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E3 2014: Assassin's Creed: Unity Preview: A gameplay revolution

on 16 June 2014

Assassin’s Creed, now firmly an annualized franchise, remains something of an anomaly in the blockbuster game space. From my position, enough has changed between each installment to keep the whole idea of assassinating targets in legendary locales from growing stagnant. New combat moves and characters play their role, but what’s most important are the cities, environments, and time periods: they’re important characters in their own right. For this reason, last year’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag brought me back to a series I’d avoided since burning out on the original title’s repetitive structure and wonky controls. The allure of open-world pirating, replete with detailed, challenging naval combat and a wealth of Caribbean secrets to find, was simply too great to pass up--especially on PlayStation 4, where the graphics and technical polish were positively eye-popping.

It stands to reason that I’d be less excited for Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Ubisoft’s first new-gen-only Creed title, because its setting doesn’t appeal to me quite as much as Black Flag’s high seas. The French Revolution is interesting enough in its own right--the plentiful deaths and conflict in the streets should make for creative sneaking opportunities. But I’m far from a student of the period, and political intrigue--even violent--is a tougher sell than pure adventure. Still, Ubisoft is doing more than usual to innovate on the core experience to make Unity feel exciting for its gameplay alone.

Take parkour movement, one of the series’ most fun, recognizable features, for instance. Besides wiping the animation slate clean and modelling Arno Dorian’s movement from scratch, Ubisoft has changed the verticality of the series. Context-sensitive ascension, with protagonists rapidly scaling buildings via bricks, archways, and windowsills, now works in reverse. The days of looking for a hay bale to dive into, or awkwardly stepping off ledges onto platforms below, are over. Arno will automatically climb and fall to objects below, swinging and leaping when necessary, to reach ground level in the same way we’ve always reached rooftops and vantage points. I didn’t witness a whole lot of descension in my E3 demo, where an Ubisoft Montreal dev was guiding the action, but Arno effortlessly went from the upper rafters of the cathedral of Notre Dame to the riotous streets below in a matter of seconds. Seeing Arno move in this way challenged my down-to-up perception of the game’s obstructions; it’s easy to imagine how my decisions en route to a kill, and my escape routes, will diversify in response.

Speaking of Notre Dame, standing high above the city streets was a great opportunity to show off how the PS4’s horsepower allows Assassin’s Creed: Unity to push things like on-screen NPCs and simultaneous animations to new limits. With Arno perched on a cathedral outcropping, the camera panned down over a truly massive crowd below. Over 1,000 NPCs were shown jeering and shouting--I paid close attention for the usual tricks, like looped animations or copy-paste duplicates, but found none. These were 1,000 independently behaving NPCs, or near enough that I couldn’t tell the difference. The scale was seriously impressive, but I was near-astonished to find that the frame rate didn’t drop appreciably when we hit the cobblestone streets and started pushing through the crowd. The sheer on-screen density was invigorating, let alone the typically great texture detail and vibrant color.