Assassin’s Creed: Unity Review – Louvres Will Tear Us Apart

Assassin's Creed Unity Guillotine Concept Art

It’s not as good as Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

If that’s all you wanted to know, you can pretty much stop reading now. In fact, for all of Ubisoft’s insistence that Unity is something of a fresh start for the series – current-gen only, new engine, revisions to core systems – this latest instalment feels resolutely traditional. In some ways, that’s no bad thing: fans of the series are still going to find plenty to enjoy, and Unity is still very much an Assassin’s Creed game. In other ways though, it’s disappointing that Ubisoft hasn’t fully embraced the opportunity to fix many of the concerns that have plagued the franchise for years, and many of its changes to core systems bring in just as many new problems as they do solutions to old ones that they end up cancelling each other out.

Assassin's Creed Unity Swamp screenshotBut first, let’s tackle the elephant in the room. Much has been made of Unity being a bug-ridden mess recently, and an equal amount of scorn has been placed on the introduction of micro-transactions (though considering that the top-tier of those is priced at an eye watering $65, stretches the definition of that term to breaking point).

Cards on the table – at no point during my playthrough did I experience any of the more egregious bugs that have seen Unity become the Internet meme du jour. I never once saw a character missing a face, Arno never fell through the floor, and characters didn’t suddenly become jellyfish with no skeleton to keep them upright. I’m not saying those issues don’t exist; I’m merely stating that perhaps their prevalence has been somewhat overstated.

But what I did experience, on Xbox One (supposedly home to the most stable version of the game, if the various analyses and user feedback is to be believed), was several crashes back to the Xbox Dashboard, characters spawning in midair only to fall down to earth, objects floating in midair, and at a few points Arno became stuck in the level geometry. But these were, frankly – and thankfully – rare, and my playtime extended over around 30 hours.

That said, Unity has enough issues of its own well beyond the technical issues which prevent it from being the shining beacon for the future of the series that Ubisoft has so clearly positioned it as. Paris is easily the most detailed, beautiful and atmospheric location that we’ve yet seen; but it’s also fallen foul to a such a huge amount of gamification that it’s all but impossible to become immersed in the experience.

For starters, once you finally get your hands on the Assassin’s Garb (after a lengthy prologue which lasts around 3 hours), the map screen becomes positively overcrowded with icons. Chests are back, only now there are various different types and some of them can only be unlocked if you’ve upgraded your lock picking skills or used some of the various tie-in apps.

You can still upgrade your weapons and change your appearance, but everything is tied to huge amounts of livres –  Unity‘s in-game currency. You have Nostradamus missions (similar to the Enigma missions of old), side missions, main story missions, murder mystery missions, historical documents to find, a new variant of the traditional feathers,  treasure hunts… Unity quickly overwhelms by cramming in so many different features and things to do that it becomes genuinely hard to navigate the map, as icons overlap icons to the point where you literally can’t even see the damn street layout. There are filters in place to combat this, but with the sheer volume of things to do even relegating yourself to one category still leads to a mess of icons. Hell, the legend – which is there to tell you which icon represents what – takes up the entire screen – and many of the icons are so similar that you’ll have a hard time telling them apart.

Story-wise, it feels as though the developer decided on a rich historical setting then wasn’t sure what to do with it. The French Revolution is a period absolutely rife with interesting characters and Assassin's Creed Unity fight screenshotevents, but Ubisoft Montreal seems almost reluctant to exploit that. Instead, we’re forced to endure yet another tiresome Templars vs Assassins story, and the Revolution itself takes a backseat. When interesting characters do crop up – Napoleon, or the Marquis De Sade – they feel under-utilized, relegated to little more than mission givers and disposed of swiftly, never to be heard from again. Instead, the bulk of the characterisation is given to characters you’ll care little about: either your targets, or many of the completely fictional characters that Ubisoft has created to populate its latest historical stage.

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).

This isn’t a problem unique to Unity of course – even last year’s excellent Black Flag suffered from this issue – but the result here is that you feel more as though a major period of history is occurring in the background rather than being central to the action.

Other problems rear their head, too: revisions have been made to the series’ trademark parkour system. But while downward navigation is now easier than ever, the new system has such a desire to stick you to scenery that you’ll frequently find yourself trying to climb through a window into one of the game’s many lavishly detailed interiors, only for the game to decide that you actually wanted to climb a wall. It’s frustrating, it breaks immersion, and it leads to more than a few mission restarts.

Combat has also received an overhaul; but much like the parkour system, as much has been broken as has been fixed. There’s now a greater emphasis on timing and parrying, but by tying many of the traditional skills from previous games to a new levelling system, in the early game it’s all too easy to feel outclassed and find yourself restarting the same sequence over and over again.

Assassins_Creed_Unity_Review_02Ah yes, the skill system. Tying in with the earlier mention of the overly prevalent gamification of the series, you no longer just gain a skill after a certain mission or get everything at once after a tutorial mission. Nope, now you gain XP for everything you do. Unlock a chest? You get XP. Perform an air assassination? You gain XP. Seeing all these little announcements floating over your character breaks the immersion, and having so many of the skills you took for granted in previous titles tied to this new unlocking system – where you gain a skill point for every level – irrevocably damages the feeling of being a badass assassin. Some skills which used to be unlocked very early in previous titles, like double air assassinations, are now unlikely to be unlocked until close to the end of the game, while other skills that you’re unlikely to make much use of, such as throwing money into crowds (practically useless in Unity, when the crowds are already so thick with people), are doled out with low costs attached.

From a narrative point of view it makes some sense – Arno has no idea of his heritage until about 3 or 4 hours into the game,  and must therefore learn his skills as he goes – but for series veterans, it feels like riding a Harley Davidson only to be forced to suddenly ride a tricycle with stabilizers attached.

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.

That’s the big problem with Assassin’s Creed: Unity – despite being released at an inflated RRP, Ubisoft has decided that not only do you need to make use of not one, but two companion apps in Assassins_Creed_Unity_Review_01order to unlock all of the content, but they have also burdened the game with a business model rarely seen outside of free-to-play mobile games. And they’re not exactly generous with their implementation, either – the highest pack of Helix Points, the game’s premium currency, will set you back over $60. Sure, you can unlock all of the content by simply grinding away, but the price of the best upgrades and gear carries such an exorbitant price that you’d need to be playing a very long time after the conclusion of the end of the game before you get anywhere near to affording it – by which time there’s no point even having them.

For those willing to spend real money, you can bypass this grind. Want the best equipment in the game from the start? Plop down some extra cash, and you can deck yourself out completely in 5-star gear. Want to see where all the chests are? Plop down some money. Unity is a more-than-full-priced game which employs a model most recognised in the free-to-play mobile space, and whichever way Ubisoft tries to excuse it, it’s simply not acceptable.

Leaving aside the fact that the Unity already is priced higher than most retail games, the feeling that the publisher is subtly pushing you towards spending even more money, all the fucking time, leaves a very sour taste in the mouth. Yes, in theory, you can get everything by just playing the game. In theory. But there’s a very deliberate skew towards the cost and effort involved to encourage people to fork up additional cash.The most expensive items in the game cost 125,000 livres. What was my balance at the time of finishing? 2,340 livres. And that was after unlocking all of the various social clubs that supposedly boost your income.

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.

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Chris Morgan

Chris Morgan

Founder, Editor in Chief
When Dale isn't crying over his keyboard about his never-ending workload, he's playing games - lots of them. Dale has a particular love for RPGs, Roguelikes and Metroidvanias.
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