Assassin's Creed Unity review: A tale of two games

PC, Xbox One, PS4

It was the best of Assassin's Creed, it was the worst of Assassin's Creed. So it goes with Assassin's Creed Unity, the newest game in Ubisoft's alternate-history series, where sci-fi tech allows you to relive the secret war between Assassins and Templars. Unity succeeds where it needs to, but it falls short of the metaphorical, fall-breaking haybale almost everywhere else, landing with a sickening thud on hard pavement.

Unity is capable of inspiring loving adoration while simultaneously bringing you to boiling hatred. It aims high, fails more often than it triumphs, and is in dire need of a technical re-tweaking. At the same time, whenever the pieces align, it feels like coming home.

The Assassin's Creed series has taken players to many locales, throughout many periods in history: medieval Jerusalem, Renaissance Italy, colonial America and the pirate-infested Caribbean. In Assassin's Creed Unity, the journey takes you to 18th century France, both shortly before and during the events of the French Revolution.

Behind the scenes, of course, the battle between Assassin and Templar rages on, covertly steering the world's most defining moments. The Templars wield order, law and fanaticism as weapons, while the Assassins use stealth, hidden blades, climbing and sweet parkour moves. These basics have not changed with Unity; you are Arno Dorian, a new member of the Assassin order, and Templars have conspired against not only you, but the whole of France.

Despite starting from such a well-established foundation, however, Unity does not feel finished. Technical hiccups abounded during my time with Ubisoft's trip through Revolution-era France – hiccups that ran the gamut from mundane and distracting to annoying and game-breaking.

Rapid descents along the faces of buildings would sometimes send me clipping through structures, leave me floating in mid-air, or drop me through the bottom of the world into a hellish abyss of white. NPCs appeared to float in mid-air while others wielded invisible weapons. Twice, Unity crashed entirely, requiring a full restart of the software. In one mission, restarting from a checkpoint inspired in protagonist Arno Dorian the philosophy of pacifism, as he refused to attack the soldiers cutting him to shreds - which is to say that although I had my weapon drawn, I could not target or attack any enemies, and I had to let myself die in order to try again.

Another Joystiq editor, playing on PS4, encountered similar bugs. On Xbox One however, these issues were exacerbated by a framerate with less structural integrity than the crumbling roofs of Paris. Whether I ran through the crowded streets or shambled along the rooftops, noticeable drops in framerate almost constantly distracted from the experience.

Unity also has a communication problem. Where there's relevant information to present, Unity often presents it out of order, out of context, or both. Near the beginning of the game, a pop-up introduced to me one of Unity's new mechanics: the ability to shift your free-running up or down in elevation. It was information that would have been immensely helpful, had the game not already had me sprinting through France for the past 15 minutes.

The area that suffers most from this sort of confused structure is the plot. Late in the story, I happened upon a well-dressed military man shuffling through King Louis XVI's personal belongings. He turned out to be an ally, and together we fended off waves of aggressive fanatics before escaping into the sewers, where he revealed himself to be Napoleon Bonaparte – surprise! Or it might have been, had the game not updated my database with his personal biography moments before. It's an introduction that doesn't feel completely thought through, and that half-baked feeling pervades Unity.

At several points throughout the game, you'll need to jump into portals that transport you to "unfinished memories." These memories (small spoiler) include a WWII version of the Eiffel Tower, giving fans a taste of the oft-rumored 1940s setting. But, as cool as it is to see (and it is cool), nothing that Arno does inside of these memories comes back to the overall plot, and they only provide a few minutes' worth of gameplay unless you choose to go back and replay them to get 100 percent completion.

Even the main setting itself feels under-realized. Assassin's Creed 3 made protagonist Connor out to be a man who single-handedly shaped and guided America's founding. He rode with Paul Revere, he was present at the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre, and was even close with George Washington. He was American history's unknown superhero, with a hand in everyone's pie. Assassin's Creed Unity swings too far the opposite direction, keeping Arno and his quest at arm's length away from the ransacking of France and the Reign of Terror.

The result is that if you stick to the single-player content, the French Revolution, a momentous period in time, feels stagnant; we only catch glimpses of Paris' descent into chaos through very specific missions, and it never feels like a full-scale revolution is actually underway. This would be fine if Arno's own objectives were particularly interesting, but his story– until the final third of the game – lacks gravitas or impact. Arno's tale is one of revenge for two murders, first his biological father and subsequently his adopted father. The problem is that the conflict between Assassin and Templar doesn't seem to line up with Arno's personal motives, and missions rarely feel connected to his quest. The characters you're sent to assassinate are introduced as quickly as they're killed, and aren't clearly intertwined with your overall goal. It feels like you're killing Templars because you're an assassin and that's what assassins do, not because your targets had a hand in the murder of those closest to you. The final third of the game tries to tie it all together, but most of the time it feels like Arno isn't really shaping the plot. The plot is happening to him.

It's not all is gloom in the land of liberte, though. In fact, while Unity falls woefully short in plot, communication and technical soundness, it excels in two of its arguably most important areas: assassination missions and co-op missions.

While Unity will burden players with the usual "go here, interact with this" mission often, each memory sequence (see: chapter) is punctuated by an assassination mission, where your goal is to seek out and kill Templar conspirators within a certain area. As each assassination mission starts, Arno notices options that can help him achieve his goal and set up unique kills. For example, while the front entrance of Notre Dame may be heavily guarded, swiping a key from a patrolling guard and returning it to an attendant priest will grant you entry to its upper balconies. Revealing a hidden food cart will cause a stampede of civilians, thus giving you a perfect distraction. And so on.

It's possible to ignore these opportunities and charge in swords slashing and guns blazing, but the reward for taking your time and planning your route is a more cinematic kill, and thus a greater sense of accomplishment. There are unique kill options throughout the game, but my personal favorite came early on, as I tracked down a foe about to take a secret meeting inside of a church confessional. It so happened that I had learned which confessional he'd be using, and just as he finished spilling the beans of his treasonous plot, my hand burst through the confessional wall and shoved a blade through his skull.

"Confess this." (I most certainly did not say, out loud, to no one in particular).

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In the assassination missions, Unity transforms from a game of racing along Parisian architecture to an honest-to-goodness stealth game, one that rewards patience, planning and attention to detail. It's as close in structure to the missions of the original Assassin's Creed as any of the numerous sequels have provided, giving players a plethora of options and letting them decide how best to handle the obstacles before them.

New to the Assassin's Creed series, Unity allows up to four players to join forces and tackle unique missions together. The missions I experienced felt expertly designed, with multiple objectives that benefitted from careful, organized executions from myself and others. It's fun to get in the mood with friends and take things slowly, scheming from the shadows and communicating with your teammates about when and how to go about your tactical murder sprees.

I personally liked to play the role of distraction, getting guards to chase me through streets, alleyways and across rooftops so my allies could pick them off one-by-one while they blindly continued forward. Imagine a pack of French velociraptors (in Assassin hoods), and you've got the idea.

Co-op missions are also self-contained stories, meaning that while they won't reach the crescendo of drama the single-player tale does, they help give a sense of personality and life to the city. After being dragged from assassination to assassination with little to no justification in the single-player, it was nice to have someone clearly and plainly spell out the exact context for my actions and what mental state Paris was in at the time.

Unity is drowning in side content, with plenty of optional missions, random events like thief-chasing or criminal-hunting, and there are puzzles and collectibles to pursue. There's so much to do that participation doesn't really feel meaningful, but it will snag you some spiffy outfits that boost your stats in different ways. You can even earn an outfit that transforms Arno into an incredibly flamboyant vigilante, complete with curled feathers in his hood and a phantom mask. And who doesn't want to sing "Phantom of the Opera" in their heads every time they gut a revolutionary?

It's curious that the assassination missions – something fairly pivotal to a game called "Assassin's Creed" – and co-op missions – a new feature introduced in Unity – stand head and shoulders above the rest of the game's content. They feel cared for and well-constructed, whereas the rest feels as though it were yanked out of the oven far too soon. It accomplishes what it sets out to do, but a smattering of ugliness surrounds that accomplishment.

Assassin's Creed Unity is the best and worst of Assassin's Creed. It's hard not to appreciate everything that it gets right, and you'll have a good time if you can wrangle some friends for co-op, but it's impossible to ignore where Unity falls tragically short.

This review is based on an Xbox Live download of the Xbox One version of Assassin's Creed Unity, provided by Ubisoft. Images: Ubisoft.

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