Last week I talked about why Assassin’s Creed Unity doesn’t make the grade as historical fiction. But with a game this sprawling and complex, there’s no way I could fit even a fraction of my thoughts into a single column – I could probably write for a month on this game alone.
Instead of doing that, I’m going to get it all out at once. Consider this half party, half purge. We’re here to judge Unity: the good, the bad, and the déplaisant.
Violence As a Public Spectacle
French Revolutionaries didn’t invent public execution or political violence – they inherited it. During the reign of Louis XVI the Ancien Régime still conducted public executions by hanging, drawing and quartering, and breaking on the wheel – the latter essentially a form of public torture. This was fairly consistent with other nations at the time.
However, it’s true that French revolutionaries had a special relationship with public violence. The Reign of Terror alone precipitated 16,594 executions by guillotine, with a further 25,000 summary executions across France. The violence simultaneously came from the top-down via revolutionary officials and from the bottom-up courtesy of crowds and armed gangs like the sans-culottes.
The public nature of the bloodshed was part of the point. Violence served as rhetorical speech, carrying messages to the crowd about the virtues of correct behavior while proving the attacker’s revolutionary zeal. Moreover, executions and crowd actions democratized violence, inviting passive and active participation in destroying state enemies. Every citizen, in effect, could carry out the law.
This very much comes across in Assassin’s Creed: Unity. Arno serves as judge and executioner more often than not, whether it’s hunting targets or punishing street gangs. And unusually for an Assassin’s Creed game, the player’s encouraged to engage targets in public. Whether shanking guards while blending in the crowd or fighting off criminals, you work under the eyes of the public much more than in previous titles – and in this period, that’s how it should be. It’s not fighting, it’s communication.
I’d say that Unity picked up some of Black Flag‘s tone, but that isn’t exactly right. Swordfights in Black Flag felt brutal. By contrast, Unity‘s fights look elegant and light. It’s Hollywood fencing, the sort seen in The Three Musketeers and similar period adventures. Arno’s roguish attitude reminded me specifically of adventure novelist Rafael Sabatini’s charming, fast-talking heroes.
Whether knowingly or not, Unity owes a lot to Sabatini’s swashbuckling French Revolution novel Scaramouche and the lasting image it created. Like Arno, Andre-Louis Moreau grows up under a godfather, raised alongside the woman he loves. Both find themselves on the opposite side of the revolution than their loves. Both dive into Revolutionary politics to avenge a murdered friend. Given that Sabatini essentially created the Hollywood pirate myth Black Flag traded on – the Errol Flynn film adaptation of his Captain Blood started the 1940s pirate boom – I’m fairly sure someone at Ubi’s been reading his work.
Scaramouche tells a trilling adventure story while still delving into Revolution-era abuses, and I think that’s what Unity aims for. When it succeeds, it’s brilliant. Unsheathing your blade to scare off bullies, dueling in front of a stained glass window and fighting off squads of soldiers feels appropriately thrilling. The Montgolfier balloon chase and its cutscene has a delicious James Bond vibe. The game’s best character interactions come from Arno and Elise bantering, as any good Sabatini-style couple should. It’s rough like so much in the game, but I’d love them refine the tone in the next installment.
The Chaos of the Terror
Last week I praised Unity‘s setting, but I never dwelled on perhaps its greatest aspect: that the street scenes deteriorate as the city plunges further into chaos. There are more barricades, more smoke, and fires in the street. It communicates in clear visual language how the Terror impacts the city. While I was disappointed that this period didn’t figure more prominently in the plot – too much happens off screen for my liking – at least there was a distinct atmospheric change.
It Feels Unfinished
I never encountered the spectacular glitches others reported – no one’s face vanished – but I did fall through the ground several times. During one chase sequence my feet sunk into the stonework like it was wet concrete. Graphics glitches pulled me out of the experience on a regular basis.
Ubisoft makes big games on short turnarounds, and considering what they deliver I’m often inclined to look past the inevitable glitches. Occasionally they’re even endearing. (I’ll never forget the cutscene in Black Flag where I got my mission from a talking, floating tobacco pipe.) But Unity has more than a few kinks, and gives the impression that the team rushed it and delivered it half-done.
Unity has so much going for it, and I wish they’d taken the time to polish it.
It’s Crowded – And I’m Not Talking About the Streets
Open Unity‘s map and you’ll see the problem. For a real horror show, count the options on the pause screen. This game has way too much going on. There are four kinds of treasure chests and three kinds of character upgrade points, including one I never used. Certain elements only unlock if you use companion apps or online registrations. It’s unnecessarily complicated, even at a minute level.
It wouldn’t matter much if treasure chests only gave you money, but they contain equipment. In fact, half the clothing and weapons can only get unlocked through specialty chests, co-op missions, or side missions you may not feel like performing. This led me to garbing Arno in a disjointed patchwork garment that made me look ridiculous. (A domino mask, leather pants and a Bourgeois coat? Tres chic monsieur!)
I’m a fan of the Animus Databases. They’re a great way to teach history and provide deeper historical context for the games. But oh, Unity, what have you done?
The Database is fine. It functions. But the information isn’t organized well and tends to wash over you, even if you know the period. The French Revolution’s not straightforward the way piracy and the American Revolution are. People switched sides. Major institutions like the National Assembly sprang up, changed history, then folded overnight. Alliances and factions ruled the day. The way to teach about this period isn’t to throw a lot of information at the player and let them work it out. That’s unworkable. The database needed some way to create an overarching narrative for what was going on, perhaps some short essays on each phase of the Revolution. The newspapers tried to fill this role (and I loved them) but they weren’t equal to the task. What the Database needed was an overhaul.
Unfortunately, instead of putting time into evolving the structure, Ubi inserted stereotypical French, Swiss and Italian jokes that add nothing. For some entries, the jest lasts as long as the historical text itself. It’s smug and juvenile. I hated these. Hated them so much I almost stopped reading the database at all – and I love the database.
Did you know you have two unspent Synch Points? Go to the Character Customization Menu to level up!
Hey! Sorry to pop in and cover that Nostradamus Clue you’re deciphering. But it’s been fifteen minutes and you still have two Synch Points available.
You know what would really help with that fortress you’re infiltrating? If you spent Synch Points! You have Synch Points and should spend Synch Points to get better infiltration abilities so you can earn more Synch Points. Oops, sorry, can you not see the guard behind this message?
Oh, you are dead.
HELLO? ARE YOU THERE?
Women Shoved Aside
Assassin’s Creed: Unity had image problems on the subject of women characters before the game even came out, so what of the actual game itself?
The good news: there are some great women in Unity. There’s Elise, who has goals and a life beyond Arno. Charlotte Gouze adds some color. And there’s Sophie Trenet, a Brotherhood member who seems based on feminist writer Olympe de Gouges. The meatiest role goes to the real-life Theroigne Mericourt, whose leadership of the Women’s March to Versailles lets her exhibit the revolutionary fervor missing from so many other characters.
That’s when we start running into trouble, though. Because while fictional women make great strides in Unity, the historical ones get pushed to the margin.
Theroigne Mericourt, for example, denied that she was even at the Women’s March. The version that appears in the game appears inspired by Royalist propaganda about her rather than actual fact. Though with such great stories about her wearing plumed hats and fighting soldiers, it’s understandable why Ubi opted to print the legend.
Where problems really crop up is with Charlotte Corday. It’s inconceivable that Ubisoft made an Assassin’s Creed game about the French Revolution where the period’s most famous assassin isn’t part of the narrative. Instead of factoring into the campaign, Corday’s assassination of radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat gets relegated to a murder mystery side quest. While well designed and rich in detail, the mission does neither Marat nor Corday justice. Corday especially comes off badly, sounding more like an unhinged stalker than the determined, self-possessed woman we know from history. The whole thing’s reductive and throwaway, and it’s unfortunate.
But it’s nowhere near as unfortunate as Olympe de Gouges’ appearance. De Gouges was a fascinating figure in the Revolution – an activist and writer, she tackled topics like human rights, the abolition of slavery and gender inequality. Thriving in Parisian salons, she built a reputation as one of the city’s foremost feminists. But in 1793 she went too far in criticizing the Jacobin faction, who guillotined her along with her Girondist allies.
And that’s when we meet her in Unity, as a decapitated head.
I’m not joking. One of the heads you collect for Madame Tussaud belongs to De Gouges. It’s a mission item the player picks up. Unity literally takes the period’s most famous feminist and turns her into an object.
But that’s not even the worst thing. In the mission, you learn that a soldier stole her head from Tussaud’s workshop because he was “in love with her from afar.”
So not only is she an object, she’s a sexual object.
It’s unfortunate and no doubt unintentional. Probably the team just wanted to fit her in somehow and didn’t think about the implications. Frankly, I’d look a lot more kindly on the mission had it unlocked a database entry on her, since at least it would’ve opened a learning opportunity. But no, there isn’t one. And I’m left wondering what the developers were thinking.
So Many Missed Opportunities
In addition to missing out on Charlotte Corday, we also missed out on Jean-Paul Marat. That’s really too bad, since the fire-breathing journalist would’ve been a perfect fit for the game’s warnings against extremism. There’s no scene where players meet him hiding in the sewers or raving about enemies of the Revolution. We don’t even get to see Robespierre install him in cathedrals as a secular saint after his murder.
And speaking of Robespierre, I couldn’t help my disappointment at what a small role he plays in the game. He was the Revolution’s most famous orator but barely has a speaking role. We barely get to see his Reign of Terror. But the most discouraging aspect was how the game treats his character arc. Robespierre’s transformation from a reasonable and idealistic man into a paranoid tyrant was one of history’s great twists. Handled right, it would’ve made a great story. Yet instead of letting that play out, we get a mission where Arno and Elise drug him so he looks insane.
That’s terrible. It undercuts the story’s inherent tension. What was frightening about Robespierre was that his contemporaries came to realize they’d handed power to a dictator more dangerous than Louis XVI, one that wouldn’t hesitate to turn his power on them. Slipping him drugs at the Festival of the Supreme Being takes the power from the moment where his self-delusion and narcissism finally were laid bare.
It Misunderstands The Revolution’s Impact
Massive Spoiler Alert
In the end, it turns out that the Templars engineered the Revolution to serve as a warning about how popular democracy leads to chaos.
If that’s their master plan, it failed. While a dictator did rise after the Revolution and the monarchy returned to France (for sixteen years), the Revolution’s legacy continued. The restored Bourbons inherited a constitutional monarchy not an absolute one, and their power gradually eroded until they were forced out for good in 1848. The Revolution broke royal power, and rather than deterring populist politics, it encouraged them. If anything, the game’s apparent stance that the Revolution was an Entirely Bad Thing seems nearsighted and one-dimensional.
Any chance we could fix that in DLC?
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in The Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.