Can you really get too much of a good thing? Assassin’s Creed is aiming to find out.
Game publisher Ubisoft releases a new entry in the stealth series annually, but this year it cranked out two: Assassin’s Creed: Unity for the PC, Xbox One, and PS4, and Assassin’s Creed: Rogue for the PS3 and Xbox 360. That makes eight main Assassin’s Creeds in seven years. The bodies are piling up.
And so are these games, though the critical and commercial success of last year’s pirate-themed Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag proved that a little creativity can keep even the most oversaturated series interesting.
This year, though, they might have gone too far.
Unity is the biggest Assassin’s Creed game yet, giving players an almost comically huge version of 18th century France in which to run amok. Ubisoft repeatedly pointed this out leading up to its release, touting its incredible crowd-rendering technology and its skill at harnessing the increased power of the new(ish) consoles. That’s all well and good, but Unity unfortunately trades size for stability — and, worse, familiarity for ingenuity. Despite a few cool new things for aspiring murderers to do, a bevy of technical glitches and some old, lingering issues stab it in the back.
You’re Arno Dorian, a young Frenchman out to solve the mystery of your adoptive father’s murder. As the latest in a long line of assassins, you ply your trade on the shady streets of 1790s Paris during the French Revolution, bringing you in contact with the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Marquis de Sade.
Or at least that’s partly who you are. You’re also you — yes, you, right there, staring at your TV — because to keep this game in line with the complicated narrative of the Assassin’s Creed series, it now pretends that the game itself is the product of the nefarious Abstergo Industries and that you, the gamer, are an unwilling helper bee for the historically power-mad Templars.
It’s an awkward conceit, and for the most part you’ll forget entirely about the game-within-a-game thing. Besides, you’re not playing this because of how it ties into the overarching — and increasingly hard to follow — Assassin’s Creed plot, which is rife with conspiracy theories, Leonardo da Vinci, triple-crossing traitors, George Washington, aliens, and now Napoleon (who maddeningly has a British accent).
You’re playing to scurry up a building, pick off a guard, survey the land, and dive off into a bale of hay. That core experience hasn’t changed much over the years, and it’s front and center here. Unity sadly ditches the pirate ship business that made Black Flag such a wonder, instead landlocking players on an absolutely massive map of Paris.
The city is the game’s real star. Ubisoft has crafted one of the most breathtaking virtual environments ever wedged onto a disc. Paris is gorgeous, its intimidating buildings soaring majestically above the troubled, twisty streets. Landmarks like Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Sorbonne are rendered in astonishing detail, and they’re no longer simply façades. Many buildings now feature fully explorable interiors. This is a really big video game, spatially speaking, and at times you’ll just want to perch on a ledge and take it all in.
It’s a city bursting with life, too. All that talk about huge crowds? They’re in here, often in the form of dense, angry mobs tussling with authorities and lending a sense of urgency to the proceedings. Yes, the crowds are often just window dressing — killing civilians is strictly off-limits — but they’re really effective at making this world feel lived in.
Where it shines in its world-building, however, Unity stumbles in its design. The map is littered with so many icons, it’s hard to tell where the icons end and the actual map begins. There are baubles to collect, chests to unlock, murder mysteries to solve, Nostradamus clues to unravel, and eleventy million side-quests to steer you away from the game’s main story. It’s an OCD’s jackpot, but it’s overbearing.
Part of the problem is that Ubisoft couldn’t stop adding layers to this already massive cake. Want to open gold chests? You’ll need to hook up your “Uplay” account. Blue chests? First download the Assassin’s Creed companion app on your smartphone or tablet. Whoops, your “Initiate” level isn’t high enough! Better head over to the Initiate website and click some buttons. It’s confounding and messy.
Equally perplexing is why Ubisoft has opted to bludgeon gamers with all this extraneous content instead of fixing Assassin’s Creed’s most persistent problem: navigation. Players have been forgiving it for years, but the controls are still too loose and fidgety. Despite terrific new animations, Arno never quite does what you want him to do, either by ignoring your inputs or following orders incorrectly. Missed jumps and failed sneaking attempts are common; good luck getting him to enter a stupid window on the first try.
It’s especially frustrating in light of recent games like Sunset Overdrive and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, both of which make traversing their vast, open worlds a lot more fun. Assassin’s Creed: Unity feels mired in the past, requiring players to slog back and forth across its massive map but failing to significantly improve the manner in which they do it.
The one area in which Unity unequivocally does improve upon past games is its deep customization. You can outfit Arno in all sorts of ability-enhancing gear, weapons, and items. It’s a bit limited in its scope, but it’s a welcome blast of role-playing goodness.
As the name implies, Unity was built with cooperative play in mind. A number of co-op missions can be triggered from the main game, and it’s genuinely fun taking out guards with friends, if you can get it working. Technical hurdles abound here. I suffered a good dozen or so crashes just trying to connect and play with members of my own in-game guild.
That’s just the start of the game’s glitches, however. Missions occasionally vanish from the map, frame-rate dips are common, and it’s been known to tear the faces off its beautiful characters. The game constantly buckles under its own weight, and it’s unacceptably sloppy.
It’s too bad, too, because buried beneath the piles of icons, complicated services, and rickety code lies a cool game. Unity’s believable world and impressive depth are intoxicating; there’s good stuff here. But this overworked assassin is starting to lose his edge — and, crucially, his ability to kill cleanly. Perhaps he’s ready for some time off.
What’s Hot: Paris looks amazing; great customization; bursting with content
What’s Not: Bursting with glitches, too; control issues; dull design; too many things to sign up for
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