Urban Dictionary defines the phrase ‘hot mess’ as being “when one’s thoughts or appearance are in a state of disarray but they maintain an undeniable attractiveness or beauty”. This is such an apt description of Assassin’s Creed Unity that I hardly feel the need to continue, but I love a good debate and stuff.
Prior to playing the game I had read several reviews and several more impressions all of which bemoaned Unity’s atrocious frame rate and its many bugs and glitches, both visual and otherwise. I thought I was prepared. I thought my expectations were set safely in the cold, wet mud, nestled just under a filthy French flag. To quote our favourite blind demon-hunter, I was not prepared. Very little about this game feels intuitive or polished. The opening hour of Unity astounded me for all the wrong reasons. To see such a highly anticipated title released in this way had me writhing in my seat. NPCs walk on the spot, standing halfway up lamp posts or on top of wagons, get too close and their entire wardrobe will change. The amount of texture pop-in when running through a crowd will make you wince. And of course the frame rate is quite abhorrent, often dipping below 20fps.
It came with a great shock then, when during my third or fourth hour of playing I suddenly realised I was having fun. Surely not! But it’s true, loathe as I am to say it, there is fun to be had with Unity. The main assassination missions allow a lot more freedom than past titles. You get a general location of the target, and a series of side objectives that will make the actual attempt a little easier. Things like rescuing some local thieves so they’ll fight with you when the time comes, or stealing a key that will allow access through some secret door. It’s fairly straightforward but it does a great job at concealing the linearity that makes up the majority of Assassin’s Creed gameplay.
Paris is undeniably beautiful. Despite the many technical issues, you can really tell that this is the first Assassin’s Creed game not developed on nine-year-old hardware. The city of light is incredibly detailed and laid out far more organically than any other city in the franchise. The 1:1 scale of the buildings is truly impressive, climbing to the top of Notre Dame and looking down at the streets below was a ‘wow’ moment I haven’t had since Assassin’s Creed 2. Indeed, it feels like Ubisoft have tried (and failed) to recapture the magic that was Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brotherhood. The main character, Arno, is very similar to our favourite Italian rascal, Ezio. They’re both lothario types, brash, charming and sarcastic. They even look alike. Sure this game takes place a few hundred years later and is set in France instead of Italy, but it definitely feels like retread ground. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if Arno and his story were anywhere near as engaging as Ezio’s, but they just aren’t.
The clichés come thick and fast, but there’s something else at work here making the story so bewildering and dull. Characters seem to be in constant flux, as if the script was rewritten several times during development. Take, for example, the fiery, red-haired Elise, who starts off as a woman who can clearly look after herself; travelling to Paris on her own to hunt down those who have wronged her. During a later mission however, she is reduced to the damsel who waits in safety while the big brave Arno fights her battles for her. I was so confused when this happened. Why is she suddenly so easily cowed? Wasn’t this her vendetta, her quest? She goes from Lara Croft to Princess Peach in the blink of an eye. While she is one of the more dramatic cases, Elise is far from being the only character who turns on a die like this. Part of the problem here is the lack of screen time and dialogue given to most of the supposedly important characters. Absolute mayhem will break loose, but in the next cutscene they don’t even address what happened, they’re too busy rushing you out the door to go meet up with Napoleon Bronaparte. It’s not only poorly written, it’s straight-up lazy storytelling.
Unity’s plot is also missing a lot of what has made previous Assassin’s Creed games so intriguing. The battle between Assassins and Templars is completely meaningless here, you could replace them with any other two opposing factions and the story would remain unchanged. Similarly I felt nothing for Arno. Ezio and Altair felt like they had a purpose, a reason to kill. Arno, and all the more recent protagonists of the franchise, just seem empty in comparison. The player experiences revolutionary France through Arno, and yet Arno never really makes sense within the Assassin order. His motivations don’t hold up and his role is never clear. Sure his father was killed by Templars, but that doesn’t mean he should be given such authority and power so soon.
The Café Theatre is the equivalent of the Villa from AC2, you spend money to renovate it, there’s a training area, trophy room etc. But instead of a family estate in disrepair that I had to work hard to restore to its former glory, The Café Theatre is just… a café that isn’t popular anymore. Moreover, the woman who runs it is happy for Arno, a new recruit, to just waltz in and take over. Arno didn’t inherit it; he didn’t scout it out for its potential as an Assassin base, it’s just there. Which is exactly what can be said about the revolution. Never before has the historical setting of an Assassin’s Creed game felt so criminally underused. One of the most turbulent periods of French history is reduced to a backdrop. Arno and the assassins deal with their clichéd betrayals and pointless Templar truces while their city tears itself apart. Nonsensical.
Unfortunately, the frustrations don’t end there. I managed (somehow) to come to terms with the meandering story and horrible frame rate. The ‘revamped’ combat remains irritating throughout the entire game. Picture the combat from the Arkham Series, but remove the fluid motion, the clear enemy indicators and add what can only be described as lag. Yes, the combat in Unity feels as if you’re lagging. In single player. You can parry attacks, but only when the enemy’s health bar flashes yellow. These health bars are tiny and sometimes don’t even appear. Even when you can clearly see it it’s a hard manoeuvre to pull off properly. Like in Black Flag, enemies like shoot you, unlike Black Flag, the visual indicator of an enemy about to shoot you is very hard to see. Not only this, but they’re startlingly accurate, can shoot often and each shot does a huge amount of damage. Add in a bunch of dudes swinging their swords at you in less than 20fps, and you’ll die in seconds. In addition to the combat, the lauded rework of stealth can be summed up in one change: they’ve added a crouch button. Really mixing things up there Ubisoft. At least they didn’t charge us for it. The
co-op missions are occasionally fun, even if it is the same tried and true Assassin’s Creed gameplay with three extra hoods. Regardless, co-op has all the same infuriating problems as the singleplayer. There is potential here, but it is not realised in Unity.
There’s more: the devilish microtransactions, the treasure chests that require you to download companion apps and log into Uplay, the regional English accents that destroy any hope of immersion (I actually used the French dub with subtitles), the uninspired ability system that requires you to spend points to unlock staple moves like blending on benches and double assassinations (no joke). Somehow, somehow, I still managed to have fun with this game. If you’re a diehard fan of the series and haven’t taken the plunge just yet, go ahead – you’ll no doubt find plenty to enjoy in Unity. If you’ve found that your love of hidden blades and leaps of faith has waned of late, and you’d rather an Assassin’s Creed game with polished with intuitive game design, an engaging story and innovative gameplay, then hold onto your money. Join the revolution.