they determined, just have more of a period feel than an American accent would. It gives the distinct feeling of being set in the past in a foreign place.

That’s a pretty audacious line of logic, but here’s the beautiful thing about Unity: it’s multilingual. I played the entire game from start to finish in French with English subtitles, and it made the whole experience feel authentic. Even if Ubisoft’s decision to record the main dialogue in British-English makes no sense, it’s truly commendable that they’ve given the player their choice of languages, even when it’s not strictly necessary outside PAL territories.

A common complaint in the Assassin’s Creed franchise is that the controls are too simple and thus imprecise, leading to leaps in the wrong direction and overly difficult descents. That’s fixed in Unity. You hold the same trigger you’ve always held to start free-running, but now there are two modifier buttons instead of one. One directs Arno to climb up a building like assassins have always done, while the other initiates a swift and efficient climb down toward the street. I’ve wanted this exact change for the series for a long time now, and I finally feel like I have perfect control of my Assassin. Sure, when other parts of the game break they can interrupt that fluid motion, but technical issues aside it’s much improved.

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The swordplay in Assassin’s Creed has always been a contentious subject. It feels too stilted in the first game, encouraging players to wait for enemies to attack so they can be parried. A good balance is struck in Brotherhood with the execution chain system, but that ends up making subsequent games feel way too easy, to the point that even groups of 15 enemies or more are no problem. In Unity, I find myself actively strategizing to take down even two guards, because a single mistake can lead the entire city watch to bear down on me. Each enemy has a colored bar above his head; with each attack it will flash red, then gold, and you need to parry at that moment. The interplay between blocking and parrying makes combat dangerous again and it feels great. The mechanic makes dealing with groups a nightmare, and there are a lot of them in Unity’s massive crowds, but on the whole the tougher swordplay makes fighting with Arno more fun than any previous assassin.

Speaking of Arno, I have to agree with our reviewer Matt Whittaker in his assessment of Unity‘s star. Arno is indeed “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.” He’s everything I could have hoped for from an Assassin during the French Revolution: funny, charming and a hopeless romantic, ready to burn the world for his one true love. Like Connor and Edward Kenway before him, Arno wasn’t raised as an Assassin and doesn’t seem to care much for their creed. That always annoyed me about those two characters, but Arno’s motivations and lack of commitment to the creed are addressed in a thoroughly satisfying way during the story.

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Unity doesn’t just correct the flaws of the past though; it feels like the game Ubisoft has always wanted to make. Massive crowds numbering in the thousands line the streets, which I’ve never seen in a game before, particularly one this detailed. That the game functions at all with these crowds on-screen is an impressive feat. I can finally blend into a crowd to lose pursuers like in that first trailer for Assassin’s Creed. Beyond that, the sheer level of detail in Unity‘s Paris is seriously unbelievable. The world is gorgeous, but it also makes a tangible difference in the gameplay. Ducking through buildings isn’t just a matter of scripted scenes anymore – whole missions are now set indoors. Of course, not every building has an interior, but those that do make the world feel more natural.

I went into Unity expecting to hate it as much as everyone else seems to, but I ended up enjoying it more than any game in the series since Brotherhood. Our review paints a picture of a game where every success is undercut by crippling technical failings, and that’s more than a fair assessment. We should demand better from developers. It’s just tragic that those issues have marred what could have been the series’ strongest entry in years. Unity is deeply, at times unacceptably, flawed, but it’s also massively ambitious, and that’s worth recognizing.