Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a very complicated game. That’s because Ubisoft made it specifically for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and did their utmost to take advantage of the new consoles’ powerful hardware by setting the game in Paris at the height of the French Revolution, populated by a huge number of restless NPCs and period-accurate buildings, and giving players so much to do that they could spent dozens of hours trying to see everything and still not succeed. An admirable goal, then.
In their pursuit of that lofty ambition, Ubisoft built Unity on a brand-new engine and packed in more detail than seen in an AC game before; they peppered the landscape with things to do, collect, investigate and climb and basically worked themselves to the bone to create a believable world that appeared to live and breathe independent of the player’s actions, all while integrating it into existing Assassin’s Creed lore and keeping alive the notion of exploring a long-dead person’s memories through some technological form of DNA manipulation. And they almost, almost, pulled it off.
Unfortunately, the bits they missed were ensuring it was optimised properly at launch; that it ran without crashing; that the protagonist didn’t get caught on scenery to the point where a restart was required and that the crowd dynamics didn’t lead to strange things happening like hats going missing and people seeming to pop out above a sea of heads for no apparent reason.
A bit buggy
All of these bugs, and more, were present in the game when it launched in mid-November, and Ubisoft has been scrambling to fix them all ever since. So far they’ve issued three patches that have addressed many of the issues, but at the time of writing it’s apparent there are still more to sort out going on my 20-odd hours with the post-patch-three game, evidenced by at least three crashes-to-the-dashboard and some decidedly odd visual glitches.
My favourite was undoubtedly the dragged corpse that continued its sideways trajectory after its dragger died on my hidden blades, and an NPC that magically traversed empty space only to end up leaning casually against a wooden post as if it was the most natural thing in the world. My least favourite were the very Windows-esque crashes and occasionally-unresponsive controls that got me killed or shot at inopportune moments, like in the middle of a difficult side mission.
While that may sound discouraging, it shouldn’t, because even though bugs and crashes still remain, they don’t make the game unplayable. I was able to play through all 12 memory sequences, complete all of the side-quests I started (read: many many) and generally tear it up in late 18th-century Paris for hours without feeling like a game-ending crash was mere seconds away. As it is, the game can be finished and enjoyed, and is therefore not as broken as some internet comments would have you believe.
The crashes and glitches that I did experience definitely marred my enjoyment, though, and had I actually paid R900 of my own money for the privilege of essentially beta-testing the game for Ubisoft, I’d be incredibly pissed off.
This type of thing is not acceptable, and as a gamer I would have far preferred Ubisoft delay the game for an additional month, because whatever that would have cost them would surely not be worse than the damage they have done to their reputation – and to loyal Assassin’s Creed fans – with the premature release.
But is it any good?
So, with all of that drama behind us, what about the actual game? Is it any good?
When everything comes together, Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a solid – if not great – addition to the series. Running around French Revolution-era Paris fighting guards, criminals and police with the by-now-familiar sword-and-gun combat and climbing and leaping off iconic landmarks rendered in astounding detail feels appropriately Assassins’ Creed-esque, and the new setting is undeniably beautiful. The running-climbing-parkouring system of previous games is alive and well, too, made even smoother by a handful of new parkour moves courtesy of Ubisoft’s new Chief Parkour Officer.
That is, when it works. I found the game’s controls to be maddeningly inconsistent, causing me to jump to places I didn’t want to go, climb obstacles I wasn’t intending to climb and, most annoyingly, prevent me from ascending up building exteriors when it appeared I could totally jump the gap to the next handhold or enter windows even though I was pressing the button I was told to.
These may not sound too bad, but it got pretty aggravating, especially in the heat of the moment when precise action was needed to escape pursuers, or to duck the line of sight of someone with a gun. On several occasions I tried to get away from pursuers only to run up a wall or perch nonchalantly on a piece of scenery, which of course didn’t end well for me time and time again.
I felt like I was fighting the controls almost every step of the way, and 25 hours of that really tried my patience. I blame the lack of a dedicated run button, and instead being forced to use the right trigger as the single input for climb things/jump/run which I think confused the game more often than not. As opposed to, you know, it being my fault for my inability to master the fiddly controls.
The story told this time around is somewhat intriguing, but a bit too politicised for my liking. I was more interested in main character Arno’s story of love and redemption as it played out over the backdrop of the Assassins/Templars conflict during the French Revolution than I was in their purported role in its events, or in the over-arching narrative that had you playing as an Assassin initiate delving into Arno’s memories for the purposes of finding where a new Sage is buried before Abstergo does.
Yes, this time you’re not playing as an Abstergo employee, and there is no sub-game that has you running around their offices as in the previous two games. While I understand why this was done – to keep players immersed in the Assassins’ Creed bits – I kind of missed the break.
The new bits
The core game is pretty typical, then, but Ubisoft didn’t stop there: they added a whole bunch of new things to see and do in Unity, too.
Like rifts, collect-the-data sequences set in unstable code where you must grab data in order to reveal the location of other operatives who have become stuck. Honestly, though, I didn’t find Rifts to be particularly compelling and only finished them for the gamerscore. It’s here where Arno “visits” other time periods, like WWI-era Paris.
The most welcome addition are the new assassination missions that have multiple solutions. Arno can go straight for the target, or he can complete sub-objectives like securing a distraction to make the final kill just that much easier. I like that these missions seemed almost Hitman-esque in the options they present the player.
Then there’s a new business mini-game where Arno must unlock various cafes around Paris in order to make the cash needed to upgrade his weapons and outfits. This was quite cool, actually – I liked that I earned more every 20 minutes by having more cafes unlocked, and each cafe had its own set of sub-missions, some of which increased earnings once complete.
And yes, you read that right – upgrading your Assassin this time around takes cold, hard cash as opposed to animal skins as in Black Flag and Rogue. The best stuff’s really expensive, too, requiring more than a bit of patience to amass the necessary coin to get new swords/clothes/guns. It’s not a bad addition, but it slows the pace of progression right down which some players may not appreciate.
And then there’s Arno himself, who can’t pull off any of the staple Assassins’ Creed moves right away – these must be unlocked by earning “Sync points”, which are awarded for finishing single-player missions and taking part in co-operative missions with friends. I discovered that there aren’t actually enough Sync Points to unlocked all of Arno’s abilities through single-player missions alone, meaning co-op missions simply have to be undertaken at some point.
Fortunately you can try to solo co-op missions, they’re just incredibly hard to do on your own because all progress resets when you die as there are no checkpoints. Doing the co-op missions with friends or strangers works very well, allowing up to four players to take on specific missions, with achievements/trophies and rewards specific to co-operative play. You can’t enlist the help of your friends during single-player missions, though, but you can run around Paris causing havoc with them, which is fun for a while.
Providing you don’t get disconnected, of course. While post-patch-three ACU is much more stable than it was at launch, I still experienced the odd disconnection as well as a few entertaining and sometimes annoying bugs during co-op missions, like targets not being at the designated area, hovering pedestrians and kill animations that didn’t quite line up.
No AC game would be complete without collectibles, and Unity has a whole bunch, but with a rather unwelcome twist. There are quite a few cockades (rosettes, folded ribbon thingies) to collect in Paris, which are harmless enough as they don’t move around, as well as hundreds of chests to open. The chests, though, are divided into ones that you can simply open, to locked ones that require a certain level of lockpicking skill to open, to ones that only open if you’ve reached a certain level in the Initiates sub-game, to ones that only open if you’ve played quite a lot of the companion app’s “Nomad” missions.
Locked chests I can understand, but forcing players to play the mobile app or only giving access to some chests once a certain Initiates level is achieved means a lot of grinding is needed for players to see everything. Fortunately the companion app is as polished an effort as I’ve seen from any developer, playing somewhat like Kenway’s Fleet from Black Flag with missions to carry out and automated results, plus it functions as a full-on 3D map of Paris that updates as you play so it’s not all bad.
It’s just disappointing that Ubisoft has placed such stringent conditions on unlocking everything, which I am pretty sure will alienate at least a portion of the AC playerbase. I know I felt a little resentful at feeling like I had to play the mobile game, especially as there’s a tempting achievement for 40 gamerscore that can only be unlocked that way (and I’m a sucker for such things).
So no, Assassin’s Creed: Unity isn’t a bad game, and it’s not utterly crippled with bugs although there are still quite a few of those. It still offers a lot of what makes Assassin’s Creed games so compelling, just minus the traditional Abstergo/Animus breaks that split previous games into separate but enjoyable sections, and marred by controls that can be incredibly aggravating when precise responses are required, and instability.
Ubisoft’s attempts to “enhance” the gameplay with companion apps and restricted unlockables so that players are a little forced to go out of their way to hit that elusive “100% completion” achievement/trophy are not quite as welcome as the rest of it, though.
Does it all come together in the end to give fans something worth playing? Without a doubt. Is it the best Assassin’s Creed game ever and a proper next-gen showcase as Ubisoft had hoped? Not even after its third patch. Maybe next year, Ubi.
Assassin’s Creed: Unity is out now for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. It was reviewed on Xbox One, and the recommended retail price is R899 for console and R599 for PC.