Assassin’s Creed: Unity was, to be fair, something of a disappointment. Plagued by technical issues, hampered by being tied to not one, but two companion apps, and effectively jetisonning much of the progress made in Black Flag, Unity‘s launch late last year left many feeling underwhelmed by the backwards step in gameplay, angry that the publisher thought it was ok to release a game in such a poor technical state, and feeling a little fleeced by the inclusion of microtransactions.
The response was swift. Ubisoft cancelled Unity‘s season pass, announced it would re-evaluate the way the company does business with the press for future releases, and got to work on a series of wide-ranging patches to shore up the holes in the game’s performance. And so now we have Dead Kings, originally intended to be a premium slice of DLC but now free for anyone who has purchased the main game.
Does it make up for all the problems? Well… no, but it’s a start. To be honest, there’s very little Ubisoft could do that will excuse the whole sorry saga having occurred in the first place. But Dead Kings is still a highly enjoyable – and surprisingly generous – slice of Assassin’s Creed gameplay, providing an entirely new area to explore that’s roughly a quarter of the size of Paris, plenty of new missions and side-activities, and a satisfying conclusion to protagonist Arno’s story. In fact, I’d go as far to say that Dead Kings is one of those rarest of things – a slice of DLC that ends up being better than the game it’s a part of. Unfortunately, being tethered to the ill-judged changes Unity made to the series’ free-running and combat means that it never quite manages to free itself from the tired grasp of its parent. So there are some caveats.
Dead Kings picks up where Unity‘s story left off. Arno is something of a mess; without Elise to give him hope and something to strive for, and with Paris now a mere shadow of its former self post-Revolution, he’s left outcast, hunted and seeking safe passage out of France to Egypt. Hope comes in the form of the Maquis de Sade, returning from his brief time on-screen in the main storyline with a means by which Arno might achieve his goal of leaving France behind – for a price, of course. The Maquis seeks an old manuscript rumored to be hidden in the tombs that run underneath Franciade. So off Arno trots to his new destination.
Franciade marks a change in atmosphere from the main game. Scarred by the Revolution, littered with ruined buildings and perpetually overcast, the district lacks the immediate beauty and majesty of Paris. It’s still very attractive, and by no means ugly; it’s just a different kind of beauty. It feels as though Dead Kings’ setting is intended to evoke not just the consequences of the French Revolution, but also Arno’s more world-weary state of mind.
Thankfully, it’s not completely po-faced throughout, otherwise Dead Kings would have run the risk of becoming as dull as that other Revolutionary-themed Assassin’s Creed game. In large part, this is due to the introduction of Leon, a young boy who you meet early on and who develops something approaching a mentor-pupil relationship with Arno. Watching the two interact is a nice change from the sort of dull, exposition-heavy interactions the series is known for. Leon views it as his duty to save Paris, and there’s something likeable about his naivete. Arno’s perhaps a bit too quick to follow Leon’s demands – you’d perhaps think that such a jaded character would instead be quick to chide the child’s idealism – but over the course of the six-mission story something approaching a bond develops between the two.
It’s a shame that their relationship isn’t given sufficient room to develop over the running time. Dead Kings is certainly crammed with content, but much of its 6-hour running time is taken up by the usual litany of collectibles, side-missions and viewpoint towers that have become so familiar to fans of the franchise. Had Ubisoft Montreal instead focused more on fleshing out the story, Dead Kings could have truly elevated itself beyond the uninspiring narrative fare that Assassin’s Creed has become known for.
6 new story missions might not seem like much but they’re relatively meaty, and the objectives in each mix up the gameplay nicely. Tasks still fall into the usual pattern of tailing, stealth, combat and light puzzle-solving, but they’re presented in new ways that make them feel fresh. Part of this is due to the focus on Franciade’s network of catacombs. While the overworld map is impressively large for a slice of DLC, it’s only half the playable area. Underground tunnels take up roughly the same amount of space, effectively doubling the explorable area. Being stuck in a network of cramped passages and dungeons could easily have become boring: Assassin’s Creed is known more for its free-running over rooftops and clambering up the sides of tall buildings, after all. But the underground map manages to avoid this by presenting tightly-designed navigational puzzles not seen since Assassin’s Creed 2. At times, they come close to evoking the glory days of Prince of Persia.
A new faction, the Raiders, aren’t really all that different from any of the other enemies in terms of their behaviour and abilities. Where they differ is that they tend to appear in large clusters, which can make them difficult to defeat if you simply wade in. There are, however, a couple of ways in which you can even the odds. Each group has a leader. Take him out, and the others quickly surrender. A single well-aimed shot can see you easily “defeat” an entire group of enemies, as they cower in fear following the death of their commander.
The other way is to make use of the new Guillotine Gun. Essentially a giant grenade launcher with a ridiculously large blade on the end of it, one shot can wipe out entire groups of enemies, sending them flying in a hilarious explosion of smoke, fire and panicked screams. It’s hardly subtle, but then when did Assassin’s Creed ever care about subtlety?
One point to note: Dead Kings lacks challenge. Despite being set after the conclusion of Unity’s story, you can access it at any time after Sequence 4 in the main story. Enemies are only mid-level in terms of difficulty, so if you’ve completed the main game and Arno is fully kitted out with 5-star gear, they’re something of a cakewalk. It feels odd to set it after the main game and yet aim for mid-game difficulty, and Ubisoft has clearly attempted to compensate by filling areas with greater numbers of enemies; but the likelihood is that you’ll still be able to cut through most enemies like butter, particularly once you get your hands on the Guillotine Gun. In fact, most of the difficulty comes from wrestling with the navigation system, camera – which still has a habit of framing a fight from the most awkward angle, leaving you duelling an opponent you can’t see – and Arno’s propensity to stick to the smallest of objects. More than once I failed a mission because Arno was stuck on top of a gravestone and refused to come down from it, leaving enemies to hack away at him.
It will probably come as no surprise to learn that Dead Kings has a few bugs. During one fight, the game suddenly decided that Arno shouldn’t be in combat mode, and no matter what I did, he refused to draw his sword, drop a bomb, or fire any of his ranged weapons. I was left with no option but to run away, but even that was made impossible because the game refused to tell my attackers to stop pursuing, even when Arno had reached the other side of the map. Problems like these feel like hangovers from Dead King’s parent game, but some were new – or at least issues which I hadn’t encountered during my original playthrough of Unity. It seems that despite a number of patches, Ubisoft still has a way to go before Unity can be considered stable.
Dead Kings is a satisfying and enjoyable epilogue to Unity, with plenty of content to keep players occupied long after completing the main story missions but held back by some of the same problems as the main game. But a darker atmosphere and entirely new area mark it apart from Unity, and its narrative manages to be far more engaging. With a price tag of absolutely nothing if you own the base game, there’s absolutely no reason not to try it.