With new characters and a new venue, Assassin’s Creed Unity is set to bring a quality exclusive to next-gen consoles in a big way. With a new focus on PS4, Ubisoft is faced with an opportunity to make a title that’s better than any other Assassin’s Creed before it. It’s not without its risks, but Ubisoft and Unity look to have the end product in the bag.
In the early moments of the game, Arno Victor Dorian accompanies his father Charles to a special event in Versailles, France. Sitting among the marble busts in the lit hallway, Arno’s father hands him a pocket watch and leaves him with a promise that Charles will return to him when the minute hand reaches twelve. Down the hall, a curly-haired girl enters and motions for Arno to follow her, leading to the game’s brief tutorial where players are tasked with stealing an apple from some oblivious guards. Kindled with the successful theft of the apple, Arno and the girl return to the hallway where Charles left him to find a crowd hovering over a body—Charles’ body. Arno drops his pocket watch, and the gears break, leaving the watch’s minute arm mere moments from reaching the top of the hour. The opening sequence carries into his adulthood as he keeps the broken pocket watch close to him; and the watch helps bring about the immediate future for Arno, which leads him down a path of cultural disillusion as well as hope for something greater for himself and his country. Accompanying this narrative is a Capulet and Montague comparison between the Templars and Assassins that leaves Arno and his love interest caught between their ideals and each other, inspiring a parallel with the Revolution narrative that places humanity against politics. The player, as in the last few entries, is still the subject that accesses the Animus, and the focus in Unity is clear, as the real world is only unearthed through conversations with allies running the Animus entry.
Respectfully speaking, the first few minutes can only be spent ogling at the level of detail placed into every piece of content in the game. To be fair, every other Assassin’s Creed game has had an equal amount of tender loving care placed upon it, but the yield of Unity is palpable beyond all the rest. Textures are extravagant when the medium, like golden fixtures and stain-glass, is elegant and they’re appalling when the medium, like mud or shanty streets, is run down and rugged. Ascending the flying buttresses of Notre Dame so early in the game is wonderfully blasphemous as the details of every tower, rosé, and grotesque inspire awe to the nth degree. From there, the rest of Paris is at a whim and call, and the streets are alive as the Revolution reaches the brink.
Scaling buildings has been a hallmark staple to the franchise since the beginning, but Unity brings a new side to parkour that hasn’t been present: the descent. Now, Arno will elegantly descend from high ledges by simply holding Circle. New animations have been added to the entire foray, so Arno may do a spin when traversing a ledge or dropping to the ground. It’s not necessarily unfortunate, but some of the movement animation is a bit too automated in the sense that certain actions appear to take precedence over what may be intended. For example, there were times where I’d want to jump to a dock nearby, but I wasn’t directly facing it as I made my approach, so I’d either jump to something out in the water or jump into the water. Similar interactions took place on buildings with very complicated directional changes, but the worst that will come from this is the occasional failing of a secondary syncing objective during missions.
Another, more random issue was the occasional frame rate drop, but it never came from how much was happening on the screen, which at times can be a staggering amount. Instead, when directing Arno to a jump that couldn’t be made, the frame rate would simply drop to an upsetting amount but would then settle back to normal when the attempt was ended. Apart from this, the frame rate was insubstantial to the way that the game played and performed; make sure to download the 900 MB update before jumping into the game.
While all the actions listed prior are pinned to the R2 button in combination with the face buttons, the L2 button has a function of its own: passing through windows. While climbing, holding L2 sends Arno through nearby windows and into buildings. Open pathways through buildings are fairly common, but they’re not always on every block. It’s still best to climb to the top of a building to get around the quickest, but these new paths add nice spice to the navigational mix, even if the new L2 mechanics aren’t as responsive and streamlined as they could be.
Combat has received a much-needed refinement. The overall pace of Unity is a bit heavier than normal, which leaves a nice feeling of balance between enemies and Arno. Gone are the days of enemies lining up to die. Here, enemies will attack in more concentrated patterns, and while they won’t attack simultaneously, they don’t always leave a lot of time between attacks. Parrying and avoiding attacks also require more attention, especially as the enemy count piles up. At any given time, enemies can be firing guns from afar or swinging swords from point blank range. The camera can be slow to respond at times, but there is always a ring around Arno that indicates, with little representative symbols, what kind of attack is coming, and the symbols glow brighter when the attack is immediate; this feature counters the clunky camera nicely. Combat now has a feeling of urgency without being overwhelming or droll.
Accompanying combat is loadouts, a concept pulled directly from the shooter genre. These allow the player to set up weapon combinations and equipment types on the fly, and all equipment can be purchased from the pause menu, which shows that the player really is connected to a network when playing as Arno.
The Café Théâtre is a rehashing of the old economic side of previous titles, where developing it yields a physical and fiscal growth to the theater. Hidden rooms and corridors are revealed, opening up areas for viewing costumes, in-game collectibles, and training. Money is also earned in direct relation to the theater’s development, and as the theater expands, more people physically occupy the space, representing why more and more money keeps coming in. To expand fiscal growth further, properties can be purchased across Paris. Completionists will need to buy as much as possible, since better weapons and equipment need to be purchased and upgraded in order to take on some of the more complicated missions later in the game.
The co-op missions aren’t much more than what would be expected from something called a co-op mission, except these missions act as significant moments in the French Revolution itself. Each one interacts with key figures and circumstances from within the Revolution and, even though they’re not directly connected to Arno’s story, they break up the expected grind found in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, bringing a different balance to the game that previous titles simply haven’t had. While the servers make combat feel a bit disjointed due to slight delays, this new mode brings enough to encourage longer stints of play. This can be played by four players care of special quest givers across Paris, and missions already in progress can be joined randomly as little glitches in the world will indicate an available match to join. This featurette replaces competitive multiplayer completely, and it’s for the better in this case, as events from the French Revolution are accentuated nicely with a collection of scenarios playable with companions.
One aspect of the game that may not be a deal breaker is the voice acting. While each actor brings to the table a unique and stellar performance, every single character is delivered with a British accent. For me, this broke the immersion, and I had to resort to the setting itself to remind me that I was in France. Again, all vocal performances were excellent, but I couldn’t help but wonder how the game would have felt with native speakers delivering the English dialogue; it certainly worked wonders with Ezio.
As an on-again, off-again fan of Assassin’s Creed, I have found myself in personal debate about each new outing that releases, and this is due in large part to the likes of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood and the second half of Assassin’s Creed III. I felt like my time had been spent grinding away at something that meant more to someone else than it did to me, but what I’m beginning to see with the likes of Unity is that there is so much more to these games than for which I gave them credit. Sure, I’ll still say that Brotherhood was a weak point, but what I never noticed was how intricate the worlds that Ubisoft created in each and every title to date are, and my ultimate realization of this came with Unity.
After studying French and spending a good deal of time in France, I looked at Unity with an intrigue in the franchise that I hadn’t had since Ezio took to the stage in Assassin’s Creed II; frankly, I wasn’t disappointed. The opening moments in Versailles bring me back to my visit, and the Hall of Mirrors ebb with personal nostalgia. Then, the digital streets of Paris are alive with artists creating their art and citizens protesting against the Ancien Régime, filling up streets and entryways with smooth, even frame rate. Collectively and ultimately, Unity has made me think: if they’ve all been this intricate, then why haven’t I seen that along the way? Perhaps it’s subjective to say so, but it took a game based in France for me to see exactly what Ubisoft has been doing all along: making substantial and accurate representations of past events and places in very unique ways.
Assassin’s Creed Unity has debuted the series impeccably on next-gen consoles, and with only a few navigational issues and random frame rate drops—as well as the slight immersion issue—Unity ups the ante for both narrative and visual quality by leaps and bounds. Combat hasn’t felt better than it does now, and the package is completed with a franchise-fresh co-op mode that brings just enough variety to the single player without dejecting from the prime directive: the French Revolution.