Since Jason Schreier shared the first shots of the Assassin's Creed Unity with the world, fans have been waiting with bated breath. The wait is finally over and the game is upon us, and it was worth it.
Unity is a game full of firsts, and in so becoming feels a bit less like a continuation of a beloved series and more like a reboot. A bold proclamation that the series is headed in a new direction.
Ubisoft's latest Assassin's Creed is the first designed from the ground up for current-gen consoles, and does it ever show. Unity's rendition of Paris is absolutely breathtaking. Every brick of every building, every tile on every roof, every nook and cranny is so intricately detailed, walking through the city streets is stunning. Arno and Élise's models are the best looking I've ever seen in any game, period.
Ubisoft has dramatically increased draw distance in Unity as well, meaning the series' famous synchronization points are all the more impressive. Paris stretches as far as the eye can see, and every spot within it is reachable. In fact, in my play through for this review, I never once ran into an invisible boundary of any kind, which is a testament to just how large of a world Ubisoft Montreal has crafted.
Add to all this the fact that there are sometimes literally thousands of NPCs on screen at any given moment and Assassin's Creed Unity will leave you in complete awe.
Unity follows the story of a young boy named Arno Victor Dorian who is orphaned when his father is killed. Arno is adopted by François De La Serre and raised in the lap of luxury. When De La Serre is killed, Arno is brought into the brotherhood of assassins and seeks revenge for his adoptive father's murder.
The events of Arno's life run concurrent to those of The French Revolution. Arno meets notable historical figures from the time period, including a young Napoleon Bonaparte and King Louis XVI. Late 1700's France is a perfect backdrop for the series' brand of—to borrow a term from Kirk Hamilton's excellent Black Flag review—historical tourism.
The story of Arno The Assassin and Élise The Templar is an interesting one as well. I found myself wanting to ditch the side quests and go straight for the main story missions. I wanted to learn more about these two and what the outcome of Arno's quest would be.
On the current-day side of things, Abstergo Entertainment—the company you as the player infiltrate in Black Flag—has released Helix, a gaming system that allows players to live through history as though it were a game. It's based on the animus technology introduced in previous games and shows just how much control The Templar Order has been able to gain with Desmond out of the picture.
While Unity doesn't address the current-day world as much as I would like, it does set up an interesting narrative for future entries in the series. Though the game's story wraps up rather inconclusively, Ubisoft Montreal has done enough to leave me wanting to know more. It's the gaming equivalent of a page-turner, you'll have a hard time putting it down.
You know, for all the guff Ubisoft caught for not allowing players to create female assassin's in Unity, they sure did make one of the best female characters I've seen in games in Élise. Élise is a badass in every way imaginable. Without her, there's no way Arno would succeed in his quest. In fact, the reason I love her can be summed up in a single quote, delivered in the game to Arno:
Have you ever known me to need saving? Have you ever had cause to think that I would accept it if it were offered? My fate is my own. My choice is my own.
I sincerely hope Élise's story gets fleshed out in a future DLC pack or expansion. She'd be a great candidate for a standalone game. Arno himself develops quite a bit as he pursues his destiny as an assassin. In the beginning of the story, Arno isn't quite likable. His behavior is that of a spoiled child, going after what he wants and breaking rules along the way, complaining about chores, standard fare. Toward the end of his story, however, he shows a depth of character that I didn't expect out of the little jerk I met at the game's beginning.
When all is said and done, Arno is the best lead character the series has seen since Ezio, and that's saying quite a bit. Edward Kenway wasn't really that bad, after all.
Make no mistake, this game is harder than any other in the franchise. Gone are the days of being able to stand your ground wipe out hordes of enemies. No matter how good you are, you'll run, and you'll hide. Every enemy is carrying a piece, and guess what? You're not bulletproof.
The fact that combat is so much less forgiving is a fantastic addition that injects some much needed strategy into Unity's combat. You'll end up using every trick in your arsenal to minimize the number of bad guys you'll be taking on.
If I had to make one complaint about Unity's difficulty it'd be that enemies in pursuit are stupid. Like, rock stupid. Need to escape? Pop a smoke bomb and hide in a hiding spot. Even if that hiding spot is five feet from where you were standing when the bomb went off. Don't worry, they won't think to check.
That minor complaint aside, Ubisoft has done very well to tweak the balance of Assassin's Creed's combat system. If they can make enemies just a bit smarter when they're looking for you, future entries in the series will seriously benefit.
Remember this trailer? Now that Unity is out we know how this time traveling component works and it's quite clever. Arno is dumped into other time periods as a result of Abstergo going after your activity in Helix. To save you from detection, your newfound allies create a portal to a broken instance, dumping you into a broken version of a different time period.
It's a cool way to experiment with other time periods like World War era and The Middle Ages. Once you complete a rift for the first time, a number of missions that take place in each rift will pop up. Each of these missions have you hopping around the rift collecting data in order to rescue a lost comrade. The missions don't add much to the story, but they're a great, fun diversion.
To say there's a lot to do in Unity would be a massive understatement. In total, it took me somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 hours to beat the game. This yielded 37 percent completion. If you look above you can see my map as it stands at 41 percent completion.
There's still... well, a lot to do. Between Paris stories, building renovations and the missions that accompany them, the campaign itself and various other side activities (not to mention the inevitable DLC) Unity will keep you busy for a while.
Co-op is Unity's defining feature. It's the feature touted by the developer, referenced right at the start of the game, and the star of the game's box art. So how does it work? Really well.
Friends can drop in and out of co-op with you, though they can't follow you on story missions. Running around and exploring Paris together with a few friends is great fun, but where the feature truly shines is in the co-op missions.
Without a doubt, those new missions are the best addition to the series since Revolution's bomb-making. I've run a few of them with a group and it's amazing what strategic opportunities having a few more player-controlled assassins afford.
New in Unity are special skills as well. They're clearly designed for cooperative play, with skills to replenish ammo for your team, share your eagle vision or even heal one another. In one mission I played, I acted as a diversion, picking a fight with the guards directly, while one of my less experienced friends gained entry to a building to search for some documents. It's little things like this that completely change the way you think about missions, and it's for the better.
Having three friends to strategize and play with makes Unity feel like a whole new franchise, as opposed to another entry in an annualized one. It's something every new Assassin's Creed should include and expand upon. Hopefully next year we'll be talking about how fun it is to go through the whole story with a group of friends.
Unity's new climbing controls are probably the biggest change in series history. You now have a dedicated climb down button, making descents from large structures easier. For longstanding players of the series, however, it can definitely take some getting used to.
The new control system just doesn't feel as tightly implemented as those of previous franchise entries. In previous games you could almost indiscriminately hold two buttons to climb to the top of anything or traverse rooftops with haste, in Unity, however, your moves have to be much more deliberate, which strips the movement of some of its effortlessness.
Once you get the hang of the new controls, you'll be able to move with a good amount of fluidity, but it's a bit jarring.
Remember the original Assassin's Creed? Remember that ah-ha moment when you found out there was a guy in the current day strapped into a machine living all this stuff out? Remember how crazy that was?
It'll be seven years tomorrow (Gah, where is my life going?) since the first Assassin's Creed launched on Xbox 360. For the vast majority of those games we lived as Desmond Miles, but we all know what became of him.
Unity repeats that same ah-ha moment by revealing that you, the player, are the outside agent helping the assassins comb through history to one-up The Templar Order. It's an insanely cool idea that had me waiting anxiously for what would come next. A tie in with the companion app? Some other means of interacting with me, making me part of the game?
Sadly, those expectations never came to fruition. The fact that they weren't felt like a bit of a blow. One of the best parts of the Assassin's Creed series has been the concurrent historical and current-day stories the games tell. Sadly, that's largely missing here. Hopefully next year's entry will focus on telling both.
For everything Unity gets right, its frame rate is so wrong. I had the opportunity to play both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions of the game, and on both the frame rate definitely was not locked to 30 frames per second.
Frame rate drops seemed to happen at the strangest moments. The worst instances occurred indoors while climbing walls, or jumping around inside. You'd expect something like this when there are thousands of NPCs in a crowd, but not really in scenarios like this.
I'm hoping Ubisoft will issue a patch to address the frame rate issues, but they don't happen frequently enough to deeply impact your gameplay. For those looking for the best console experience currently available, dropouts did seem to happen less on Xbox One, but that could all change if Ubisoft issues a patch.
Assassin's Creed Unity is a big, gorgeous, engaging game. It's one you should play, regardless of your platform of choice. The French Revolution is the perfect backdrop for the series, and Unity plays host to some of the best written characters the series has ever seen.
While some elements were stripped away, for better or worse, the end product is absolutely fantastic. As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Unity feels like a reboot less than it does a sequel, and it does so in the best possible way. I can't wait to see what Ubisoft brings to the fans next year.
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