Assassin's Creed Unity hands-on: co-ordinated killing in a co-op heist
I'm wearing a ruff that makes me better at stabbing. Excellent. Assassin's Creed: Unity aims to realise the architecture and social strife Paris during the revolution, but it's also bringing the fashion. You can mix and match hoods, headpieces, tunics, pants and weapons to confer bonuses to your sneaking and fighting skills, or more importantly, find a combo that really brings out the glimmer in Arno's dark, glaring eyes. It's important to hit the "don't fuck with my ruff" look when you're about to perform a daring co-op heist.
I'm playing with a member of Ubisoft's Unity team, and we're about to hit an old hospital. Our target is hidden somewhere underneath the big, square facility. There are multiple ways in, and I'm told the placement of the guards and the treasure are randomised each time you attempt the mission. Your performance during the heist also affects the amount of treasure you'll find in the box at the end—go in noisy and you might only make it out with a handful of gold coins.
We dive off a rooftop into a cart of hay, which is such a familiar sight in Assassin's Creed I barely question why it's sitting in a hospital. The developer and I share an intimate moment in the hay. One of us uses eagle vision (Assassin's Creed's magic see-through-walls power), the other calls targets. It's beautiful. We hop out, he sneaks left round a small building in the middle of the square. I climb on top. He suggests I air assassinate the nearest target while he takes out one snoozing ahead.
One. Two. Three. Thwip-groan, whoosh-splat. The perfect crime.
It's a moment borrowed from Splinter Cell's excellent co-op modes, the act of making a plan and executing in tandem is intrinsically satisfying, and it taps into another thrill unique to the Assassin's Creed series. In Brotherhood you can whistle to have a fellow assassin take out your target. You get to watch them pop out of a nearby hay bail, or vault over a nearby rooftop to deliver the killing blow. This is even cooler when the role is filled by a co-op partner. Assassin's Creed's animations are as elaborate as ever, and there's almost an element of showing off for one another as we take it in turns to silently assassinate the clueless guards.
One of us throws a smoke bomb to allow the other to perform a leaping takedown. I take out a guard using a corner takedown. Assassin's Creed's heroes each have their own fighting style. Altair was precise, Connor was brutish, Kenway was slightly haphazard, Arno's style is direct, and almost nonchalant. The moment a leaping stab hits the target he glides straight into a cocky stride. Guard? What guard?
What guards indeed. They largely fail to spot us at all, mostly thanks to the new sneak stance. A tap of the left trigger (Assassin's still works best with analogue controls) sends Arno into a crouch-walk. I have no idea why it took the series so long to add this, but it puts an end to bizarre stealth sections of former games, in which the hero would stand up tall and straight to transfer between patches of low cover. The new pose makes you harder to detect, and lets you take cover anywhere with a button tap.
I struggled a bit with movement. I got stuck in cover a few times, and free-running felt heavy. There's a lot of detailed new geometry, which means new visual language to learn—after an hour or so with a new Assasisn's Creed game, you get to know the patterns of cracks and crannies that are traversable, and those that aren't. There are also months of fine tuning ahead for Ubi to nail the elusive feel of a lithe killer on the move.
Our co-ordinated killing spree takes us into the basement, and into a glistening array of sewage pipes. There are obvious routes to roof-beams to facilitate fancy airborne kills, and enemies presented themselves in groups of two or three. The mission's open origins narrowed into a rhythmic room-to-room clearance mission that encouraged constant communication. We pop into magic vision, see a guy coming up, decide who's going to take him down, eliminate him with horrible speed and then calmly move on.
One opened chest, a smokebomb and two rope-elevators later, and we make it to the open rooftops and I catch my first glimpse of Paris. It's a city relentlessly idealised by pop culture, but here it's brown, grimy and hazy, as though permanently drenched in gunpowder smoke. Below, a fight breaks out in a square swarming with people. It seems to be a scuffle between a small group of revolutionaries and some local authorities—the crowd organically parts to form a circle around the combatant. Watching so many NPCs organically rearrange themselves in such a believable way is startling. It's the most impressive technical moment of the demo.
An objective invites us to kill the guards, but we need to go incognito to complete the heist mission. We descend using a new free-running function that sends you a direct route to the ground from an elevated position. In videos of Unity, this causes Arno to swing acrobatically down the face of the building. Perhaps it depends on the the structure you're standing on, but in this demo the assassins drop two storeys onto a tiny market stall—god bless the order's invincible ankles. We slip into the crowd and watch as the final guard standing is speared in the neck. Mission complete.
It's fun, but I do wonder if Unity's co-op adventures can make up for the lack of a sizeable open world and the sailing/animal-skinning distractions. Unity feels like Assassin's Creed Classic: an attempt to bring the series back to its founding ideas, with the encouraging inclusion of the mini-sandbox mission design Ubi has been practicing in Far Cry 3's outposts and Black Flag's plantations. If you like climbing huge buildings, nudging peasants out of the way, doing roguish things like robbing hospitals, and dressing up really nicely so you can do roguish things better, then Unity could easily be the French Revolution ruff-wearing simulator you've been looking for. It looks pretty, too.