For all of Assassin’s Creed Unity’s posturing as a next-gen, connected, online experience, it still remains just as entrenched in its own history––for good and for ill.
Gone is the competitive multiplayer that few enjoyed and many ignored completely. In its place is an integrated cooperative system that essentially lets friends hop around in 18th century France and pull off coordinated kills and elaborate heists. But even with the addition of co-op, Unity is still very much a traditional Assassin’s Creed experience––and all that that implies.
After last year’s well-received pirate-themed Black Flag, Unity sees the series heading back to its land-faring roots. There are no open seas to sail, no buried treasure to hunt for, and at first blush, Paris seems much smaller than any other game in the series. But what Unity trades for in size, it more than makes up for in density, and one quick glance at the map will tell you that there’s going to be plenty to do here––as long as you’re a fan of side content, that is.
Unity’s narrative is the most threadbare the series has ever been, and while it tries to position the game’s lead as a successor to Ezio, Unity follows more in the footsteps of the first game than any other. The story follows Arno Dorian, a young Parisian noble whose father is mysteriously murdered. A kind benefactor named Francois de la Serre takes him in, and all seems to be going well for the brash Arno––until de la Serre ends up murdered, too. It turns out both of these men were fighting on opposite sides of the centuries’ long struggle between Assassin and Templar, and you’re caught in the middle.
Arno doesn’t give a crap about this fight. He wants vengeance against the man who killed his surrogate father––not to mention the father of the woman Arno is in love with. That’s right; your girlfriend Elise is a templar, and you find yourself on opposite sides yet working toward the same goal. There’s definitely some shades of Romeo & Juliet being displayed here, and the concept sounds interesting enough on paper, but it lacks any real depth in its execution. There are twists and turns, but it’s all very predictable––like the writers were filling out a Shakespearian Tragedy Mad Lib.
It doesn’t help that the structure gives these characters very little room to breathe. Each sequence features two, maybe three missions, and for the most part, follow a strict formula: set-up, then execution. First, you find the whereabouts of the next person on the totem pole. Next, you kill them, thus granting you the information you need to find the next person. Arno flits back and forth between important French dignitaries and other players in the revolution––a chat with Marquis de Sade here, a meet-up with Napoleon there––but people come and go so fast that you never have any time to really get to know anyone. Even Arno and Elise’s relationship, while believable and certainly one of the more captivating on-screen couples to grace a video game, never has time to grow into more than the “doomed romance” trope seen so often in these sorts of stories. In order to truly appreciate the love they have for one another, we need the quiet moments as much as we do the bombastic ones, and those moments just aren’t there.
But this isn’t just a story about Arno. Oh, no––it’s about you as well. You’re the proud owner of Abstergo’s new Helix video game console (well, they don’t call it a video game, but come on, it totally is). It’s a device that lets you relive the memories of the past, all white-washed to make the Templars look good, of course. You’ve barely had a chance to take it out of the box when your game has been hacked by a couple of assassins (one of them marking the triumphant return of Shaun and his ever-so-brilliant snarky history notes). Your task: to sift through Arno’s memories and find any evidence of the sages, a powerful entity introduced in last year’s Black Flag. While this concept introduces some interesting levels that take you outside the bounds of the typical program, literally none of it goes anywhere. The modern-day storyline hasn’t spun its wheels this much since Revelations, and the ending might as well have simply declared “Congratulations!” before rolling credits. Since Assassin’s Creed III took care of all that cataclysmic 2012 mumbo jumbo, I was worried that the series would start to feel aimless, and Unity brings those fears to full bore.
That’s not to say that the game itself isn’t fun, and there’s certainly a lot to like––if, that is, you’re already on board with its brand of stealth gameplay. This time around, though, you have access to a proper stealth button, and pulling the left trigger will cause you to crouch down and silently stalk from cover to cover. You even have the ability to hold a button while you run to help you more easily climb walls or descend from rooftops. It takes some getting used to, but being able to simply hold a button and deftly maneuver from a tall spire to solid ground is fantastic, and I never want to go back. These are, quite simply, the best controls the series has ever seen.
That doesn’t mean they’re great, though, and the series’ trademark jankiness is still in full effect. There will be numerous times where your forward momentum is halted by a seemingly missing outcropping. Or where Arno will run up an errant box when you meant for him to go up the wall. Or where you’ll jump to your doom when all you really wanted to do was climb. Or where you’ll get spotted because Arno stubbornly wouldn’t cling to cover. Or where…and so on. The 90% of the time the controls work perfectly are overshadowed by the 10% of the time they don’t, and having your perfect run completely botched because Arno bobbed when he should have weaved will always sting.
The jank extends to Unity’s ability to function as a game, too, as it’s riddled with bugs and other graphical glitches. Between Ron and I, we’ve fallen through the floor no less than four times. Ron got stuck hanging on a ledge and couldn’t do anything until he hard reset his game. The frame rate is somewhere between inconsistent and abysmal. And worst of all, the crowds, while impressive just in the sheer amount of people Unity jams on screen, are some of the weirdest-looking dimension-hoppers I’ve ever seen. They blink in and out of existence, changing shape, clothing styles and color, even gender as you walk toward and through these masses of bodies. Functionally, they work fine as another means of blending unseen, but it is so jarring to see the crowds look so poorly––especially when other parts of the game look so damn good, and especially when Unity hangs so much of what makes itself special on these enormous groups of people.
I feel like I’m riding the hate train here with Unity, but there are lots of parts that I genuinely like about it. The combat is similar to prior games, but the parry button is no longer the one-size-fits-all solution to a combat encounter, especially when you’re surrounded by swaths of troops. Bullets can kill you in one or two shots, and enemies will attack from multiple directions simultaneously. You’ll need to not only use all of the tools at your disposal, as well as properly upgrade Arno with the right gear, but you’ll also need to know when to fight, and know how to navigate through an environment without alerting guards.
Tailing missions are still here (what would an Assassin’s Creed game be without awful tailing missions?), but they make up such a small portion of the story that the few inclusions can be forgiven. Instead, you’ll take part in much larger assassination missions that feature multiple pathways and several side-objectives that can help you complete your main one. It’s very much like Hitman in that regard––sure, you can skulk through this mansion to kill your target, but hey, maybe if you poison the wine, you can take him out without lifting a finger. These missions are the closest the series has gotten to actually making you feel like a master assassin, and I hope we’ll get to see more of these going forward.
These sorts of tasks are perfect for the kind of cooperative missions that Unity brings to the table, though it’s not as integral to the experience as the marketing would lead you to suggest. All of the story missions and many of the side-quests can only be completed by one player. Instead, when you bring up to three others into your game, you essentially have a handful of special co-op missions and heists to take part in. Running around France with a buddy or two is actually a lot more fun than I thought it would be, and being able to coordinate strikes with another player (“You take the one on the left, I’ll take the guy over here.”) never gets old. But while fun, there are only a dozen or so co-op missions, and your mileage with playing online will be determined by how much fun you’ll have playing the same handful of levels over and over again. Even though they don’t feel as necessary as they should, playing online with friends is a blast––however fleeting that is.
Ultimately, Assassin’s Creed Unity is a good Assassin’s Creed game that could have been so much greater. It’s ambitious in its scope and the series is still second-to-none as a historical playground, but its technical shortcomings and its surface-level narrative have left me wanting. Unity looks forward in many ways––maybe it’s time to stop looking back so much.