Metro Weekly

Assassin’s Creed Unity (Review)

Assassin’s Creed Unity may not be perfect, but its depiction of Paris is incredibly fun nonetheless

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I have a love/hate relationship with the Assassin’s Creed series. I invariably fall in love with the wonderfully realized historical settings, the rich cast of characters and the narratives the games attempt to weave. I then, more often than not, get bored and stop playing after several hours with the series’ janky controls and repetitive missions. There’s only so many times I can tail someone and stab them before I want to play something else. Last year’s Black Flag was different in that, instead of focusing so much on the assassinating, Ubisoft instead gave us an incredible pirate game — complete with gorgeous water physics and ship-to-ship combat — and added the assassination stuff on as fun distraction from the main, water-based action. It was a blast. Literally, when cannons came into play.

So, what then would I make of Unity, the latest entry to the series that strips back the fun and frivolity of Black Flag’s Caribbean setting and instead aims for the close, city-based action of the series’ first two entries? As it transpires, I kind of loved it. Unity is far from a perfect experience, and indeed can be downright frustrating at times, but it represents an astounding technical achievement and sets the Assassin’s series up well for its next foray on the new generation of consoles.

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Unity is set in revolutionary France, a bloody and violent place that saw as much beheading and murder as it did sunrises and sunsets. Paris, specifically, is the main focus here, and developers Ubisoft Montreal have created an utterly gorgeous depiction of the city in the eighteenth century. To call it photorealistic seems the most fitting praise, as textures, lighting, graphics and details add up to make Unity’s world one of the most realistic I’ve ever encountered in a game. Climbing to the top of the Notre Dame, Paris sprawls out beneath you, with several districts each with their own distinct populations and intents. Noblemen inhabit the wealthy areas, with their sprawling mansions, palaces, and wide, clean streets gleaming in the Parisian sunshine. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the slums of la Cour des Miracles are horrific cesspools of pestilence and poverty, with prostitutes, beggars and murderous revolutionaries lining the cramped, dirty streets.

It helps that the streets themselves are filled with people. Ubisoft touted the engine powering Unity for its ability to draw hundreds of characters on-screen at once, and indeed it makes for an impressive sight. I can’t remember ever seeing so many people wandering around in a game before, and, particularly in one of the later story missions, that number can seemingly stretch into the thousands. It helps that the streets sound as you’d expect, too, filled with the chattering and hustle and bustle of daily life, the screams and shouts of protesters and revolutionaries, the roars of gathered crowds, the sound of music from buildings or the calls of pedestrians who require your help. As a means of reflecting the feeling of being in a tight, cramped city, the deluge of people only adds to the feeling of a living, breathing recreation of 18th century Parisian life.

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To navigate this world, players are given control of Arno Dorian, a French nobleman we first meet as a child, navigating the corridors of the King’s palace. Here, his father is murdered, and Arno is adopted by Monsieur De La Serre, who, it transpires, is the Grand Master of the Templars. De La Serre adopts Arno, despite knowing that his father was an Assassin, with the Brotherhood of Assassins being enemies to the Templars. Still with me? Good, because the series’ lore is a little confusing after so many games. Flash forward to Arno’s adult years. De La Serre is murdered and Arno is accused. In jail, he meets a member of the Brotherhood and so begins his rise through the ranks of the Assassins.

In the early stages of the game in particular, Arno is a delightful character to play. He has some of the bravado and swagger that made Edward Kenway such fun to play in Black Flag, but without quite as much of the “my family is dead” misery of Connor from Assassin’s Creed III. This is all toned down once he enters the Brotherhood, but in cutscenes and dialogue snippets during the game, Arno represents an amusing and interesting character, even if his story can be boiled down to “seeks revenge, wants girl” — the girl in question being De La Serre’s daughter Elise, now a member of the Templars.

Ubisoft have worked hard to fix one of the series’ biggest bugbears: the controls. Arno has a fluidity to his movement, aided by fancy new animations and a newly added downward traversal ability that makes descending from a height easier than jumping from the building and praying you won’t die. Clambering across Parisian rooftops, scampering up churches and diving through open windows — the city is littered with explorable interiors that can be used to effect an escape or wandered through to marvel at the interior design — is all made easier by improve collision detection and numerous grab points for Arno to cling to. Still, they’re not perfect. Too often, Arno will simply refuse to jump the way you’re directing him to, or he’ll grab the wrong object and ruin the momentum you’ve built. Similarly, moving down buildings remains a little janky, and Arno’s inability to effectively move into a window —  instead preferring to jump around it — quickly becomes an irritance more than a humorous quirk.

The controls impact other areas of the game, as well. Stealth, in particular, is needlessly frustrating at times. Why can’t Arno move around corners when in cover? It’s such a simple thing that would make life so much easier, but instead you have to leave cover and move around the corner and then re-enter cover. He can already switch between covers — such as across doorways — so is this really such a tough thing to implement? Object detection, too, is still less than perfect. All too often I’d run at two guards, intending to kill them both, but the game would only highlight one or the other. As the (admittedly lovely) animation played, showing Arno slicing his blade into one guard’s side, the other would invariably start hacking at Arno with his sword.

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Combat is the usual parry and attack brand that series fans have come to love or loathe. Attacks are mounted with X (on Xbox One, which I reviewed the game on) and blocked with B. Pistol fire is attributed to LB (and RT, if you prefer to manually aim) while bombs and distractions are dropped with RB. Once again, it’s possible to stand in the middle of a group of guards and parry each incoming attack until you’ve killed everyone, though this hardly seems like the most rewarding way to do so. Instead, drop a smoke bomb and leg it out of there and then pick them off one-by-one. This is when Unity is at its best, silently killing people from the shadows or leaping onto their heads from above. Guns work well here, too, such as sniping with a rifle, as do phantom blades, which can be silently fired to kill, or berserk blades which can drive enemies insane and force them to kill their comrades so you don’t have to. When not trapped in a group of enemies trying to slice and shoot you, Unity’s combat is a lot of fun.

It’s aided by new, open-plan mission structures that actively rewards exploration and experimentation. The story frequently places Arno into a giant set-piece and then tasks him with finding his way to the target. Do you burst through the front door, slicing and shooting, killing guards until you reach your assassination target, or do you work your way to a window or balcony and silently slide past threats? Is there a distraction you can use, such as blocking chimneys to fill passageways with smoke, or rescuing citizens from guards who will then help you fight? There’s a relative freedom to certain missions that task you with thinking through your objectives, and it makes for a welcome break from the rigid structure of the normal “tail this guy, then kill him” or “go here, work your way through guards and kill that guy” structure of other missions.

Your experimentation will get you Creed points, given to reward stylish kills or actions, such as vanishing from searching guards or successfully killing any enemies after you. These points, as well as Sync points earned while playing through missions and money collected from missions and side quests, can be spent on upgrading Arno and his abilities. Guns, swords, skills, costumes and gear can all be customized and adapted to your playstyle — if you prefer pistols and wearing disguises, you can upgrade Arno to match. If stealth kills and dropping from heights is more your style, that’s an option, too. Even simple things, like sitting between people on a bench to disappear from guards, is now an upgradeable option. Of course, there’s a pay-to-win option, in the form of “Hack upgrades” available for every item, the points for which can be bought in-game for worryingly high sums of real world money. They’re not necessary, though, so ignore them and your bank balance will be safe.

You can, of course, explore Unity’s numerous side missions to collect money and points to spend. There are dozens of activities, from rift missions that throw you into Paris in the late 1800s (complete with Eiffel Tower), to riddles that require you to solve increasingly difficult puzzles and send you hunting around Paris for clues, to crowd events such as stopping criminals and thieves, to unlocking dozens of chests scattered around the city. You’ll meet a vast array of interesting characters — a personal favorite was the delightfully sadistic Marquis de Sade — and you’ll see every inch of the big, beautiful map. If you prefer to play with friends, there are co-op missions available, which are fun, difficult challenges that require proper teamwork to prevail. If one of you dies, the entire team fails, so communications and resource sharing is key to ensure you successfully complete your objectives. Of course, if you’d rather just scamper around the city with friends, that’s also supported — and jolly good fun.

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Sadly, Unity is far from a perfect experience. It’s clear that Ubisoft is pushing each system to its max, but it’s also apparent that the company gave up on some bug-testing and fine-tuning in the interest of getting Unity out in time for the holidays.

For starters, while the game is gorgeous, it can slow down to a chugging crawl at times. One interior, in a church atop the Assassin’s base, was impossible to navigate as the framerate inexplicably slowed to an almost complete standstill. Similarly, it can plummet during cutscenes, in places with lots of people, and is particularly apparent when syncing viewpoints in each of the districts — there’s nothing pretty about the camera panning around Paris when it does so at such a low framerate. Character animations are usually wonderful, with excellent detail, but you’ll frequently see glitches, such as hair bouncing around during camera changes or body parts clipping through others. AI characters will frequently have moments where their programming seems to fail entirely — in one cutscene, a random Parisian was having a heated argument with the wall right behind the man Arno was talking to. There are other technical issues, such as unresponsive controls at times, or the world failing to load properly when coming out of a cutscene or changing locations, but none is more egregious than the loading times. Oh god, the loading times. To call them obscene would be an understatement. When Grand Theft Auto V can stream the entirety of Los Santos and move between missions without obnoxious waiting times, why on earth must I sit through a 20-40 second loading screen every time I move between exploring Paris and whatever it is that I’m loading into, be it the Brotherhood’s base, or a training session, or a rift mission? Loading times can often be longer than that, and are on numerous occasions entirely inexplicable. One training mission saw me fighting enemies in the Cafe Theatre. Once it had ended, I sat for over half a minute while the game loaded — into the same damn location. Yes, you can run from one end of Paris to the other without interruption, but it’s ruined every time you have to sit through the dark, unresponsive screen which greets you far too frequently during missions and cutscenes. It’s infuriating, and on consoles this powerful, inexcusable.

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There are there bugbears, too, such as everyone having regional English accents while the random characters on the streets chatter away in French. Even Napoleon, who you meet during the game, speaks with an English accent. It’s infuriatingly distracting. If everyone in the game spoke with an English accent, or everyone spoke English with French inflection, it’d be fine, but this weird hybrid distracts more often than not. Similarly, the map is hideously cluttered with all of the available icons and missions, though it thankfully can be sorted into categories, and there are random difficulty spikes during missions which can seriously punish you if you’re caught off-guard.

That said, Unity does succeed where I thought it might fail. Its Parisian setting, while slow to load, is so gorgeously detailed and filled with activities, I’ve still yet to see and do everything it has to offer. Its story, while far from original, is fun to romp through. Side missions are interesting, co-op play is an excellent distraction and Revolutionary France is an interesting setting for the game. My time in Unity was not one without frustrations, but unlike previous entries in the series, they weren’t sufficient to actually drive me from the game. Yes, it could have used a few more months of testing and optimizing, and yes, you’ll have to endure several large patches as Ubisoft tries to fix problems to justify the $60 you’ll spend buying the game, but at the end of it all, Unity remains a big, beautiful, bountiful world to play in.

Assassin’s Creed Unity retails for $59.99 and is available on PS4, Xbox One and PC.

Rhuaridh Marr is Metro Weekly's managing editor. He can be reached at rmarr@metroweekly.com.