Assassin's Creed Unity Review
Update: Please read the retraction editorial in addition to this review.
They say you have to hook your reader in the first few lines. Okay, here goes: Assassin’s Creed Unity could’ve been the best video game we’ve seen in years. It strives ever so hard to elevate open-world games to another level. Most impressively, it includes every conceivable item – necessary and optional – for the noble trek up a metaphorical Mount Everest. The adventurers thought of everything; they packed all the right gear, considered all the eventualities, and above all else, exhibited that singular drive and motivation required to reach the summit.
But it’s like these brave adventurers tackled the quest without first checking the equipment.
All this being said, consider the following: We revere explorers and adventurers who made the ultimate sacrifice to further the reaches of mankind. Sure, video game developers can’t really be compared to the great explorers in human history. But the analogy, at its most basic level, remains. Shouldn’t we applaud those who try to pave the way for the future? Let’s face it, the new Assassin’s Creed doesn’t run very well. There are serious frame rate dips, collision detection issues, clipping, and the occasional comical moment (like a stuttering civilian on a rooftop). When things slow down, we grimace. When it affects the gameplay – and it can – we’re annoyed.
However, it wouldn’t do the game justice to end the graphical analysis on that note. This fictional recreation of Paris during the French Revolution is the most ambitious, historically authentic virtual environment I’ve ever seen. There aren’t just dozens of people in the streets; there are hundreds. There aren’t just a few decorative details on the buildings, there are countless details. Don’t just run around and over something like Notre Dame; slow down to look at it. Far too many critics aren’t stopping to smell the roses. When you do, you’re just blown away by the sheer scope and attention to detail. We haven’t seen anything like this before, plain and simple.
The audio is perhaps the biggest highlight, as the ambient sounds of Paris are just intoxicating. There are so many different voices and so many varying city sounds; it helps turn the landscape into a rich, fulfilling environment. The voice performances are perhaps the best we’ve heard to date in the series, and that’s saying something. Arno is particularly strong and convincing and even minor characters offer professional acting. The soundtrack is beautiful, as the carefully selected music enhances and even entrances. Battle effects are crisp and resounding and they often tie in well with the surrounding commotion of the streets. Play it with a decent headset, that’s all I have to say.
Yes, it overreaches. Even the new consoles can’t really contain this mammoth vision. That’s why the game chugs; the hardware simply can’t keep up all the time. And that was a mistake; a critical mistake that kept the game from scoring a 10. Oh, the building blocks are here for a 10. Trust me on that. Unity goes above and beyond any previous entry in the franchise and in fact, outstrips any other open-world adventure game – including Grand Theft Auto V – in terms of depth, variety, and ambitious intention. Some gamers might remember when Ubisoft laid the groundwork for the franchise with the original entry. Know what’s enlightening? Compare that to this.
Sometimes, I honestly believe we’re too spoiled to even appreciate such an incredible effort. We’re too wrapped up in specs and technical performance to let the atmosphere wash over us, filling us with a palpable sense of wondrous immersion. If you never stop free-running and fighting; if you’re just blazing across rooftops and forcing your way through crowds, you’re not getting it. You’re missing the game’s true appeal. Just stand for a moment and look up at the buildings. Watch the civilians and soldiers and listen to their conversations. Look, listen, feel. That’s what the designers wanted you to do from time to time. Maybe it’s folly to ask the technically inclined to have some artistic sensibility, I don’t know.
The game introduces you to the new protagonist, Arno, and you first steal an apple as a boy. Saying that this is the tip of the iceberg is the understatement of the century. You don’t really grasp the full gamut of upgrades and expansive nature of the gameplay until you’ve become an assassin. This doesn’t take very long and I recommend that everyone get there as soon as possible. That’s when the entire game opens up and leaves you breathless. You can equip your entire person; head, chest, waist, and legs. There are dozens of pieces of equipment right out of the gate and each can be upgraded. There are short, long, and heavy weapons, along with pistols and rifles.
Everything has an impact on your statistics; what you choose to equip will affect your health and stealth, for instance. Some pieces of equipment will lessen the amount of noise you make, while others will boost your resistance. There’s a lockpicking skill now, which is not only necessary for locked treasure chests, but also for unlocking doors that might make certain missions easier. Speaking of skills, there are plenty of great abilities that can be unlocked and learned, and each gives you more alternatives in the field. As for missions, there has never been a wider assortment. We’ve got separate “Paris Stories” that offer various rewards, puzzle-based quests, and even murder investigations.
On top of it all, there’s the social and multiplayer aspects. You can embark on co-op missions with a friend, and you can renovate Social Clubs within the game to expand your friend network. Some chests in the game can’t be opened unless you complete some Nomad missions in the companion app. Everywhere you look, everywhere you go, there’s something to do. The days of simply climbing a viewpoint, doing a bunch of assassin and pickpocket missions, and moving on to plot-advancing stuff are gone. There’s so much more to do from a gameplay and character customization standpoint.
Basic control is similar to previous AC entries but now, you press X to ascend and jumping mostly happens automatically when free running. This change makes the character much stickier; it’s a lot harder to accidentally launch yourself into the abyss and die. It’s also easier to drop from great heights; hitting Circle allows Arno to descend most buildings very quickly. He moves realistically and with purpose, although there are times when you’ll want him to climb or enter a window, and he won’t do anything. The more you play, though, the more you’ll begin to understand the intricacies of this newly streamlined mechanic. Combat has also been much improved.
Before, fighting was basically just a counter-fest. Wait for an enemy to enter an attack animation, hit the counter button, and that’s it. You could string attacks together after a kill but that’s about it. Now, the Parry has replaced the Counter, and while very similar, it feels more realistic. You also can’t sit there holding a block button, fending off twenty guys. You have to keep parrying and dodging, or you’re toast. And at the start, you’re quite vulnerable; a few solid strikes and you’ll probably drop dead. The more you play, the more you unlock and learn, and therefore, the more powerful and agile Arno becomes. It’s the role-playing concept within an open-world structure and it’s what I’ve always wanted.
Unfortunately, the AI still needs help. It’s a lot better than it has been but it still fails the next-gen intelligence test. Some foes won’t see you when you’re right on top of them, while others will get confused and wander off. The camera isn’t perfect, either, and in fact, it can be more problematic with so much going on. With such an immense presentation of NPCs and buildings, I think the default camera view needed to be a bit farther back. Then there are the minor control issues, which may seem more significant to those who aren’t familiar with the franchise. All of this contributes to that lack of stability I mentioned before.
There are a few lingering problems and of course, one must consider the technical failings. There’s no avoiding these issues. However, it’s critical to remember that just about everything has been improved upon. The scope, depth, customization and variety is at the forefront, leading the charge, but all aspects of control, combat and general interaction have been upgraded as well. This is a gargantuan, epic undertaking that simply overstepped the bounds of the system’s technical capability. They didn’t try to do too much; they tried to make a legendary, memorable product. It’s like the video game representation of the Icarus story, but without the same disastrous outcome.
Assassin’s Creed Unity tries. It has a huge heart. It wants to give us something that drops our jaws and brings tears to our eyes. The storyline has some great twists and with fantastic acting, this is the best plot yet in the series (no spoilers here, though). The characters are interesting and intriguing and the setting is absolutely astounding. The expansive upgrades are obvious and hugely appreciated. Everything one could possibly want in a video game is here. But sadly, the lack of execution bogs things down, sometimes to the point of absurdity and irritation. It’s really sad. What it could’ve been will haunt me for a long time…
Still, I have it within me to appreciate what it is. And that’s that.
The Good: Unparalleled, expansive virtual world. Beautiful music and captivating effects. Improved, streamlined control and combat. Story and characters are good, if not amazing. Hugely diverse and always intriguing. Co-op missions are great fun. A gripping, immersive atmosphere that is currently unmatched.
The Bad: A technical disappointment (frame rate is the biggest culprit). AI still isn’t all that bright. Lingering control and camera issues.
The Ugly: “Oh, what it could’ve been…”
11/13/2014 Ben Dutka