It’s been a patchy year for Ubisoft, all told. Their supposed generation-defining uber-hit “Watch Dogs” turned out to be a mediocre sandbox game with utterly abysmal forced stealth sections, and this game- supposedly the next evolution for the “Assassin’s Creed” series in line with AC2 and AC4: Black Flag was, upon release, a bug-ridden mess of catastrophic proportions. But on the other hand, its titles “Far Cry 4” and “Assassin’s Creed Rogue” (unfairly brushed aside as “the other one” due to being released on the same day as Unity and using the same assets from previous games) are two of the best games I’ve played this year. Fortunately for me I didn’t play AC Unity upon release and instead waited like a bearded spider until recently, installing the most recent patch (6GB instead of its original 40GB, another blunder on Ubisoft’s part) and so having called attention to its buggy, broken state can review the game in its current state, as I experienced it. For those who aren’t familiar with my feelings on the series as a whole I love Assassin’s Creed and am the kind of person who can easily notice changes to the formula both positive and negative. I was reticent going into this game as “Rogue” made me firmly supportive of the Templar order and therefore not particularly interested in being an Assassin again, but apart from that I was looking forward to it, as I always do. Right, on with the review.
Set during the French Revolution you are Arno Victor Dorian, raised by Templar grand master Francois De La Serre after the death of Arno’s father at the hands of (SPOILERS) Shay from Assassin’s Creed Rogue, though this game never mentions that fact (SPOILERS END) but ends up joining the local Assassin brotherhood due to the indirect part he played in De La Serre’s murder. Now, the first thing that’s apparent in the story is that it really wants to be “Assassin’s Creed 2”- similar protagonists, similar thirst for vengeance, similar involvement with the Assassins in an attempt at redemption. There are, however, two big problems with the story. The first is that it isn’t AC2 and Arno is certainly no Ezio- his attempts at being a charming rogue just make him sound like a pompous arsehole, and his apparent bond with De La Serre is never explored. The other problem is that it’s told from entirely the wrong perspective, at least in my opinion. See, De La Serre has a daughter named Elise, whom he raised to be a Templar. The story involves a coup in the Templar order with one faction being lead by Elise, but she’s pushed to the side so that Arno can steal the spotlight and solve everything himself. It would be so much more interesting to play as Elise- a Templar dealing with a catastrophic split in the order at such an important time for them (the revolution was started by the Templars, implied in AC Rogue to be in response to Connor’s work in ACIII), forced to kill her own partly out of revenge for her father and partly to set things straight- possibly ending as the ruthless new Grand Master. Instead she’s the firey love interest/sidekick- (SPOILERS) who dies at the end so Arno can have a bit of a moment) (SPOILERS END) -underdeveloped and criminally underused to her full potential- it’s a shame. Part of me thinks she was crammed into the game in response to the controversy surrounding Ubisoft not having female characters in the co-op missions, as her inclusion in the story just does not make sense. She should be taking on the lion’s share of the work but she isn’t. Arno’s part of the story does have some interesting ideas involving potential peace between the two groups and the consequences of him picking his own targets and acting without authority, but the aforementioned wasted potential just brings the rest of it down. The required future segments of the plot are now brief cutscenes with two annoying people I had no stake in, but they’re over very quickly. Oh, also, Arno can now see his targets’ memories when he Assassinates them, which replaces the traditional dialogue between protagonist and dying target of the previous games, and is brought up by Arno as a real-life thing he can do, despite the fact it’s never explained. It’s odd and out of place, considering the supernatural elements of the previous games are downplayed here (they’re still present, but not as much).
Gameplay is where things have changed quite a bit, for better and for worse. First up is the new free-running engine, with new animations, better climbing, insanely long-distance jumps and most importantly the ability to hold down a button to make Arno swiftly and safely descend a structure via whatever hand-holds happen to be present. It’s fast, effective and greatly appreciated, and although Arno can often annoyingly either stick to scenery or do everything he can to avoid touching the ground because the right trigger handles both spriting and climbing, it works well for the most part. Combat too has be redefined; the counter-kill system of “parry, then instant-kill move” has been replaced with a parry that, if done spot-on, leaves your opponent open to be wailed on like your sword is actually a wooden pole and then killed with a finishing move (which you can sometimes do straight away under conditions I haven’t figured out yet). This one baffled me a little- it does mean you can’t simply fight your way out of every situation which is nice, but at the same time it means that fights with three or four people can turn into an absolute slog as you wail on whoever looks open while rolling around to avoid gunfire. The most surprising and arguably most positive change to gameplay is the stealth system- which now features a cover system, crouched movement, and guards that get alerted individually as opposed to alerting everyone on the map. Hell must have frozen over because THE STEALTH DOESN’T SUCK IN THIS ASSASSIN’S CREED GAME. DO YOU KNOW HOW LONG I’VE WAITED FOR THIS? Ahem. It really makes a difference, and if this becomes the new standard for stealth in the AC series they’re on to a winner, particularly with some tweaking. A change that really doesn’t work though, is what they’ve done to the hidden blade: you can’t equip it anymore, and instead can only use it contextually, but it’s the ONLY thing you can assassinate targets with. So if you somehow alert your target during your approach you have to beat them to the ground (or do a finishing move. I slit someone’s throat and it only knocked them down for a while) then hope that the game will lock onto them so you can finish them. It’s a ridiculous, backwards notion that makes the assassinations very tense for all the wrong reasons- it desperately needs to be changed. The assassination missions are also made worse by the lack of checkpoints- got into the building, killed your target but got halberd-ed to death during that arbitrary slow-motion bit that follows every assassination cutscene? Well back to the start you go. It’s a shame these two big problems are there because assassination missions are set-up in a “Hitman” style, with multiple routes and methods of entry and murder, though I often just climbed in through a window and stabbed my way to victory.
Elsewhere there’s customisable clothing that offers new effects like reduced falling damage and increases the time it takes to be detected, microtransactions making said clothing harder to get because it’s so bloody expensive (dick move there, Ubisoft) and co-op missions, which I haven’t got around to playing yet.
“Assassin’s Creed Unity” is hit and miss, but with real potential. The story criminally under-uses who should be its strongest character and instead focuses on trying to re-do ACII with an inferior protagonist, the combat is more challenging but often unfair and the new hidden blade mechanics are awful, but the stealth is better than its ever been and the freeruning changes are excellent. There’s definitely fun to be had here, particularly for fans of the series, but it has real problems holding it back from being put on the same level as AC2, 4 and Rogue. Consider it carefully before buying.
By James Lambert