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Assassin's Creed Unity

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: Nov. 11, 2014 (US), Nov. 13, 2014 (EU)

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


Xbox One Review - 'Assassin's Creed Unity'

by Brian Dumlao on Nov. 17, 2014 @ 3:00 a.m. PST

From the storming of the Bastille to the execution of King Louis XVI, experience the French Revolution as never before, and help the people of France carve an entirely new destiny.

Assassin's Creed: Unity, the latest game in Ubisoft's annual franchise, is the first title in the series to be developed and released on the PC and current-generation consoles, leaving behind the previous generation. It's a game with promotional material that focuses on the multiplayer experience rather than the single-player adventure, which was emphasized in Brotherhood. It also comes after Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, which was praised for not being much of an Assassin's Creed game. With almost every Ubisoft studio branch working on the title in some capacity or another, Unity is big — a little too big, as it turns out.

In Unity, you play as yourself, a gamer who picked up a new console from Abstergo Industries that is basically a miniature Anumis machine. Not long after playing through your first mission, you're contacted by the Assassins via the console and told that Abstergo is looking for the burial ground of someone who had extraordinary DNA. Playing through these historical records gives you clues about who this person was, and the Assassins want to find out before the Templar-run Abstergo does.

Every time you're returned to the game's future world, you do so via cut scenes instead of taking control of a test subject for the company. On the one hand, this reduces the importance of the events in the future, since you're merely watching the action take place instead of actively participating. On the other hand, those sections aren't exactly memorable.

The historical story, which is the concentration of a large bulk of the game, is in line with the tales from earlier games. Unity starts is Versailles, France, just before the French Revolution, and you reach Paris just as the revolution reaches a boiling point. You play the role of Arno, a young boy who saw his Assassin father die and was later the ward of a high-ranking Templar. Years later, you're accused of your adoptive father's murder, and you spend a lot of time in prison before you're trained by an Assassin and manage to escape. Arno joins the brotherhood and vows to get revenge.

This story is pretty cut-and-dried, despite there being some interesting elements, namely your lover being part of a group you're supposed to hate. The revenge plot takes precedence, and it's wrapped up in interesting ways toward the end of the campaign, but the majority of the game feels rather dry. Part of the reason is due to Arno's distance from the events and people around him. You'll meet some of history's most famous figures, but none of it feels meaningful or surprising. In short, some amazing things can happen, but they feel rather hollow.

The core of the game is exactly the same as it was when it was initially introduced. Like all of the Assassins before him, Arno is proficient in swordplay, and he has access to lots of tools. He can climb up just about any surface with ease and survive long falls, so long as there's a body of water or hay bale. He can also climb up high landmarks, synchronize with the world, and uncover items of interest. Those who have played the previous games will be able to jump right in with no trouble.

There are a few new things thrown into the mix to help vary the game. The basic parkour moves have been modified, so you have more control and can direct whether your movement is aimed up or down. You also have a way to do a more controlled fall without hurting yourself. The title borrows a bit from the Splinter Cell series, so you can now crouch at any time and leave behind ghosts of yourself to trick guards. As far as combat goes, you have a parry move that is a weaker version of the counterattack but is still rather useful.

The most significant change is customization. Once you get past what's considered the tutorial portion, you can modify a great deal of your version of Arno. The clothes are the only part of his appearance you can change, but hoods and robes are more than aesthetic, since each affects stats like health and armor. Weapons do the same and come in different varieties, like long spears and short swords. Abilities can also be customized, and just about all of them are ripped from the series' competitive multiplayer portion. Stuns, temporary disguises, and blending into the environment with and without the help of benches are now accessible in the single-player game, which makes the experience that much richer.

All of this combines to make the game's highlight — the assassinations — much more varied. It also helps that the assassination sequences have opened up by giving you several avenues to complete your mission and escape. There's always the brute force approach, which is by far the most difficult and messiest since enemies are difficult to deal with. Each stealth approach also has several options; some are more direct as long as you find the open areas, and others are much easier if you take care of smaller side tasks that open up paths of lesser resistance. Either way, the different methods make each hit very satisfying, similar to a typical Hitman game.

However, the series' other annoyances are nearly unchanged. Having to tail an enemy doesn't happen too often, and the ability to crouch at all times helps, but too often, the people you're tailing are too jittery to make it through without arousing suspicion. The guards and Templar thugs can easily spot you in a crowd, and they almost give chase before you even spot them. Small barriers and pieces of furniture can impede your progress until you go into full sprint/parkour mode, which isn't the best strategy if you're trying to stay stealthy in a mission.

Much like the previous games, there are plenty of side missions when you're either bored of the campaign or have completed it. Some are escort missions, where you must protect someone of importance. Others are retrieval missions, where you need to collect items for someone. Nostradamus missions act as giant puzzles for trinkets that ultimately unlock one of the better outfits in the game. There are also a few tasks that allow you to view Paris from a different but incomplete time period. You must run around a section of the city to collect enough fragments to free a fellow assassin who's trapped there. On its own, this mission type seems like a way to use the development team's experiments, especially since there's not much to do in these alternate versions of Paris, but it shows some potential if the team chooses to incorporate it into future installments.

Of all of the side missions, two stand out. The first is the murder mysteries, which temporarily transform you into a sleuth who's trying to find the killer. Generally, you look for clues and talk to people to get a better idea of what happened instead of direct combat. Your reward is tied to your performance, so you're forced to use your brain to avoid getting more wrong accusations than right ones. The cases vary between clever and wildly obvious, but they provide a nice change of pace.

The second is the co-op missions, which replace the adversarial mode for those who want to engage in multiplayer. Most of the missions mimic the ones in the campaign, but the inclusion of more people helps them feel less mundane. More intriguing are the heist missions, which require a coordinated effort to employ stealth as a team. The death of anyone in the team means everyone loses and must start over, thus encouraging the player to team up with friends or good people instead of relying on random players. Completing these missions yields rare items that are only available in co-op. The missions don't contribute to the main story, but the tales are related to a number of your actions, so they feel less random. You can also go into co-op at almost any time. While competitive multiplayer is missed, this is a good alternative, and it would be nice to see this more fleshed out in the future.

For all of the things Unity does right, it does a great number of things wrong. All bystanders seem to be aloof to the things happening around them. Push your way through a crowd, and few react. Draw your sword in front in a crowd or kill someone, and a few people run around aimlessly while everyone else stands around. You can enter buildings and suddenly have people point and stare for no reason, or you can tackle a thief, and he'll stand up and go about his or her own business. Despite its other good qualities, the crowd feels rather lifeless once you realize it ignores almost anything you do.

The game has multiple currency systems that are tied to different things, like buying equipment and costume pieces, unlocking skills, and unlocking item upgrades. Hack points will cause the most uproar, since it feels like something that came out of a free-to-play game. As the name suggests, the points are used as a quicker means of buying things that you can earn with normal in-game currency. You can also use it to unlock item locations on the map; this feels unnecessary since a good synchronization from any high spot will do the same thing for free. While unfavorable, the option to buy cheats is there, but the prices are really outrageous. The lowest package is $19.99, and the highest package is $99.99, so you get the sense that the company wants to exploit impatient fans. With the game going for full retail price, it's tough to imagine anyone willing enough to go this route.

Despite the improvements to the controls to facilitate more fluid movements and better stealth, there are still parts that feel clunky. There's a button you normally use to climb in windows, but you don't need to use it since you can just climb right in, making both the button and the prompt useless. While the stealth aspect has been tweaked, it still lacks some of the more basic things, like dragging bodies or turning corners without popping in and out of cover.

Other, smaller things worm their way in. Unity gives you near-constant notifications that you have points to spend, but it sometimes appears over other helpful text. Going from a menu to the game world produces a blur effect that is more disorienting than cool, especially since the effect is slow to clear up. The game also has a few items tucked away behind Ubisoft's Uplay app, and other chests can't be opened up until you connect the game to the companion app or the Initiates program. The problem is that these things are all online components, but the game failed to connect to any of them during the review period — and even a few days after launch. It's perplexing that the game can connect to online matches but can't seem to do so for something less important.

Perhaps the biggest surprise with the title is how flawed it is from a technical standpoint. Load screens are long and numerous, with no text or art to go along with it. You simply get a blank black screen with a spinning symbol in the upper right corner for long stretches of time. Some screens feature a loading bar, but others don't. Run around the world, and you'll see individuals in the crowd getting stuck in the environment or even sinking into it. The frame rate may be capped at 30, but the game stutters so much that it dips dangerously close to the single-digit range. There's no rhyme or reason for the stuttering, as it can happen when there are large crowds, multiple particle effects visible, cut scenes — or when you're turning inside a building.

The sound also has instances where dialogue gets cut abruptly or the sound simply drops out for a couple of seconds. All of this happens often enough on the Xbox One, but reports are coming in that it happens frequently enough on the PS4 and high-end PCs as well, clearly suggesting that no platform currently has an advantage. There are even a few times when textures simply fail to load, the world loses its will to stay solid, and the game threatens to crash at critical times, like saving. This is probably the most poor-performing title in the franchise yet, and while the hope is that these issues can be eliminated with patches, the current experience will make you wonder where all of this extra hardware power and engine optimization is going.

Graphically, the game is a story of highs and lows. One of the obvious high points is the city, which is rich with detail. There are plenty of details in each building, with the aristocrat paintings looking as good as the graffiti on the walls. For a city as big as Paris, the crowds are teeming with people. The smaller areas hold about the same amount of people as the larger scenes in previous titles, and the larger crowds easily dwarf what's seen in something like the Dynasty Warriors games. All of the character models sport some nice details, and even though they haven't shown any improvements over last year's entry, they look pretty impressive. Get past the majority of technical issues mentioned earlier, and you'll see that there are other things wrong with the game's appearance. Animations for bystanders and enemies aren't as fluid as expected, with some actions awkwardly transitioning into one another. Some of the textures for mundane things, like doorknobs, are presented with low-resolution textures, which would be fine except that they're usually magnified to show how bad they are. Then there's the pop-up that's present for things like shadows and people as they suddenly appear in the air before hitting solid ground. To put it succinctly, Unity is a beautiful and inconsistent mess.

Audio-wise, the game is pretty scattershot. The music is sweepingly epic, just like all of the previous games had accomplished, and the sound effects are excellent, with no missed cues outside of the audio drops mentioned earlier. The performances of all of the characters, both major and minor, are very good and create somewhat compelling characters, even if some of the lines are repeated too often. One of the more curious decisions was for the game to hire actors with British accents instead of French ones. It may mean the game is understood by a large swath of players, but the lack of French accents betrays the time period and location, especially when those actors start to use British English slang. The confusion also sets in when you hear the people around you speaking perfect French, further creating a disconnected experience.

Assassin's Creed: Unity is full of ideas and systems that don't gel or haven't reached their potential. The return to an urban sprawl is fine after playing in the wide-open spaces of the last few games, and the setting is gorgeous even in its state of decay. The core action is largely the same, with the small amount of improvements being very welcome at this stage in the life of the series. With the plethora of single-player and co-op missions available to the player, the game is full of content that is in line with the series' earlier titles. However, the bevy of technical hiccups, from poor online connectivity to bad stuttering to degrading audio, makes this title feel like a rushed effort. Of all of the entries released on home platforms thus far, Unity is difficult to recommend to even the most die-hard of franchise fans.

Score: 6.0/10

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