To pay proper respect to a game and its developers, it’s important to take it exactly as it is. This means momentarily forgetting anything I thought about its predecessor, or how many times this particular game completely crashed my Xbox one (four times so far, but who’s counting?). Unity is Ubisoft’s first “next-gen” entry into the Assassin’s Creed franchise, featuring an English assassin gallivanting around revolutionary France with a score to settle. While the co-released AC game (Rogue) followed on from the story of everyone’s favourite Edward since that moody duck-faced vampire, Unity instead took us to the late 1700s to continue the fight against Abstergo.
A roguish hero with ties to Templars and Assassins, an attractive yet dangerous love interest, and one of the most interesting eras should all equal a revolutionary (sorry) game. The storyline was undoubtedly going to include cameos from every well-known name of that time, and wound together into a clever understory that I could almost believe happened concurrently with the actual events. Well, that wasn’t the case. Instead, Unity gave me a mediocre story with every twist being about as hard to see as a six-foot tall assassin sitting on a rope above my head. We meet a second surrogate father who guides Arno into the brotherhood and trains him, what a stand-up guy. But this is an AC game, so you know there is betrayal. When the head of the order winds up dead with all suspicion on my Templar girlfriend, well gosh, let me follow the trail to be shocked at the big reveal of the identity of the killer.
Assassin’s often climb their way up the limbs of the evil tree, lopping branches as they go, and usually with the end game of cutting down the leader. In the better AC games, it felt like a personal mission, and a wrong that needed to be rectified. In Unity, however, I more so felt like an assassin working for the dole. There wasn’t nearly a strong enough narrative to make me want to help Arno, and only a minimum of contact with the technicians who were guiding me in the fight against Abstergo. The redeeming aspect of the writing was from Arno himself: previous assassins were serious, mature, and seldom cracked jokes, whereas Monsieur Dorian gratefully drizzled sarcasm and quick wit throughout. His personality made him an easier character to enjoy, but this didn’t improve my care factor for his story.
Turmoil, living conditions, and penchant for violence notwithstanding, Ubisoft did give us a locale with some real finesse. Simply walking a meagre few blocks in one direction created a subtle yet detailed change in the city’s appearance. The NPCs were all engaged in their random activities, from wrestling a gun off a rioter or carrying a body in the poverty-stricken areas, to watching a posh Sir be rebuffed by a high society woman only to succeed with the next. The bustling detail of a guy carrying a looted crucifix or a mob with a head on a pike, coupled with exquisite interiors and architecture gave Assassin’s Creed: Unity the most genuine appearance of the series so far.
Almost every word from the background characters were in French, as it should be. So yes, it bothered me that Arno, targets, and those featured in a cut-scene had an English accent, and only used sporadic French terms like a slimy guy who uses mademoiselle to appear worldly. The sound effects were all clear and played well within the presentation, with a soundtrack I actually enjoyed enough to have run through my headset as I write this. The music stays within the mysterious, slightly ominous realms that I’ve come to enjoy from these games, continuously trying to replace the substance and feeling to the play through that the narrative lost.
The previous AC title had combat improvements that I assumed would carry forward into Unity, possibly with some fine tuning. I can only surmise that Ubisoft thought “instead of decent combat skills, let’s give this guy a ponytail!” that resulted in Arno having enviable locks, but little to brag about in a fight. You could parry or dodge, but that didn’t have a high success rate, or you could simply button mash for melee. Later on, a quick shot from the hip or an assortment of bombs become available to break up the six on one massacre. This, however, led to so many wasted items and ammo due to the struggle of timing the item exactly: you’d end up using several, and be left open in the meantime. My go-to move was a poison bomb and legging it: poisoning myself as opposed to enduring an often fatal, annoying bout of combat sums it up nicely.
Movements I take for granted as an assassin range from free running, sticking an impossible haystack landing, fast walking to stealth swimming, and climbing things I never meant to. Unity removes stealth swimming entirely, a fact I found out after diving into filthy water and ruining an important mission by basically bobbing up to the bad guy’s sniper rifle. Fast walk can be useful but isn’t paramount to assassin moves; it does remove those embarrassing moments trying to pass suspicious guards and accidently breaking your cover. Free running down worked like it should have several games ago: I didn’t have Arno freaking out mid-escape due to a failure to understand the JUST GET THE FRICK DOWN command for a change.
My biggest gripe with Unity is how buggy and slow it is: loading between areas, chapters, and even the act of passing an online mission marker threw a huge spanner in the game’s flow. Eventually, I checked the map to avoid getting too near an assassin with a mission for fear of the frozen screen, which turned my Xbox off twice, and forced me to shut it down myself twice. The map design was a huge plus: a zoom ready, rotatable 3D map showed elevation, structure, and enough area detail to be a valuable tool. Finally, I could look for a collectible without standing right on it on the map but struggling to locate it physically. Also, with so many quick updates to be made aware of that helpful text boxes appeared on the right of my screen, about half way up – directly covering whatever mission text I was trying to read. A design flaw, not a game breaker but frequent enough to be utterly unhelpful and require some setting fiddling.
Unity took away everything but the bare basics an assassin requires to function, and then asks you to buy every single skill, item and upgrade. I couldn’t afford to buy a weapon over 5k at all due to having to buy armour, overly expensive consumables and pay upkeep on a social club which untimely seemed useless. Some new options such as disguise were interesting, but also insinuated Arno was some magician who procured clothes from the air. I’m all for earning upgrades, but making me earn tokens to buy the ability to throw money, use air assassination or blend into a crowd is redundant and should end with this game.
I love the AC franchise dearly (well, mostly) and found traversing Unity to be easily one of the most enjoyable and beautiful. Unfortunately, awkward combat, a waste of epic history, and enough loading time to paint my nails resulted in an underwhelming disappointment. Arno is welcome back as a refreshingly personable contract killer anytime, but Ubisoft need to back off from creating online multiplayer focused games, and get back to what used to be an experience. AC used to make me feel like I was in on some fantastic ancient secret, even if I accidently pickpocketed countless innocent civilians. Now it feels as if the game’s substance has been replaced, granted the replacement is increasingly more enviable landscapes and options, but Unity still falls short of holding its own in the series.
Please Note: This review was based on the XB1 version of the game, and was provided to the writer by the developer for the purpose of review.