Assassin’s Creed: Unity Review

Ah, Assassin’s Creed – Ubisoft’s answer to Call of Duty and for many gamers a yearly ritual. Whilst the series has fluctuated in quality since the original released in 2007, it has always maintained cutting-edge visuals, enjoyable gameplay and interesting settings inspired by some of the more interesting portions of human history – from the Crusades, to Renaissance Italy, the American War for Independence and the Caribbean’s Golden Age of Piracy we’ve been to some truly memorable locales. With the last few titles taking on a distinct America’s flavour, Assassin’s Creed: Unity takes the series back to where it truly belongs – Europe.

This time around, players fill the shoes of Arno, a French fellow who starts the game with a smug, likeable, roguish arrogance reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed II’s Ezio who slowly transforms into the silent brooding protagonist archetype that the series loves all so much as the story progresses. His tale begins promisingly as a love story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, but despite divergent revenge plots, bumping into some notable historical figures and some great climactic moments, the narrative feels quite thin and before long you’ll find yourself put into a routine of moving from assassination to assassination, never really appreciating the reasons why you are killing your targets unless you delve into the Animus’s detailed database to have it fill in the blanks for you.

As the first Assassin’s Creed game developed exclusively for the new console generation and it’s clear that this is also the most ambitious title in the series to date. The city of Paris is Arno’s main playground and it is absolutely enormous. The game is visually spectacular with the environment, textures and NPCs that inhabit it all being incredibly finely detailed. There are literally thousands of NPCs on screen at any one time, huge draw distances and dynamic weather conditions such as rain and fog that directly affect lighting in and around the game’s many buildings. The characters themselves are also superb and using the new generation hardware to full effect, Unity has made its ensemble cast as close to photorealistic as the series has seen.

Once of the core elements of the Assassin’s Creed experience lies in its free running and the player’s ability to climb, run and dive through just about any obstacle found in the game. Unity has attempted to refine this system once again and has done so with mixed results. On the one hand, returning players will notice the large increase in the number of new animations for scaling, hopping and interacting with the environment to make the whole experience appear more fluid than ever. The developers have also included a fast descent feature which is the exact opposite of climbing, allowing Arno a quick, more efficient trip down to the ground rather than haphazard jumps or pussyfooting that punctuated the process in previous games. Unfortunately, with the changes it seems that the free running system’s sensitivity has been turned up significantly with Arno often grabbing or trying to climb on anything in sight with or without your input, which makes it very difficult (and incredibly frustrating in chase missions) to direct him up walls and through the streets to specific locations as often times it feels as if he has a mind of his own.

The game’s combat has been further refined from previous titles and manages to maintain a great deal of familiarity to the system introduced in Assassin’s Creed III and continued in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag with players afforded a number of different weapons and the ability to counter, grab or guard break enemies as they appear. Where it differs is in the way that it is presented – enemies are now given a health bar when in combat and this not only shows you how much damage you are dealing to them, it also flashes as they are about to attack, giving Arno a window in which to counter or dodge. The health bar is a nice touch and is not as immersion breaking as you would expect.

Assassin’s Creed: Unity features the same style of gameplay that we have come to expect from the series and you’ll certainly get your fill of the franchises’ staple killing, tailing and chase objectives to help push the narrative along. Fortunately, the objectives requiring remaining unseen are easier in Unity as in addition to the standard blending into crowds, taking cover behind objects and using the various haystacks and hiding places scattered about to remain out of sight, the game also allows Arno to move around stealthily by holding in the left trigger (finally!). However, where Unity really stands above the plethora of sequels and spinoffs that have come before it is in the assassination sequences and the co-operative side-missions.

The assassination missions which occur at the end of each memory sequence. These sequences feel as close to the assassinations in original Assassin’s Creed than any game in the series since and require a modicum of stealth (at least early on when Arno has not been upgraded) and forward thinking to be successful. Each of these missions gives players multiple routes, options and opportunities in which to create distractions and approach and kill your target. Each of these missions has been designed in such a way that it can potentially be experienced several times before players have seen all that the mission has to offer. On the flip side, players can always rush in and murder everyone in sight on the way to the target, it’s just nowhere near as satisfying as that perfectly planned and executed kill.

The single biggest addition to the traditional Assassin’s Creed experience is the inclusion of co-operative play. Scattered throughout Paris, players will come across co-operative mission markers that will allow them to connect to and play through a short mission for 2- 4 players. These are often a little more structured than the single player missions and call for a good deal of teamwork, planning and communication. They are surprisingly well done and many of them rival some of the single player missions for a sense of accomplishment when completed.

Unity also features some in-depth character customisation that allows you to purchase weapons, armour and skills. Earning various forms of XP will allow you to purchase different load-outs to make the games’ combat a little easier and provide additional perks when playing online. Unity also features a skill tree similar to Farcry 3 or the Batman: Arkham games in which points earned by completing missions can be spent to unlock upgrades such as increased health and specific attacks including double assassinations and ranged weapons. Unfortunately most of the skills were unlocked from the get go in most of the previous games, so until you have a few unlocked, Arno feels significantly underpowered.

Paris is easily the largest single-city location that has appeared in an Assassin’s Creed game and due to its sheer size, fast travel is a massive convenience. As with Black Flag, climbing and synchronising with a viewpoint will not only reveal the map and other points of interest in the nearby area, but it will also then become unlocked as a fast travel point, allowing players to instantly teleport to it in an instant from the world map. Unfortunately, depending on the game’s temperament at the time, that instant teleport can take a minute or more thanks to some excessively long loading times.

In addition to the main story missions and the co-operative side content, Unity also features an abundance of optional content that ranges from the interesting to the mundane. Of particular note are the murder mysteries in which you need to examine a specified area for clues and then determine the culprit at the end. Renovations also return, allowing you to pimp out some buildings to earn additional income. Additionally, you’ll be scouring every district for a ludicrous number of collectibles including artefacts and cockades which unlock armour and weapons for purchase, an assortment of online/offline treasure chests and mysterious Nostradamus pages.

Unfortunately, Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a game with a lot of issues. In addition to the aforementioned issues with the overly-sensitive traversal system, underwhelming narrative and lengthy loading times, there are also several other issues that might irk the common gamer including horrendously choppy frame rates and texture pop-ins in places. Most notably however – it is burdened with a plethora of bugs and glitches. During my playthrough I witnessed several groups of floating citizens, had a situation where I was stuck in a haystack and could not exit, nor defend myself whilst Arno got shot to pieces and some issues where NPCs in the nearby area managed to work their way into cut-scenes. Whilst none of these were particularly game breaking (although the haystack one was a bit annoying) after hearing from friends and other gamers about their experiences with the title it appears that I managed to get off fairly lightly. Hopefully these issues can be patched out soon as it feels as though the company has asked its consumers to do their QA testing for them, and that just doesn’t leave a good impression at all.

Ultimately Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a mixed bag. The visuals are spectacular and there are some fantastic additions to the standard Assassin’s Creed formula in the form of the excellent co-operative gameplay and the assassinations which distil the experience into some solid stealth action. At the same time however, it is clear that the game has been released before all of the wrinkles had been ironed out and the litany of glitches, bugs and excessive loading times really soured my experience. Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a great game that could have been even better with a few more months in development, but as it stands it is still a solid entry in the series and if you can overlook the occasional glitch there is plenty of fun to be had.

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