Developed by Ubisoft Montreal. Published by Ubisoft. Releases on November 11th. Available on PS4, Xbox One, PC. Travel accommodations provided by Ubisoft.
Confession time! I’ve completely missed out on the entire Assassin’s Creed franchise. Despite multiple games spanning multiple platforms and watching friends and colleagues play them, I’ve never really played one and gave it my full attention. So when I sat down with Assassin’s Creed: Unity, I was uninitiated – I knew the basics, some of the backstory, and that wrist blades were a thing, but not much else. Could Unity be the one to draw me into an already well-established series?
Unity‘s narrative takes place in Paris during the French Revolution, and the Assassins and Templars are both waging war against each other in the background.. Arno, the game’s protagonist, is a recent initiate into the Assassin order, and the missions I played for this preview centered on the final stages of his extended job interview for becoming an Assassin. Despite starting in media res, it seemed like some attention was being paid in Unity to the inner workings and politics of the two opposing factions, which I recall being a source of narrative frustration in the past. Though I definitely wanted some more context as to how Arno became involved with the Assassins. Other than some brief info on how his surrogate father was murdered and Arno’s insistence on finding the killers, it wasn’t made clear why he chose to down the iconic hood of the order
The first thing that impressed me was that Paris is really big, and heavily populated with dozens (if not hundreds) of NPCs at a given time. Whenever I wasn’t trying to leap from rooftop to rooftop, I was constantly running past packed restaurants, shops, and protesting crowds. The NPCS aren’t just static bystanders, either; I got into a brief tussle with some Extremists – members of a Templar-affiliated group of ne’er do wells – in the middle of a crowded intersection. My encounter unfortunately took a turn for the worse when I realized I was outnumbered and also barely an idea of how combat worked. I managed to scramble up a nearby wall as gunshots rang out only to see the regular citizenry of Paris had drawn weapons of their own and cut down the remaining Extremists as soon as I was out of the way.
Stuff like that happens frequently during your travels through Paris, and it’s interesting to see its inhabitants react to events you may not have anything do with. The developers even encouraged us to explore how we could manipulate Paris’ population to our advantage; one tactic they suggested was to lure enemies into view of neutral soldiers who, in-game, are just there to restore order and will attack anyone who shows aggression or suspicious behavior. So if you just so happen to get attacked first while they’re in sight, they’ll jump to your aid with gusto. But the opposite can also occur if you’re not careful. I managed to take out a few Extremists guarding one of the game’s many collectible chests, and while looting their corpses, a soldier happened by and sounded the alarm – as far as I could tell he hadn’t seen me nonchalantly stab all these Extremists in the gut, but I imagine a hooded figure rifling through the pockets of some fresh corpses didn’t look good from his point of view either.
When it came to the actual assassination parts of Unity I learned that I needed to exercise much more patience and restraint that I thought I would need. All those in-game trailers and convention demos have depicted Arno or his predecessors from previous Creeds as graceful killing machines capable of leaping from the shadows in one breath disappearing the next. But once I picked up the controller, nearly every attempt I made to emulate that style ended in a horrific series of panicked button smashes and one super dead Arno. I repeatedly had to start over one story mission involving a daring daylight infiltration of Notre Dame since I was constantly getting shot down whenever I tried to pull off a daring aerial attack or stalk a target through a crowded street. I found out that part of this was due to a redesign of the game’s combat system, which puts more an emphasis on using stealth, speed and trickery to your advantage then just assuming you can take on several enemies at once if things go awry. I could see this work in action once I took a deep breath and focused on taking out lone targets one by one, liberally using smoke bombs whenever there was the slightest indication I was about to get in over my head. I’m not sure how veteran AC players may feel about this particular shift, but for newcomers like myself I liked that the combat actually required tactical thinking.
Unity‘s cooperative modes take the form of story-based missions where up to four assassins perform story-driven quests, cash-granting Heist missions, or simply exploring Paris in the open world mode. The co-op missions themselves have more challenging enemies and objectives, and are also randomized slightly in each way – an open window you need to use to get into the second floor of a jail may not be in the same place the next time you replay the mission. But what makes them hilariously fun is just how utterly chaotic they can get when things go wrong.
In the 4-player Heist mission, we needed to sneak into a huge mansion to procure some art, but I was almost immediately separated from the rest of the group. This resulted in several minutes wherein I was frantically running from room to room, throwing smoke and attention-grabbing cherry bombs everywhere since I was constantly running into patrolling guards that were way out of my league in terms of combat prowess. Despite the fact that my character was all but yelling out “I’m here to rob you!” with all the ruckus I was making, the rest of my group was able to sneak around, take down anyone not trying to murder me and complete the theft mission without too much trouble. Not exactly Ocean’s Eleven, I suppose, but still fun in the sense that even though things were going horribly awry for my character, I was still somehow helping us progress though the mission.
Another thing of note is how character customization and progression is a very huge deal in Unity. There are different weapon types with their own pros and cons, but you can also customize the various parts of clothing that Arno wears. This can drastically affect your play style, as some hoods, gloves and boots are better for sneaking, while others provide more health if you need a less subtle approach to fighting enemies. Much of the gear is unavailable until you progress far enough to unlock certain skill traits (and accumulate a huge bank account to afford them all), but being able to go in and adjust your loadout to better fit the way you’re trying to approach a mission is a welcome feature. It also plays a significant part of Unity‘s aforementioned co-operative missions, as it allows you and your friends will to switch out your gear to fit different roles to have one player be a health-heavy tank or an ultra-stealthy stab-happy rogue.
So after several hours with Unity and pages of notes and comments, I had to ask myself – is this going to be the game that’ll get me in on the Assassin’s Creed bandwagon? To be honest, not entirely, although I will say there are definitely some features and concepts in Unity that are appealing. The co-op missions, for all the chaotic improvisations they can require, were wicked fun to play, and I also liked that you could also opt just to explore Paris with friends if you so choose. The flexibility of character customization seems like something you could really spend a great deal of time playing with, but in the short time I played it wasn’t clear just how much grinding one may have to do with Unity‘s side content to afford everything. Story wise, I only had a brief glimpse into Arno’s life and the part he played in the Revolution, so I can’t say for sure if his journey’s going to be interesting enough to sit through. Overall, I’d say I’m still on the fence, though definitely leaning towards giving it a closer look once the full game is out into the world.
If you haven’t been entirely sure about Assassin’s Creed before, Unity is worth keeping on your radar, if only to see what the final game and its new features like cooperative play and extensive character progression will be like once it’s all together. Prospective assassins can pick the game up on November 11th, 2014.