Assassin’s Creed Unity does not offer the same sorts of action as its immediate predecessors. That doesn’t make it an uninteresting game, but it means that the game might be intended for a different audience. Unity puts enough flavor into the open world to satisfy those who have the time to go looking for it. The interesting progression of the game’s storyline and strong voice-acting make Unity an attractive package, but whether it still exhibits some of the series’ stubborn flaws will be revealed below.
We reviewed Assassin’s Creed Unity on the PC and Xbox One (I had the Xbox One copy; GN’s Steve has the PC copy). It is also available on the Playstation 4. We do not cover any cooperative gameplay in this review and will revisit it in the future. In this review and gameplay analysis of Assassin's Creed Unity, we're looking closely at combat mechanics, player progression, and a slowing down of the series' action.
Assassin's Creed Unity Gameplay Impressions & Hands-On
What Is Assassin’s Creed Unity?
Assassin’s Creed Unity is the seventh game in the main Assassin’s Creed series. Set during the French Revolution, players explore the Parisian streets as assassin Arno Dorian; Arno witnessed the murder of his father and the father of his love interest, and as such, we’re on a mission for vengeance.
Multiplayer departs the series in place of a set of co-operative missions. The other main socially-integrated feature is “Clubs,” a group a player starts or joins in order to gain a separate set of rewards.
One of Ubisoft’s main selling points for ACU was the number of simultaneous NPCs on screen and their level of realism (contrasting bot-like figures). I was certainly impressed by the dozens, and sometimes 100+ people who crowded town squares; that may even be a modest number. Even when Arno enters any building, there are people inside having conversations and workers toiling away at their benches. Very few games can offer this level of immersion. That said, the level of immersion is not the only factor when defining a player’s experience. I’ll discuss this more later.
Environments are fleshed-out, too. Buildings vary in their structure and architectural features, and inside every nobility estate, a variety in room decorations and colors keeps things diverse. Running along rooftops produces some mellifluous click-clacks and fluid animations, changing footing according to the shape and steepness of each climb. There isn’t nearly as much natural scenery in Unity as in Black Flag, but for an equally-inspiring moment, climb atop a cathedral and marvel at the endless Parisian landscape.
Assassin’s Creed Unity’s continues the templars vs. assassins storyline in the context of the French Revolution. The game begins with Arno standing over his father’s dead body, identifying a unique seal that he’ll remember when tracking down his father’s killer 13 years later. Before he begins, he witnesses the murder of his childhood friend’s father, de LaSerre, a templar, also left with the seal. Accused and put in prison, Arno meets the man who will present him to the Brotherhood of Assassins. The rest of the game involves tracking down the killer.
Arno is a return to the smooth, charismatic assassin we saw earlier in the series with Ezio. He does not wear his emotions on his sleeve, always thinking about what is in front of him and one step ahead. A few interesting supporting characters round-out the cast, including Arno’s childhood friend and love interest, Elise, and Maximilien Robspierre, an enigmatic French aristocrat who aids Arno with information. Remember, these characters are elaborations of historical figures.
Core Gameplay Mechanics
Ubisoft has enhanced its core gameplay mechanics in a couple of ways. For motion, they have implemented a two-button combination to climb up and down structures. The series had suffered from occasional unpredictable outcomes when scaling buildings, so the enhancement minimizes error -- though not completely. When presented a collection of beams, ledges, and windows, I sometimes had difficulty selecting the right object I wanted to grab onto. However, the two-button combination for descending structures is consistently helpful in ensuring zero fall damage.
The other motion-based enhancement is a crouch button. It adds to the stealth system so that Arno’s movements are nearly identical to Aiden Pearce’s in Watch Dogs. Pressing A on the Xbox One controller automatically slips Arno in and out of cover. Like Watch Dogs, I struggled to consistently execute my moves. The system seems sluggish and unresponsive, and could benefit for some tighter controls like those from Gears of War or Vanquish.
There’s also a “last line-of-sight” stealth instance that populates a ghost image of Arno where an enemy last saw him. I found this enhancement unnecessary since the AI did not consistently pursue me using that point. I also found the ghost image to pop up somewhat randomly, so sometimes I’d be in an elaborate escape without an enemy using that image (if it popped up) to track me down.
Seven games into the series, and now with a game exclusively developed for the new consoles, Assassin’s Creed should have a significantly more fluid freerunning system and more assassin mechanics. These systems are tolerable, but they’re not where I would expect them by now. Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about fall damage and can parkour a little more confidently.
The series’ combat is anchored by pressing the face buttons to execute a few simple maneuvers that play out in a variety of animations. Pressing X (LMB) attacks, pressing B (E) parries, and pressing A (space) executes a dodge roll. Unity doesn’t expand the combat mechanics much, but it deepens the system by indicating opponents’ skill levels and remaining health. This will help players decide whether or not they should take on four baddies at once. The parry button is also a departure from Assassin’s Creed IV’s break-defense button, as executing successfully will put Arno in position to strike back immediately. Ubisoft has also removed the counter button, so timing the parry or dodge roll becomes more important.
The combat system works well when the player observes the enemy’s body language and attack pattern (i.e. one or two moves, swipe or overhead attack, etc.). I was coming off an Uruk slaughter in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and was initially frustrated when I couldn’t button-mash Arno to victory. However, with some patience, and many different weapons to use (more on that in the section below), I learned to like the combat system. The camera sometimes becomes an issue when in tight quarters, so players will regularly have to guess their enemies’ attacks.
Arno also has an arsenal of stealth and specialty items that break-up the monotony of sneaking up and hacking-and-slashing. Series newcomers and veterans will want to use these right away, as they can often give him a tactical advantage. For example, throwing a smoke bomb inside a room with three or more people can help Arno take out the lot without being attacked or clearly seen.
Player Progression and Customization
The Assassin’s Creed series has implemented weapon upgrades and progressed the protagonist’s skills before. Assassin’s Creed Unity expands this significantly. Unlike previous games, all of this can be done at any point in the game; players don’t have to be at a merchant booth or inside a ship or living quarters. The cost of items is too steep for the player to upgrade something after completing a mission or two, but the breadth of items and the overall customization will keep players engaged as they complete the campaign and side missions.
There’s a more compartmentalized, thorough approach to customizing the assassin that is much more than just picking out outfits. Players can customize Arno’s appearance, selecting each piece of equipment -- hood, torso, gauntlets, etc -- and the color of each garment. As trivial as that sounds, it means a lot to series fans who are used to seeing their assassin don just a handful of pre-picked outfits. It helps Arno stand-out among friends in co-op, too. Like other Assassin’s games, Unity also has unlockable outfits worn by other assassins in the series.
Equipment ranges its boosts to melee abilities, stealth abilities, attacking range, and health buffers. Colored attribute bars indicate the armor’s rating in comparison with what the player has currently equipped, but it does not show how much of an increase/decrease that is; I found that frustrating when weighing my purchase options.
There are five categories of weapons, with the number of weapons in each category almost overwhelming, but in a good way. Weapons differ in shape and stat boosts so that no two weapons perform and look exactly the same. For my reach weapon, I can choose a pitchfork, a spear, or a halberd, or whatever else was used in that time period and even before; for even more variety, I can choose a rifle. Doing so actually gives Arno the ability to wield it as a melee weapon, which makes for some very satisfying beatdowns. Unfortunately, what upset me about weapon-swapping was that I have to go into the customization menu in order to switch from one melee weapon to another; I should be able to do this in-game using the D-pad or number keys -- like I did with Assassin’s Creed IV.
Arno has two sets of abilities. The first set affects the game’s single-player, while the second set affects co-op by rewarding the player and those in his party. Like the armor ratings, these skills improve Arno’s melee abilities, ranged abilities, stealth abilities, and health. The cost of these skills ranges but still encourages players to customize their skills somewhat freely. For example, I unlocked the “assassinate two at once” skill as soon as I could. Oddly enough, some of these skills were already part of Edward’s skillset at the onset of Assassin’s Creed IV.
I think it’s admirable that Ubisoft wanted to create a stealthier, discovery- and tactics-based approach for a game set in the French Revolution. However, there’s just not enough up-front value doing that. In Assassin’s Creed IV, I could run (at the most) 200 meters to my ship and endlessly sail, pillage, and discover -- not to mention sink a fleet of ships in one go. Unity does not quickly deliver that satisfaction beyond stealth and melee combat, and while it may offer the intrigue to traversing catacombs and sewers in pursuit of clues to the city, it involves a lot of running around instead of interaction.
Ubisoft has done an excellent job architecting Paris and filling it with numerous scenes of cafe conversations, singing and dancing, and plenty of riots. This makes me excited for other Assassin’s Creed games to come on this generation of consoles. Unless all I want to do is start riots and loot the deceased, I just see the NPCs as eye candy. They’re adding little to what I actually do to get through the campaign and interact with everything that populates my map. Speaking of which, the Abstergo-based map layout is very bland and, when zoomed in, the size of the icons is too small to easily identify. At least the map filters help.
Seven games into the series, the core gameplay mechanics still need more attention. The parkour-up and -down enhancements work well, and the dedicated stealth button helps. The overall system is still buggy and hinders a fluid experience we’ve seen in other games like Ninja Gaiden and Gears of War. The new aiming scheme for stealth projectiles and firearms is also clunky and marred by a nearly invisible reticle.
The range of weapons is very pleasing, and the overall character customization is a step in the right direction for the series. Perhaps a patch to weapon-swapping and balancing the cost of items with the player’s progression can be done, but for now, it has its letdowns.
Assassin’s Creed Unity will still appeal to most fans of the series with its continuation of the templars vs. assassins storyline, strong voice acting, and likeable assassin Arno. It’s also refreshing to enjoy freerunning and stylish executions in the company of friends through the game’s co-op, even though it’s online-only. Those who have played more recent and action-heavy titles like Assassin’s Creed III and IV may be turned off by Unity’s pace and emphasis on puzzle-solving, but they might find solace in starting 100-person riots outside of Notre Dame.
Assassin’s Creed Unity is an expansive game with much for the player to discover. There are a few elements I could not cover in this review, so if you’d like to learn more about the game, please type in a question below. And if you’ve played Unity, let us know your impressions.
- Nick "stuBEEF" Pinkerton.