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Assassin’s Creed Unity Retrospective

Assassin’s Creed Unity Retrospective

Upon its initial release, Assassin's Creed Unity got absolutely slaughtered by both fans and critics alike: not only was the formula stale, it was absolutely devastated by bugs. Since 2014, it’s been completely unable to escape this reputation, but is it really as bad as people remember, or is it somewhat of a hidden gem…? (Spoiler, it’s neither).

For every good decision Unity makes, it manages to make multiple much worse ones, leaving those good decisions in the dust. This is most noticeable within the parkour, which may be the biggest disappointment. At face value, the movement in this title is utterly fantastic — potentially the best in the franchise — but the longer I played, the more the cracks began to show. Visually, the parkour system has incredible amounts of flair, with our hero — Arno — moving very stylishly through the rich environments of Paris, but this comes at the cost of freedom. Much of the system is fully automated, with three inputs necessary to get through every situation: High Profile, Free Run Up, and Free Run Down. This makes most traversal very simple, but any more advanced manoeuvres are hidden and often don’t work as they should due to the automated systems taking priority. This can lead to hugely frustrating encounters when one movement is expected, but another comes out, throwing off the planned route and leading to a generally uncomfortable movement system. Admittedly, when it works, it’s utterly beautiful, meshing incredibly well with the environment and leading to a simple but wonderful feeling.

Paris is easily fighting for the top spot for Assassin’s Creed locations for me, alongside Constantinople from Revelations. The amount of detail and work put into creating these environments is astonishing and is easily noticeable, and you need to look no further than the game's first assassination, Sivert, within Notre Dame. The famed church was single-handedly recreated over the course of two entire years by Caroline Miousse. While much of the artwork, inside and out, of the church has been changed — due to copyright issues — the rest was an incredibly faithful build. While Paris wasn’t recreated outright, the effort taken into detail is fantastic. Such as how the revolution has made a very direct impact on the world, and it shows, from many areas being run down to the absolutely impressive siege of the Bastille, which is a brilliant sight to behold.

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Combat is another perfect example of the issues I have with this game, opening up an impressive plethora of options and making 99% of them entirely pointless due to awful balancing decisions. At first glance, the massive systemic overhauls for fighting look like a major improvement; however, this is very quickly invalidated — a common occurrence. Depth has been massively increased in a variety of ways: parrying and perfect parries are a nice way to reward skill, similar to counters in past games, but not overly rewarding players as they have before; being able to utilise two gadgets at once adds much more value to certain tools that would otherwise be overshadowed; and the dodge is now actually worthwhile, as combat isn’t over as quickly as previous games, and is much more punishing… Absolutely none of this matters because smoke bombs exist. They break both combat and stealth, confusing every enemy within its radius, allowing for quick and easy kills while also completely breaking line of sight, giving a basically free escape. The real cherry on top of this horrible system is purely how many of these you’re given: looting enemies gives them in excess, and they’re cheap to buy at shops too.

Stealth, once again, seems great on the surface, adding a crouch for the first time in the series, along with a cover system, so it should all be pretty good, right? Well… not quite. While the mechanical changes add an interesting new dynamic, it manages to mostly kill what Assassin’s Creed is all about, social stealth (and is painfully easy, even without abusing smoke bombs). Many of the level designs and enemy placements essentially just require you to work out the correct order to take enemies out without being seen, which consists of slowly working through a room, killing enemies one by one, or silently killing them with the phantom blade (a silent ranged weapon) from a distance. Social stealth was one of the defining factors of the earlier titles but feels absent in Unity, despite technically being there. At no point past the prologue does the game give you any worthwhile areas where social stealth is one of the best options, outside of certain assassination missions, where it’s a decent choice but isn’t often rewarding enough to be worth the extra hassle… especially when everyone’s favourite smoke bombs are so abundant.

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While stealth is reasonably dominant within many of the game's missions, it is such a shallow system I can’t help but feel disappointed; the ability to hide bodies is completely absent, and enemies feel like they’re mostly deaf: an incredibly loud fight in the next room will have absolutely zero impact on enemies less than 10 yards away. Assassination missions really should be part of the game where stealth is pushed and punished accordingly, especially in accordance with how the story pushes the inherent necessity to follow the creed to a T. Unity drops its biggest and best assassination mission right out of the gate, just past the prologue, and is a pretty disappointing mess past this. The assassination of Charles Gabriel Sivert feels like a relatively simple blueprint for the rest of them, but the advancement of these missions is completely superficial. During the Sivert quest, the game showcases the new opportunities system, showing side objectives which open up new methods of infiltration and assassination, such as the confessional option within this first mission.

Despite this reasonably big innovation for the series, it doesn’t really go any further. Instead of adding multiple interesting opportunities during later missions, it mostly floods the environment with more enemies; there are still opportunities, but they only really add some slight benefits, such as a distraction removing a singular, small group of enemies or setting up an easier and more cinematic assassination. This is another painful disappointment, as I’d hoped these opportunities would lead to interesting choices and varied assassinations, but in reality, without these opportunities, assassinations would easily play out the same. It feels like a synthetic addition of mechanics that could easily have existed in the earlier titles; however, the additional fanfare within Unity makes them feel like they should be bigger than they are.

The story manages to start off incredibly. Both Arno and Elise, the two main characters of the game, are introduced and performed phenomenally, and the setup for the rest of the story is brilliantly done. The introduction of the other characters, such as the painfully underutilised Pierre Bellec, is done perfectly and builds up for what should theoretically be a fantastic story… and then everything goes wrong. Again.

After the prologue, the pacing manages to be completely thrown out of the window: new targets and members of the conspiracy appear out of absolutely nowhere. Even many seemingly important supporting characters, such as Germain the silversmith (who admittedly has more going on than we know but isn’t well set up) and the Marquis de Sade, are used for one or two missions and then completely discarded, despite having the potential to be much more. There are a lot of issues with the storytelling… but it wouldn’t be right to discount the amount of things it does manage to do right. Outside of the main story, Arno’s character arc is one of the best in the series; seeing his personal vendetta clash with the creed is a new side of things that hadn’t been done before in the series in such a strong way. This is also heavily accented by his Romeo-and-Juliet-esque romance with Elise, a Templar whom he has had a longtime romance with. The interpersonal relationships are the strongest part of the narrative, but these moments aren’t used as frequently as they could be to make up for all its other issues. There’s also a present-day story, which, to be blunt, absolutely sucks. You play as a nameless assassin initiate, doing exactly as you’re told by a couple of uninteresting characters who occasionally pop into the game to say something relatively useless and then disappear for a while. It feels completely tacked on and pointless, and Unity could easily have done without it.

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Side content is perfectly passable but, for the most part, not outstanding. Many of the missions are simple steal or assassination tasks, which don’t have enough detail to really draw me in. The best of these is easily the Murder Mysteries, interesting, puzzle-focused missions requiring you to find clues to help solve a murder. There are also the Helix Rifts, which are also pretty bland. Arno jumps through a rift, leading to an alternate time period and requires you to hunt for collectables within a time limit to rescue another assassin. There’s no huge issue with these missions, but they’re just a little boring. One of the more interesting pieces of side content is the Nostradamus enigma; these are small riddles which reward clever observation and are a testament to the incredible world design.

I really wished I’d enjoyed Unity more; at the beginning of my replay, I was having an absolute blast, but the longer I played, the more cracks began to show, and in the end, the disappointment really set in. I don’t think it’s quite the utter disgrace many people look back and see it as from its incredibly poor launch. It has some fantastic ideas, but sadly, Ubisoft fumbled much of the execution and the final product feels like nothing more than an assortment of half-finished mechanics… and still a plethora of bugs.

Jacob Sanderson

Jacob Sanderson

Staff Writer

It's not an obsession if it counts as work...

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