The past repeats itself

It’s a little hard to believe, what with all the releases the series has seen, but Assassin’s Creed Unity marks the first time that an entry in Ubisoft’s history-based action-adventure franchise has been developed solely for a new generation of consoles since, well, the very first game. The original Assassin’s Creed was full of great ideas and really showed the potential of what the Xbox 360 and PS3 generation could offer developers and players alike, but it had some rough edges and poorly implemented early concepts, many of which wouldn’t be realized until its sequel, Assassin’s Creed II.

The hope this time around was that Unity would allow Assassin’s Creed to make a splash on new-gen without having to deal with the growing pains usually associated with a shift in technology—that it could introduce new ideas without the bumps and bruises seen when the series first launched. Unfortunately, Unity’s ideas are as much of a mixed bag as the 2007 original: Some are great, some are bad, and some are just poorly implemented.

Continuing the thread started in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Abstergo—the megacorporation at the heart of the series—has begun mass-producing the equivalent of a set-top box Animus they call “Helix”, allowing everyone at home to now enjoy a variety of Assassin adventures filtered through their rose-colored glasses. When you start playing, though, your box is hacked by the actual Assassins, and they ask you to help them by playing through the French Revolution in 18th-century Paris. So, you’re basically playing a videogame where you play a person playing a videogame. So meta, Ubisoft. Also, very boring. Here, though, you take over as Arno Dorian, a young lad whose father dies under mysterious circumstances and is adopted by the Grandmaster of the Templars.

You watch as Arno grows up and then begins a love affair with his adopted sister, Elisé, always in the dark to his adopted father’s affairs. When the Grandmaster is murdered, however, Arno comes across the Assassin Order—which, unbeknownst to him, puts our hero at odds with his love, who’s been trained in the Templar ways all this time. What follows then is easily one of the most gripping stories to date in the Assassin’s Creed universe: Arno’s tale is filled with romance, intrigue, mystery, and lots of action. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Arno might have to duke it out with Black Flag’s Edward Kenway and Assassins Creed II’s Ezio Auditore on my all-time favorite Assassins list because of his robust character growth over the course of the game.

Sadly, all the other players in Arno’s story—except maybe Elisé—fall completely flat in terms of their development. Characters who are important to the canon of Assassin’s Creed like Napoleon Bonaparte (he wields an Apple of Eden at one point in his life), critical figures in the French Revolution like Maximilien de Robespierre (commonly believed to be one of the architects to blame for the Reign of Terror), and even Arno’s mentor, Pierre Bellec, along with many others, are underutilized and barely serve as little more than footnotes in the development of our protagonist. This was disappointing, considering how many great supporting characters we’ve had in previous games like Leonardo da Vinci, the Borgias, George Washington, Ben Franklin, Blackbeard, and Black Bart. I wanted Arno to pal around with Napoleon. I wanted him to learn more from Bellec. And I wanted him to have some banter with Robespierre. I got none of this.

And since I mentioned the real world, I think now’s a great time to bring up the most startling thing about Unity’s story: the complete removal of that aspect from the game. Not once do you leave Arno and Helix and move about in reality. Instead, you get a handful of voiceovers from your random Assassin hacker telling you what to do and why to do it.

These sequences, which were a welcome respite in previous games, are now replaced by “server bridge” scenarios where Abstergo IT security tries to track you in the primary French Revolution scenario—so, in order to protect you, the hidden Assassin jacks you out of 18th-century Paris and into one of three other time periods. Once you complete a traversal challenge, you go back to the French Revolution, but if you want to revisit these other time periods, you’ll be welcomed back by minigames in which you have to collect inconsequential data clusters that award you 10, 20, or 50 points. This is by far the worst thing Unity attempts to add to the series—it feels like a pointless excuse to give players a chance to climb the Eiffel Tower during World War II or see familiar Templar designs in medieval times.

But there’s more to Assassin’s Creed than just the story. Ubisoft loves to point out their three “pillars of gameplay” (combat, stealth, and navigation), and they’ve said that they set out early in Unity’s development to address each one and hopefully improve upon it for new-gen—but they were only successful in some regards.

The first major tweak comes with the combat, which feels like a change we didn’t know we needed until it happened. It’s much more difficult now, since the overpowered counter button has been removed in place of the more finesse-oriented parry maneuver. Shades of the Batman: Arkham games bleed through here—your enemy’s lifebar will light up above their head when they’re about to attack, which allows you time to prepare your parry. If your timing’s right, your opponent will now be left wide open for a follow-up attack. If you’re surrounded, however, you may have several opponents try to attack at the same time—and Arno’s far more human than Ezio or Edward and will fall to enemy blades if he finds himself surrounded by more than three foes in most cases. The days of piling up dozens of enemy bodies in the streets are over, but walking away from an encounter alive is surprisingly more satisfying now.

Another huge improvement comes in the form of the stealth elements, particularly during assassination missions. This was a huge focus for the development team, because fans have been clamoring for more emphasis on this for years—and part of the success of this change comes about due to the aforementioned combat becoming more difficult. Sneaking around enemy fortresses and encampments is now a must if you want to survive.

The assassination missions are also more open-ended, and the game tells you before you even start your attempt how many entrances exist and how many opportunities you’ll have for special assassinations (my favorite was on a guillotine stage) before letting you loose to overcome the seemingly impossible odds however you choose. Optional mission objectives, such as paying off a maid to open up a particular window or retrieving a monk’s lost keys to open up a church’s back door, are also present and allow for more possible strategies when tackling your task, but they’re by no means mandatory. I had so much fun with these that I wish there’d been more—or even an extra mode just dedicated to assassinating different targets again and again.

As welcome as these improvements are when it comes to two of the three gameplay pillars, however, there’s one that falls flat on its face: the new parkour system. I put more than 35 hours into Unity, and I still never felt like I got the full hang of it. In the original Assassin’s Creed, you held the RT and A buttons (or R2 and X on the PS3) to climb around. Later on in the series, the trigger button alone handled this duty, and the series did away with the grip that became known as the “Creed claw,” since you’d spend most of the game holding those buttons. Unfortunately, in Unity, the developers have gotten away from the one-button concept in favor of a ridiculous four-button system. You still hold the right trigger to run, but if you want to run up, you need to hold A (or X on the PS4) in conjunction with the trigger. If you want to run down or climb over low walls, you hold B and the trigger (or Circle on the PS4) instead. If you want to climb into windows of a certain altitude, you hold both triggers.

Honestly, it becomes a real pain in the neck after a while, because it never feels as intuitive as the one-button system. At one point, I spent 30 seconds dancing around the four corners of a window I was trying to sneak into—before I remembered that I needed to press the left trigger, too. And there’s nothing like falling into a crowd of angry soldiers because you slipped and pressed B instead of A. It felt like I was fighting the controls the entire time, and even when I thought I was doing it right, Arno felt floaty and not nearly as controllable as he should’ve been.

To Ubisoft’s credit, the “controlled descent” feature, which allows you to slide down high walls or quickly get down from towers with RT and B (R2 and Circle on the PS4), is a welcome addition. But I don’t understand why the developers couldn’t just keep the one-trigger system and then add that controlled-descent mechanic on top of it.

And this seems to be Assassin’s Creed Unity in a nutshell. For every good feature or two that Ubisoft Montreal implemented here, they did something else that made me question what they were thinking.

Another example of elation and disappointment comes during the side missions, where you’ve got a cornucopia of tasks that vary greatly in scope and objective. I loved some of them, such as the Café Théâtre’s missions. The Café Théâtre is a small bistro in Paris under Assassin ownership and serves as Arno’s home base, much like Monteriggioni did for Ezio. It also affords the game an excuse to reintroduce an economy system like that seen in Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood. Having a constant flow of currency (and being able to increase that flow via special missions and unlocking other clubs around Paris) is a huge boon and also makes the customization far less daunting, since you’re more able to easily afford the pricier, more powerful items over time. The customization and upgrade system are also surprisingly well balanced, and I never felt like I lacked the necessary skills to complete an assassination.

The co-op missions are also a healthy change for the series and provide some really interesting side stories, along with the single-player-driven Paris Story missions that add both color and context to the time period, as well as the Assassin-Templar war. My only wish is that co-op could’ve somehow been worked into the main campaign. Also, since these missions—much like the game itself—are so narrative-centric, many of them lack the replayability you might expect.

But for every great Club or Paris Story mission, there are the disappointing Murder Mysteries and Nostradamus Enigmas. In the Murder Mysteries, Arno must help the bumbling police force solve various crimes around Paris using his Eagle Vision—but these segments are beyond simple. While you’re awarded with a rare item upon the completion of each case, these mysteries often require far too much running around Paris to solve a crime that you could easily piece together after only a few telling clues—or, if you’re really lazy, you can just Google the answer, since many are based on real-life events.

The Nostradamus Enigmas, meanwhile, are supposed to be the spiritual successors to the Glyph puzzles of Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood or the hacking puzzles from the real world in Black Flag. Instead, cryptic riddles point you to landmarks around Paris, where you scour the building in time-sensitive Eagle Vision and look for weird drawings. There’s no thinking involved—just more tiresome legwork.

Even in terms of the look and feel of Paris, you can find things that’ll leave you scratching your head. The city does feel more alive than any previous Assassin’s Creed setting, with gorgeous graphics and animation helping highlight the scores of NPCs crammed onscreen. But it also brings about the potential for several hysterical glitches, like people snapping into place like a movie extra late for the “action” call trying desperately to get their spot, or some getting constantly stuck on random pieces of furniture in houses or boxes in the market. The vibe is also rather bland, with most of the districts taking on similar, monotonous tones that just start to wear you down after some time. The game does briefly take an aside in Versailles, but even then I found myself longing for the cities and landscapes from previous games.

For the first time in a long time, in fact, an Assassin’s Creed game felt like a bit of a grind. Arno’s story, the new combat, the return to stealth, and the economy and customization were all high points. But the implementation and addition of many other ideas fell short of the quality I expect from this franchise. I can’t help but think that even with a four-year development cycle, this game needed some more time to polish and flesh out the concepts. It’s kind of funny how a franchise built around reliving history is reliving some of its own now, though—so, at the very least, I’m still looking forward to its sequel when, hopefully, they finally get a lot of this stuff right.

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal • Publisher: Ubisoft • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 11.11.14
Unity follows in the original Assassin’s Creed’s footsteps in many ways as the first game in the series developed exclusively for the new generation of consoles. And, much like its ancestor, for every good thing Unity does, it adds something else that just leaves you scratching your head—giving the whole experience a hit-or-miss feel that we haven’t seen from the series in a long time.
The Good A strong main narrative; combat and stealth are much improved.
The Bad Fighting the parkour system the entire game; side missions are hit-or-miss.
The Ugly All those French people…and almost no French accents.
Assassin’s Creed Unity is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Ubisoft for the benefit of this review.