Assassin’s Creed Unity represents a fresh start for the series. It isn’t an annual installment, but instead a rebuilt AnvilNext engine, only on next-gen platforms, using refreshingly new mechanics.
It looks to completely revolutionize the sandbox genre.
The team at Ubisoft Montreal (with the help of ten of Ubisoft’s other studios) have gone back to formula in an attempt to break the conventions and trappings of the previous title, shed some of the lore, and rebuild Assassin’s Creed using the three pillars that made the original great – Stealth, Navigation, and Combat. I recently spent the better part of five hours with unrestricted hands-on time with the game. Hold onto that ledge – there are a lot of fantastic new features that haven’t been revealed…until now.
Our preview time started with the first mission in Sequence 3, several hours into the game. Outside the Palais De Justice in the Île de la Cité of central Paris, France. The French Revolution is heating up and a very angry crowd (speaking French for authenticity) pulses with anger at their bourgeois ruling class and their jackbooted red-clad soldiers. To properly capture the massive crowds that formed to rally against the rise of the aristocracy, the team had to push the amount of AI-controlled characters on the screen to an unprecedented level. In a few interviews, various team members have stated that somewhere around 1000 people on the screen is possible – that’s old news. It’s 5000. That’s impressive, but it’s just the tip of the Bec de Corbin.
The Navigation pillar isn’t just about Arno, our protagonist for this journey, and his incredible parkour abilities. Bringing the city of Paristo life meant building some of the most recognizable landmarks in the world, and then folding them cleanly into the lore of Assassin’s Creed. The team also took this moment to reset our expectations on the entire sandbox genre. Ever since the first time we climbed the first tower and activated a sync point, nearly everyone in the sandbox game business has been emulating this method to reveal the map. It works, but it has an unintended consequence – you pay attention to the mission icons, and everything in between those icons becomes inconsequential. In Assassin’s Creed Unity, the map contains sync points, but they don’t reveal everything on the map. This encourages the player to explore, and it gave the team a reason to build the interior for one out of every four buildings, allowing them to fill the world to the brim with more activities than ever before.
Pourquoi est-il grimpait?!
If you’ve played an Assassin’s Creed title, you’ve experienced the frustration of chasing down a target only to fail the entire mission because your world-class super-assassin suddenly decided to climb up the side of a random pillar. For seven games we’ve had this problem. I’m very happy to report that the new parkour system fixes this entirely. While it is true that there is now a Parkour Up button as well as a Parkour Down button, the team has also divided up running and climbing. You’ll hold the trigger to free-run across buildings, over small obstacles, and generally kill in motion, but Arno will not attempt to climb anything taller than his waist unless you press a button to do so. At that point, Arno springs into action, not just climbing, but scrambling, spinning, and generally traversing the terrain like a parkour professional.
Parkour Down solves the other nagging issue in the Assassin’s Creed franchise – being half way through a mission, climbing to a high vantage point, and then accidentally leaping to your death. There are still hay stacks to jump to, but now you can use your impressive cat-like skills to work your way down safely and very quickly. For instance, if you are wanting to get off the long gothic roof of the Notre Dame de Paris, you’ll fold your arms like you are heading down a water slide to make a hasty descent. Surprisingly it doesn’t take but a few moments and you’ll be able to traverse the world faster than ever before, but with far less frustration.
Stealth is heavily emphasized in Assassin’s Creed Unity. Sure, you are welcome to try your hand at cutting down French soldiers wholesale, but it’s more likely that you’ll end up overwhelmed and dead. Arno is a fantastic swordsman, but soldiers are no longer the hapless dolts they used to be. They have rankings from one to three, with toughness and finesse to match. There is no longer a ‘push button to win’ countering scenario that’ll make Arno able to cut down swaths of enemies – you’ll have to master the various engagement types necessary to win.
By using the freshly-introduced crouch button, you can see which direction guards are facing, making stealth approaches far more effective. When the fighting starts though, the new radar system makes an appearance. Behind you appears a half-circle with icons to indicate guard threat levels, as well as their ranged or melee capabilities. This is important as bullets are far more lethal than they used to be. To help with that, the team has also vastly expanded the equipment system.
Assassin’s have been able to equip new weapons and armor, but it has always been somewhat limited and not always as useful as we’d like. In Unity, there are a wealth of clothing options that are not only gorgeous cosmetically, but also convey stats such as faster fade from sight, more frequent Eagle Vision, better disguise stats, as well as stronger armor. To give you a sense of scale, there are over 35 different hoods alone.
Customization doesn’t end with equipment — Arno now has four classes of skills that he can upgrade his Melee, Stealth, Ranged skills, and overall health. The renewed focus on stealth shows again here as there are nine stealth choices, five for melee, five for health, and six for ranged skills. Many of these are locked behind memory sequences, so you’ll seemingly earn them over time. The most notable of the group support the new lockpicking system. Scattered throughout the world, as has been the case with previous titles, are cases. This time though, the owners of the boxes have enough sense to lock a few of them. Lockpicking is handled with a meter that pulses up and down at a speed commensurate with your skill level, with a sweet spot to hit to pop the lock. You can tackle any lock you’d like if you have even the lowest skill, but the bar moves fast enough to make it nearly impossible if you are out of your league.
Obviously with new hardware, the team was able to bring a new level of graphical fidelity to the series. You can see from our videos that every aspect of the game has been given a coat of polish and an upgrade, but you might not see all of the subtle things. Stained glass has multiple reflection angles, being darker at lower angles and semi-transparent into the interior. Scrambling up the side of a building knocks dust and debris from the edges, scattering nearby birds into the air. Chainmail armor isn’t painted on like a texture, instead being individual links. The brassy buttons on an oversized coat each cast a slight reflection of the ground below. Clearly having only the most powerful consoles and PC to concentrate on has been a boon.
Certains hommes ne peuvent pas être raisonnés
Rather than giving typical assassination and fetch quests, Production Coordinator and Historical Researcher Maxime Durand and his team have focused heavily on the legends and stories of Paris at the time. Madame Tussaud using corpses to create her world-famous wax museum, and the Baphomet Cult that brainwashed young women and sacrificed them to Satan being just two of the examples I saw tied together into the world far better than the somewhat random killing in previous titles.
Much like upgrading the Jackdaw in Black Flag, Arno is placed in charge of Le Cafe de Theatre – a run down coffee bar that serves as a front for The Assassin Council which has a base deep in the catacombs underneath. As you upgrade the Cafe and place satellite cafes in the city you’ll earn cash that you can pick up at the Theatre. It also unlocks new missions as areas of the city are gentrified.
The second mission in Sequence 3 is called “Confession”. Charles Gabriel Sivert is accused of killing Monsieur Del La Serre and is meeting his co-conspirators at the Notre Dame de Paris. Your job is to find out what he knows and then silence him forever. That is the end of your mission parameters for this mission and the beginning of what Ubisoft Montreal is calling “Blackbox design”. There are several ways to tackle any mission. You can rush in, which after experiencing combat and a few deaths, I do not recommend. The catacombs that run for miles underneath Paris might offer a hidden entrance or two. In this mission you can nab the keys some local thieves have stolen them from a nearby priest. I went with the latter, but as a point of fact there are 10 possible entrances for the exterior alone, each with their own set of challenges. It also has one unique kill, which I won’t spoil for you. Suffice it to say, it’s fittingly awful for a church.
Individual missions may start off straightforward, but it isn’t often that your plan survives first contact. In that way, side missions you complete may change the parameters of main missions, and you may have unseen secondary objectives appear as your approach changes. It’s fluid, flexible, and works extremely well.
Speaking of fluidity, “killing in motion” was something that Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell has down to a science as of the last game, and that has made its way into Assassin’s Creed Unity to a small degree. The “last known position” silhouetting used in Splinter Cell is now used here, allowing you to visually see where guards will be investigating. This again allows you to create opportunity instead of randomly using it. Similarly, when I ran full speed at a guard and slit his throat, I did it with a backwards flourished spin that ended with me in a crouched position. It felt like the actions of an assassin instead of a clumsy sellsword.
As my time with the single player game came to a close I got to experience a new mission type – murder mysteries. Partnering with Minister of Police Chief Charles Cochon de Lapparent (which is to say, he sits his lazy ass in a chair and we do all the work while he claims the credit), we are given freedom to investigate a series of murders that have occurred in the city. Inspired by French criminologist (and in his youth, a criminal) Eugène François Vidocq, you’ll use Eagle Vision to spot clues, document them, interview witnesses, and then accuse the murderer. Making incorrect accusations reduces your rewards for solving the murder, so choose wisely.
Assassiner avec vos amis
As amazing as the single player improvements are, the biggest lure of Unity is that you can tackle the game with friends. The story-based narrative missions (there are no capture the flag or deathmatch-style missions here) are not tied to the main mission direction, but instead capture what the Brotherhood as a whole is accomplishing. In the two player Brotherhood mission I tackled we were responsible for rescuing Didier Paton. Paton was an accomplished spy for the ruling class who got in over his head when he discovered the Templars while seeking out Anti-French loyalists. The Templars have seized his notes, so that spells our first objective. In this case there were over 20 entrance vectors possible, each of them randomized every time.
My partner in crime was an accomplished gamer so we were able to recover the papers in short order using coordinated stealth attacks and effective distraction. We were working together, calling out targets, coordinating simultaneous strikes, and approach positions. It works extraordinarily well – far better than I could have hoped.
The second mission type is called a Heist. Heists are exactly what you think – breaking into an area and securing an object, art, or other valuable goodie. There are a total of seven of them currently in the game, and they can be played up to four player. The more stealthy you are, the better your reward. Since rewards are calculated on an individual basis, your own performance is key. The hitch is simple – if anyone is killed, everyone fails. We tackled a mission very far into the game (as evidenced by our extensive and fashionable gear choices) – the same palace shown in the E3 demo trailer (I think it is the Palais du Luxembourg). Our objective was to find a valuable painting during a party, surrounded by guards. It was immediately apparent just how badly four people can screw up a heist. It’ll be interesting to see the epic fails on this mode, but success means lining your pockets with Livres (the currency at the time) and unique gear as rewards.
It is amazing how much work Ubisoft has put into Assassin’s Creed Unity. It isn’t often a company is willing to touch this much of a franchise, especially this deep into the core mechanics, but I’m extremely encouraged with how it’s turned out. Everything I’ve experienced tells me that Assassin’s Creed Unity just reinvented the genre.
Assassin’s Creed Unity ships on November 11th on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.