United we stand

In many ways, Assassin’s Creed Unity aims to be the most ambitious game the franchise has ever seen. Featuring systemic gameplay, narrative driven co-op that uses the same world as the single-player campaign, and a huge emphasis on stealth mechanics that bring the series back to its roots—especially Assassin’s Creed II, which many still consider the best—Unity has vast potential as the first Assassin’s Creed developed solely for the new generation of consoles.

With all that in mind, I was excited to finally get the opportunity for some quality hands-on time with Unity, about four hours in all. Unfortunately, from the sample I played, Unity goes a bit too far back in time when it comes to Assassin’s Creed, because it reminded me more of the original game with Altaïr: tremendous ideas alongside some very poor execution.

My demo consisted of Sequences 3 and 4 in protagonist Arno Dorian’s timeline. He’d just been fully inducted into the Assassin Brotherhood and now had access to the entire city of Paris while he carried out missions to further the Assassin cause—and here’s where my first issue arose. Unity includes a new progression system where, much like in an RPG, players will be able to buy skills and abilities for Arno and customize him as they see fit. Since I was already into Sequence 3 when the demo started, I had some ability tokens in the bank. I like the idea of a progression system and unlocking more moves as you go along; when I went to assign these tokens, however, I was shocked at just how bare-bones Arno was.

Skills that we’ve come to expect over the years, like crowd blending, double assassinations, and even just carrying a pistol, all needed to be purchased with skill points. If he was a full-fledged Assassin now, I hate to think of what he’s like in Sequences 1 and 2. What exactly did he learn from his teacher? How to pull the hood up over his ears? I’m not expecting Arno to have everything at his disposal from the get-go, but these skills in particular are staples of what it means to be an Assassin—especially during the setting of the French Revolution in the late 18th century—and the fact that I had to spend points just to raise Arno up to the standards of those who came before him made me feel extremely underpowered. I suppose that’s one way to artificially amp up the difficulty, though.

And since skill tokens are acquired by completing many of the side missions around Paris, it’s also a way to force you to deviate from the main narrative. This could be a way to artificially extend the game, however, because the sequences I played were only four missions long, making me worry greatly about the length of the main narrative compared to previous games.

It also plays into a lot of the new systemic gameplay, where the player can tell their own story and have it play out as they wish—it’s very cool to see random fights break out in the streets as warring factions butt heads or approach an assassination target from multiple directions. Unfortunately, though, the only word that came to mind for me during some of these missions was grind. Yes, the sidequests are far more entertaining than hunting animals, since they’re a story within a story, but I felt like I was being pushed away from the main narrative instead of being sucked into it, simply because I needed to make Arno a more formidable force to take on the difficulty as it ramped up. And let’s be honest, folks—for most of us, the story is still the main draw.

Now, that’s not to say that Arno can’t defend himself at all. With his hidden blade, he can still stab people in the face rather effectively. But one change that I didn’t mind related to the combat, which is far more difficult than in previous games—piling up bodies in the street as never-ending waves of enemies swarm is a thing of the past. If you’re not trained well enough, taking on more than three foes will probably spell the death of you, since the counter button’s been removed. In its place is a parry button that must be perfectly timed for you to take advantage of your off-balance foes. Enemies also strike more quickly and more effectively, which puts an emphasis back on stealth and smarter enemy encounters. It’s now a must to wait for guards to be alone before going in for the quick kill or use the whole gamut of tools at your disposal, like poison gas, smoke bombs, and noisemakers.

You can also strengthen Arno by purchasing new items. You’re able to buy dozens of different outfit parts, such as hoods and boots, and you can swap between all items you acquire to accentuate different statistics in four key categories: armor, stealth, health, or effective range of weaponry. This aspect of customization and progression is a lot clearer, and it hearkens back to buying new armor and weapons in Assassin’s Creed II. I will say that the interface back then was a lot sexier than what we see here in Unity, though.

And speaking of Assassin’s Creed II, another aspect that I loved seeing was the Café-Theatre. It basically serves as Arno’s version of Monteriggioni, Ezio’s upgradable home and fortress from Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood. As you buy upgrades and renovations, you can unlock new missions and items—plus, you get a treasure chest that keeps collecting money as the café makes more money from its customers. Along with the new missions from Café-Theatre, Unity also sees a spiritual successor to Assassin’s Creed II’s glyph puzzles, called Nostradamus puzzles here. Since they’re so directly tied to landmarks, I wasn’t able to solve any during my demo time. The landmarks seemed to already be unlocked in-game, and many of the buildings just started to blend together, which sometimes made climbing up to a synchronization point a bother.

This leads me to another negative: the new parkour system. I actually felt like I had less control over Arno than most other Assassins before him. Unity features a new control scheme that allows you to parkour up or down across much of the landscape, and I admit that it takes some time to get used to. Once you’re experienced, though, and can pull off all manner of flips and stunts, it still feels like you’re fighting the controls to get them to go where you want—or, worse yet, you go bounding off in the completely wrong direction. Since there’s such a return to emphasis on stealth, the last thing you want is a lack of pinpoint control when free-running through Paris.

Besides the two single-player sequences, I also got to try out two co-op missions. The first one, the Heist, is great for earning a lot of quick cash, but it’s really meant more for players near the end of the game. Coordination among the team is critical, since Heist missions require four players to infiltrate a heavily guarded location and raid it to stuff their pockets with gold. If you get spotted, you’ll walk away with less gold, and if one person dies, the mission restarts.

Though I enjoyed the concept, everyone playing was at such a high level that we just started spamming attacks, throwing a bevy of smoke bombs into every room and then running in and clearing it out. I know that’s not the purpose of the game mode, but when you’ve got 25 smoke bombs, they’re cheap to buy, and you can walk away with as much as 60,000 credits, it’s hard not to.

The other co-op mission was the more narrative-driven one—and I loved it, because the reason I still play Assassin’s Creed is for the story. In this mission, I had to save a French spy who’d happened upon a Templar plot. Once they found him out, the Templars branded him a traitor and sentenced him to death. First, I had to free him from the Templars and then help him escape. My co-op partner and I were a force to be reckoned with as we used our environment to our advantage and quickly dispatched the Templar agents in our way, zigzagging across rooftops and using our smoke bombs when necessary to escape.

I appreciate that Unity offers players more to do than ever before. Whether it’s the new sidequests or the openness with which you can complete missions, it definitely feels like a step in the right direction for the franchise. But I can’t get over the progression system and the shoddy parkour. These are two definite missteps—and I worry about how they’ll affect the main game as a whole when Unity releases next month.