Unity was a game that faced a degree of challenges, the first title by Ubisoft that was current gen only it worked to push the envelope of technology facing several delays this did not stop the hype machine from gathering steam. There were several interviews between the press and developers talking about the amazing new technology (more on that later) and Ubisoft partnered with Microsoft to hold splashy launch events in the days leading up to the official release (see my story A Tale of Two Launch Events) and bundling the game with new Xbox One consoles though oddly much of the exclusive launch content was still linked to the PS4 release. They even partnered with Gillette releasing not one but three shaving gels that had exclusive content tied to it.
The marketing push had some positive effects but even at this early stage, when the title was being pushed back, stress started to show. Gameplay always seemed to focus on a single scene, the marketing events returned back to the same mission and even the launch event recycled this same portion of the game. Even the Gillette shaving cream felt botched, there were three distinct pieces of armour exclusive to people who bought the gel. Nowhere on the cans did it mention that you could only get the unlock code once per Uplay account. In effect, if you bought all three shaving gel cans, you had to create three different Uplay accounts to get the unlock codes before returning to your primary Uplay account to apply them. This is just sloppy design and Ubisoft never offered an official response to complaints on the forums regarding this mess up. There was even a virtual tour of Paris narrated by Andy Serkis buit was bizarrely region locked.
Out of the gate we have an uneasy tone with marketing hyping revolutionary graphics and technological advancements, a vast sweeping story and an amazingly accurate recreation of Revolutionary France (well one of the Revolutions anyhow). The problem being, someone was asleep in quality control. When the game released, yes it was stellar, but quickly console and PC gamers started experiencing incredible technical issues. This included texture and mesh deformations creating bizarrely horrifying monstrosities, frame rate drops and lag as well as general server issues creating difficulty for “Club” activities (the in game term for Co-Op game play).
When working properly the game is stunning, the crowd mechanics are amazing and the technical design is top notch. Unfortunately this took months to arrive at and unfortunately even the most beautiful of games are reliant on gameplay and once again we stumble. With Assassin’s Creed Unity many refinements were made to gameplay. Launching side by side with Assassin’s Creed Rogue (read my review here) which the game tied intimately in to (the closing scene of Rogue is the opening scene of Unity). Where Rogue was very much a continuation of Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag including sea chanties, naval battles and traveling around pre-revolutionary America and early Canadian settlements Unity was a return to earlier games. It shrugged off the elements that many Assassin’s Creed purists called “Fluff” like naval battles and trade missions (though many bemoaned the loss of these features) and focused on the core gameplay of the initial Assassin’s Creed.
Add to this the Initiates website, formerly an interesting Augmented Reality project including unique puzzles that unlocked lore and rewards turned into a glorified leader board that unlocked rewards for hitting certain tiers. Again, unfortunately, they just dumped that content because Initiates continues to not work. In logging in recently when I went back for my last push to complete the game I found all my Initiates progress was wiped. I own every Assassin’s Creed title (some of them across multiple platforms) and yet it only recognizes my most current title, Unity. The forums have lit up again, apparently in recent weeks there was another patch and this has hit multiple users. I don’t know if this is because of a push to prepare Initiates for the upcoming Syndicate title in the next few months or what has led to these problems but that they cannot maintain the web page is very disappointing and more than a bit frustrating.
One of the big gameplay elements of the series were the living and breathing worlds that you inhabited, I’ve already spoken to the technical prowess that was required to make these massive worlds and the impressive scale that the developers brought to the table but there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing”. The game while abandoning elements of previous titles introduced new elements. The Co-Op gameplay scattered about the world was a neat new touch, one that many had been waiting for. Unfortunately early on the servers were unstable with many people unable to complete missions or not getting recognition for doing so. This has since been fixed but left a bad taste in the mouth of many.
Few may know this but one of the first modern police detectives originated in this era and you get to meet him and become a detective. Playing much like detective missions from a Batman game this is a neat element and atop of this is stacked “Paris Stories” little stories touching on historical moments from this incredibly rich and vibrant time in history. You get to meet people like the Madame Tussaud and find out the true story behind the origin of her wax museum or dealing with a secret cult under the city and even get more time with the “charming” Marquis de Sade. These are the little historical touches that I've always enjoyed about the series.
Instead of the Animus fragments we now have hidden riddles where a knowledge of history or at least Parisian geography is required to unlock “Nostradamus prophecies” I gave up after a handful because frankly the reward just didn’t seem worth it and short of cheating going to the internet there’s no real easy way to figure these “riddles” out. What made the Animus puzzles rewarding in Assassin’s Creed II wasn’t unlocking yet another outfit with minimal stat boosts, it was unlocking the story of Adam and Eve and the First Civilization. Ubisoft need to return to rewarding players with interesting story not shiny baubles.
On top of this there are “memory fragments” where you are thrown to different period including war torn medieval times, an art deco “Golden Age” Paris, and occupied Paris during World War II. These juxtapositions are jarring as you are “collecting data” against a timed run where your score is compared against other people and their scores. In essence a neat speed run feature but setting it in these other periods with you as Arno running around in your Revolutionary garb just feels weird.
No discussion of the mechanics of Assassin’s Creed Unity would be complete without discussing the currencies of the game. All four of them, this is where the entire structure of this game moves from messy to distasteful. The first is Livres, these are earned through in game activities like upgrading your safe house or opening social clubs. Livres are used to purchase equipment and is the easiest to find. The second is Sync Points, as you complete objectives. You use these to unlock new moves and abilities and are a staple of many of this style of games. Next are Creed Points, these are earned by doing flashy moves like finishing moves on an opponent or air assassinations. These points are used to upgrade your equipment making your armour stronger or your sword sharper. So far so good, here’s were it gets gross, a pay to win element was introduced called “Helix points” these are purchased with real life money and let you “Hack” gear unlocking it without having to buy it or unlocking upgrades without having to earn the skill points. Yes, this is a shortcut, this is not hiding anything behind a pay wall which keeps it from being totally galling BUT there are packages of Helix Points upwards of $99.99 which gives you so many Helix points you can buy everything and still have some left over. This may tie in to cancelled DLC projects but the fact you can dump an extra hundred dollars on the game leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Finally, this brings me to the story, the Assassin’s Creed series has always been predicated on the conceit of this global conspiracy. In the first game we had the framing narrative of Desmond Miles, a bartender kidnapped and essentially tortured by the mysterious Abstergo corporation, I suspect they were not really quite sure where they wanted to take this story as originally they construct a story where he appears as a hapless innocent but they eventually grow him in to the son of a prominent assassin leader who ran away from home at a young age in order to lead a normal life. He is rescued and over the course of the next three games we get to know him and follow his travels through the Animus.
Meanwhile during AC II through its follow ups Brotherhood and Revelations we follow a single protagonist, the life of Ezio Auditore, we start at his birth and the last game ends with a satisfying conclusion to his story finding love and putting the mysteries of the Brotherhood behind him in order to relish some degree of peace in his elder years (which makes me feel super old as he’s not THAT much older than me when he retires). After Revelations we begin a series of one and done character dumps.
We have Connor/Ratonhnhaké:ton one of the most interesting characters a native American who was cast and acted by a native actor (good on Ubisoft for not dumping in a white actor) and much of his dialogue is spoken in Kanienkaha the native dialect of the Kanien'kehá:ka. This was a neat change from the typical protagonists of the previous games and the setting making him a true outsider during the American Revolution in which the game is set but he is stoic and at times rash. The character has little to none of the charm of Ezio much more reminiscent of Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad the protagonist of the first Assassin’s Creed game who only found softness and depth in later games during flashbacks and extended fiction.
After Assassin’s Creed III we lose Desmond entirely abandoning almost all connective tissue with the previous games. Some of his companions make cameos as background characters but in Liberation you are some random gamer playing the game from home with no connection to the Brotherhood when a “hacker” in the Brotherhood hacks your console and shows you the “deleted” scenes (basically the stuff that makes Templars look bad). This was released simultaneously with Assassin’s Creed III and is interesting because alongside releasing one of the few titles to include a Native American protagonist Ubisoft also released a title starring a female protagonist of mixed race. This was some great boundary pushing that suffers from a lack of connection to the existing world.
Unfortunately the next two characters Edward Kenway the father of Haytham seen in Assassin’s Creed III and Shay Patrick Cormac are both very unpleasant. Edward does have a redemption at the end that is truly touching and in the last act of the game my opinion of him turned around. Cormac though, he’s just difficult to like. There’s a whininess to his character who seems to act out of brash egotism instead of logic. It doesn’t help that characters Achillies who we earlier saw in Assassin’s Creed III lacks the wisdom he later showed. For more on my issues with these characters again see my review. Needless to say, I didn’t feel any long term investment in these characters and once they were gone I didn’t want to return to them.
The narrative conceit that drops us in the Animus for Black Flag and Rogue is even more tenuous. Now that Desmond is gone you are now an employee of the Abstergo Entertainment as a play tester. You walk around with a first person perspective hacking computers and picking stuff up from around the office. You get snippets of the back story of the aftermath of Assassin’s Creed III learning about what happened to Desmond’s body and some of the adventures of Shaun and Rebecca with them even making small cameos in Black Flag but they are mostly gone which is a shame because they added some amazing flavour to the game (though there interactions in Black Flag make for some great comedy). With Rogue (which released day and date with Unity) ending with the forced gunpoint conversion of your play tester from Black Flag to the Templar order we are left with basically nothing going in to Unity. We have no connection to the order, we have no knowledge of the bigger picture and this is where the meta-story falls apart.
In this entry you are simply a person at home playing on your Abstergo Entertainment console much like in Liberation and just like in Liberation a hacker once again hacks your system and uses you to do research for them. The flaws with this framing device are legion. First, I can tell you, if some person broke in to my game of Assassin’s Creed to tell me “deep dark revelations” I’d be more prone to say “how the hell did you hack my computer” not “hey let’s help”. Second, the leap of faith made by the Brotherhood to recruit random people off of the internet is stupid. I mean, you can’t trust half the people you interact with on Facebook when you’ve not met them in real life, how are you going to trust some random gamer?! Lastly, even though we get Shaun’s little touches to the historical database, which are always funny, we get none of the connective tissue to the previous meta-story. There are brief mentions in logs about the servants of Elder Race/First Civilization and Juno in particular. We get little snippets of the personal diaries of Templars at Abstergo Entertainment but none of the voice logs or other elements that made it interesting.
We flash forward to see a young adult version of Arno having been taken in by the Templar leader and his daughter. The Templar leader de La Serre does not try to indoctrinate Arno simply raise him and give him a good home showing that in many ways the Templars are more compassionate than many of their Assassin counterparts. Arno and Elisé de La Serre the Templar Grand Master are young lovers setting an interesting dynamic that follows through the rest of the game. During these opening scenes we get a witty, sharp and interesting character. He has the same kind of fun loving joie de vivre we saw in Ezio and after the dour as hell Connor, Edward and Shay this was a pleasant change. Unfortunately this is all too short lived.
Tragedy once again befalls the young Arno and he lists through the following years of his life chasing a girl, seeking vengeance and just basically being brash and not really learning much of anything. We get to meet some great characters like the Marquis de Sade (though they take vast liberties with his character and his philosophies playing in to the popular misunderstanding of his intent and life as a libertine), a young Napoleon, and even Robespierre. Robespierre is a bit interesting as Ubisoft is a French company and the French government got bent for the portrayal of Robespierre and The Terror (which was probably a little too on the nose and shows just how much the French like to cover up their blemishes).
There are some things I liked that others complained about, the average street person is speaking in French. This created a degree of immersion that was admirable, we had clippings from real newspapers of the age scattered around the city which was also interesting. Ubisoft used a neat “shorthand” to denote class. French accents are much like English accents, certain regions and dialects denote a class that permeated society. Many complained they didn’t use French actors but if Heavy Rain was any indication it would have pissed people off to no end (and a thick French accent can be very difficult for the untrained ear to understand let alone a guy in Des Moines playing on his Xbox One). Instead they used English actors, a rural Frenchman had a thug like Northerner accent, the street urchin had padding about Paris had a Cockney accent while the effete Aristocrat had a posh London accent. In one fell swoop they were able to use a sort of cultural short hand to denote class using language in a way that would have been impossible otherwise.
It isn’t until the very end Arno becomes interesting. In the closing scene of the main game he has found not just peace but also wisdom that makes him start to solidify in to an interesting character with a unique perspective. He sees the Templars and the Assassins for what they are, two sides of the same coin, and he transcends both of them. Unfortunately this is right when we toss him to the wind to never return. We have the Dead Kings DLC where you fight looters at Saint-Denis but that’s it. Nowhere near the level of interesting DLC that AC III or Black Flag had, but more than its contemporary Rogue had (no DLC at all).
This is the failing of the last several games in the Assassin’s Creed series, they have not built a narrative that feels worth pursuing. We have no commitment to these characters who we see only briefly and then walk away from and we have no compelling framing device to bring us back for more. If Ubisoft intend to turn this around with Syndicate I hope they are willing to invest some time in the new characters and build them in to something with some longevity.
In the end, is this game worth playing? Yes, as a fan of the series there was more of the gameplay I enjoyed and it was admittedly stunning. The gameplay is hitchy and weird in some places but no more so than previous versions and the visuals are absolutely stunning even but I would only recommend it now after all the patching is done and all the extras have been basically given away with the cavet it continues to have minor graphical glitching from time to time. The price of all the extraneous crap and the in game “pay to win” shortcuts with Helix Points left me feeling uneasy which has only been mitigated by time. Ubisoft have long been considered the “Good guys” compared to Activision and Electronic Arts but after the complaints of a bait and switch with Watch_Dogs, complaints about always on DRM with Uplay which itself has proven unstable often locking gamers out of their games, and the mess that was the launch of Unity title they have a lot of respect to earn back.
- Stunning visuals
- Consistent gameplay when compared to previous versions
- Impressive implementation of crowd based behaviours
- Intricate recreation of revolutionary Paris
- Co-op (when working) was a fun way to mix up the formula
- Another depressing and toss away protagonist
- Massive technical issues that plagued the game for months after release
- Unstable secondary systems
- Disregard for long term players undermining the work they put in with sites like Initiates and the
- Pay to win features in the form of “Helix Points” that were not even entirely usable and felt like they
cheapened the experience
- Unstable co-op experience due to server issues tied to Uplay and Initiates