Assassin's Creed Unity fails to take advantage of its setting and is riddled with bugs, but it's still an enjoyable (if routine) action game
Available formats: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Unity is a kind of homecoming for Ubisoft’s historical action franchise. Instead of another round of high seas swashbuckling, we’re back stalking the streets of another urban sprawl, this time in revolutionary Paris. The return to a single setting may be considered something of a step backwards for fans of Black Flag‘s seamless island-hopping, but the city of Paris is truly a spectacular place, putting last year’s Caribbean ports of Havana and Nassau to shame.
The attention to detail has been consistently high throughout the series, but Unity’s Paris really feels like a living, breathing city. Mobs of angry citizens litter the streets, trudging round the dirty, muddy pathways with fallen comrades over their shoulders and splashing through the puddles as they go about their daily business. It’s not all crowds and protests, though, as you’ll also find impromptu weddings taking place in tiny church yards, men getting a quick shave in a back alley, and the usual rabble of ne’er-do-wells causing havoc among the locals.
^ You’ll find hundreds of people as you walk around on foot, but you’ll need to watch out for guards and patriots, the latter of which will come after you as soon as they spot you
The latter can be silenced quite easily, earning you crowd event points as you help bring peace back to the streets. Admittedly, we would have liked a bit more variety than the two options of simply ‘killing criminals’ and ‘tackling thieves’, but the more points you accumulate, the more treasures and money you earn, giving you a greater incentive to customise your weapon load-out, appearance and abilities.
The city feels so alive, in fact, that it can quite literally swallow you whole at times, sucking unlucky players (and their occasional AI companions) straight through the floor. At one point we had to reload a checkpoint at least five times before our companion didn’t glitch out of sight when we turned a corner, and there were numerous times when Arno became stuck on a bit of wall, rendering him immovable unless we fast-travelled to another location. Ubisoft has supposedly been working on several patches to help fix these problems in the weeks since launch, but we’re still encountering issues even now.
^ After accidentally leaping off the roof of the Bastille, we found ourselves stuck in the floor with no way to escape other than a quick restart
It’s rare to see a game of this calibre with such a brazen lack of quality assurance, but this has been an issue across each platform, with reports of bugs on both the PS4 and Xbox One as well as PC. Admittedly, we haven’t yet encountered any of the much discussed ‘inside-out skeleton faces’, but we did find a more than our fair share of possessed pompadours, which danced about on the back of their owners’ heads like an evening show at the Moulin Rouge.
The vast majority is still perfectly playable, but when a gaping invisible floor hole can strike at any moment, it can make the game quite frustrating at times, resulting in several restarts and lost mission time. You’ll also need a particularly powerful PC to make the most of its gorgeous vistas in Full HD on High quality settings, but even setting the quality to Low at 720p still manages to impress.
^ Paris is a beautiful city and the light constantly shifts from night to day and the weather from sunshine to rain
Arno himself is a far more lithe and athletic assassin than his predecessors, revealing the benefits of Ubisoft’s parkour motion-capture technology as soon as you start free-running over the wonderfully jumbled city rooftops. Fall farther than your usual comfort zone, for instance, and Arno will wheel his arms round as he tries to find his balance. Likewise, every now and again he’ll twist his body as he throws himself over a ledge or wall, using his centrifugal force to maintain his momentum. He’s more flexible, too, naturally reaching for ledges in all directions rather than just directly what’s straight in front of you, making it easy to change quickly change tack if one of the game’s many collectibles happens to catch your eye.
These collectibles take the form of treasure chests (some of whose locks you’ll need to pick, and some of which you can only open by accumulating Nomad points in Ubisoft’s Android and iOS companion app), additional single player missions, co-op missions, hidden artifacts and tokens, social houses for you to renovate and the fiendishly difficult Nostradamus riddles, which see you scouring the city for mysterious symbols with little more than a four-line rhyme to mark its location.
^ We’d already completed several side quests and opened dozens of chests at this point, but the map still looks as busy as ever
All this makes for a very busy map, and at first glance the sheer number of icons can feel overwhelming. Fully zoomed out and there’s barely any room to breathe for circular markers, but zoom in and you’ll discover exquisitely detailed 3D models of the entire surrounding area, giving you a much better idea of exactly where everything is and on which level your chosen target is hiding. It’s by far one of the best and visually informative maps we’ve seen in a game, and you can always choose to remove certain icons to help make it more manageable.
As before, each main story mission is structured around a key assassination, but you’re now afforded a greater degree of freedom in how you approach each one. This could mean enlisting the help of certain groups of locals to help fight your corner, unlocking alternative entry points and sneaking through the shadows (finally, there’s a dedicated silent crouch button) or simply going in guns, swords, rifles, spears or axes blazing.
^ During Assassination missions, various options are presented to you above the mini-map. To get a confessional kill, you’ll need to make your way to the confessional box unseen inside Notre Dame
With a much more varied arsenal, combat feels decidedly fresh despite sharing the same clunky attack and counter system as its predecessors. Your trusty sword is perhaps the most balanced weapon available, but spears and axes allow you to deal greater damage from a distance, while rifles allow you to snipe enemies from further still. You can only equip one at a time in addition to your pistol, though, destroying any hopes you might have had of being able to switch weapons on the fly, but we very much appreciate the extra nuance afforded by the new weapons.
One thing we don’t appreciate, though, is the loss of Captain Kenway’s trademark whistle, leaving Arno with precious few resources to help tempt foes near to any hiding spots. Thankfully Arno has his new Phantom Blade at his disposal, which lets you fire miniature crossbow arrows from afar to help avoid confrontation. Berserk blades make a return too, allowing you to turn your prey mad in order to send them on a rampage through the enemy camp. It’s a brilliant way to help take down several enemies at once without even leaving cover, but you still have to make sure you’re near enough to each target in order to get a clean hit.
^ In this co-op mission to save Napoleon, you and a fellow assassin must take out snipers along his carriage route before they can take aim
This brings a welcome sense of strategy to the single-player campaign, but sadly this seems to go completely out the window as soon as you join one of the co-op missions. The idea is to join forces with up to three other assassins online to take on specific tasks completely separate to the campaign, often featuring much larger groups of guards and thugs to help combat your larger assembly of hit men. However, our experience with these missions were very much ‘every assassin for himself’, with little to no co-operation whatsoever. We can imagine that playing with real friends would be better, but we don’t feel the co-op element of Assassin’s Creed Unity really adds much to the overall game.
Unity’s biggest crime, though, is that it completely fails to take advantage of its setting in order to benefit the game’s underlying mechanics. For all its luscious, revolutionary scenery and hordes of fuming NPCs, they only ever form a superficial backdrop to the main action, leaving the game feeling more like a last-gen Assassin’s Creed game rather than a bold new direction for the franchise. Side missions attempt to delve a bit more into the era’s history, but mechanically the game could take place more or less anywhere, which is pretty damning for a series that supposedly relies so heavily on historical context to fuel its appeal. It would have been great if you could incite the crowds to do your bidding, save key characters from a chop of the guillotine or even hijack an aristocrat’s carriage to make a quick getaway, but none of this ever materialises. Pockets of three or four citizens will sometimes come to your aid, but they’re no different from older ally groups in previous games.
^ The Helix missions are a big let-down. Instead of giving Arno meaningful missions to do in these alternate time zones, all you do is run around collecting data before the timer runs out
This sense of missed opportunity is also true of the Helix missions, which throw Arno into future versions of Paris to save other assassins. These sound great in theory, potentially adding a bit of much needed variety into the game’s story, but in reality they’re nothing more than brief time trial challenges which task you with collecting glittering prizes in almost completely empty sections of Paris before the simulation’s scanners attempt to erase you.
At its best, Assassin’s Creed Unity is a throwback to the glory days of Assassin’s Creed II, but those moments are all too fleeting and the game’s general lack of innovation and numerous bugs all add up to make Unity feel rather disappointing. It suggests Ubisoft doesn’t really know which direction to take the franchise going forward and its reliance on old tricks will no doubt disappoint those hoping for a truly next-gen Assassin’s Creed game. If you’ve been yearning for another adventure set on dry land since the end of Black Flag, then Unity definitely has its moments, but in terms of moving the series forward, this is one revolution that’s all mouth and no trousers.
|PC, Xbox One, PS4
|Windows 7 SP1, Windows 8/8.1 (64-bit versions only)
|Intel Core i5-2500K 3.3GHz or AMD FX-8350 4.0GHz or AMD Phenom II X4 940 3.0GHz
|Nvidia GeForce GTX 680 or AMD Radeon HD 7970 2GB VRAM
|Hard disk space
|Price including VAT