Thoughts on Assassin’s Creed: Unity

assassins-creed-unity-box-artSo, after the big console buy-in, various other games, controversy and a completely different Assassin’s Creed game, I’m finally (nearly done) with Assassin’s Creed: Unity and … it’s kind of a disappointment.

That’s not to say the game is an epic failure. It’s not. The added power of the next-gen console and additional headroom of the Blu-ray disc (for the XBox version) allowed Ubisoft to recreate Revolution Era Paris with startling detail. Crowds are impressive, the geography is breathtaking and it is markedly better looking game than even Assassin’s Creed: Rogue. So where are the faults?

– Story: Unlike the superb quality of Black Flag, Rogue, and or, say, Revelations, Unity features the limpest storyline since the first game. Arno, the player character, is almost an Altair retread. He’s willful and arrogant, but lacks the flair of Ezio, the charm of Edward or the pizazz of Haytham.

It’s unfortunate as Arno could be a good character. His story includes a romance with a Templar (herself a brilliant character we never get enough time with), a friendship with Napoleon (that’s shunted off to side missions) and miles of tension with the local Brotherhood leadership. Through the course of the story, he is on a mission of revenge, but it lacks focus and is often at odds with more interesting ideas. I think this is the central misstep in the storytelling. It binds Arno to an obvious plot and makes his meandering around the revolution (itself a Templar plan) less exciting than it could be.

Only Sixth Grade history teachers make this boring.

Only Sixth Grade history teachers should make this lack for excitement.

On the plus side, though, some of the story missions are amongst the best in the entire series. Whether it’s skulking around Notre Dame cathedral, chasing a hot air balloon across the city roofs or dueling down several levels of a church, the stand-out missions are truly spectacular and hint at what the next-gen Assassin’s Creed will be when all its energies are focused on publishing one game a year.

– Side objectives: Unity features a wide variety of side content. A staggering amount in fact. Between collectables, co-op missions, detective quests, assassinations, rifts, district liberation AND the second screen app, there’s a lot of content. I have to admit that it did become a chore toward the end. Indeed, I still have the whole south east of the city around the Pantheon to ransack for treasure chests because it just became too much.

The series’ standard assassination missions become “Paris Stories” in Unity as not all of them require killing. Some of these are great, like the Napoleon thread or the sequence of missions regarding the Marquis de Sade. Those really should’ve been part of the main story. Others are little better than fetch quests.

The detective quests, while interesting at first, don’t hold a candle to the kind found in Arkham games and ultimately just feel like filler. A couple of the main story missions use the detective mechanics in interesting ways, but on the whole, I won’t miss them if they don’t appear in the next game.

The rift missions, which sees the player “jumping servers” and experiencing Paris during medieval times, the Bell Epoque and World War II are actually fun. They’re challenging and repeatable. They also offer the little bit of present day story Unity offers. But I’ll come back to that in a bit.

– Co-op: The co-op missions themselves are quite fun, but I can’t help but think the amount of energy that went into them created nearly every other problem in the game. On their own, the carry forward the actually fun element of Black Flag‘s multiplayer. Grouped with as many as four people, you carry out elaborate assassinations and occasional rescues. The missions cover a lot of landscape and offer collectables that obsessives like me have to go and find. While most of the people I’ve played with go for the hack-n-slash approach, the missions are designed to be played anywhere between that extreme and pure stealth. They represent a nice, worthwhile time in multiplayer session.

HOWEVER

Because they exist within the single-player space, their disconnection from the storyline is jarring. Where the previous games saw multiplayer occupying a separate system and narrative reason for existing, Unity, as the name implies, tries to bring both game modes together and fails. In order to elaborate, I need to mention the present day element of the story.

Unlike previous player character Desmond Miles or the faceless and voiceless Abstergo employees of Black Flag and Rogue, the player character interacting with history is directly intended to be you: a player within Abstergo’s front-facing Helix “historical experience” system. Because of this, the modern day element of the story — the growing tension between Abstergo and the Precursor entity Juno inhabiting its servers — gets little more than some mentions in a memo. The Assassins, meanwhile, recruit you to find the corpse of one of the Precursors who reincarnated during the Revolution. This tenuous connection to the modern day meta-narrative also rears its head in the way the co-op missions present themselves. They’re always available to you and are initially introduced to you by Assassin recruiter Bishop as secondary objectives. At least, I remember her saying words to that effect. This lack of connection between either the historical or modern settings gives me little incentive to play co-op except for the express purpose of playing co-op.

Which … is essentially just like it use to be with co-op on a separate disc, except they’re always there. Always.

Looks like I have work to do.

Which will drive you nuts if you like to clean up the map.

And I think this is the key problem of the game overall. Because the multiplayer had to be immediately available to players, a lot of single player cohesion had to be sacrificed and resources that would normally go to the solid world building and mission flow of the main story were rerouted to co-op. I’ll present Black Flag and even Rogue as my evidence. Both games are strong because their single-player dev teams never had to worry about multi. Black Flag‘s multiplayer exists on its own disc and Rogue had no multiplayer because all those resources went toward Unity.

This is also the technical reason why you can’t play a female assassin in co-op. All co-op players are Arno, even if there’s some variation in the costumes. Ubisoft famously bungled their response to this question and though it makes sense once you play the game, it still leaves you wondering why none of the main AC titles have featured a female main character. At the same time, forcing the single player and multiplayer modes to coexist in the same space also removed nearly all the customization that made even the deathmatch modes in previous games fun to play.

I can’t help but wonder if this integration also led to the game shipping with serious bugs, the horrifying “no-face” issue during cut scenes, the server side problem with its Initiates system and, well, just about everything else that went wrong with Unity‘s release.

One thing that did work flawlessly for me was the second screen Companion app. It takes the Brotherhood missions (or fleet missions from Black Flag and Rogue) completely off the disc and onto a tablet. It behaves no better or worse than those mechanics in previous games, except for an easily ignored attempt to get you to spend 3 bucks on a “premium” version. Nice try, Ubisoft.

Oh, and on the issue of cash-stores and micro-transactions: you should know how to game AC’s economy after seven titles, so paying extra real cash for in-game money should never cross your mind.

According to leaks on the internet, the next game in the series will be called Victory and take us to Victorian London. Will I get it?

Yeah ... I will.

Yeah … I will.

But I hope with, presumably, only one Assassin’s Creed title in the offering come November, the better elements of Rogue and Unity can be combined into a stronger experience that utilizes the technical advancements on display in the first next-gen AC game. I also hope multiplayer either returns to a separate mode or integrates onto the London map in way that does not break the story’s internal logic or, indeed, the game itself. I hope some of the multiplayer customization returns and that those horrendous “no-face” screenshots will be a distant memory and not a specter of things to come.

Wishful thinking? Maybe … but hell, even EA turned it around with Dragon Age: Inquisition, so there may be a hope in hell yet.

Even if that hell is blanketed in “no-face” photos.

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About Erik

Erik Amaya is the host of Tread Perilously and the former Head Film/TV writer at Bleeding Cool. He has also contributed to sites like CBR, Comics Alliance and Fanbase Press. He is also the voice of Puppet Tommy on "The Room Responds."
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