NEED TO KNOW
What is it: Open world third person action adventure in which you play as an assassin during the French revolution.
Influenced by: Assassin's Creed, Hitman: Blood Money
Alternatively: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood
Release: Out now
Link: Official site
Paris in 1798, what a time to be alive. The streets are filthy with mud, blood and gunpowder smoke. Starving citizens bully perceived enemies of the state to hungry guillotine stands. Guards grapple violently with roaming anarchists. Above, you see burning effigies and spiked heads. Below, French Tricolor flags lie stamped into the dirt. Assassin's Creed Unity recreates all of this with astonishing clarity and sets it within the most detailed city I've ever seen in a game. If Unity was a game about absorbing the ambience of a remarkable period of history I could stamp a big "YES" on it and go home. Sadly, the truth is more problematic.
Assassin's Creed Unity is a game about exploring the city, scaling towers to unlock missions, jumping and stabbing. The professional killer of this adventure is Arno Dorian, a devilish young rogue with floppy hair and a grin that could melt wax. Born of wealth, he's quickly driven into the Assassin order by personal tragedy and there uses his remarkable skills of stabbing to seek revenge and win the affection of his cherished childhood friend, Elise. Naturally, there's also a convoluted plot involving the ongoing battle between the Assassins and the Templars, who are both manipulating the revolution for increasingly confusing reasons.
This is complicated only slightly by the return of the ongoing Assassin's Creed metaplot. In this game you're playing a VR product produced by the evil Abstergo company, who are searching for the death site of a certain figure in Arno's life. The best thing about this is that it's delivered in brief and very infrequent cutscenes and voiceover skits from a couple of characters based in the present-day. No longer are you pulled out of your exciting assassin adventures to roleplay a more boring person. Instead, the present-day plot influences several quick but very entertaining interludes that leave your assassin faculties intact. I won't spoil them.
Almost the entire game is set in Paris. The return to a single-city setting reflects Unity's desire to strip down a series that's entertained many tangents over the years. There's no sign of the tower-defence of Revelations, or the assassin-training of Brotherhood, or the sailing of Assassin's Creed 4. Instead, Unity is about assassinations, and they're great.
PERFORMANCE & SETTINGS
Reviewed on: Core i5 3.3GHZ, 8GB RAM, Nvidia GTX970
Variable framerate: Yes
Anti-Aliasing: FXAA and MSAA
Misc. graphics options: Many, including individual quality settings for textures, shadows, ambient occlusion.
Remappable controls: Yes, for keyboard.
Gamepad support: Yes, recommended.
Assassin's Creed Unity runs smoothly on a GTX 970, averaging 50-55FPS with all settings on Ultra. For performance improvements, you can elect not to use Nvidia's soft shadowing tech to little visual difference. If you have an Nvidia card, grab the ACU drivers. Turning off Vsync and AA and forcing at your GPU's driver level may help performance.
AMD users have reported poor performance, and mid-range cards will struggle. When tested on a 670 framerates topped out at 30 on 'high' settings, but with plenty of drops, including consistent drops to 10FPS during cutscenes.
The act of hunting and efficiently dispatching an important target has been incidental to the series for too long, so I'm glad Unity does it justice. Targets are hidden away in in sandbox locations—castles, prisons, palaces—that you have to crack like a violent puzzles. At the start of the mission Arno, poised like a fancy Batman on some dark rooftop, assesses the area to pick out gaps in the target's defence and note local disturbances that could serve as a distraction. When the mission starts you're free to find your way in and approach the target however you wish.
These missions remind me favourably of Hitman: Blood Money. The levels lack the complexity of IO's sandboxes, but manipulating them is great fun. I whipped a cover off a hidden stash of food in front of a starving crowd. They flocked angrily to the cart and offered cover that got me closer to my target. I've set fire to sniper towers to expose targets, dabbled with poison and done other terrible things best left to discovery.
These missions are facilitated by a new stealth system. Unity finally has the crouch-walk the series has always needed, which means you can dart between cover spots without standing casually upright in full view like a gleaming beacon of guilt. There's also a clunky cover system that I found far too fiddly to use, and a new weapon—the phantom blade—a wrist-mounted miniature crossbow that lets you kill targets silently at range or send them berserk to cause a distraction.
Assassinations may be good, but the campaign is padded out with numerous set-up missions. While these are generally fine, and Arno puts in a good turn as an affable diet-Ezio, you're still following NPCs along dramatic rooftop routes, stealing things from heavily guarded areas, tackling street thieves and saving civvies from criminals—very familiar stuff for series fans. The close focus on everyday assassin business also puts more pressure on Assassin's Creed's core traversal systems, and while the freerunning moveset has been expanded for Unity, it can't quite handle the artfully crooked geometry of Paris.
There are now separate commands for freerunning up and down buildings, which is useful, but movement in all directions lacks precision. Simply climbing into a window can be a nightmare. Arno will vault across the gap, scrabble above it, drop below it, anything but get into the damn room. The window dance only grows angrier under fire.
There are dozens of simple manoeuvres like this that should be effortless, but aren't, and the streets of Paris are littered with detritus that can cause Arno unexpected indecision. Look out in particular for the assassin's greatest enemy, the small box, which Arno will sometimes mount as though it's the highest point in the world and take some coaxing to leap off. Attempting to climb a lumpy object like a market stall will cause moments of mid-air shivering as the movement system seems to shuffle through its library of thousands of animations for a solution. The 'leap into distant hay bale' command is the same as the 'climb down building' command, which has caused annoyance more than once.
I could list more. 80% of the time things work quite nicely, but for a game so reliant on traversal there's too much frustration. The system can make impossible leaps and spins look natural and beautiful, but it too often fails to divine the player's intent while executing the flair. Assassin's Creed has always had these problems, but the complex higgledy-piggledy streets and rooftops of Paris compound them. After a while I came to recognise certain angles and asset arrangements best avoided for the sake of speed.
Combat has been refreshed, too, with good intent but mixed results. In Black Flag and Assassin's Creed 3, you were immortal. You could chain execution moves together to dice up entire regiments without taking a hit. Not so in Unity. The counter button has been replaced by a parry command. Time the parry perfectly and Arno will execute a countering blow that will put the enemy off balance and open them up to follow up strikes, and brutal kill-moves when they're damaged enough. Arno can only suffer a few blows himself before being unceremoniously run-through, and can quite easily be shot to death in the middle of a fight.
I liked Arno's fragility so much that I didn't take any health upgrades until the final boss fight—combat should feel dangerous, but it shouldn't feel quite so out-of-control. Ubisoft have said that the new combat system is inspired by fencing, and while it has a little of the back-and-forth parry and riposte structure, it's remarkably sluggish. My button presses seemed lost amid long, complex animations, as though I was shouting combat instructions to Arno from a mile away, repeating myself occasionally for emphasis. On the plus side there's quite a bit of variety to the weapons at your disposal, even if the system itself feels sparse. You can choose to fight with swords; long weapons like spears, polearms and halberds; big weapons like axes and clubs and even rifles, which Arno uses as shooty clubs in close combat.
The wide range of weapons slot into an overwhelming suite of customisation options that let you choose Arno's hood, gloves, trousers and coat independently. Different items confer varying bonuses to your toughness and stealthiness, but these don't make much of a difference until the twilight stages of the game.
These are bought with in-game money, which you can earn by renovating and expanding your pet theatre, or by completing side missions. These vary widly in quality. Some are dull escort chores that have you fighting waves of guards as your charge relocates with the urgency of a dead slug. Better are the detective missions, which present you with clues in a crime scene so that you can correctly accuse one of several suspects. Solving crimes is easy when you have magic eyes that make clues glow.
You can skip all that and buy weapons and armour right away with real money via a microtransaction system that's cheeky at best and just depressing at worst. After buying the game for £40/$60, you're invited to spend more money to play less of the game. Fortunately it's easy to completely ignore this, but the same can't be said for the awful in-game chests and items ties into Unity's companion app and Initiates webgame. Initiates chests are littered all over Paris. If you try to open one the game minimises itself, opens your browser and attempts to connect to the Initiates site. It's intrusive, shatters the fantasy, and holds back items and features from players who don't want to waste time on webgames or apps. Horrible.
It's especially disappointing, because there's real beauty to be found in Unity. If you like to wander and become absorbed in a game world, Paris is stunning. I rarely gasp at things. I used to think that gasping was a theoretical action that people used in a purely illustrative sense, but one came unbidden when I climbed to the top of a spire to see a patch of golden sunlight moving over the Notre Dame cathedral. A haze rose up from the streets, and I could see every building for miles. Whether you're striding through dilapidated slums or royal palaces Unity realises urban filth and glittering opulence with equal devotion. The streets are packed with people, singing, fighting, kissing, dancing. I stood up after finishing the game and felt like I'd visited another place.
That makes me dearly want to recommend Unity, but unless you have a seriously good graphics card, I can't. It's fluid and gorgeous on my GTX 970, but on mid-range cards like a 670, and even better cards, expect low and choppy framerates that worsen greatly during cutscenes. While my experience has been relatively clean, Unity is rife with widely reported bugs. I've seen the odd floating pedestrian, a few times I've seen Arno perform a finishing move on the air as his victim six feet away crumples and dies. The game also occasionally pauses for fifteen seconds or so at random points before resuming as normal. It's also crashed a few times. Others have reported disappearing faces, floating NPCs, ragdolls glitching into themselves and more severe stability problems.
The other huge failure is co-op. The new mode lets you summon up to three friends into your Paris to run around exploring, or to engage in a collection of heist and assassination missions. I almost had fun coordinating attacks with friends in these varied and lengthy missions, but not one co-op game has passed without a disconnection error, or a wrongly placed objective marker, or a target not spawning, or numerous other mission scripting errors. It just doesn't work.
If Ubisoft get it patched up, Unity could become a perfectly enjoyable part of the Assassin's Creed canon. It's a solid campaign elevated by quality assassination missions and an extraordinary setting that might just push the big number at the bottom of this review into the 80s, but with a big selling point out of operation, a raft of technical issues, performance problems, microtransactions and stilted combat and freerunning systems, Unity—in its current state—can only be considered a failed revolution. What a shame.