When you load up an Assassin’s Creed title for the first time, you kind of know what to expect. Every entry in the series adds another layer of things that we assume will continue through to appear in the next game. From the basic free-running of the first title, through to the sprawling open-world adventure that was Black Flag, there’s always been something new added to the already-compelling mix. That’s also true of Assassin’s Creed Unity, where the development team have managed to throw all the stuff and more into a living, breathing representation of 18th century Paris, with minor trips to a smaller representation of Versailles thrown in for good measure. With an absolutely monstrous number of missions and collectables to attend to in single player before you even consider the multiplayer side of things, it’s fortunate that the locations are so well constructed, since you’ll more than likely be spending a lot of time wandering around them.
At times, the amount of things there are for you to do outside of the main campaign can be almost overwhelming, in fact. From relatively early on in your way through the main story, you’ve got access to side missions, puzzling riddle chains, murder mysteries, devastatingly tricky multiplayer heists, more side missions, a fantastic side-game by the name of “Helix Rift”, buildings to renovate, and co-op missions in which to partake, and that’s before you’ve even started on collectibles and markers. You can collect multi-part Initiates artefacts, multi-part standard artefacts, cockades, unlocked chests, locked chests, nomad chests (which can only be unlocked by playing the Unity companion app on another device, somewhat depressingly), viewpoints, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree.
Well, maybe not the last three. We’ll say it again. You’ll more than likely be spending a lot of time here.
This time around, the main character – Arno – features a few new upgrades. All the weaponry of Creeds of old is still in place, but the main changes appear to be with traversal. Yes, the free-running that forms the very backbone of the series has been given a bit of spit and polish, and is the better for it. The game feels more responsive and fluid, and the ability to drop down from level to level in the same way that you would climb is a godsend, even if there are times where Arno will still get “stuck” and steadfastly refuse to do what you tell him, or be at the mercy of a camera that can sometimes pull you out of the game. He can also slide over or under low obstacles with a tap of a button. The fluidity and feeling of general motion that is associated with parkour is as closely replicated here as you could reasonably expect, generally.
Again, this is fortunate, since there is a heck of a lot of ground to cover. Unity’s Paris is split up into a series of different districts, each with their own unique feel. The Café Théâtre district – which is more or less your home base - on the banks of the Seine, feels very different to the Invalides district, for example, and not only because the latter contains more hardy enemies with which to battle. Indeed, even though the game throws up an indicator when you cross district border lines, you’ll soon find that you don’t need to even acknowledge that, since you’ll know where you are just based on the feel of the place. If you’re lost, you could always look to one of the truly magnificent recreations of France’s great landmarks as a reference point. From the grand Notre Dame cathedral to La Bastille, it’s all here and generally explorable, to boot. There are times when you’ll visit the Eiffel Tower, but only fleetingly, since what is Paris’ best-known landmark obviously wasn’t in place during the passage of time that the game spans.
There’s no way around it. Assassin’s Creed Unity is impressive in terms of its scale and its attention to detail. There’s new life around every corner and therefore new reasons to play and explore once the main campaign – which is stellar – is done with and forgotten. There’s also a distinct lack of modern day sections, which is a further bonus given how close they came to destroying the atmosphere of Black Flag. The changes to the combat system - although minor - are welcome, even if you'll still find yourself throwing two stun grenades instead of one on occassion, thanks to the pedestrian pace at which Arno approaches his grenade pouch. New, more dynamic assassinations more than make up for these small shortcomings though. Tearing up behind a target, sliding to sweep the leg and then driving your hidden blade into the chest of your foe never gets old, and new, more fluid double assassinations whilst on foot are breathtaking. They're set-pieces really - you only have to run up and press "X" to initiate them - but that doesn't stop them from truly being top-notch work.
It may sound as if we’re waxing lyrical about Assassin’s Creed Unity - that would be because we are - but not all is well in Paris. Despite the improvements and additions, the game feels utterly unfinished.
In fact, “unfinished” may be putting it somewhat kindly, depending on which bugs you run into.
There are stability issues, for starters. A 1GB “day one” patch was made available to us before we started playing, and given the state of the post-patch game, we’re almost intrigued to see what it was like before it was applied. During our playing time, we’ve seen the game crash a fair few times. The 12-stage story was punctuated by no less than seven full crashes. We’ve been dropped to the dashboard more than a poorly-glued rear-view mirror. Then there were the three times that we fell through the world’s floor during different missions, dying only after flying through nothingness for a minute or two. That’s before noting the amount of times things just went “wrong” during campaign missions. You can tail a person of interest for two minutes, being warned over and over to not let them get too far away, then watch as they just disappear. You then search around for them randomly for ten minutes – panicking because you think you’re about to fail the mission as they’re nowhere to be seen – until you somehow find them at their destination. Or how about being burned alive without standing in a fire? A tower that we could optionally set ablaze caused one mission failure, as it burned us even though we’d decided to not bother lighting it. We clambered up it unawares, given that there were no flames or smoke, before our energy bar sapped away for no visible reason and we were desynchronized.
On top of that, NPCs stutter visually all over the place as you’re sprinting down the street, and often hover and pop into the air as they can’t negotiate the new low obstacles that Arno can. There’s copious amounts of pop-up, too. Rarely, but noticeably, the game will go entirely silent for a second or two as the game engine struggles to keep up. Other audio anomalies are present, such as not being able to hear an enemy guard’s footsteps around the corner but illogically being able to hear – at full volume – the voice of an enemy who’s three stories up, on the roof. Let’s not forget the bizarre decision to have 95% of people in the game - which is set in France, remember - be given the voices of Cornish pirates or Cockney lads, either. “WHAZZ UP WITH YEOOOW? FRA’ERNITY BORES YOU, DUZZ EHT?” doesn’t particularly sit well, and it’s even worse when they need to mention an actual French word or phrase, switching from Cornish to perfect French and back again in the space of a sentence. Elise’s vocalisation is a little on the strange side, too. In one moment she’s the poshest Englishwoman in all the land and in the next, she’s speaking with a distinctly French lilt. That would sort of make sense, was it not for the fact that she pronounces the same words in different accents depending on which way the wind is blowing.
There’s also the issue of the framerate to discuss. The graphics are absolutely stunning for the most part – barring that pop-up - but from the get-go things are a little choppy. Our estimation is that the framerate varies from between 20fps and 30fps on regular occasions, and there are times when it runs even slower than that for minor periods. It’s very noticeable early on. What we can’t understand, is why the game slows down as it does. At the beginning of the game, as the revolution begins, there are only a few people in a crowd and the game has slowdown issues. Later on, during one mission, there are easily hundreds of NPCs all in their finery and gathered in a town square, all cheering and chanting as a beheading is taking place, and the game runs at the same pace as it did when there were only ten. It makes little sense. Add that to a few bugs in co-op mode, specifically a nasty one where one of the two players is suddenly unable to attack or do anything other than run - meaning that completing co-op missions is very much a hit-and-miss affair - and you've got a fair list of problems.
To further find holes, you could look toward that feeling of overwhelmingness that we mentioned. Some people will be thrown by the four – count ‘em – currency systems that are in place. You have Livres (cash), Creed points (which determine your rank and can be used to upgrade equipment), Sync points (which unlock new skills), and Hex points. Hex points can be used to “hack” equipment so that you don’t have to pay for items with Livres, and also to hack equipment upgrades, so you don’t have to pay for them with Creed points. They also unlock temporary boosts, and can be topped up via microtransactions. We say "microtransactions", but with one of the options being twice the price of the game, they aren't all that "micro." However, you won’t have a need to use them unless you really desperately want boosts for the game’s multiplayer modes, though – you can get along just fine in single player mode without them - but it’s all just a little bit needlessly over the top and unfocused, at times.
With all of this in mind, you might look down at the score (check it, it’s down there…go on) and wonder what the deal is. How can we say that a game is even above average when it has so many notable flaws, both technical and otherwise? Let us explain.
The fact is that even WITH all of the bugs and the undesirable occurrences, Assassin’s Creed Unity is a very enjoyable game that will keep players entertained for many, many hours. Once you’ve played for a while, the framerate issues fade into nothing, as you’ll be more focused on what you’re doing. That’s not an excuse for shoddy optimisation by any means, since Ubisoft really should have done better, but the truth is that we got to the point that we were so enraptured with the game that the framerate issues melted away and became more or less unnoticeable. We hope that a stability patch sorts things out, but we can only review that the game that we have in front of us. This is a game that would easily have picked up a solid nine out of ten and maybe more, was it not for the issues we’ve noted.
There’s just so much to it, and even though a lot of the open-world content is somewhat familiar, the addition of new and more varied content is enough to mix it up. The murder mysteries are a fun diversion, involving you searching for clues and accusing your prime suspect in the hopes of being right. The Nostradamus fragment riddles are genuinely challenging and entertaining, requiring you to engage your brain to work out the answers. If you go online to find them, you’re only cheating yourself. The Helix Rift mode – which we mentioned earlier – is good enough to be a game in its own right, too. Here, you’re put inside a failing simulation, and you have to collect data pickups within a specified time limit in order to free an Assassin who is trapped inside the slowly decaying program. Once you’ve completed that primary objective, you have the remaining time to continue picking up data to try and beat high scores and get to the exit before the whole world collapses around you and kills you in the process. There are only eight missions available in this mode, but we’d pay good money to see an extra batch as DLC, given how fun they are to play. If you’re of the multiplayer persuasion, the co-op missions are good fun, but the main stars of the show for us are the Heists. Here, multiple players join together in order to break in to highly fortified bases, with detection resulting in a lowering of the overall payout if and when you reach the goal. These missions are truly well designed and require real thinking and teamwork if you’re to be successful.
Above all of that though, is the atmosphere. We’re head-over-heels in love with the representation of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, that appears (we’ve got no real way of knowing, of course) to truly capture the essence of the period of time in which the game is set. In the early beginnings of the revolution, only a few protesters are on hand and are deemed to be insane by the general population. As you progress, the movement builds up slowly until you reach the climax of the whole thing, with gradually increasing crowd sizes making more and more noise to create a buzz in the air that suggests that true change is indeed on the way. The atmosphere that Assassin’s Creed Unity provides is absolutely enthralling and this comes through in spite of the technical issues, although it is often very much threatened by them.
That’s not an excuse for a high-profile title such as this to be as poorly finished as it absolutely and undeniably is, though, and pitching the review embargo so that it falls almost half a day after the game has been available for purchase digitally in the game's largest market is nothing short of cynical. But the overall feeling that we've taken away from the game is anger, really. Ubisoft have constructed a truly astonishing world here and lavished genuine care and attention on it. So much so, that the world alone will cause you to want to love Assassin's Creed Unity, even though it fights you and pushes you away at every turn. Persevere, and there's fun to be had, but persevering isn't something that you should reasonably be expected to have to do.
Assassin's Creed Unity does a lot of things right. A LOT of things. The things it does wrong though, are incredibly noticeable. Some players will undoubtedly play and never see a glitch or a crash, but its far more likely that they'll be plagued with issues. Everyone will see framerate problems though, of that there is no doubt. Whether you can get over these glaring flaws or not is going to probably be the main thing that affects your opinion. We fought through the overall unpolished finish of the product, and we were glad that we did so, but this really isn't how anyone can reasonably have expected the game to have turned out.