Assassin's Creed Unity is the game of 2014, and that's not meant as an honor or a compliment.
It means that no one game was more 2014 than this one, for all of the wrong reasons. All major video games will, during development, brush up against some petty controversy in interacting with a relentlessly unsatisfied public. Assassin's Creed Unity seemed helpless to stay out of trouble in the months leading up to a disastrous launch. Then things got worse.
Other titles may have done more inept things, but Assassin's Creed Unity seemed to do all of them. The product that shipped was famously broken, the response to that had its own failures and, for good measure, the apology it offered arrived with a chunk of lawyerly language that made even that feel cynical and insincere.
The game was delayed two weeks, suffered comical and even horrific-looking glitches, and had the chutzpah to offer a purchase of $99 worth of in-game currency. Ubisoft exploited the review agreement it had with the games press, casting suspicion that it knew it had a stinker on its hand. Assassin's Creed Unity even kicked up a fuss in France over how it depicted the French Revolution and some of the central figures within it.
Being a mediocre game — the lowest scoring in franchise history — was the least of its problems.
What went wrong?
If there's a theme in these screwups, unintended slights, misstatements and other gaffes, it's that it reflects the behavior of creators and a publisher asserting its priorities in an unequal relationship and then not standing behind them when either gamers or the media push back.
An early stumble
The controversy over women characters, the first big dustup to hit Assassin's Creed Unity, is a prime example. Questioned by Polygon at E3 about whether playable women characters were ever a part of the creative discussion, creative director Alex Amancio said they were early on, but the extra resources and time spent developing them made that prohibitive.
An alienating statement mars the E3 debut
It was an alienating statement, one that seemed to want credit for at least thinking of the idea, while saying women weren't worth the additional effort it would need to render them in the game. It got worse when the former animation director on Assassin's Creed 3, now with another studio, said it would only take "a day or two of work," to include women in the multiplayer mode. Patrice Désilets, one of the original creators of the series, showed up to criticize Ubisoft for not even making the effort. It's important to remember he was dismissed from Ubisoft last year and is currently suing the publisher.
Ubisoft, for its part, issued a statement saying it "recognize[d] the valid concern around diversity in video game narrative," and noting the series' past inclusion of playable characters of both genders and different ethnicities.
But at what should have been a debut focusing attention on the game and the new and different things it would seek to do, Assassin's Creed Unity sunk into the kind of rancorous debate on social topics that formed the backdrop to the seething Gamergate cyber-protest in the late summer. That's a big reason why it can be considered the game of 2014.
Holding back on graphics?
Ubisoft stuck its foot in its mouth again in October on one of the most tiresome and petty arguments in video gaming: which console has more horsepower. The Assassin's Creed Unity team thought they were keeping themselves out of that slapfight. Instead, they made matters worse.
In October, senior producer Vincent Pontbriand said that the game would run at a 900p resolution and 30 frames per second on both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. "We decided to lock them at the same specs to avoid all the debates and stuff," he said.
Trying to avoid a debate, and getting dragged into it further.
Since 2013's Assassin's Creed: Black Flag also launched at 900p and 30 fps, and a patch shortly after release upped the resolution for the PlayStation 4 edition, that sounded like the PS4 was being held back because of the Xbox One. Comments and forums raged with indignity.
Ubisoft, now in the worst possible spot for a third-party publisher — caught between two console makers — had to choose its words carefully. The publisher said Pontbriand's comments were "misinterpreted," and insisted that Unity's specifications were not lowered "to account for any one system over the other."
The trouble the game would face at launch, working at any framerate, would overshadow this foofaraw. Still, media training would seem to be very high on the list of priorities for next year's game.
A bad report card
One could argue that Ubisoft's gaffes in the women characters and 1080p controversies were set up by questions in which no answer is a good answer and being evasive is worse. How it handled reviews of its centerpiece franchise, however, was actively abusive.
A cynical deadline kept gamers in the dark
Games media get pre-release copies of a game on the promise they won't publish their review before an agreed-upon time. In this case, the time was set for noon on the day of release. Accounting for midnight release events (and downloads) that assured a 12-hour window during which Assassin's Creed Unity would have its gala launch without any criticism, much less warning of the problems that lay within.
Had Assassin's Creed Unity not seen framerate drops, missing faces and falling through the floor, or had it simply been a better game, this may not have mattered so much. When the noon deadline dropped and unimpressed scores flowed in, gamers had every reason to believe Ubisoft had gamed the process, or wouldn't stand behind the game it had made.
Ubisoft gave a statement that seemed to acknowledge it had gone too far. The publisher promised it would change its "services and communications with consumers," as well as its relationship with reviewers, "all so they have the information they need and want."
What other embarrassments and controversies hit this beleaguered title? This is by no means an exhaustive list:
• The notorious four patches necessary to fix all of the bugs and glitches, speaking of a game knowingly released incomplete. (Thanks to a mistake, the last patch on Xbox One required a download of the full 40GB title.) The biggest story of the last three months of the year was the numbers of big-name games that were broken at launch (particularly with regard to online services) and Assassin's Creed Unity was a big part of that.
• Ubisoft suspended the rollout of its post-release downloadable content in light of all the problems and then promised that the first premium add-on would be free to all, acts of contrition we've seen from other titles in years past. However, as it had sold season passes buying all of the DLC up front, Ubisoft essentially devalued that purchase. To compensate those customers, Ubisoft offered a full free game. That, of course, came with a user agreement not to sue or participate in any class action against Ubisoft over Assassin's Creed Unity or its DLC program.
To embody so many things that went wrong in video gaming is worse than any review
• Finally, as if to say they couldn't wait to change the subject, someone working on the next Assassin's Creed leaked to Kotaku a trove of screenshots, showed a writer a video of its gameplay and spilled a ton of additional details. Ubisoft's official corporate statement on the leak was to express disappointment and reaffirm a commitment to "enhancing the experience of Assassin's Creed Unity."
Down the line, Assassin's Creed Unity's publicity, disastrous launch and response to it embodied the behavior of a large, publicly traded company that parses every word it utters, considers stockholders the customer and the share price the product. To have slipped in any of the above areas — obviously game quality being the key — would have been embarrassing. To embody so many things that went wrong across all of video gaming is worse than any disappointing review score or lackluster sales figure.
Assassin's Creed remains a highly anticipated series for many, despite Unity, and will undoubtedly be a top gaming story of 2015. One hopes it's for better reasons.
This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.