Review: Assassin’s Creed Unity (Post-Patch) – Ambitious and Flawed, but Ultimately Good

on November 30, 2014 7:23 AM

Assassin’s Creed Unity was one of the most anticipated games of the year, and it launched with flaws over several aspects of the game. Due to my copy being delivered late and to actually playing the game (which is most definitely very large and dense with content), this review has been delayed until now, which is a good chance to examine the situation after the third and (so far) biggest patch and to provide an up-to-date overview on whether it’s worth playing or not.

The story brings us to Paris, during the troubled times of the French revolution. The young and rather immature Arno Dorian suddenly finds himself entangled in the power games between Assassins and Templars, playing behind the scenes of the bloody insurrection to control the masses one way or another.

The plot itself is interesting and enjoyable, even if it suffers a little bit from the structure of the franchise, that tends to make it feel fragmented, with episodes that often appear slightly disconnected among themselves. On the other hand, what makes Assassin’s Creed Unity really enjoyable are its main characters.

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Arno somehow resembles Assassin’s Creed’s best protagonist, Ezio Auditore, but he actually feels more human, and his rash and youthful nature makes him very likable. He almost seems inspired by Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. He’s noble but flawed, brave but he makes plenty mistakes. He witnesses tragic times, but he doesn’t lose his sense of humor.

While Arno is likable, Elise is the real gem of the game. She isn’t playable, yet she’s one of the best female protagonists I’ve seen in ages. She shares many of Arno’s traits, but her playfulness is absolutely adorable, and it’s paired with smarts aplenty and a measure of sassy wisdom that create just the perfect mixture. Besides, she’s a redhead.

Another high point of the plot, and I’ll try to steer mostly clear of spoilers, is that Assassin’s Creed Unity does romance extremely well. While it doesn’t give you different options and choices (and that’s probably one of the reasons why the romantic part of the story is so good), it’s believable, enjoyable and intense.

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This leads us to talking about graphics, as the main characters are beautifully expressive. Ubisoft selected a just slightly cartoonish character design that allows conveying expressions and emotions during cutscenes in an extremely effective way. This contributes massively to forming an emotional bond with Arno and Elise, and ultimately increases the enjoyment of the story considerably.

The true protagonist of the game’s graphics is, though, the city of Paris. It’s absolutely stunning, enormous and so full of crazy little detail that it’s not inappropriate to define Assassin’s Creed Unity one of the most beautiful games of this young generation.

Architecture, furniture, debris, decoration… everything is organically arranged to create a beautiful picture, no matter the angle you’re looking from. Assassin’s Creed Unity is probably one of the games that would have most benefited from a photo mode, and it’s unfortunate that Ubisoft didn’t think about implementing one.

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Standing on top of Notre-Dame, or looking at the city from the dome of the Panthéon are experiences that are worth living, and cause in an old-timer like me the full realization of just how far gaming technology has gone, even compared to every other open world game released so far. It’s just breathtaking.

Yet, all the detail and those hundreds of thousands of polygons would be stale and unnatural if they were not bathed in the rays of one of the most lovely lighting engines I’ve seen in a long while, turning Paris into a stunning miniature that can match a postcard you could buy in Montmartre.

Another impressive element is the much touted crowd. Paris is crowded. The sea of humanity is comparable to a real city, and that contributes immensely to the sense of immersion. Some areas have crowd so big that they’re really unprecedented with this level of detail, and give Assassin’s Creed Unity the look and feel of the most epic Hollywood flicks.

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That said, there are flaws. While main characters are extremely detailed and absolutely fantastic in their looks, the representation of hair seems to be slightly off. Not only it’s quite grainy and thick even in cutscenes, but it reacts to the light in ways that often make characters look like they’re wearing plastic wigs.

There’s also some visible texture and shadow pop-in, and a few instances of glitched elements like the floor in front of the office in the Café Théâtre, which is definitely jarring since you’re going to walk over it a million times.

Ragdoll physics also seem massively overdone, or to use a better definition, way too unconstrained. Killing enemies will often put them in completely unnatural and absolutely hilarious positions. While you’ll laugh a few times, your immersion is probably going to be impacted, since killing people is one of the main activities in the game.

Unfortunately all the graphical goodness and the enormous crowds come with a price, and it’s most probably a toll that the developers at Ubisoft underestimated. While the latest patch brought a limited improvement to the situation, frame rate is still too often under 30, which could impact the game’s enjoyment for those that are most sensitive to stutters.

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It’s hard to gauge whether this is because of poor optimization or simply because the game is too ambitious, but i’m leaning towards the second case. Further optimization is probably possible, but I don’t expect the game to ever hit solid 30 FPS, simply because there’s too much going on on the screen.

Gameplay has been revolutionized since the previous games of the series. Parkour and free running are much more flexible now, and you can go up and down houses pretty much at your leisure, without having to think too much or to stop to look for ledges. This definitely makes traversing the city and its roofs more pleasant, but it comes with its own set of flaws.

Movement is so flexible, in fact, that it’s at times hard to predict what Arno will do, and there are cases in which you’ll find yourself hoping that he will interpret your commands as you intend, with possibly disastrous results. There are moments in which getting into windows and through doorways can be slightly laborious, because our hero will instead decide to hang on top and around them, causing no small amount of cursing and cussing.

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Combat has seen its fair amount of changes as well, at least on the surface. There’s no more auto-killing counter. You’ll be prompted to parry enemy attacks, but you’ll have to perform your counters manually. This makes battles more enjoyable and challenging, and you should definitely forget facing gazillions of enemies like you could in previous games of the serieseven because they’ll resort to firearms much more often.

Ultimately, though, it’s still a matter of timing, and while you’ll have to follow-up after parries on your own, it’s pretty much a similar mechanic with some more work and more flexibility added. It’s definitely more fun and harder to master, but it’s probably not the revolution many expected.

Some of the pieces of Arno’s arsenal are also slightly overpowered, like smoke bombs, that fall just short of working as a “I win” button, but at the very least end up being a “save the situation no matter how badly I screwed up” button.

That said, we’re looking at a much more refined and much more interesting battle system, and a firm step in the right direction for the series.

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Let’s move on to what’s probably the most important element of an Assassin’s Creed game: stealth.

The tactical espionage action element of the game is relatively advanced, with enemies that will actually remember your face for a while, and that are positioned in rather challenging ways and numbers, making sneaking and skulking around definitely fun and interesting.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem, and forgive me if I’ll slightly digress by describing something that is possibly more related to the current state of the genre more than to a flaw of this game in particular. I’m starting to believe that current generation AI simply isn’t suitable for a proper stealth game. The reason is pretty simple. Enemies are still way too stupid.

While this isn’t as easy to notice in faster-paced games, as you don’t have as much time to examine their routines, patrols and movement patterns, it becomes jarringly evident when you’re skulking around. They always move in pre-determined ways. They always react in the same ways. They always have the same ranges and arcs of vision.

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Once you know the various enemy types, you won’t be competing against singular entities able to outsmart you, but you’ll simply be mechanically outmaneuvering their limitations, that will always be clear and solid in your mind. You’ll be able to avoid detection in ways that would never be possible against a real enemy, turning the whole thing into an exercise of execution of solid concepts applied to basically every scenario. This tends to dampen immersion quite quickly.

Just to make an example, you’ll poke out of cover for a second, just enough for an enemy to see you, then you’ll dodge back behind a corner. He’ll inevitably walk towards said corner to check, oblivious and dumb like a lamb walking to the slaughter, and you’ll be able to easily perform a stealth kill with no effort at all.

Assassin’s Creed Unity‘s artificial intelligence also has further limitations that tend to exacerbate the problem. Enemies will follow you on the roofs very, very rarely, so if you get noticed, most of the times running on top of a house will be enough to be safe. They also seem to be pathologically unable to look above their heads, which impacts gameplay variety because a top-to-bottom approach to infiltration almost always ends up being the best choice.

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The most hilarious flaw of AI enemies causes them to be unable to correct their actions on the fly. There are situations in which, if a group of enemy running towards you is spaced enough, you’ll be able to stealth-kill them all from behind a corner one after the other, no matter if you’re basically sticking a blade in the throat of each of them right in front of the eyes of their unflinching companions. They “already decided” to run past that corner, and they’ll do so no matter what.

Despite that, the sheer variety of scenarious created by the enormous playground, by the abundance of architectural variations and by the large number of accessible interiors, partly makes up for the flaw described above.While stealthing remains somewhat mechanic, it’s still an experience worth being enjoyed and savored. We can only hope that future games will manage to simulate a better variety of human behaviors combined with the same breadth of environmental situations. That would be a dream come true.

Additionally, Something I personally did not appreciate (but I know consensus is not unanimous on this) is that missions very seldom require not to be noticed, even between optional objectives. Stealth is simply not really encouraged, if not by the fact that you may be killed if you get caught and you’ve run out of smoke bombs.

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Players are able to restore and upgrade the Café Théâtre, which serves as their home base and includes a lot of interesting amenities like a training room, a trophy room, a club room to organize multiplayer clans and its own set of missions. Unfortunately it also hides a sneaky balancing issue. If you start upgrading the café early (and doing so fully isn’t all that difficult or costly) you’ll find yourself with an enormous source of passive income. Simply being able to leave the game running while you do other things will see you decked in the most costly and best equipment almost from the very beginning of the story, which will in turn drop the level of challenge considerably.

There’s one boss fight in the first half of the game’s story that is probably supposed to be challenging, but by using the combination of smoke bombs and overpowered equipment, the poor goon was destroyed without even managing to land a hit… Scratch that. He didn’t have a chance to even try to attack. Considering the fact that it was a pretty climatic point of the story, it felt quite underwhelming.

Multiplayer puts you into drop-in co-op missions with a number of allies ranging from one to three. I still remember when people alleged that the lack of playable female characters could be somehow sexist. Said criticism didn’t make the slightest sense then and it still doesn’t now. Everyone plays his own Arno. He’s the protagonist of the game, and creating a fully playable female protagonist with her own animations, voiced track, single player story variations and so forth would have required an unreasonable amount of resources and development time.

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That said, there are some elements of character customization that could have been a nice addition and not as costly. Giving players a chance to change Arno’s skin color, hairstyle and facial hair, for instance, would have helped quite considerably without detracting from the character or requiring excessive resources. It’s not a terrible gap in the game’s features, but it might  be something worth considering for future games if the co-op element will remain this relevant.

Co-op missions are generally on par with single player ones, and they feature a great deal of moving around and a good variety of objectives. They’re a whole lot of fun if you don’t incur in connection issues (which are now a lot more rare than at launch) and if you’re playing with like-minded friends.

The only real problem I experienced quite often is that stealth-oriented players can have their fun ruined by more hasty ones, as they’ll simply charge in, bull their way through the enemies and possibly complete the objectives (missions aren’t all that hard), while those that were carefully skulking will see the task end before they even reached their objectives. The rewards will be considerably impacted, but most players don’t care, so they’ll do it anyway.

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If you really want to enjoy the co-op gameplay, unless you like a quick and dirty brawling yourself, my advice is to find people that enjoy the same and play exclusively with them, possibly with voice chat enabled. That’s when Assassin’s Creed Unity’s co-op expresses its best potential, and that’s when it’s extremely fun and rewarding.

While I normally don’t talk much about companion apps, this time I feel compelled to mention just how badly Ubisoft implemented Assassin’s Creed Unity’s. The app would be somewhat fun and interesting in itself, if it wasn’t for the fact that the interaction between it and the game is sorely flawed.

There are chests in the game world which are linked to the app, and many, many times, they’ll remain frustratingly locked despite the fact that you unlocked them on the app, forcing you to use one of your assassins to open them instead of doing it yourself. This becomes even more frustrating when the app unlocks a mission, as in quite a few case said mission won’t appear at all in the game.

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If a developer really wants a companion app to interact this deeply with a game (and that’s a bad idea in itself), said interaction should be flawless, but in the case of Assassin’s Creed Unity it isn’t, and running all the way to a chest that you’re supposed to be able to open only to find it locked is not what I define fun.

Things are made worse by the fact that if you don’t have a smartphone or don’t feel like using an external app, there will be a considerable amount of content in the game itself that will be inaccessible to you. The same goes with the Assassin’s Creed Initiates website.

The feature is so ill-conceived and badly implemented that I won’t shy away from admitting that I docked a whole half point from the final score due to it. This is a prime example on how not to do connectivity with smartphones and websites. It’s not fun. It’s not interesting, and it locks away in-game content that should be accessible on my platform of choice, not on something else. If this problem isn’t relevant for you, then you can feel free to read the final score as an 8.

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In the end, Assassin’s Creed Unity has multiple flaws. Yet, they don’t go as far as turning it into a bad game. As a matter of fact, it’s a good game. It’s enormous, full of content, equipped with a good story and likable characters. It’s one of the most beautiful games ever released and, if you look past a few frustrating elements, the gameplay is a whole lot of fun, which is what matters the most.

The biggest problem is that Ubisoft’s latest creation is way too ambitious for its own good. The world is so dense that the hardware and the engine have trouble coping with all the people and the details, and it’s so complex that there are simply too many possible scenarios and aberrations bound to happen.

Ultimately, though, I can’t bring myself to condemn ambition. While in Assassin’s Creed Unity’s case there are situations in which it backfires, it still creates something worth living and experiencing. Arno’s Paris is a modern marvel of the gaming world, and while its structure isn’t flawless, I can’t say I regret the time I lived in it.

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