Something must be going wrong in the deep dark heart of Ubisoft. Many of its recent games have shipped amid controversy and marketing obfuscation, raising the ire of dedicated gamers and likely spurning those who take the pastime a little less seriously.
Assassin's Creed Unity has been beset by problems since it launched on 14 November. This should not be news to anyone who has been keeping tabs on coverage of the game but here is an overview of events.
Ubisoft obviously rushed an unpolished game to shelves, effectively undermining any decent development work it had done to move the series forward - and there are insulting micro-transactions shoe-horned into the single-player game to frustrate consumers who already paid the full price. Reviewers were held under embargo until post-launch, further angering critics and exacerbating consumer backlash.
Meanwhile, this is the first truly "next-gen" Assassin's Creed title (they didn't have to gimp the game to support the dog-tired PS3 and Xbox 360), so it flies the flag for the franchise and should set a benchmark on what Ubisoft can deliver on new hardware.
For those with previous experience Assassin's Creed games, expect some barely innovative and extremely familiar gameplay that has been tweaked (for better and worse), and the same old storyline rehashed in the fictional trappings of revolution-era France, wrapped in a beautiful (but glitchy) visual representation of Paris circa the late 1700s.
For those new to the franchise, there just might be enough here to get you hooked into a new generation of Assassin's Creed games but technical woes undermine what Unity is trying to offer.
There's also a co-operative multiplayer element, which Ubisoft punted as one of the game's unique selling points.
Story, visuals and atmosphere
The story follows smarmy protagonist Arno Dorian and does little to deviate from the established Assassin's Creed plot building blocks. In this case: tragic family incident leads to pre-destined role as world's deadliest Assassin – check; mysterious love interest and plot device – check; those scheming Templars and punctilious Assassins once again hold the fate of the world in the balance – check; a near-future present-day meta-storyline that threads it all together deus ex machina style – check.
Arno is likeable enough and the supporting cast drive the story forward in an entertaining manner – but none of it is particularly memorable. The voice acting is competent, if not a little odd considering the timeline. The cutscenes are beautifully realised and the art team on the Ubisoft production line should get a tip of the Phrygian cap for doing a good job.
The art direction overall is fantastic – one of the few elements Ubisoft consistently outdoes itself with in the Creed series. When you stop to take in the views, the game world oozes with character and delight.
Vast crowds of revolutionaries demonstrate along the muddied cobbled streets, with sunlight reflecting off the rain puddles as smoke from effigies rises up against the (conveniently climbable) embossed bulwarks of aristocracy. Around the corner, the down-trodden lift their spirits at one of the many bustling food markets and watering holes, with singing, music, dancing, political debate, gossip, and petty crime filling the out the ambience.
Travel to the affluent areas and the tone changes to reflect its occupants, concerned with the political turmoil, but clinging to their profligacy. The atmosphere again changes as the timeline progresses to full-blown revolution. Inside the many explorable buildings, there is beautiful decor or miserable poverty to discover. Beneath the city, catacombs await complete with the skulls and tombs of long-forgotten dead. Take to the rooftops and the city sprawls before you, the noisy bustle of the street lost as Arno clambers toward one of the numerous stunning landmarks of Paris beckoning on the horizon.
Assassin's Creed Unity boasts the best looking and most-atmospheric city of the series so far – all the more pity it staggers under the weight of its ambition once the player swings into motion.
Subtle lighting and excellent texture work illustrates the technical prowess of the engine and dev team, undermined by the apparently rushed efforts at optimising the game. Animation glitches abound; frame rate drops swoop in from nowhere and for no apparent reason; texture and object level of detail jarringly pops into view; all while the camera aimlessly swings around on its virtual boom to become uselessly wedged against scenery.
Fans of the series will recognise Ubisoft has attempted to iterate on its stolid design documents, and has also identified some criticisms and shortcomings from its previous Creed outings. However, it also seems it either removed or did not implement familiar mechanics that satisfyingly rounded out previous games.
The free-running parkour system has been given a bit of an overhaul, both in animation and mechanics. There is now "run up" and "run down", which is a good idea and adds dimension but often fails due to its unpolished implementation in an Assassin's Creed world that boasts more object clutter.
The "three buttons and an analog stick" approach to the traversal controls are stymied by the exponentially iterative animation options available to Arno as he scrambles about. At times, he gracefully flits from rooftop to building façade to street level with dextrous poise. Then in mid-run, he'll awkwardly squat on a tiny stool left in the street with a frustrating amount of coaxing required to get him off the damn thing.
The combat has been reworked with interesting promise. The unstoppable Assassin combat of yore has been replaced with a challenging albeit sluggish affair of parry and riposte. It's the right idea – you are an Assassin and in terms of role-playing, direct combat is best avoided. However, it is also inevitable and frustrating to have harsh transitions and lethargic animations hamper what should be an exciting segment of gameplay. There is no sense of consistency. Sometimes Arno adroitly responds to a parry command with split-second precision – other times he decides to sheathe his weapon just as an axe zones in on his groin.
Ubisoft has honed in on the neglected stealthing possibilities of playing an Assassin and done some mediocre mechanical work in this regard. Arno can crouch (finally) and there's a dedicated "duck to cover" function that makes him quite sneaky when you use it correctly. This yields spotty results, as Arno doesn't always exit cover as you'd like, sometimes rolling into plain view, other times refusing to move and clinging to the wall while enemies swarm around him.
But why is the ability to hide bodies still absent?
Another missing feature is the "lure" – a simple whistle perhaps – the stealthing staple that lures guards away from their post for a surprise attack (instead Arno relies on a ludicrous "peek-a-boo" tactic). Both would be useful in cramped levels seething with guards on patrol.
In terms of gameplay design, a lot of the superfluous junk has been stripped out allowing the player to focus on what the game should be all about – assassinating people. Targets are no longer at the end of a linear path as was often the case in previous Creed's but are instead lurking in guarded areas. The design hearkens back to the style introduced in the original Assassin's Creed - a refreshing move in terms of gameplay hook.
Missions typically start out with Arno reaching a good observation point from where a short cutscene will point out possible routes of solving the ostensible puzzle of how to infiltrate a well-protected area, get close enough to the target for some face-stabbing action, and escape with your life. Options are sparse and scripted, but do offer some variety, such as creating distractions, gathering allies, finding a secret entrance, or if you prefer, wading in with gleaming sword and smoking gun.
One of the biggest gripes is the evidently shoddy AI. Pursuing guards have a worse time than player-controlled Arno, easily becoming stuck on environment objects, and all the looping running animations in the world will not dislodge them. Guards barely become agitated upon discovering their slain comrades, and preposterously shrug it off and return to their programmed route without bothering to investigate. Where in the Creed's of old, the guards would scale buildings in pursuit, now they just mill about at ground level for a few seconds before giving up.
While the main story plods along, the various side quests offer an enjoyable respite. Among quests, you will solve murders while ironically committing many of your own, collect shrunken heads and unlock powerful gear and cool assassin outfits.
Speaking of which, there is an impressive array of hundreds of very nice looking outfits and weapon options to unlock, and they aren't merely aesthetic, offering Arno improved abilities and protection.
This is where Ubisoft's corporate contempt of the consumer once again rears its ugly head: micro-transactions.
Players are able to spend a shocking amount of real money in order to unlock gear and weapons if they do not want to work for them. In what is ostensibly a single-player game that already cost the customer around £45, this is unethical and insulting.
There is no way we can believe Ubisoft did not botch with the in-game economy balance in order to entice people to spend more on micro-transactions, and so we assume this is exactly what it has done.
Unacceptable, and a serious slap in the face for gamers who already invest heavily their time and money into the pastime.
Since its successful introduction in Brotherhood, we have seen four iterations of Assassin's Creed multiplayer. Unity ditches the competitive stabbing action and instead is a co-op mode supporting four players, which, despite some teething problems, is really good fun once you get into the swing of things. The missions are activated by marker directly from the single-player map, and the transition would be seamless aside from the necessary match-making.
The gameplay does not deviate much from the single-player options, with "Brotherhood" missions a story-driven affair requiring traversal, infiltration, stealth, and combat to complete. "Heist" missions offer some variety with randomised levels, guards, and loot rewards.
The action is slightly different to the single-player affair, in that rushing across the city with other assassin's towards objective markers becomes quite a frantic affair, and getting there first a real motivation to come to grips with the spotty traversal controls.
Your buddies might blunder into a fight they cannot finish alone, and this combined with glitchy animations, a healthy dose of network lag, and confused objectives, creates scenarios that are amusing but probably not in the way Ubisoft intended.
Still, once you have got the hang of the missions after a few tries and wind up in a team with some other experienced players, the co-op can be a rather fun and rewarding diversion from the single-player action.
Ubisoft is definitely on to something with the co-op mode, and with a framework in place, we can hope it improves on it for the inevitable 2015 AC instalment (it would also be nice to have the competitive multiplayer back on top of that).
Though the intention to go back to the Assassin's drawing board is laudable, I do not feel enough has been done to break the mould on gameplay, or where changes have been made they haven't been sufficiently polished to warrant labelling this as a success. There is plenty to see and do around revolution era Paris but it will likely become repetitive and boring before most do it all.
It is just more of the same, and this is the problem with a yearly production line approach to game development. At this stage, Ubisoft cannot try excuse itself by implying this is the first in a new franchise that will be improved upon (a la Watch Dogs).
The most innovotive thing to happen to Assassin's Creed arguably appeared in number three with the navel combat, which was more fully fleshed out in Assassin's Creed 4. So if we are to learn from history, it might be worth skipping this year's iteration to wait for a more entertaining offering next year.
Perhaps with a foundation for next-gen Assassin's Creed in place and some improvements and additions in the right direction, the franchise could offer something truly captivating once again. Unity just misses the mark but holds enough promise to keep me interested in Ubisoft's next attempt.
However, Unity is probably worth waiting for bargain bin deals for most seasoned gamers. Those looking for an exciting Christmas AAA title might be better off exploring other options for spending their hard-earned cash.