Quick Look: Assassin's Creed: Unity

The Creed continues as we journey to France to see just how stabby things are over there.

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Assassin's Creed: Unity Review

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Assassin's Creed: Unity is at once an object of exquisite beauty and exhausting boredom.

There's a particular sequence I experienced in Assassin's Creed: Unity that I think best sums up the whole of my time playing it. I've been tasked with assassinating a shadowy figure who has key information pertaining to the game's overarching conspiracy. He's meeting with associates in a barely lit cemetery, surrounded by enemy guards. Initially I begin to creep around, picking off scattered guards here and there, but then he begins to move and I worry that I'm going to lose him if I don't make my play quickly. So, I descend to the ground and try to find a good position to sneak up on my target. I use the new cover snap ability to press up against a low wall, and wait for him to approach. Then, suddenly, a guard I hadn't noticed from the opposite side sees me. He comes running at me, which alerts my target's bodyguards. I try to hastily leap over the wall to grab him, but the cover mechanic doesn't let me do that. Instead, I have to jump out of cover, then run back at the wall to go after him. At this point guards are running in from all sides. Out of pure instinct, I toss down a smoke grenade, which sends every enemy into fits of coughing. Walking through the smoke, I approach my target and shank him, which results in a cutscene made up of the target's scattered memories. I watch, and wait for my chance to make my escape. When the scene ends, I am returned to gameplay, and turn to make my retreat. There are an awful lot of guards though, so I throw another smoke grenade and thin their ranks a bit, which I am able to do with surprising quickness. By the time I'm down to just a couple of guards, I'm about ready to exit the area, only to have the game hard lock on me. I get to do all of this over again, including watching the cutscene, which is unskippable.

Assassin's Creed has never looked better than it does in Unity, but those looks aren't enough to make up for its many technical problems.
Assassin's Creed has never looked better than it does in Unity, but those looks aren't enough to make up for its many technical problems.

This is the story of Assassin's Creed: Unity, a game that presents a number of tantalizing possibilities for top-flight stealth action gameplay, and manages to kneecap them at almost every turn through problematic design choices and endless technical woes. Unity is a game of great breadth and beauty. The first of the series targeted at the current generation of consoles, Unity plops you down in the middle of the French Revolution, presenting a vision of Paris enormous in scope and bursting with seething unrest. Yet so much of that revolution seems to be happening away from you as you navigate the streets and rooftops of the city, plugging away at a plot that's far more preoccupied with a boilerplate revenge story than the violent political upheaval unfolding all around you. Unity is packed tighter with missions, side ventures, and collectible doo-dads than any Assassin's Creed before it, but so little of it is truly of interest, giving the game a weighed-down feel as you try to figure out what's worth pursuing, and what's merely a distraction. And while there are moments of genuine awe in Unity, almost all of them are visual in nature. This is by far the most incredible looking game in this series, with landmarks and characters rendered in unbelievable detail--when they're properly rendered, of course. The most enjoyment I managed to wring from Unity was in darting and weaving my way through the city, taking in the sights and marveling at what upgraded technology could offer this long-running series. When it came to actually playing Unity as it was intended, I found myself most often shaking my head in disappointment.

There are a good number of ways in which Unity fails to deliver, but let's start with its story, which is nonsense. And not just the usual brand of nonsense this series deals in, either. As Arno Dorian, the son of a felled assassin raised by a templar, you are thrust into the middle of an increasingly ludicrous conspiracy when the aforementioned templar is also murdered. Arno is accused of the killing, sent to La Bastille prison, meets an incarcerated assassin who knew his father, and hastily joins up with the brotherhood with aims toward solving those murders. In the vein of Edward Kenway, Assassin's Creed IV's protagonist, Arno's goals have little to do with the creed he swears fealty to. He's a self-interested assassin, which is a story that can be done well, as evidenced by IV's surprisingly enjoyable romp through the world of Caribbean piracy. That game also had a lightness to its story that Unity rarely displays. Arno is initially presented as a bit of a roguish prick, but that incorrigible charm almost entirely disappears the second he joins up with the Brotherhood, giving way to a deathly self-seriousness.

Arno makes some exceedingly poor choices over the course of Unity's main story, but he's not the worst protagonist this series has ever had. The bigger issue is that the conspiracy he finds himself investigating is horrendously plotted. You spend the game darting from target to target, and each killing presents you with another rung on the conspiratorial ladder you must climb. Throughout the story, the writers show a careless lack of interest in contextualizing these targets for you. Sure, you can pull up the game's database and read up on each one if you like, but the in-game story is in a constant hurry to get you to the next scene. Just a day after finishing the game, I'm struggling to even remember half the targets I killed, or what their role in the conspiracy amounted to. Killing them also no longer nets you the confessional conversations you'd get in games past, just a series of hastily edited cutscenes that present pieces of the puzzle Arno aims to solve. Even the characters that come late in the game, the ones that are seemingly built up to be rivals of note for Arno, are barely established by the time you get around to offing them.

Unity's attempts at marrying its historical setting to that story are similarly lacking. It's not that Assassin's Creed games should go out of their way to make you a key figure in every noteworthy event that takes place in their respective worlds--see Assassin's Creed III for an example of that sort of thing going too far--but Unity is uniquely bad at making its history work in concert with the assassins' and templars' blood feud. When it does dabble in historical tourism, it has Arno interacting with key figures of the time, including the depraved Marquis de Sade, the corrupted revolutionary Robespierre, and a young, brashly ambitious Napoleon Bonaparte. But every time one of these characters appears, they disappear from the proceedings almost immediately. By the time the game starts winding to its conclusion, some attempts are made to place Arno and his antagonists into the mix of the revolution taking place, but they are, at best, fleeting nods to history. What a shame this is. That I am able to meet a character as memorable as the Marquis de Sade, and all I can recall from those encounters is a brief mention of fornication with goats, is emblematic of how utterly disinterested Unity is in its historical personalities.

Assassination missions feature more freedom to explore than in previous games, yet it's depressingly easy to brute force your way through most combat scenarios.
Assassination missions feature more freedom to explore than in previous games, yet it's depressingly easy to brute force your way through most combat scenarios.

Instead, it wants to keep you focused on this confusingly lame murder mystery, which you are only involved with at the behest of modern day assassins. Yes, Unity does again flirt with the modern-day version of the assassins/templars feud, but it's even less involving than the scaled-back version found in AC IV. IV's conceit of you playing as a low-level game developer at evil corporation Abstergo's entertainment wing is abandoned in favor of you just being some schmuck playing through one of the company's games. Assassin hackers jack into Abstergo's not-Matrix, spout some stuff about tracking down another sage, and then you're on about your revenge murdering mostly unencumbered by any involvement from the "real world." When those hackers do pop up again, it's solely to harangue you into diving through a portal to avoid Abstergo security sweeps. This sends you into one of three different alternate time periods, hopping around a still-under-construction Statue of Liberty or a German-occupied Eiffel Tower during World War II.

These missions really don't make a lot of sense, outside of getting you to experience landmarks that didn't exist during the time period the game primarily takes place in. They're harmless diversions, but aren't any more interesting than the typical traversal missions this series has been doing for ages. Yet, by virtue of being so out of left field, they're still more interesting than most of what Unity has you doing the bulk of the time. I'm hesitant to say that Assassin's Creed's gameplay is merely tired. If anything, AC IV demonstrated that with some key design changes, the well-worn tropes of the series could still be fashioned into something fresh-feeling. But Unity doesn't have much that sets it apart from the games that came before it, outside of pure size considerations.

Unity feels like a throwback to the days of Ezio and Altair, and not often in a good way. Missions generally feature the same basic mix of assassinating, eavesdropping, and hasty parkour fans should be well familiar with. Assassinations dabble in more elaborate methods of killing than the usual ceiling drops of doom, but those possibilities are often unnecessary, especially later in the game. Early on, Arno is armed with weak enough weapons that stealth is an important consideration. The first couple of targets I felled pushed me to find paths away from other enemies, resulting in some decently creative kills. But after a few missions under my belt, I collected enough money to purchase an upgraded sword that did considerably more damage. Combined with the upgradable equipment you can deck Arno out in--each of which comes with combinable bonuses that boost your attacks, health, and item storage--I accidentally turned Arno into a near-unstoppable killing machine less than a third of the way through the story.

I did this by partaking in the game's theater missions. This is one of several different side-quest types, though this one is especially noteworthy for its ability to break the game's economy. By doing missions for the owner of this theater, you're able to upgrade the initially rundown building into a bustling business, which nets you regular deliveries of in-game currency. Each upgrade boosts that number, until eventually you're earning huge chunks of change in relatively short amounts of time, allowing you to buy new items with abandon. By my third assassination mission, I had gotten Arno to the point where he could obliterate groups of enemies with a single smoke bomb and a handful of sword swings. This is not in keeping with the game's notion of stealthy, carefully-planned assassination, but Unity rarely finds ways to protest against such a play style. Only in the last few missions of the game did the scenarios presented force me to pay attention to things like guard patrol routes and available architecture in order to succeed. For most of the game, I was able to easily jump around, throwing smoke bombs and slicing up enemies without care. Alarm bells that should have sent me scurrying to the rooftops instead just forced me to use an extra smoke bomb or two that I could easily replace.

This is unfortunate, because I like the core idea behind these weapon and equipment upgrades. Apart from the pleasing idea of customizing your assassin in a variety of outfits, the assortment of weapons gives you a chance to experiment with attack styles that best suit your needs. But by the time I got around to having that opportunity to experiment, I'd already found a weapon that could obliterate most enemies in a couple of button presses. All of this without ever resorting to Unity's microtransactions, which are specifically geared toward making weapons and equipment cheaper. Why bother when the in-game economy keeps me flush with cash on a near-constant basis?

Co-op missions are some of the most entertaining parts of the game.
Co-op missions are some of the most entertaining parts of the game.

At least those theater missions are reasonably fun, which is more than I can say for the bulk of the remaining alternate quests. There are an insane number of side-missions to embark upon, ranging from Nostradamus-themed riddles to typical assassination contracts, with even the occasional murder mystery thrown in for good measure. Every Assassin's Creed game has had its bland side missions, but Unity's are shockingly uniform in their dullness. The murder mysteries, for instance, sound like a cool idea. The local constabulary is too lazy to bother investigating various killings around the city, and Arno volunteers to do the investigative heavy lifting in exchange for free weapons. Unfortunately, how you solve those mysteries involves just going from location to location, turning on eagle vision, and interacting with each highlighted object you see. Eventually all the clues and testimony are found, and you have to accuse a killer. The game doesn't just tell you who the killer is once you've found everything, but deducing the culprit is still incredibly easy. Even on the mysteries set at a higher difficulty, I never once accused the wrong person of a murder, and even if I had, I'd have just taken a small penalty for doing so. The mystery stories are intriguing on the surface, but they're crucially boring to play through. I found that to be the case with the vast majority of side missions. Even as the game tries to frame those missions with additional narrative, none of it clicks. It's great that there are tons of things to do, but when maybe 25% of those things are actually fun, that doesn't mean much.

Co-op missions fare a bit better, at least. These missions exist almost entirely separate from the main story, and allow two-to-four players to take part in elaborate tasks that often require careful tactics. Maybe it's because I found those kinds of tactics so patently unnecessary in the main game, but co-op play turned out to be a breath of fresh air for me. Not every co-op mission is a great deal of fun, but figuring out the right mixture of distraction, stealth, and brute force to apply to each one became one of my favorite things to do in the game. Surprisingly, these missions also tend to be best at marrying the happenings of the revolution to actual gameplay. Opening preambles do a good job of contextualizing why you're doing what you're doing, and how it all fits into the greater history. That the main single-player game is so terrible at this compared to the sectioned-off cooperative missions is a little bit insane.

These missions even do a much better job of utilizing the city's geography and throngs of citizens than the offline game. Some single-player missions present opportunities to dig through the catacombs beneath the city, to hide yourself among the huge crowds of angry citizens protesting against royal excesses, but most of those opportunities come from side-missions. If you just stick to the main campaign, the city takes on a strangely distant quality. Most of its explorable nooks and crannies exist away from what you're tasked with. You see life taking place all around you, with people begging on the streets, wandering out of taverns, singing and chanting, burning effigies and fighting among themselves, but Arno is rarely involved enough to ever feel like he's truly a part of it. No Assassin's Creed game has ever had a world so lovingly crafted, so thoroughly bustling with human activity, and yet no Assassin's Creed game has ever made me feel so thoroughly removed from the world that's been built around me.

There are a lot of little things that take you out of the experience of Unity--copy-and-paste citizens surrounding you, borked animations, delayed texture loading, and such--but they're dwarfed by the very big problems that pop up more often. On the Xbox One, which was my primary platform for testing, the frame rate is a chugging mess. Less populated environments tend to fare better, but areas with large groups of people cause the game to stutter in jarring ways. Typical animation glitches, like getting stuck while trying to traverse a particular building, or clipping through characters as you walk past them, are joined by much crazier showstoppers. Crash bugs, characters falling through the environment, faces not loading properly (resulting in some memorably horrific abominations), and Arno suddenly being unable to engage in combat in the middle of a battle are among the many, many tech issues I had while playing through Unity.

There's no shortage of things to do in Unity, but only a fraction of them are especially engaging.
There's no shortage of things to do in Unity, but only a fraction of them are especially engaging.

Outside of performance, Unity also has its share of issues with controls. Scaling buildings has never been easier, mind you, thanks to a separation of climb and descent buttons that allow you to safely hop and drop as needed. More often, the issue comes when trying to navigate Arno over smaller pieces of the scenery, or into any window. Arno has a bad habit of getting stuck on things like chimneys, chairs, tables, or anything else that he would perch upon, versus standing normally. Getting him off of those perches can be incredibly frustrating, especially when you're in the middle of an escape. Jumping into windows should be an easy thing, as the game says all you need do is hold down the left trigger while moving toward it. Yet that only works maybe half the time. The rest of the time, you'll jump up, down, and around the window, but not into it. This seems the result of the series' constant streamlining of its parkour mechanics. There's not a lot required of the player to do the insane gymnastics Assassin's Creed heroes are built to do, so the game ends up doing a lot of the heavy lifting by guessing where you're headed next. Unity guesses wrong more often than other AC games that I can recall, which results in the kinds of issues described above.

Those issues can undoubtedly be fixed by a patch somewhere down the road, but that patch seems unlikely to fix Unity's biggest flaw: it's just not very much fun. For all its hugeness and graphical splendor, Unity is starved for excitement. It's much too concerned with a story that feels confused by itself, wasting potentially interesting allies and antagonists in much the same way that it wastes the rich, violent history of its time period. The most interesting missions in the game come far too late, representing glimpses of a better game than the one you just spent hours playing. Even as a tech demonstration, Unity fails to captivate outside of its stunning art design. It's less a signal of the great things this series can do with new technology than an unusually large, frequently malfunctioning retread of what Assassin's Creed is already well known for. Co-op play is the sole saving grace of Unity, the only aspect of the game that feels reasonably complete, but that co-op alone isn't enough to make up for the myriad other ways in which Unity is deeply, disappointingly deficient.

Alex Navarro on Google+