Assassin’s Creed Unity Revisited, Or “How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The French Revolution”

Gaming / PC / PlayStation / Xbox

I’m not about to claim that the release of Assassin’s Creed Unity was anything but a blistering disappointment. In a perfect storm of a badly managed release, the game shipped with bugs galore and tenchnical problems everywhere. Combined with its release during rather a drought of new games and hot on the heels of the similarly awful Battlefield 4 release, and when seen in the shadow of the series high point of Assassin’s Creed 4, there was too little good will going around to forgive it the weight of its problems.

Now any given reviewer is well within their rites to give a game any review they desire, but I hazard the notion that their opinions might be coloured by secondary concerns, such as those above. I know mine were. At the end of the day, the poor reviews that came after release were well earned.

That was a while ago, however. The game has undergone a good deal of work since then. Has anything changed?

First, let me set the scene a little; that upon its initial release, I gave up on Unity. I’ve been an Assassin’s Creed fan since the first game. Until competitive multiplayer arrived, I 1,000 pointed each title. Through all of Ezio’s adventures there were high points and low tides, of course, but not until #3 did I fail to finish every scrap of single player content afforded to me. After the damp squib of #3, I was very wary of #4, but…

Well, #4 was just wonderful. Everything that had been developed over the previous games seemed to come together in one beautiful, coherent, compelling and enjoyable whole. I spent SO MANY HOURS pirating my way around the Carribean. Oh, that first time I got into an unscripted ship battle in the middle of a raging storm…just…transcendant.

Arno-sinking

In the sequel there will be a whole tornado of assassins striking Slough.

Then came the pre-release hype for Unity. My only complaint about #4 was the I missed having a proper, convoluted, vertical city to play in. The utterly gorgeous desolation of the Paris with which we were presented was so damned exciting all on its own the things being said about mission structure and addressing some of the gripes that had dogged the series from the beginning were just icing. They had struck gold in #4 and now they just had to correct a few niggles and make some gorgeous textures. How could they lose?

Well…they found a way. The rest is history. You don’t need me to tell you about the mess the game was at release.

*queue montage of time passing; Elvis going to war, the Berlin Wall falling, inspirational 80’s stadium rock soundtrack*

Elvis-Stalingrad

Please enjoy this rare, 100% real image.

I put Unity back in my Xbox the other day. Call me a fool, call me an optomist, call me a dreamer (I’m not the only one), but I thought maybe, just maybe, things had gotten better.

It was foolhardy, I admit. I was setting myself up for disappointment, but I like to think that things can get better. Well…

…turns out I was right. Mostly. I’ve been having a blast. My new found respect for the game is not without reservation, but it’s there.

While I don’t doubt that there are more and greater technical  improvements than I either realise or care about, I don’t think they’re the game’s saviour. I think the biggest change between my Renaissance with Paris and my initial disappointment is that I have not just come from Assassin’s Creed 4. When I first arrived in the shiny shoes of Arno Dorian I tried to have the same sort of fun as I had had with Edward Kenway. I wanted to be the same fluid, brutal, untouchable juggernaut, but with less grog and more cheese.

Cheese-juggernaut

Google’s first return on the search “cheese juggernaut”

Well…that was a mistake. Paris represents a much more dangerous place than Edward’s tropical paradise. Guards are sharp eyed and aggressive. They don’t generally climb and jump after you, staying (more realistically) on the ground, or platforms, meaning that the rooftops are once more something of a sanctuary , but combined with their good eyes and the stunning damage rate of enemy firearms, knowing both where you are and where they are is far more important to playing a quiet, sneaky game than in previous iterations. The new low-profile sneak mechanic, brand new to Unity, seemed at first like something of an underused gimick, but it’s actually an integral and vital component of the stealth game.

In previous titles, choosing to play as a stealthy assassin was a matter of taste, since from fairly early on, you could stand toe to toe with dozens of guards in open combat. Unity ups the stakes of conflict. It’s still fundamentally the same game of counters and timing as previously, but in Unity the niceties have been tweaked (I won’t pretend to have a great grasp on precisely how) rendering you a far more vulnerable figure. Later in the game equipment and perks can be unlocked which bring the balance back towards the old unstoppable force style of previous games, but by then the new rules need to have been instilled. It feels like they’ve made a real effort to take all of the optional tactics from previous games and render them neccessary. Take Eagle Vision, for example; before Unity I basically never used it, unless it was a requirement for mission objectives. In Unity, I use it ALL THE TIME. Knowing where the bad guys are from moment to moment is so vital to being able to pass safely that going without the magical vision mode is untunthinkable.

Are you lunch? You look like lunch.

Are you lunch? You look like lunch.

The changes are deceptively small, since they add up to a surprisingly different flow of gameplay. I’m not prepared to say that I prefer it, or not, but I do like it.

There are still problems, of course. Most persistently irritating are the small omissions. It might sound stupid, but I really miss the opportunity to pet the cats that I find on the rooftops. Edward Kenway could say hello to the animals around him, why can’t Arno? Surely the cat-stroking animation was not such a resource hog that it had to be affixed in favour of a few extra rendering flops? Perhaps most gratingly, I miss the chance to chose which weapon I use in a given situation. This is because I always derived stupid delight from going into melee bare handed and killing everyone with their own weapons. Not big or clever, perhaps, but the removal of options seems…strange to me.

And lets round this off wih the things that are simply good. Unity is beautiful. I can’t comment on flops and poly counts and such and honestly I don’t really care to. Artistically, it’s beautiful. Paris is a gorgeous city crumbling under the weight of discontent. The roads are uneven and cracked, the paint peels and plaster crumbles. The clothing of the main characters drapes and sways convincingly and the way the light bounces about means you can tell exactly what fabric each piece is made of (that special costume skin designed by Todd McFarlane? Clearly a heavy wool). Interiors – which are more frequent and complete than ever before – are strikingly rendered; glass, gold and polish gleaming; dust and smoke drifting.

The city is filled to the brim with…things. Treasure, collectibles, missions great and small, diversions of all sorts. The Nostradamus Enigmas (enigmae?) were a treat; my wife sitting by with the companion app open on my Android tablet, researching solutions while I steered, provided several evenings of really enjoyable gaming of a type that’s tough to come by.

The setting itself, the heart of the French revolution, is compelling. It’s very easy to get caught up in the rhetoric, stories and struggles of the people who flock around you. The sense that s**t is going down is palpable. I also have thoroughly enjoyed exploring the in game database and learning a lot more about the real world history of the revolution than I had known previously.

The missions are generally far better than previous games; only once or twice have I been tasked with following someone and the previous, seemingly arbitrary pass/fail conditions are no longer in evidence. The shiny new sandbox style assassination missions, which give you an open stage and a target and leave you to make it up yourself are wonderful.

I will briefly return to griping to say that one of my least favourite habits of the series has not been remedied. If I have carefully sneaked through an area and made my way to a spot from which I can perform an assassination unseen and silently, I do not appreciate the plot leaping out and forcing me into a dumb head-to-head confrontation. It’s dumb, it spoils the character and it breaks my immersion. Please, please stop doing this, guys. Please.

So, all in all, I guess I’m saying that if, like me, you were stung and disappointed by Unity when it came out, it might be worth your time to give it another look with a fresh pair of eyes. Leave behind the frustrations of the launch and forget much of what previous titles have taught you and you might just find that there’s a lot to like about this troubled title.

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