[Review] Assassin's Creed Unity

Posted by | November 21, 2014 | Reviews | 2 Comments

Assassin’s Creed Unity is a game with epic, glorious highs and baffling disappointments.

And I loved it.

The Story

Unity is the latest entry in the very popular Assassin’s Creed series of action-adventure games. All the games have a touch of science fiction, a lot of history, and amazing exploration. The series tells the story of a conflict between the Knights Templar and a group called the Assassins—a conflict that has lasted for hundreds of years, even up to the present day. In Assassin’s Creed Unity you are nameless modern-day player enlisted by the Assassins. You are tasked to relive the memories of Arno Dorian during the French Revolution, and you are inside a computer simulation—a simulation that the Templars are continually trying to hack into and destroy.

Arno and Elise in some uncustomary fancy dress.

Arno and Elise in some uncustomary fancy dress.

Arno is a charming, slightly doofy young man who reminded me of a cross between Ezio Auditore from earlier Assassin’s Creed games and Flynn Rider from the film “Tangled.” Suffice it to say, I fell in love. After the death of his father, Arno is taken in by the de la Serre family. Unbeknownst to him, they are Templars and his father was an Assassin. The epitome of mortal enemies in this game universe, if you will. Despite this, Arno and Elise de la Serre become fast friends and later, lovers.

When Monseiur de la Serre is killed, Arno and Elise are torn apart. Both seek vengeance; Arno joins the Assassins and Elise strikes out on her own. Over the following years their paths cross as they hunt down the killers, over the backdrop of an increasingly turbulent Parisian political landscape.

This love story gives Unity a heart, and I truly appreciated it. In a series that gets bogged down with lots of shifty characters and factions, the banter and affection between Elise and Arno is touching. Elise is fierce, capable, and all business—a perfect foil for impulsive but loyal Arno.

Assassin's Creed Unity Paris

Exploring Paris is a highlight of Assassin’s Creed Unity.

And then there’s Paris: the main attraction. Ubisoft has created a beautiful, vibrant version of the City of Light. The buildings are painstakingly recreated. You can climb Notre Dame and Ste. Chappelle, the Louvre, and more. The Tuileries gardens are open for your enjoyment, the Place des Vosges is the site of a thrilling chase, and you climb the Bastille.

The city map is massive. The detail put into Paris is truly awesome, and I appreciate Ubisoft’s commitment to representing a single setting with such care.

The History

As “the French Revolution game,” Unity wouldn’t be complete without its historical figures. The game introduces important personages like Robespierre and Louis XVI and references events like the Etats-Generaux, the September Massacres, and the Terror. If you’re a French history enthusiast, it’s a whole other fun game to see how these events and figures fit into the Assassin plot.

That being said, without knowledge of the Revolution—well, you might be left floundering. Like previous Assassin’s Creed games, Unity provides detailed database entries for all the places, people, and events that it references. If you don’t bother to read these, the game provides scant exposition about the politics in play.

Arno and Napoleon Bonaparte are unlikely allies.

Arno and Napoleon Bonaparte are unlikely allies.

The first and possibly most glaring example happened early for me. I was trailing a target and I ended up in what I recognized as the Etats-Generaux—the government meeting that was one of the sparks of the Revolution. Aside from the database entry—which I was a little too busy to read—there was no dialogue referencing the importance of the moment.

On the other hand, if you do the legwork you really can learn things from Unity. One of the side quests had me helping with some unsolved cases at the local gendarmerie. A prisoner named Eugène Vidocq gave me some advice on how to best go about solving a murder. I thought he was an original character until I read his database entry (and Googled him for good measure) and discovered the real Eugène François Vidocq: the first private detective and founder of modern criminology. I had never heard of him—and I’m a huge fan of murder mysteries.

Of course, everything you learn from Assassin’s Creed should be augmented with a quick trip to Wikipedia. The game doesn’t try to be totally historically accurate—part of the fun is that you’re messing with history, revealing “secrets” (otherwise known as fantasy plot elements) that have been hidden for centuries.

The Gameplay

If you want a game that lets you free-run through Paris and climb famous landmarks, stop reading this review and buy Assassin’s Creed Unity right now. But if you need more than that from this game, keep reading.

Success requires stealth, agility, and some deadly fighting skills. Missions usually have Arno infiltrating a building in search of information or a target. Along the way you assassinate countless guards and enemy foot soldiers—or try to hide and sneak past them altogether. These missions require a healthy amount of strategy. The buildings are huge, with multiple entrances, opportunities for distractions, and pathways to your final target.

Nothing to see here. Just hiding.

Nothing to see here. Just hiding.

Let’s get the downsides out of the way. Assassin’s Creed continually struggles to maintain a balance between fluid movement over ground and over buildings. The compromise is that climbable things are a little more “sticky” than someone trying to sneak around would prefer. Unity is better than other games at figuring out where you’re trying to make Arno go, but there were plenty of frustrating moments where he would do exactly the opposite thing I wanted, sometimes getting himself killed in the process. Getting him to take cover (a really crucial skill for an Assassin) was especially difficult in high-intensity scenarios. Unfortunately, this isn’t completely unheard of for an Assassin’s Creed game. I understand that it’s difficult to balance a massive open world with precision gameplay. Still, we’re eight games into Assassin’s Creed and the issues that keep cropping up are the same.

Look at all these obstacles to get stuck on and people to shove.

Look at all these obstacles to get stuck on and people to shove.

That being said, I still found this game a step forward in terms of fluid motion. Finding organic pathways across rooftops was truly enjoyable, and the new ability to free-run down changed my life. Additionally, being able to easily descend building facades with one button was a wonderful balm for the painful memories of accidentally leaping to my death in Assassin’s Creed II.

I had a lot more difficulty getting Arno to perform complicated assassinations—any time I attempted a double assassination it was pretty much a coin toss on whether I would succeed. But the regular melee combat—fighting with a sword—felt great.

The Apps and Microtransactions

Any gameplay hiccups are, in my opinion, forgivable. Unity is still fun and feels good to play, even if it’s not exactly “cool” to run in and out of your target’s house five times because you keep screwing up and alerting every single guard. I’m less positive about the additional interactions and transactions that Ubisoft has added.

First, there are microtransactions, even though the game is fairly expensive at $60. You can buy “Helix Credits” with real money and spend those on in-game items. You earn some Helix Credits simply from playing, but they’re also available in the game’s menu.

Then, by connecting to Ubisoft’s Uplay service, you can access other rewards—like gameplay boosts, in-game currency, or a digital copy of the game’s soundtrack. Inexplicably, this was integrated into my PS4 game with a pop-in browser window, complete with mouse arrow on the screen. It’s clumsy, and I don’t feel like I missed much by ignoring it.

Buying different outfits helps boost Arno's stats.

Buying different outfits helps boost Arno’s stats.

There’s also  Initiates, a site that integrates with Unity and other Assassin’s Creed games. It functions as a way to level up faster and tie the games together—you get daily missions and rewards like in-game outfits and other collectibles. So far the Initiates daily drills haven’t been available for Unity, but theoretically by completing them you earn points. These points go towards leveling you up so that you can unlock chests which can only be opened by rising as an Initiate.

And finally, there’s the official Assassin’s Creed Unity companion app. Completing “missions” in this app gets you Nomad points that open different locked chests. You can also find Nomad points around Paris. This app connects to your Uplay account.

These pop-ups are still obnoxious and unnecessary. They just clutter up the UI and confuse players. Encountering a chest that you can’t unlock without signing up for a website is a great way to break immersion. I was even more frustrated by this because it interfered with my enjoyment of  Unity’s detailed and lovely Paris setting.

I ignored these prompts, except for the sake of writing this review, and my gameplay didn’t suffer at all, which is even more evidence of how unnecessary the apps and microtransactions are.

Parental Concerns

Assassin’s Creed Unity is rated M for Mature, and it comes with everything you’d expect from such a rating. When you stab people, blood elegantly splatters the walls—sometimes your sword will plunge through the neck or face of whatever unlucky sap you’re killing. You can turn the blood off in the menu settings, which takes care of that particular issue.

There are some sexual themes in the game, and all of them center around the presence of the controversial Marquis de Sade. De Sade’s presence in the game caused me some trepidation at first, but he is greatly toned down—to my relief. His database entry mentions that he wrote novels that were considered “obscene and heavily censored.” There is a scene where he’s managed to engage some Parisians in drunken revelry. He unties the ribbons on a drunk woman’s bodice and kisses her hand—while giving you crucial information, of course. But that’s about as risque as the de Sade content gets.

The Marquis de Sade penning a novel. Luckily we don't get too much detail about it. It involves goats, though.

The Marquis de Sade penning a novel. Luckily we don’t get too much detail about it. It involves goats, though.

Apart from Elise, there are few female characters. This is typical of Assassin’s Creed, but still disappointing.

History has never been a particularly family-appropriate subject, and Assassin’s Creed: Unity is less horrific than the real thing. I think that’s a great conversation starter, though. The French Revolution resulted in massive societal overhaul for France, and ultimately planted the seeds for today’s French democracy. The Revolution was also deeply flawed and terribly violent—but perhaps necessary to overcome the tyranny of the monarchy.

Unity can give players a reason to start looking into French history and to start researching and talking about the role of popular rebellion. This game is probably appropriate for teenagers—a demographic that will be able to keep up with its time-hopping plot. I would definitely prefer it over more realistic violent games like Call of Duty, even though the violence is more closeup.

The Takeaway

When Unity is good, it’s incredible. The cooperative relationship between Arno and Elise, combined with the amazing Paris setting, made Unity my favorite Assassin’s Creed game since Assassin’s Creed II. It gave me everything I wanted: fun combat, beautiful scenery, and even likeable, well-drawn characters whose cut scenes I watched on the edge of my seat.

If you’re used to Assassin’s Creed’s mechanics and miss being able to free-run over rooftops, this game will conjure great memories of classic Assassin’s Creed. Unity wins in all the ways that previous Assassin’s Creed games did, but it also fails in the same ways. I wish that Ubisoft would slow down and put out a truly polished game.

The high points of Unity outweigh the low.

The high points of Unity outweigh the low.

While the story of Arno and Elise’s relationship progresses wonderfully, the overarching Assassin plot (trying to find how de la Serre’s murder is connected to the Revolution) is convoluted and hard to follow. Major players are introduced and killed off one after the other, and keeping track of all those French names is a challenge.

The tie-ins with Assassin’s Creed’s modern sci-fi plot are pitch perfect. I won’t spoil it, but there are some truly exciting and surreal sequences where you are abruptly reminded that you are playing a computer simulation. This manages to keep the game grounded in the present day while also not tearing the player completely out of French history.

Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a game that’s struggling to move in the right direction. As an Assassin’s Creed fan and Francophile, I loved it. It’s not the most polished game out there, but it’s visually striking and it contains some incredible scenes that you need to play for yourself to appreciate.

Simone de Rochefort

About Simone de Rochefort

Simone de Rochefort is a game journalist, writer, podcast host, and video producer who does a prolific amount of Stuff. You can find her on Twitter @doomquasar, and hear her weekly on tech podcast Rocket, as well as Pixelkin's Gaming With the Moms podcast. With Pixelkin she produces video content and devotes herself to Skylanders with terrifying abandon.