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Six. That’s how many years in a row in which Ubisoft has delivered a new Assassin’s Creed game. The franchise is running a risk of burning out fans, but I don’t think that’s Unity’s fault. That’s because Assassin’s Creed: Unity is my favorite entry in the French publisher’s historical action franchise. It’s out today on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
But before we go on, I should probably give you my Templar-killing résumé.
I played a few hours of Assassin’s Creed, and I didn’t hate it. Same with Assassin’s Creed II — although it didn’t grab me like it did others. When Brotherhood came out, however, I fell in love. I skipped Revelations and Assassin’s Creed III. I returned for Black Flag and once again fell in love.
But I was unsure about Unity before starting it on Xbox One. I had expectations that were simultaneously high and low. The franchise was finally getting a release made just for Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and that’s exciting. But it was also returning to a European city setting, and that sounded boring after sailing the high seas in Black Flag.
Ubisoft has delivered, and Unity is one of the best games of the year.
What you’ll like
Let’s just get this out of the way: Unity looks amazing.
That framerate, though
While Unity is gorgeous on Xbox One, its refresh rate does take a hit. I don’t know the numbers, but — observing with my naked eye — things look choppy. Thankfully, it’s not unplayable on Microsoft’s console, and it’s only occasionally unsightly.
The character models look “next gen,” with detailed, well-animated faces. The digital architecture and landscaping is similarly detailed. Both characters and buildings look even more realistic thanks to a lighting system that just makes everything pop.
Honestly, Unity approaches Ryse: Son of Rome in graphical fidelity — and I don’t think the PS4 and Xbox One have seen a better-looking game than that yet (at least on a technical level).
What’s even more impressive about all this is the scale of Paris and its citizenry.
Paris feels larger than any other city in any other Assassin’s Creed. It is also better looking with more detail and improved lighting. On top of that, the city’s streets bustle like no other game in the series.
One of the reasons that Unity’s return to a European city works so well is because Ubisoft has made a real leap in terms of its crowd technology. You could saunter past hundreds and potentially even thousands of people just walking from one mission to another.
A few late game missions in particular render so many people on the screen that I actually couldn’t even believe what I was seeing. But it is real. I could go walk among them and between them. This isn’t a trick, and it is incredibly impressive.
Of course, a handsome open world isn’t worth much if you cannot find anything fun to do inside it. Unity does not have any issues with that.
I enjoyed every single core story mission except for one. Many put you into interesting situations, and you’re almost never more than an hour or so away from big assassination quests. In these, Unity gives you a target and a playground in which to kill them however you like. You can often make the mission easier for yourself by completing optional goals, but generally, Unity leaves it up to you to decide how these villains should perish.
I got so excited every single time it gave me an opportunity to do one of the big assassinations, and I never grew bored even toward the end.
Assassin’s Creed games also encourage you to explore the side missions, and Unity has some of the best I’ve played. In particular, I adore the new murder mysteries.
I was just running from one mission to the other when I came across a woman’s dead body. After scouring the city for clues — and speaking with her sister, her son, her help, the man who controlled her fortune, and her son’s fiancée — I nailed the culprit and felt pretty damn good about myself. These murder mysteries don’t have any hand-holding. You need to read through the clues and find the motive and means yourself. It’s a lot like those old CD-ROM Sherlock Holmes games, only with a million other things to do if you get bored of murder most foul.
Unity is also big on multiplayer. What I tried worked. It’s not a huge draw for me because I’m always focused on my progression, but Ubisoft makes it easy to get the most out of playing online. You can join a club and keep playing with the same people. You can just join up with a friend whenever you want and freely roam. Or you can get matched up with random players to complete specific quests.
Online co-op actually most reminds me of the spies-versus-mercs mode from the Splinter Cell franchise. It seems like one of those features that a small but dedicated group of players will squeeze hours of fun from while the majority of people will likely only dabble.
Unity also kept me going because I was always looking forward to improving my character. Every weapon and piece of clothing you buy improves your overall abilities, and I felt the constant urge to get the next sword or pair of boots.
The economy does feel a bit bloated — like Ubisoft purposefully slowed down how long it takes for you to earn money (perhaps to encourage you to download and spend your real money in the companion app) — but that didn’t dampen my enjoyment.
A big motivator that kept me wanting to move forward is the online connectivity. I could quickly see where my friends were and what level they were at. Unity uses a five-star system to show how strong you are, and seeing my buddy at four stars made me want to get the gear to surpass him. Playing cooperatively accomplishes the same thing since you take your equipment into multiplayer. You’ll want the coolest, most rare gear to show off online.
Ubisoft definitely puts a lot of effort into the story and lore of Assassin’s Creed, but I find that these live and die on the strength of their hero. In Unity, you play as Arno, a French orphan who is trying to avenge the murder of the man who took him in.
He’s also sort of a French version of Ezio from the Assassin’s Creed II story arc. He’s roguish and charming and always has a pithy thing to say in tense moments. He also has an excellent relationship with a female counterpart that I found genuinely interesting, if not quite moving. Elise, Arno’s love interest, is probably cooler than the hero himself.
Maybe it’s a response to the criticism Unity received early on for not featuring a female protagonist, but Elise is every bit Arno’s equal. She makes it clear that she doesn’t need Arno and that she is making the choice to have him around. In the story, when you make an effort to save Elise, she gets furious with you for letting the primary villain escape to come rescue her.
It’s a refreshing and smart characterization for a woman character that you can’t actually play.
What you won’t like
Unity locked up on me around four times throughout my playthrough. At least one time was while the game was saving, which is pretty scary. I also experienced a small number number of glitches that include the sound or music stopping suddenly or Arno getting stuck on geometry.
The big concern here is that the game will lockup while you’re saving and that will corrupt your file. That’s an important thing to take into consideration, but the rest of the bugs are not going to ruin your time with Unity.
Controls are better but still frustrating
Sometimes I yell at Assassin’s Creed. I used to think it was my fault when I would lose control of my character, but now — after playing Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor — I know that the problem is really just Assassin’s Creed.
Ubisoft did make some improvements. You now have a dedicated stealth button, and you can do a fast-controlled descent by holding B (on Xbox One) while free-running. But that didn’t stop me from getting stuck on tables when I was trying to get from one side of a cafe to another. I still made leaps that I didn’t intend to. I still ended up with Arno stuck in weird underhangs, unable to climb any further when I was just trying to get to the top of a bridge.
This happens enough that I definitely failed some missions because of it. If my Kinect is recording everything I do and say, the NSA is gonna learn some new swear words thanks to me and Unity.
The world feels dead if you don’t suspend your disbelief
Open worlds are tough to judge. Things that bother me might not bother you. It occasionally drives me crazy that NPCs do not seem to give a damn what I’m doing. Yo, waitress, I just killed a man in front of you by kicking out his legs from under him and stabbing him in the face … and you’re OK with this? Sometimes crowds will react if I kill a person in the street, but the inconsistency is weird. But it’s also necessary. I can’t imagine playing this game if I couldn’t kill guards in front of people — everywhere is just so densely populated that you kinda need that freedom.
But that defeats the purpose of those huge crowds. If they aren’t behaving in a way that makes sense for actual human beings, they end up feeling just like a decoration and not people inhabiting a world.
I was not expecting to love Unity, but I do. Ubisoft nailed the big assassination missions and everything in between. I lost several days to this game, and I’m looking forward to losing a few more. I want to see if I can find all the highest-rated equipment. I want to do some more multiplayer missions. I want to solve the rest of those brilliant murder cases. I want more Unity.
Assassin’s Creed, the franchise, started in 2007 and showed us what we could expect from the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 for the next several years. It feels like Unity is doing something similar for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
Ubisoft provided GamesBeat with a digital download code for the Xbox One for the purposes of this review. Assassin’s Creed: Unity debuts for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC today.