Assassin's Creed Unity represents something of a milestone for the long-running Ubisoft series. It's the first of the games to officially leave the previous generation of consoles behind, fully embracing the new-generation Xbox One and PlayStation 4. For the most part, the series looks to have taken many steps forward. The setting of French Revolution-era Paris is a beautiful sight to behold and many of the annoying tendencies that dragged down previous games looked to be a thing of the past.
Ubisoft also shakes up AC Unity in a variety of ways to help give the series a fresher scent than its predecessors, initially feeling like something of a renaissance. Unfortunately, it doesn't take long for some of the more infuriating aspects of Assassin's Creed to rear their ugly head again, making the latter half of Unity feel like more of the same. At the end of the day, it feels like a serviceable entry to the series, but nothing particularly revolutionary.
"Shades of gray to every story"
That's a quote from supporting character Elise and that's the big takeaway from the Assassin's Creed Unity narrative. The main story all takes place along the modern-day backdrop of Templar-branded Abstergo Industries' continuing search for new recruits to surf the Animus. Modern Assassins, Bishop and Deacon, quickly find the unnamed Animus recruit, pointing out that ancestor Arno once had an encounter with a 'Sage' that the Templars are searching for. Finding Arno's fateful final encounter with the Sage will supposedly lead Abstergo to his body, bringing them one step closer to world domination.
That leads to the French Revolution and the newest main Assassin, Arno Dorian. Arno is a charismatic, carefree young man with something of a dark origin. His backstory and personality are very similar to Ezio Auditore from Assassin's Creed II, a move that can be interpreted to be intentional, given where the story ends up going. He grows up along with Elise de la Serre, whose father raised him after Arno's own fathered was murdered years before. Tragic events see Arno and Elise embark on individual revenge paths, with the former's path taking him to the Assassins and the latter's taking her to the Templars.
Arno's story is interesting to witness, because it's so similar to Ezio's, but with the surrounding circumstances steering him in a different direction. It's more than the fact that he's growing up in one of the most politically volatile periods in history, though that certainly doesn't help. Without spoiling specifics, there is a lot happening within the Assassins and the Templars that will make players see both factions in something of a new light. It's a reminder that centuries have passed since Ezio founded the Brotherhood and longer since the Templars first saw the light of day, so change is inevitable and that change may not necessarily follow the old way. Arno and Elise are both caught right in the middle of this, as they also come to terms with their lifelong relationship.
The less interesting narrative continues to be the increasingly convoluted modern-world story. This makes the addition of time anomalies somewhat of an unwelcome one. Arno's main story will occasionally be interrupted with Bishop cutting in to note that Abstergo is conducting 'server sweeps.' The player is then forced to find a portal and jump into a different era of France and go through a lengthy platforming sequence. It's a jarring transition and one that gets aggravating, since the portal's location isn't always obvious.
Even if the backdrop with the modern day and Abstergo continues to unfold in far less interesting fashion, the tale of Arno and Elise is one worth watching unfold. Unity offers the most interesting narrative an Assassin's Creed game has had in quite some time.
Midnight in Paris
Visually, Assassin's Creed Unity pulls off some majorly impressive feats. On top of creating a vaster landscape than anything done in previous games, Unity is able to cram in hundreds of civilian characters all at once, with little to no performance hitches. This is particularly impressive to see later in the game, once the Revolution goes off in full force. It adds a greater degree of immersion, making Paris feel more like a living city. It also serves to push the gameplay aspect forward, giving Arno more citizens to blend in with in a pinch, while also offering more room to sprinkle in additional guards. Picking a fight with guards in a public place is ill-advised. More on that later.
Fast travel is a must for a city of this size, so it's a good thing Unity has a fairly good system in place. Synchronizing from high points now serves another purpose than simply getting a view of the city and adding extra points of interest to the map. It will also open up new fast travel locations, which is essential for anyone that wants to save time. Of course, getting across Paris the old-fashioned way isn't too bad an option, either, since there are many dynamic street events that unfold at a moment's notice.
The trouble with focusing on the size of Paris and the number of NPCs on-screen is that other sacrifices appear to have been made. Paris may be beautiful, but it's also awfully buggy. There were several instances during my playthrough where building textures would pop in and out, character textures would randomly flicker or warp, and there was even an instance where I fell through a map hole on the ground. Unity can be a buggy affair and while it's not enough to drag the experience down completely, it can start to feel disruptive at times.
Learning to multitask
Assassin's Creed Unity's main draw is the freedom offered to players. That particularly extends to a good number of the story missions. Arno will analyze his surroundings, spying opportunities to make his assassination excursion easier. One example sees Arno rescuing a crew of citizens and recruiting their help against the guards. Another sees him taking advantage of a special bale of hay, which allows him to strategically wait for his targets to arrive later in the day. While these points of interest are helpful, they're completely optional and Arno can simply complete his mission the old-fashioned way. Given the toughness of the combat, though, that's not always recommended.
The combat has, in fact, been refined in Unity to make stealth more of a priority. Guards can be very tough to take down and getting surrounded will ensure a quick death. Arno has ample opportunities to level up his gear and his abilities to make this easier, but Unity will make you earn your combat kills with parries and dodges. It's best not to be seen, though I noticed that this isn't always possible, given how dynamic the world can be.
Multitasking is a major element of Paris. Players can take on story missions and any number of side missions simultaneously. This means that if you're in the middle of a story mission and you happen to pass along a side mission checkpoint along the way, you can complete one without interrupting the other. This makes it easier to complete the game's side missions and get their rewards. Dynamic street missions can also unfold at any time and they'll sometimes occur at the absolute wrong time. There are times when you'll be in the middle of a mission and extremists will be harassing innocents on the street, before stopping to pick on Arno. They'll either impede your progress or pile on whenever situations get hairy. It's annoying, but it's an interesting addition that makes Paris feel like a more realistic place.
Even co-op encourages players to jump in and multitask. One of the best features of Unity is the fact that co-op is tied to the overworld. Ubisoft even goes a step further, allowing players to jump into a co-op mission already in progress. Certain spots on the map will see an Assassins recruit ask the player for help, allowing them to jump directly into someone else's co-op mission. The only downside to this is missing the context of the opening cutscene, but the ability to drop in and out of an ongoing mission and reap the full rewards is a great feature.
Old habits die hard
While Unity improves many elements of Assassin's Creed, it's hard to deny that this game eventually settles into many of the bad habits that dragged down past games. The typical AC 'follow the target' mission has been improved greatly in most spots, since losing a target will no longer send a player into a fail state, but rather prompt Arno to use his Eagle Vision to find him again. That line of logic seemingly stops in later missions, since the mission's story is structured to force a fail state when a target is lost. It can lead to a lot of pain, thanks to another of AC's bad habits: checkpoints.
I noticed more forgiving checkpoints in the early part of the game, but this is another case where the old habit started to pop up again towards the latter half of the game. The open-ended 'choose your own path' assassination missions prove to be both a blessing and a curse, because the checkpoint system with these scenarios are brutal. Since stealth is such a key element, Arno needs to proceed through these missions with extreme caution, taking upwards of 20 minutes. Some of those missions actually took me up to 45 minutes to complete the whole way through in one sitting. However, as noted, anything can go wrong at any time. Maybe an extremist is ready to cause trouble and decides to pick a fight at the wrong moment, blowing Arno's cover in the process. Maybe an assassination target just happens to be in the line of sight of four guards that happen to be strolling through the area. Or maybe, simply, you didn't realize there was a guard behind the corner and he got six of his pals to run you through. What happens after investing all that time? It's time to start all over from the beginning! It kills me that Assassin's Creed games still fall into this trap, since it gives me more incentive to shut the game off than to try again.
Worse, getting spotted and failing your mission can be very easy when Arno doesn't go where he's supposed to and that's where another of Assassin's Creed old issues surface. Unity offers the ability to gracefully climb down, but getting to Arno to where he's supposed to go is often not that easy. In tight spots, Arno will often jump to the wrong spot or go in the wrong direction, which can be killer when guards are giving chase. Worse, there are often times where Arno will latch onto a spot where he can't move either up or down, leaving him a sitting duck. This is bad when guards are chasing him, but even worse when racing against the clock. This happened repeatedly towards the end and when combined with the checkpoint system, I was nearly ready to toss my controller.
Many of the same flaws that hounded previous AC games are still here, but there's more to enjoy for anyone willing to look past them. The story is genuinely engaging, filled with actual twists that turn the AC lore on its head, as well as a good love story between two captivating characters. Paris is also a sight to behold, feeling grander than any of the series' previous settings. The ability to stroll through the game at your own leisure, even stopping to take in a co-op session from the beginning or in-progress, is also a welcome one.
This is everything I've come to know about Assassin's Creed. It's a great story wrapped in a more confusing story, some satisfying stealth action, and mechanics that leave me banging my head against the wall. It's Assassin's Creed, warts and all.
This review is based on a Xbox One download code provided by the publisher. Assassin's Creed Unity is now available in retail and digital stores, for $59.99. The game is rated M.