Ubisoft’s next-gen assassin recalls everything that made the series great to begin with, in a shiny new wrapper
After a year spent free-running in jungles and sailing ships in the sun-soaked Caribbean, the Assassin's Creed franchise is ready to come home.
It's a description that applies to Assassin's Creed Unity, the next big installment in the long-running franchise, in many ways. On one hand, we have Canada-based subsidiary Ubisoft Montreal digging into its parent company's homeland of France. More important, however, is that Assassin's Creed is reaching back to its roots — stealth, sprawling cities to navigate and strength in narrative — in search of something great.
"We had to come back to our basics," says level designer Bruno St-André.
(That means there will be no boats.)
St-André calls Paris one of the "nicest playgrounds" players will experience yet. Although it's a dark time, it's a rich, diverse setting that leads to something better: the birth of human rights. It also features "gray zones" that Ubisoft can use to play up the intrigue of its characters.
"We know that the player that's new to it and just wants to jump in has to go through [past games] to understand the franchise. We wanted to do a little refresh on that and be closer to the original so that the players who are new to this franchise will step up and understand it more rapidly. We made the choice to move closer by being next-gen."
Unity looks and feels like it could be a reboot of the franchise. That's a good thing.
Assassin's Creed Unity sets the stage for the French Revolution, a period of turmoil for France in the late 1700s. It's a time of radical upheaval that will end in the abolition of the French monarchy and the brutal deaths of tens of thousands of people.
Here, we're introduced to Unity's star, a child named Arno Dorian who will grow up to become a deadly assassin. Like previous games — notably, Assassin's Creed's Ezio trilogy — players will trace Arno's path from boyhood to political tool.
"Arno is a young boy that starts in Versailles and grows up," St-André said. "He gets introduced to the Assassins' Order early on in the game, and as a player you can relive through the entire process of getting initiated into that creed, being an assassin."
St-André describes Arno as a mix of Altair, the series' first protagonist, and Ezio, the charismatic assassin from Assassin's Creed 2, AC: Brotherhood and AC: Revelations. Ubisoft will detail Arno's evolution in hopes to gain a greater understanding of his actions.
"We wanted you to actually understand the character before getting into the assassin and understanding why he chooses that himself," St-André said. "I think we're going to go deeper into that. We are closer at the same time to Ezio, but Altair in a sense because Arno has a strong personality.
"He's not going to be somebody who just gets dictated on what to do. He will ask questions. He makes his own choice based on his own judgment."
Unity once again scoots closer to its roots with the reintroduction of the Templar-and-Assassin conflict, and what role they've adapted within history. St-André says that though the French Revolution is the game's setting, its "background in a sense." The real story here is Arno's redemption quest and a journey creative director Alex Amancio calls a conflict of love versus duty.
"The first overall theme [in Unity] is Arno's redemption quest," Amancio said. "If you dig one layer under that, there's what we call a Cornelian dilemma … So it's following somebody's heart versus following somebody's duty to a cause, for example."
Other themes explored in Unity include the dangers of fanaticism, Amancio added — parties that have become "too blinded by fanatacism.
"Like two opposites, if they go into the area of fanaticism, they just become the same thing," Amancio said, "and the dangers of fanaticism and how they can blind people into a trap essentially.
Abstergo's presence in the present day remains a mystery, though Amancio has said that it is "very different than anything you've seen in any of the past games."
Assassin's Creed has always been a violent franchise — hunting targets and taking their life with the flick of a hidden blade has never been pretty — but at first glance, Unity's world is a much bloodier one than we're used to.
Of course, we don't seem to be the only ones that feel that way.
Early hands-off demos of the game, both at events and in-person, have taken us through the streets of Paris. There are mobs of angry people, revolts and even public executions by guillotine. As Arno walked through the city, his actions seemed to go unnoticed, even when they fell into the slightly strange category.
"The world is not player-centric," the designer said. "A lot of events occur, and those events might be higher priority than the ones you are generating. The crowd does not live for 'my' events, but if [the crowd] witnesses a murder and I'm just pushing somebody, they're going to react to the murder and not my presence. They're reacting to a lot of different things."
St-André agrees that crowd work is a major change from previous games. Before the Revolution is in full swing, NPCs will seem peaceful and calm on the streets. Once tensions come to a head, the city becomes a much more violent place.
"The more you progress within the story, the more the French Revolution itself evolves and the city changes," St-André said. "The city reacts differently and the events we see are more numerous and more violent."
The designer doesn't think Unity is more violent by nature, but rather that it's a reflection of the setting itself. The Reign of Terror, the period during which the demo took place, was a time of mass executions and decapitations.
"After the king died, the revolution hit new heights and it was more about ... chaos in the streets," he said. "That's the Reign of Terror."
According to St-André, the word "unity" has helped to define the new Assassin's Creed game since the very beginning. He wouldn't go into details, but said the concept of unity is also deeply embedded in the game's story.
"It's one of the first times our code name [was] the real name of the project," St-André said. "From the get-go, it was a key word in production: Unify the players to play the same role and the same challenge."
Nothing brings the concept to mind better than the game's new seamless co-op for up to four people. Amancio said that the game exists in essentially a single city, where players can bump into co-op contracts, or Brotherhood missions, by finding the right place at the right time.
Amancio refers to the game's co-op as a "shared experience." Co-op brings to mind different things for everyone, he said, such as two people pulling a lever to open a door. That's not quite what Unity will do.
If fights are too difficult for one player to tackle, they can consider teaming up with friends for strength in numbers. Players will also be rewarded for hanging with friends with shared skill points, rather than a split. These "skills points" will allow players to customize their assassin by upgrading skills in stealth, combat or navigation (also known as your assassin's Parkour abilities).
We've yet to see the game's shared experience missions in person, so it's still difficult to tell how well they'll function. Early live demos from E3 press conferences look promising, and in some cases even reminiscent of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood's recruit support.
Assassin's Creed Unity isn't going to break the mold that Ubisoft has already created, but that's the point. It's a return to what made the franchise great in the first place: exotic locations, the thrill of running free for a kill and the political intrigue of a new conflict.