As a protagonist, it feels as though Ubisoft Montreal has attempted to try to recapture some of the lightning in a bottle they achieved with Assassin’s Creed 2’s Ezio Auditore. Arno has the same kind of swagger, the same easy-going charm and love of women – but he never really develops into more than a simulacrum. He’s likeable enough, sure, but it feels frequently as though he is little more than a pale echo created by committee. Black Flag’s Edward Kenway was a dashing rogue, a character with serious promise, so it’s a shame that we haven’t managed to spend more time with the true successor to Ezio. It’s just another way in which Unity fails to establish a clear identity for itself.
Perhaps, if Ubisoft decides to pursue Arno’s tale further, we could maybe see a little more definition to his personality. As it stands though, he serves little purpose beyond reminding that you could be playing another Assassin’s Creed with a more enjoyable protagonist.
Elsewhere, depending on your outlook, you’ll either be overjoyed or disappointed that the sci-fi backstory has taken even more of a back seat this year. At no point are you ever pulled away from controlling Arno. Instead, there are a mere couple of occasions where you are contacted by the Assassins’ Order in the present day, and those are simply relayed in the main as voice over narration (I counted precisely one cut scene, and that was right at the start of the game). A couple of instances will see you thrown into different time periods – having to climb the Eiffel Tower during the occupation of Paris by Nazi Germany is a highlight – but largely, the sci-fi stuff is kept firmly in the background.
It’s not a complete write-off though. Although most of the story missions fall back on the same old tired and unwanted clichés of tailing a suspect after identifying them, or just assassinating someone, many of the side missions show a level of invention that makes you wonder why the hell they were relegated to the sidelines instead of being allowed to take center-stage.
Take the murder mysteries. Around the map are a number of corpses. Locate one and start the mission, and you need to analyse various clues and interrogate suspects, before ultimately accusing the person you think committed the crime. It’s relatively straightforward stuff, and clues are easily spotted by using your Eagle sense, but it’s a pleasant change of pace from a series that has shown very little in the way of innovation in its mission structure over the course of the last seven years.
In fact, much of the more interesting content on offer in Unity is hidden in the side-lines. The main story campaign is relatively brusque and lacking in imagination, at least in comparison to the wealth of side missions on offer. It’s in these side missions where you’ll encounter the more interesting characters, most inventive mission design, and really explore the setting. The main story does very little with the game’s premise, which makes it feel like a total wasted opportunity. Delve into the extra content and you start to see hints of what could have been – surprisingly touching accounts of the poverty and misery that sparked the Revolution, characters both sympathetic and debauched, and a real notion of the starkest class divide in recent history.
Sadly, the main story contains very little of this. Instead, Ubisoft Montreal chose to bog itself down in yet another tiresome tale of the machinations of Assassins and Templars, and of course all the villains are completely predictable (it shouldn’t come as a surprise to discover that the Templars are instigating the Revolution to try to cement power).
Every piece of gear now comes at a price too, and has its own individual stats, with an additional upgrade available; but they rarely feel meaningful. Gear is rated from one to five diamond “pips” that supposedly denote its quality, but by the end of the game most of my gear was still just one or two pips, and rarely did I feel challenged enough to feel the need to upgrade it. Just as well really, because the higher levels of gear carry obscene price tags which I can only speculate were placed at such levels to encourage people to purchase the game’s alternative in-game currency – Helix Points – for real money.
At the end of the day, Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a decent game. It’s just not a good game, and it falls far short of the standards that players should expect from what is one of the biggest franchises in the industry. Overpriced, tied to a horrendous model and enclosed in an unwanted ecosystem that requires players to tether themselves to various ancillary apps, not to mention a raft of bugs (and the Xbox One version, which is the version tested here, is supposedly the most stable) and Unity becomes very difficult to recommend. It’s a real shame, because last year saw the franchise at the top of its game, taking the series in a bold new direction and largely free of any glitches or issues.
The overwhelming feeling with Unity is that of a franchise increasingly existing solely at the behest of a board of shareholders, rather than one created for the joy of creation. Some of its constituent parts show promise, but are relegated to the sidelines. Other parts that have long been staples of the series are now locked behind increasingly obtrusive barriers. The overriding sense is that Assassin’s Creed has lost its way, and Ubisoft needs to do something pretty impressive next year if it wants to convince us that the series still has what it takes to remain in the big leagues.