Assassin’s Creed Unity reminds me a bit of one of those school band videos you see on YouTube. There are some good musicians and some high quality instruments, but a few that weren’t ready for prime time make it hard to hear the good over the bad.
Ubisoft’s latest entry in its historical murder simulator has lots of great parts – some reminders of why we love the series, some elements that improve on things we’ve been griping about for years. But huge swaths of the game feel unfinished, or hastily put together. Much of the game smacks of an order to have a product ready for Black Friday being built by a team that could’ve used another few months to get its hard work ready.
Just a City Boy
Assassin’s Creed Unity puts you in the shoes and hood of Arno Dorian, son of a nobleman in pre-revolutionary France. As a small child, you wander off after a red-haired girl, only to return to find your father murdered. The father of the girl takes you in and is later assassinated, himself.
A false accusation ensues that puts you in the bastille and in front of one of the head assassins of the French arm of the Brotherhood of Assassins. The man, named Bellec, takes you under his wing and brings you into the brotherhood so that you can see, your revenge and assuage your guilt in the midst of the French Revolution. Assassin’s Creed Unity begins with Arno looking out onto a crowded, conflict-torn Paris.
And here we get our first glimpse of one of the best parts of Unity: the city.
The city is, if nothing else, the big promise the game lives up to. Paris is a massive, vibrant, beautiful place. I often found myself admiring views, but not just those from atop the game’s ever-present synchronization points. Walking through the streets gave me plenty of opportunities as well and even the game’s many, many indoor locations gave me plenty of opportunities to admire just how much work the team put into getting Paris looking just right at every angle.
The level of detail in Unity is nothing short of stunning. Notre Dame Cathedral, on its own, is worthy of merit. In terms of its value as a historic tour, Unity is the best game since Assassin’s Creed II. Paris is an old city with a long history and heaps of beautiful architecture worth admiring and, better yet, climbing.
This is the first Assassin’s Creed to sport a 1:1 ratio to the city it mimics, and even the buildings adhere to this. Notre Dame is simply massive, inside and out, dwarfing anything we’ve seen in Assassin’s Creed’s previous entries.
Even when we’re not admiring Paris’ noteworthy architecture, just walking along the streets of the city’s many districts is impressive in terms of the variety of buildings from area to area, reflecting the wealth of that district.
It wouldn’t mean much if the city were empty, though. Paris is a crowded city and the revolutionary era of the city especially so. Unity captures just how crowded a big, conflicted city like this would be, and it’s one element of the game, alongside those gorgeous buildings, that feels like a truly good reason to put the game exclusively on the new consoles and higher end PCs. The city feels alive and lived in. Even the apartments and businesses you cross through have people in them, surprised (and offended) to see you dashing through.
There’s just one problem with all this. The game runs horribly on all three platforms. Ubisoft claimed it was locking the game at 30 frames per second for a cinematic feel. And it’s true, movies run at 24 frames per second. I’m not typically too worried about framerate as long as the framerate is smooth. That’s just the problem.
The game hits 30 fps in the rare moment you’ve clambered to the top of a tall building and are looking at a distant sunset, maybe with some buildings in the foreground. Generally, the game runs well below that, often dropping into the teens and lower as it buckles under the strain of a huge city, thousands of on-screen characters, and a game engine that clearly didn’t get enough time in the oven.
The game isn’t unplayable. Far from it, in fact. Even on Xbox One, I had fun with traversal and combat, though PC gamers are sure to have a better time with the higher framerates a nice PC can pull. It’s not unplayable, but it’s not acceptable, either, and the framerate is one of the clearest signs that this game was released on a deadline, not upon completion.
Brown Hair, Stubble, and Revenge
Other signs come from the campaign itself.
The story and main characters feel slapped together. I think there might be a good story hidden in here, but it was lost in the rush to get a complete-looking game together.
The worst of the bunch is the protagonist himself, Arno Dorian. As the newest stubbly brown-haired white guy to grace the series, he’s starting from a low point already, but he has no defining characteristics besides wanting to do some revenge stuff. He’s a low-sodium cracker. He’s wet cardboard. Ezio was charming in the earlier games. He was followed by the angry, petulant Connor Kenway – a character not as directly accessible as Ezio, but with an interesting arc all the same. Edward Kenway was something like a return to Ezio as a character you feel like you shouldn’t like but do anyway. Only the original Assassin’s Creed‘s Altair compares to how completely uninteresting Arno is.
The side characters, too, are there simply to be killed. The big villain isn’t revealed until late into the game and isn’t given anything to do besides wanting to control all the things. He has a few minions earlier on that have some personality, but not more enough to carry them. The only character with any depth is Elise, Arno’s childhood friend and love interest. She’s the only character who seems to have a clear grasp of what she wants and how she plans to get it, and she’s about the only believable character. If women weren’t so hard for Ubisoft to animate, she would’ve been a more interesting protagonist.
Characters also drop in and out of the story as if they were going to get more time before being forgotten about. Napoleon Bonaparte was a young soldier at the time of the revolution, and he’s featured in the trailers as one of Arno’s main allies. In the game, he’s introduced as if he’ll be a major part of the story, but after a couple missions he disappears unceremoniously.
Paris is packed, though, with interesting characters at this time, and the game takes advantage of these characters for some of the side missions, called Paris Stories. The infamous Marquis de Sade pops up a few times and gives you just the kind of creeps you’d expect. A pleasant surprise was the inclusion of the crossdressing diplomat, spy and fencer Chevalier D’Eon. The character’s role is small, but this was a fun choice that showed a deep interest in the source material. These sorts of inclusions hint at the amount of research and the level of ambition the team had going in before being stymied by the realities of developing a massive piece of software on a tight time frame.
Finally, Some Variety
The missions, both in those side stories and in the campaign proper are some of the best the series has seen in a long time.
Many of the assassination missions are more about infiltration than they are about the assassination itself, and you’re given a variety of options on how to approach each mission.
Arno investigates the scene before him and spots opportunities for different approaches. You might be able to deliver some poisoned wine for a more subtle approach, or use rebelling citizens outside to create a distraction, for example. While these missions aren’t as nuanced as something like Hitman, they’re a step up from what we’re used to with these kinds of missions, and I found myself advancing the story because I was looking forward to another one of these.
While the game does have its share of chases, there aren’t nearly as many as there have been in Creeds past, and the ones that do exist aren’t anywhere near as frustrating.
One especially fun set of side missions has Arno investigating crime scenes to solve a murder. You’ll collect clues from a variety of crime scenes and then accuse a suspect. If we’re being honest, I’m not sure why these are in the game – they don’t fit any particular context for the game or character. I did, however, enjoy them.
Despite the improved mission design, though, I found the game lacking in ambition. There’s just not a whole lot that feels new. In terms of the variety of non-stabbing activities, Unity feels like a call back to Assassin’s Creed II, more than anything else. I don’t expect every Assassin’s Creed game to have sailing, of course, but even the settlement building of Assassin’s Creed III added some spice to that game.
In Unity, the closest we have are the rift missions we saw hints of in the marketing as the game neared launch. Between major plot missions you’ll get sucked into a glitch that transports you temporarily to another time period in French history.
These missions are entertaining diversions from constant killing that have you, for example, climbing the Eiffel Tower in Nazi-occupied France, either bridging between two separate periods in Arno’s life or to rescue a trapped member of the modern Assassins. The change of scenery is fun, and like main city, they make for some great-looking environments.
The meta-story that surrounds these, the part where the modern day intersects with the past, is easily the least interesting we’ve seen yet. I actually enjoyed the weird sort of self-aware game development commentary present in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and Desmond’s story in the first couple games was actually pretty entertaining. At this point, though, Ubisoft either needs to do something big with this ongoing wrapper narrative or just drop it entirely. While the rift missions themselves were fun diversions, the framing of them was a distraction.
Same as it Ever Was
As much as some elements have been improved on, though, others are waiting for attention even after something like seven years of games.
The team has given Arno an ability no previous assassin had: The power to climb downward. This is a welcome addition to the game, something that should’ve been in place years ago. When you’re ready to climb down a structure, you simply hold the trigger and another button and press downward, the same way you do for climbing upward.
It makes scaling and getting off of structures more fun and it makes Arno himself look a heck of a lot smarter than his predecessors. But I still found myself getting stuck on chairs and corners, accidentally climbing on things during chases. This has always been a problem with the series. Unity does a good job of designing missions to better compensate for it, but the problem is still there.
Fighting, too, is still frustrating and more dependent on having a great weapon than on being a good fighter. The combat is designed to kill you if you get into a huge battle to remind you that you’re an assassin, not a warrior, but you’re frequently put in situations where combat is a necessity and you have to deal with frustrating combat sequences. The combat starts out easy and fun, but quickly becomes frustrating and stays that way.
Creed tip: buy the fanciest sword you can right away.
Speaking of adding the word Creed to things unnecessarily, Unity has a bit of a currency problem.
In addition to the appropriate Francs, there are also Sync Points, Creed Points, and Helix Points. Sync points are for leveling yourself, Creed points are for leveling your gear, and Helix points are the micro-transaction currency. It’s weird that I don’t remember seeing micro-transactions in Assassin’s Creed IV, but I’m told they were there all the same. I noticed them more in Assassin’s Creed Unity probably due to the sheer number of other currencies already present, and found the constant reminder irritating.
So Stabby Together
Despite the prevalence of the cooperative mode in marketing, screenshots, and even the game cover, the cooperative aspect of Unity is a major problem.
Before we even take into account whether or not the cooperative stuff works, it’s a minor, non-crucial portion of the game. There’s this suggestion that Arno will be working with all these other assassins to get things done, but even in single player, Arno spends most of his time alone.
Throughout the last week, fellow Gaming Editor Joey Davidson and I have tried to play cooperative mode on multiple occasions. We can get into each others’ game worlds, and that’s actually pretty fun. Just cruising around looking for trouble is great fun.
Every time we tried to enter a cooperative game, though, the same thing happened, shown in the video above.
You hear sound effects – the noise of a crowd. Then some swooshes and the tinkle of coins. That’s me swinging my sword and throwing coins on the ground. I have control of my character, but the screen remains black.
No matter how often I tried, this was my experience with Assassin’s Creed Unity‘s cooperative mode.
Everything Falls Apart
Finally, there’s something plaguing every element of the game, whether it’s the main missions or side missions, combat or exploration, single or multiplayer.
I know how tough building a big, open world is, and how impossible it is to remove every glitch, but again, Assassin’s Creed Unity feels unfinished. Frequently throughout my play, both pre and post-release, I was subject to constant problems aside from that abysmal framerate I mentioned. I fell through the ground, the game locked up, missions didn’t initiate. I once got to the very end of a mission only to die during a framerate stutter and instead of getting set to a mid-mission checkpoint, I was stuck back at the beginning, effectively losing about half an hour of work.
There are some things I really like about Assassin’s Creed Unity, but it was hard to focus on them through the game’s troubling elements.
Assassin’s Creed Unity needed another two, four, or maybe six months in development. That wouldn’t have saved it from its lack of ambition, but it would’ve at least made for a smooth, enjoyable experience.
Instead, we’re left with the obvious result of a game given a hard release date. Someone said at one point during development, “we need more time.” Then someone more important said “No.”
Unity isn’t a bad game. If you want to tour Paris, if you want to encounter some of the era’s historical figures, that part of Assassin’s Creed is intact and, in many ways, better than ever. There are some fun missions to enjoy, as well. But if a consistent, bug-free experience is even slightly your thing, wait on this at the very least. Give Ubisoft a few months to get it out of beta or maybe just wait for next year when the team has a better handle on the engine and the new consoles.
Wait/ Don’t Buy
Disclaimer: We received a copy of Assassin’s Creed Unity for the Xbox One from the publisher. We completed the campaign, played each type of side quest, and attempted to access the multiplayer before writing this review.