#488: Assassin’s Creed Unity
The venerable stealth series shows what suffering from success looks like.
Initial release: November 11, 2014
Platforms: PC, Playstation 4, XBox One
Developer: Ubisoft Entertainment
The Assassin’s Creed series has always been a bit jank; open-world games with a lot of things going on often are. The first game was an experiment, and it showed; Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is undeniably one of the series’ smoothest experiences and even that isn’t perfect. But when you combine the understandable difficulties in making open-world games with a release schedule that has churned out a whopping twelve mainline games in just fifteen years, it’s easy to see how Ubisoft’s dev teams were unable to keep up with the pace. Assassin’s Creed Rogue is borderline filler, being an extremely short game with mostly reused assets; the next game in the series, Assassin’s Creed Unity, was a hot mess on release and even though the most serious bugs have been patched, there’s an overall sense that this game not only could have used a little more time in the oven, but might have been better off not being made at all.
Too harsh? Lemme start from the top.
Assassin’s Creed Unity builds off the ending of Rogue; in Rogue, the protagonist Shay Cormac murders a high-ranking Assassin at Versailles, in France, telling him that since the American Revolution (aided by the revived Colonial Assassin Brotherhood) was such a roaring success, maybe the Templars will start a revolution of their own. Unity reveals that the murdered man was the father of a young boy named Arno Dorian, who is then taken in by a family that his father knew. Years later, he’s grown up alongside the family’s daughter Elise; when Elise’s father is murdered, Arno winds up in prison, eventually being pulled into the secret underworld of Paris, where he learns some disturbing truths: that two groups, the Templars and Assassins, have been at each other’s throats for centuries, that the Parisian branches of these shadowy outfits reached a truce a couple decades ago, and that Arno’s adoptive father was the Templar Grand Master who engineered that truce, but was brought down by internal strife within the Templars. All this is happening in the midst of a violent revolution being led by a radical faction of Templars (which includes Robespierre, apparently) hoping to scare the common folk back into the Natural Order of monarchies and class division.
While I was playing the game I really felt like I was playing a throwback. After three games where you get to tool around in a boat and do monkey business in the woods, Unity locks you almost entirely to Paris, much in the way that Brotherhood or Revelations were confined to a single city. Indeed, Unity lacks a lot of the little features of its predecessors; there’s no notoriety or bounty system, the AI is anemic (the game claims guards will remember you if you cause trouble near them and run away, but that doesn’t seem to be true) and doesn’t even check hiding spaces anymore. Conversely, the stealth, the one biggest thing that this franchise is about, is a complete mess, just some of the most dire, poorly designed nonsense, with oftentimes clairvoyant AI who make it impossible to even get over their heads unseen. There are social clubs that you can buy around town, but that’s the extent of how much real estate moguling the game lets you do. The freerunning is back to being the finicky mess it was in Ezio’s games; a lot of hash was made about the freerunning being, officially, parkour, and it does have a lot of nice animations, but nice animations do not a smooth freerunning experience make. Even the combat has been stripped down; it’s essentially the AC2 or Brotherhood combat with a counter system. And even though Unity’s worst bugs are gone, there’s still an overall sense of jank that’s startling in comparison to previous games. All in all, compared to even Rogue playing Unity is a bit of a shock.
So is there anything to actually do in this game? Sure. There’s sidequests. Lots and lots and lots of sidequests. Too many, in fact.
These sidequests are largely oriented around fleshing out the world of Unity, and to some extent, some of them do do that. There’s a few fun ones — the murder mysteries are easily the best, requiring some decent deductive skills to collar the killer — but in general there’s an overall sense of half-assedness in the mission design. One mission had me killing three guys in three different places. They’re surrounded by guards, and not easily assailable. I was able to stealth two of them, but the third one is locked up tight, and every attempt to kill him resulted in me being overwhelmed by enemies resulted in failure, because with the broken stealth system and some busted level design there was simply no way to get to him unseen, and I would be quickly overwhelmed by his guards. (I so rarely used smoke bombs up until this game, in which it was often the only thing that made combat with more than like two enemies not a clusterfuck. And even then it still didn’t really break line of sight like previous games.)
There’s also “companion missions.” When I first encountered one, I thought it was bugged, for as soon as I took the mission, I was given a target, no story, no background, just go kill this guy. I looked into it and companion quests were originally tied into a phone app, and all the story stuff was on the app. The original idea was that by doing these missions you could unlock small rewards. But the app not only is delisted (which is understandable given that the game is eight years old now) it wasn’t even available for six months before they delisted it. It really drives home the absurdity of the then-popular trend of tying in-game stuff to external apps. If you can’t even keep your stupid app going for a year why even bother?
It’s also hard to really overstate my disappointment with how the story and setting were handled. Contrary to the historical record, Revolutionary Paris is in a state of near-anarchy, with huge throngs of people crowding the streets daily for demonstrations, but the actual Revolution is little more than a background element. Robespierre and a few other key figures of the Revolution get little more than cameos. The whole thing is essentially a background for an awkward love story between two characters (Arno and Elise) who aren’t terribly invested in the goals and beliefs of their respective factions and are never given a chance to really explore what their backgrounds as the child of an Assassin raised by Templars and the daughter raised to join the family business, actually means for them. The world of Assassin’s Creed is often morally grey, and the game acknowledges it yet does nothing with it, or the overall theme of the revolution — to say nothing of the offensive caricature of the revolution as a plot to scare the peons back into embracing monarchy, treating the revolutionaries as a bunch of bloodthirsty quasi-fascists and the Terror itself as a revolutionary-led mass murder without popular support. Given that Ubisoft is headquartered in France this is especially egregious — but then again, this kind of slandering the character of the revolution has been a favorite pastime of conservatives across the Western world for two centuries, and given what Ubisoft’s leadership has historically been like it makes a twisted kind of sense.
If there’s an upside to this game, it’s that the modern-day stuff is not just almost completely minimal, it’s borderline non-existent. You’re still just a nameless cipher, in this case playing one of Abstergo’s VR games before the Assassins hack into it and recruit you, but even the interruptions still take place within damaged, incomplete memories from different points in Paris’ history, from World War II (really fun!) to the Belle Epoque a severely misdated (if not outright fictional) medieval battle around the Bastille, forcing you to run from one end to the other to escape Abstergo’s server sweeps.
In the end I don’t really know what to make of this game. I want to like it, but there’s just so much to dislike. It’s a lot of things, but revolutionary it is not.