Assassin's Creed Unity review: Paris burning

Unity falls short of the fresh start Assassin's Creed needs

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Ubisoft
Developer Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date Nov 11, 2014

Assassin's Creed Unity has the weight of a console transition lying heavily upon it.

As of Nov. 11, 2014, there will have been eight main Assassin's Creed games since 2007, including Assassin's Creed Unity. The series has seen annualized releases since 2009, along with a willingness to experiment that other series haven't. But it's also increasingly lost sight of its primary design sensibilities — social stealth, target acquisition and single, spectacular kills.

Unity is poised to change that. Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag may have been the first AC game on the new consoles, but it was a cross-generational port. With the new-gen-only Unity, main developer Ubisoft Montreal is taking the series back to its roots while bringing online co-op and social functionality to Assassin's Creed proper. In many ways, Assassin's Creed Unity suggests where the franchise can go with cooperative play and exciting, more fully realized worlds. But Unity feels like nothing so much as a meal taken out of the oven too soon.

Unity feels like it was taken out of the oven too soon.

Assassin's Creed Unity begins in late-18th-century France. As the country sits on the precipice of revolution, Assassins and Templars play puppet master over both sides of the conflict in an effort to ...

I'm not sure, actually.

I've been a fan of Assassin's Creed's narrative and fiction since the series started in 2007, an apologist even, but I'll admit to feeling more lost than not as I played through Assassin's Creed Unity. Main character Arno has a backstory that establishes his attachment to the Assassins, but it isn't clear why he's involved with them. Arno isn't interested in the Assassins' greater mission. Instead, he's unraveling a murder mystery that also happens to involve a nebulous "evil" conspiracy. It's only ever clear that both the Assassins and Templars are caught up in the back-and-forth politics of their era, and that neither are effective in their plans.

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Ultimately, the end of the game goes out of its way to tell you how little any of Unity's story matters. Even the modern-day meta-narrative element is at an all-time low, save for the aforementioned "oh, never mind" it saddles Unity with. It discards the excellent fourth-wall-poking Abstergo Studios direction of Black Flag for the flimsiest of contrivances to get the game moving. It does at least provide for a decent reason to divert Unity's otherwise 18th-century setting into some bizarre, time-warping directions here and there, but otherwise, it doesn't have a lot of reason for being here.

More than possibly any Assassin's Creed game before it, Unity's plot seems contrived primarily as a way to thrust Arno into an action adventure game taking place in as many different important places and times within the French Revolution as possible. In that, at least, Unity is successful. Unity is laser-focused on Paris as it was and came to be over the course of the revolution, and that is a story it tells more effectively. This is assisted by one of the most astonishingly realized settings I've seen in a game.

Assassin's Creed Unity is often jaw-droppingly beautiful, filling its virtual Paris with light, with intimidating recreations of real-world landmarks and, most obviously, with people. The streets of Unity's Paris are legitimately teeming with people — people who are gathering in angry mobs, standing to hear revolutionary tracts read on corners, fighting with the monarchy's forces and often running from those conflicts. In many ways Arno feels more like a witness to the rebirth of a country, of its national identity. This isn't ground games typically tread, and I really enjoyed Unity's exploration of such a complicated and messy transformation.

This focus on Paris alone (with an occasional side trip to Versailles) carries over to the game world's structure. Buildings now are often much more than facades to be climbed on — many structures feature fully realized interiors to be explored as well. This extends to many of the major landmarks of Paris, such as the Palais de Justice and Notre Dame cathedral.

The transition to a more organic sense of place and more involved world signifies a change in much of Assassin's Creed Unity's mission structure from previous games. Arno's assignments and goals are typically specific targets that involve penetrating a fortified structure. Unity has a more stealth-oriented posture, and it's for the better. Finding weaknesses in a building's perimeter, discovering holes in security and attempting to capitalize on these things for a "clean" kill on my targets made for a stronger, more satisfying and rewarding core loop than Assassin's Creed has seen for some time.

A major part of that reward comes from an increase in enemy lethality. Enemies in Unity will cut you down quickly if you give them the chance, and guns are even more lethal. Combat has been redone, with a counter system with less margin for error and enemies that will leave you less space to focus on one enemy in a group unmolested. Arno can't walk the streets of Paris unafraid of all opposition — I was taken out in short order by random street thugs or guards that saw something I'd rather they hadn't more than once. Stealth is almost always the best option and, honestly, the one that left me feeling more cool when it succeeded.

Arno's basic physical competency is better than his forebears, which helps. A sweeping overhaul of the series' animation systems leads to much more graceful transitions from one action to another. Traversal has been somewhat simplified — holding the right trigger engages free run as usual, with the A button activating upward motion and the B button tilting Arno down. This is a literal lifesaver coming from previous games: now, to get down from a tall structure, you need only hold forward and B and pick your path, which will generally put Arno on "safe" footing in his descent. This greatly reduced the incidences of me accidentally jumping carelessly to my death as a result of the game misreading my input intentions or me misreading a structure's pathing.

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But many of the same problems that have plagued the series for years remain. Arno's feet can get tangled in random environmental bits — my most mortal enemy was the occasional randomly situated chair, in case you were wondering. Arno often stares dumbfoundedly at waist-high obstacles if you don't hit them at a run, which is particularly annoying given the massive emphasis on building interiors. Granted, there's a lot of crap piled on the streets of Paris as well, impromptu barricades reflecting the revolutionary fervor sweeping the city. The only thing they seemed to stop was my forward progress.

There are also new culprits added to the mix that filled my controller-throwing meter. Windows are a particular menace, especially egregious given how often Unity demands you use them. The only time I could reliably go into a window was at a full run — picking my way inside while hanging from a wall, whether to the right or left, above or below, was almost enough to make me give up the stealth route and walk in through the front door.

It's not just that these problems exist. It's that every Assassin's Creed game has had them for so long that I can't remember not dealing with them. And while each Assassin's Creed has moved farther away from the core of the series, whether that's in exploring a wilderness, assembling a brotherhood, sailing a ship or even dabbling in tower defense, Assassin's Creed Unity's re-narrowed focus on a single city and vertical traversal makes these navigation problems even less acceptable. Unity relies more on its basic mechanics than any game in the series since 2009, and it buckles under the pressure.

Assassin's Creed Unity buckles in other ways, making for the least stable, worst-performing major release I've played this year. Its moment-to-moment performance varies between acceptable and abysmal, falling toward the latter entirely too often with a frame rate I'd ballpark in the teens somewhere or, rarely, the single digits. Worse, I experience a number of hard crashes on the Xbox One version provided for review, and I fell through the ground into formless oblivion seven or eight times in my 20-ish hours with the game. Load times are also prohibitively long, often taking a minute or more.

All of this adds up to a game whose technical issues often make it more difficult to play. Assassin's Creed Unity isn't as frame rate-sensitive as a shooter like Call of Duty, but navigating the world when the game was struggling to respond to my inputs felt like a chore.

Unity finds some saving grace in its broader social aspects and cooperative multiplayer. There are clubs to create or join in order to work with other players to accomplish broader metagame objectives, which in turn reward you with additional progression in the main game. This is invaluable, as Assassin's Creed Unity has a more rigid gating of abilities. There's also a more involved gear system than previous games, with multiple tiers and kinds of armor for each body part, each tailored to a different play style. I tended to favor items that augmented my stealth capabilities, making me harder to spot and letting me lose myself in crowds faster.

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This personalization manifests in co-op play. Up to four players can join together and wander Paris, but your group can only complete specific cooperative missions. The most surprising thing about co-op is that it works, and running around as a gang of assassins in a sprawling 18th-century city is one of the more distinctive cooperative experiences I've had. But pay attention to the mission difficulty ratings — many of the more advanced assignments in Assassin's Creed Unity clearly seemed designed for four players, with powerful, deadly enemies arranged to avert stealth approaches for all but the most prepared groups.

Wrap Up:

Unity falls short of the fresh start Assassin's Creed needs

The ingredients are all here for a spectacular new standard for the series on Sony and Microsoft's new machines. But in the quest to build something that looked and sounded "next-generation," Ubisoft Montreal failed to fix the problems that have accumulated over so many annual releases. Combined with an uninspiring story, and a long list of considerable technical problems, Unity falls short of the fresh start Assassin's Creed needs.

Assassin's Creed Unity was reviewed using a "retail" Xbox One downloadable key provided by Ubisoft. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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