Ubisoft’s epic time-warping adventure series is one of the gaming world’s most celebrated franchises, and for good reason. Its games have sold tens of millions of copies, and the Assassin’s Creed brand spans video games, books, graphic novels, toys, clothing, and other merchandise that one would associate with a widely-celebrated property.
Assassin’s Creed Unity is the eighth game in the storied franchise (there are actually 21 different AC games, including those on mobile and web-based platforms), and it brings about advanced visuals, new gameplay mechanics, and for the first time, a real co-op gameplay experience. Revolutionary Paris is impressively re-created with the finest attention to textural detail. There are lighting effects in the game that are simply stunning – a dynamic weather system changes the lighting constantly throughout the game, and each of the thousands of interactive NPCs and gorgeous buildings are designed to react to the shifting light. Additionally, Unity incorporates features to engage with other gamers online and on their mobile devices.
Unity however, suffers as a result of its ambition. The price for these superb visuals and online features are a jarring drop in frame rates, distracting texture pop-ins, server connection issues, and other glitches. Whether these issues overwhelm what the game does have to offer is subjective; some gamers can tolerate more issues than others. Ubisoft has even acknowledged these issues, and has indicated that fixes are forthcoming (Ubisoft has already released two patches to alleviate some problems). That being said, this review will cover what the game does offer, since I was able to play through (and enjoy for the most part) the game despite encountering the aforementioned issues.
This review will not discuss spoilers in the game’s story. It would be my recommendation to take notes during a playthrough of the campaign. The plot can seem complex, especially because it moves along rather briskly. Multi-layered characters also add to the complexity, so if you care about understanding everything that is going on, you’ll want to pay careful attention to every cutscene.
New Gameplay Mechanics
Arno Dorian, Unity’s protagonist, is without a doubt, the most agile Assassin yet. New animations make him a parkouring master, and a new parkour down mechanic gives him the ability to swiftly scale down buildings in daring fashion.
Unity takes a new approach to combat by introducing an RPG-like skill progression system. This means that Arno is not a truly effective a fighter or assassin until after certain skills have been unlocked. Being able to pick locks, use ranged weapons, and carry out double aerial executions are some examples of skills that must be unlocked.
The use of certain tools, like poison gas, and advanced (strong) attacks are also abilities that must be unlocked with skill points.
Skill points are earned by completing the campaign levels and co-op missions (some co-op missions can be done solo). Players won’t be able to earn enough skill points to unlock all of Arno’s abilities just from completing the campaign – it will take completion of numerous co-op missions to earn enough skill points. Thankfully, the co-op missions are actually quite fun to play (more on this below).
Weapons and gear are also unlockable throughout a player’s progression through the game. Players can earn in-game currency from both the campaign as well as from co-op missions to purchase various weapons as well as hoods, chest armor, bracers, belts, and pants. Each piece of gear increases Arno’s capabilities in varying ways, like increasing his Eagle Vision duration, or allowing him to carry more smoke bombs. Not only that, but the gear you choose to equip is reflected in the way Arno looks. The level of customization (including the color of your outfit) is unparalleled in this franchise.
Enemies are much tougher in Unity, which is a huge change that Assassins Creed fans have requested for quite some time. Even with many advanced skills unlocked, gamers will have a very challenging time when facing more than three enemies simultaneously. The enemy AI will use stun bombs and attacks that will knock Arno down. They can even unleash flurries of attacks that Arno cannot parry. Additionally, gunshots are rather deadly – one or two hits from an enemy’s rifle will take Arno down.
The increased difficulty in combat is a huge and welcomed change in the series, and makes kills (stealthy or otherwise) that much more satisfying.
Overall, Unity feels like a new approach on a proven, but aging formula. Epic ship battles from Assassin’s Creed 3 and 4 are notably absent from Unity, but it just feels right to re-invent what made the series so great in the first place.
Environment and Visuals
Notwithstanding the aforementioned frame rate and pop-in issues, Unity gives us an unparalleled look at Revolutionary France. The thousands of NPCs that appear on screen at any given time are not static placeholders – they seem alive in a way that Dead Rising 3 made massive zombie hordes appear so realistic. Each NPC in Unity is properly lit by the beautifully shifting light of the day and other sources of ambient lighting. They are also engaged in activities ranging from the mundane (baking bread or just relaxing) to the surprising (starting a riot, dancing, or even juggling balls on a stage, for example).
Paris itself is divided up into different districts, which seem to have their own identities and personalities. Some districts are pristine, with carefully manicured gardens, while others are distinctly industrial, and even downright filthy. When I read one of the developers of the game mentioned he and his teammates at Ubisoft were inspired in part by the film, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006), I was extremely excited, since filmmakers spared no expense in recreating each gnarly and disgusting detail that existed in that era, without modern sanitary standards or capabilities. Ubisoft seems to have paid careful attention to the details, giving players a rich taste of the entire palette of flavors that late 18th Century Paris had to offer.
Buildings feel more massive than ever, particularly famous landmarks like the Notre Dame cathedral. It is clear that developers at Ubisoft were meticulous when it came to building the City of Lights, complete with structural details that might easily be overlooked by players as they dash along the rooftops. I was most impressed with the way the dynamic weather and sunlight affected the stained-glass windows of the cathedrals. Viewing the gorgeously rendered stained-glass from both the exterior and interior demonstrates how much love and attention the artists put into this specific detail.
Speaking of interiors, Arno can enter about one quarter of all of the buildings in the game. These aren’t just plain rooms either – they are fully furnished, and contain occupants, collectibles, and side missions. There is also the vast network of catacombs beneath the city for Arno to explore. Unity’s open world is enormous, diverse, and feels alive.
Co-op Missions, Heists, and More
Prior Assassins Creed games pitted players against each other with a variety of competitive modes, but Ubisoft scrapped all of them in favor of purely cooperative modes for Unity. Fans of the previously-included competitive modes will be disappointed, but the co-op missions, which are playable with up to four players, are superbly designed. Not only are the missions varied (they aren’t simple, and require various steps to complete), but they are story-based. Each co-op mission is preceded by a cut scene, telling a side story not explored during the game’s main campaign. Expanding upon the timeless battle between Assassins and Templar with these co-op missions richly enhances players’ immersion into the time period.
Heist missions are much more straight-forward, and give players a chance to develop their own plan of attack. The objective is simply to enter a building, locate, and steal an artifact. However, the catch is that the more confrontations the players get into with enemy AI, the fewer the rewards the players will earn. Minimizing detection and skirmishes will result in the great return of in-game currency.
Although the campaign gives players a good look at the history behind the French Revolution, the co-op side missions truly add that extra layer of texture and detail that completes the experience.
Arno’s adventures don’t stop there either; there are murder mysteries to solve, Assassin side missions, café missions, and plenty of collectibles to track down.
Microtransactions and Companion App
Unity’s in-game economy includes three different types of currencies which are used for different aspects of Arno’s skills and gear. And although I had no pressing need to accelerate earning the three types of currency outside of normal gameplay methods, Ubisoft sought to include the ability to use real money to purchase in-game currency, as a form of microtransactions. In no way, shape, or form is real money required to complete the game 100% – every item and skill can be earned without purchasing anything with your hard-earned cash. Unlike some games (ironically, like Destiny, which does not include microtransactions) where the grind for in-game currency can get quite tedious and punishing, earning in-game currencies comes relatively quickly.
As an extracurricular activity, players can engage in Unity’s free Companion App (available on mobile devices as well as on Windows 8). The app is robust with puzzles to solve, heatmaps, database, and a mission simulator, among other features. Completing various puzzles and missions can unlock rewards in Unity, such as currency, gear, and costumes. And although players have the option of purchasing the “premium” version of the app for $1.99 (a few additional features are included with purchase), all unlockable items are obtainable with the free version.
There are games out there that are intentionally designed to psychologically trap gamers into spending money to make advances in the game, but Unity is not one of them.
Assassin’s Creed Unity is a grand attempt to restore the series to its roots with invigorating gameplay and graphics advancements. Although the story does have plot holes, it is compelling, as are the characters. The exciting co-op missions are absolutely worth playing, especially with a good group of players. And despite the distracting and disruptive nature of the game’s technical problems, Unity presents a gorgeous open world adventure that is worth diving into.
This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.