Tuesday, November 11, 2014
One of the allures of history is that despite the fact that it's, well, fact, there's still some room for interpretation and filling out details. Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed series has capitalized on that with aplomb, taking players from Renaissance Italy to Colonial America to Caribbean piracy. Assassin's Creed Unity is the latest entry in the time-traveling tales of assassins and the first entry of the franchise into the next generation.
Omnicomic reviewed an Xbox One version of the game provided by Ubisoft.
The setting is the eve of the French Revolution, where tensions between the classes are on the verge of boiling over. The main character's name is Arno Dorian, born in Versaille. Mysterious circumstances surround the death of his father, which puts him in an adopted family who holds a high position within the Templar Order. When he's accused of a crime he didn't commit, he's forced to redeem himself, which just so happens to be through the actions of being an assassin. From there, Arno follows the path of a young man reconciling his emotions with untapped abilities as an assassin, waging a war against the Templars with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance.
The game is broken out into twelve memories, much like previous incarnations in the franchise. All memories are on display in a tiled format at the start screen, which is a slight departure in some ways, but it's nice because you can read a brief description about each prior to playing. Granted, all of the memories aren't unlocked off the bat, so you can't jump around them out of order. The overarching story does more of the same that recent games in the series has done, but giving you a chance to play both the Assassin and Templar sides of the conflict. Beyond the memories, much of Paris is accessible from the start as well and syncing viewpoints unlock an explosion of points that bear investigating.
Those investigations include inside buildings, which is a pretty big shift for the Assassin's Creed universe. Arno can both pass through buildings and explore the insides of some of the larger ones, which often make for good hiding places for collectibles. Among the collectibles are treasure chests, cockades (which is a knot of ribbons or other circular-shaped symbol of distinctive colors usually worn on a hat), artifacts and historical papers. There are standard treasure chests that open just by interacting with them, community chests and locked chests; locked chests aren't the only locks though, as there are also locked doors in the world of Assassin's Creed Unity. Finding the collectibles offer various bonuses, including francs and points that can be redeemed for character upgrades.
The parkour aspects of Assassins Creed have always been important and now they're given a bit more freedom this time around. There are two new options in Free Run Up and Free Run Down, both of which make scrambling up and down obstacles much more invigorating. Many of the other familiar Assassin's Creed controls are also present and after a few minutes of running around they all come back to you. The new system feels insanely fluid and really makes traversing the streets of Versailles, Paris and other locales infinitely easier. One of the bugaboos of the system in past games is that sometimes you can't do exactly what you want to do; for instance, you may spend five minutes jumping back and forth between a tree and roof trying to get into a window. That exists to some extent on occasion in Assassin's Creed Unity, but overall the movement feels much more natural. There's a free-flowing kinetic to it that does more to make you feel as if you really are an assassin, capable of traversing rooftops with ease.
Traveling rooftops is easier than going through the streets sometime, largely because of the massive crowds down below. And good grief are the numbers in the crowds of people staggering. Ubisoft is proud of their new crowd sizes, stating that the sizes will reach upwards of 30,000 people, further buoyed by intricate social interactions amongst those citizens, such as arguments, fights and romance. Much of the gameplay now revolves around the new, larger crowds and it's very rewarding to make you way through a large crowd to infiltrate a specific location. The use of crowds is something of a double-edged sword though. In many instances, you're required to maneuver and infiltrate, yet somehow the guards can pick you out based on what seems to be proximity sensing. For instance, there's one scene where you're infiltrating a party because you weren't invited and are asked to blend into the crowd, yet, the guards instantly find you if you get to close. It's just odd since your face was never made known as "not allowed" and, presumably, if you're faceless in a crowd, figuring out how the guards can pick you out is a little puzzling.
When the guards are alerted to your presence, there are a few twists to the rather familiar dynamic. The guards first enter a heightened (yellow) state, where they'll move towards your position and investigate. Where Assassin's Creed Unity departs from previous games is that now you'll leave "ghosts" behind (much like Splinter Cell). What this does is gives you a specific point to focus on as to where guards are investigating, as it's the last known location for you. It's actually very useful and mitigates a lot of the worry in past games about whether or not it's safe to jump out of hiding. And you're not limited to any specific number of ghosts during any one pursuit; as guards move closer to your position you'll leave more and more ghosts. Suffice to say, if you're being chased and a ghost appears right before a haystack, it's probably not really a good hiding spot. If you're found out, then combat kicks in.
Combat in Assassin's Creed Unity will be pretty familiar to fans of the series. The system has progressed nicely in each subsequent game, becoming a very fluid endeavor in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. Much of the fighting in Assassin's Creed Unity is based on fencing, giving players the option to both Parry and Dodge attacks. A Perfect Parry both repels the opponent and staggers them, giving Arno the opening to land a few more hits. Those hits come courtesy of the usual assortment of weapons, save for the brand new Phantom Blade. The Phantom Blade is a slight upgrade over the standard hidden blade, as it also doubles as a crossbow for shooting darts at opponents. Weaving together a chain of hidden blade/sword/gunshot/Phantom Blade shot feels fluid and keeps combat feeling fresh every time you engage in it.
Upgrading Arno also makes combat easier for the player and Assassin's Creed Unity offers a new way for doing so. In past games in the franchise, you essentially bought weapons at stores and obtained most of your assassin abilities the game progressed. In Assassin's Creed Unity, everything can be purchased and upgraded from the start. Once Arno formally becomes an assassin, there are a ton of customization options available to the player. Everything from weapons to gear to stat boosters are available from the in-game customization menu and while the more basic items cost money (weapons), skills like an Air Assassination or Double Assassination cost points. These points are earned by doing assassin missions and offer a breath of fresh air into the character upgrade dynamic. Some items can also be "hacked," which rely on a different type of currency but allow you to unlock an item for a significantly reduced price.
One of the biggest new additions to Assassin's Creed Unity is the concept of co-op. Games in the franchise have largely been solo affairs, save for some multiplayer being added down the line. That multiplayer was largely PVP and didn't really give players a chance to play alongside friends as assassins. In Assassin's Creed Unity, some of the assassins missions allow upwards of four players to join to complete them, which offers the much desired co-op function to the game. The fact that the missions are in game as opposed to being a separate mode (such as Spartan Ops in Halo 4) is welcome and offers a multiplayer aspect that can feel seamless. We didn't get much of a chance to actually experience the multiplayer because the servers weren't turned on yet, but the option is very exciting.
There are quite a few instances where bugs impacted the gameplay. For instance, there was a time when Arno got stuck in a building, before falling into oblivion for about a minute and then desynchronizing. Or, swan diving into a haystack and not being able to get out, prompting returning to the dashboard and killing the game. Bugs like these happened quite a bit and more than you'd like in a shipped AAA title. There have been widespread reports of other uses experiencing similar bugs (or worse) and it's tough to accept a publisher like Ubisoft having them this late in the the game's development. Granted, it's clearly a massive and ambitious game, but there's a growing sentiment among many players that perhaps the game wasn't quite ready for primetime. We experienced minimal bugs that affected gameplay, but there were a few times that the game had to be restarted for whatever reason.
And while we didn't make it through the entire story, what was experienced felt a little confusing, yet somehow familiar. Arno is attempting to avenge his fathers' deaths against the backdrop of the French Revolution, yet he doesn't quite get as involved in the revolution like Connor did in Assassin's Creed III. In that sense, the main story itself suffers from a lack of intensity that would otherwise seem automatic considering the scenery. The instances where the game feels most alive are those when you're tackling side missions or planning out stealthy assassinations. Assassin's Creed has always strived to feature a narrative about one's greater purpose in life, but it never quite seems to reach those heights. In that regard, the story is perfectly fine if you go in knowing that you're not going to get anything, ahem, revolutionary.
Assassin's Creed Unity is a fantastic entry in the series that feels like a breath of fresh air in many ways. The core concept of the franchise hasn't changed too much since the days of Altair, yet Arno feels like an assassin unencumbered by some of the limitations of past technology. This very much feels like a next generation game, as the crowds are massive and organic while the graphics offer a great leap in appearance. Arno is actually a pretty likable character who brings a certain joie de vivre to the proceedings that adds some levity to the otherwise dramatic class tensions simmering as part of the French Revolution. There are quite a few issues with bugs and connectivity that detract from the experience, speaking either to Ubisoft's rush to get the game shipped or just plain poor oversight. Hopefully, patches will be released that address some of the issues. Otherwise, Assassin's Creed Unity is very enjoyable and a great return to form for the series.