Feature Article

Why the Landlocked Assassin's Creed Unity Still Has Me Excited

Let them eat next-gen.

I still remember the moment Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag won me over. Not long after I acquired the Jackdaw--in the way Edward Kenway acquires anything, meaning I stole it--I was sailing back to Nassau after spending some time exploring the Caribbean. The sun had begun to set, casting a warm glow across an endless horizon. Then my crew broke out into a sea shanty--a melancholy number about leaving home and making a life somewhere far away. And in that moment, being out there on the windswept sea, I felt like I was playing something completely fresh and new.

That's the moment I kept returning to when Ubisoft announced Assassin's Creed Unity. After a brief dalliance with the Americas, Unity brings the series back to the other side of the Atlantic, to the turmoil and intrigue of Paris circa the French Revolution. There's little information about the game outside of a brief teaser trailer, but one glimpse at the setting and Unity immediately feels like vintage Assassin's Creed: the crowds, the Old World architecture, the chaos of urban life.

In many ways, it feels like the polar opposite of the direction taken by the last game. So much of Black Flag's appeal was its sense of limitless exploration, taking to the Caribbean by ship and visiting its many remote islands and barely formed beachside towns. Paris, by contrast, is a landlocked city some 175 kilometers from the English Channel. Its largest body of water is the Seine. It all makes you wonder how Unity can possibly maintain that same sense of openness.

Well, it doesn't need to. And that's what has me so interested.

Naval exploration worked in Black Flag because, beyond being a fun collection of gameplay elements, it captured the era so well. The 18th-century Caribbean was a time of colonialism, of nations claiming lands and traders searching for resources. The game featured well-established cities like Havana and Port-au-Prince, but the smell of discovery still lingered in the air.

All of those ideas meshed wonderfully with Black Flag's focus on sailing the high seas. This was the New World, an uncharted expanse of opportunity, and the game gave you all the tools to feel like an explorer searching for, well, whatever it was you wanted. Diving for sunken treasure, hunting great white sharks, raiding hapless schooners--all those gameplay systems coalesced to capture the danger and opportunity of that specific era.

It all makes you wonder how Unity can possibly maintain that same sense of openness. Well, it doesn't need to. And that's what has me so interested.

That's what the best games in this series do. They establish a meaningful connection between their chosen era and all the various activities they present to the player. And that's one of the things that keeps me coming back even after all these years. Assassin's Creed is a whirlwind tour through history, but rarely does each new setting feel like mere window dressing. Certainly the rates of success have, shall we say, varied between games, but you know there's always going to be at least something there that ties what you're doing back to the setting.

All of which leads me to Assassin's Creed Unity. Paris during the French Revolution was a city boiling over with tension and unrest. The long-standing aristocracy was overthrown in violent and spectacular fashion, and the city spent years struggling to establish its new identity. That struggle was a frequently bloody one, epitomized by the Reign of Terror and all of its mass executions.

Look at paintings from this era, and you find that one common theme is the swarming crowds, whether it's the storming of the Bastille or the audiences gathered to see the National Razor at work. Given that Unity is a PC and next-gen exclusive, the development team is free to tap into that hardware to create even more heavily populated environments, with far greater opportunities for urban stealth and interesting crowd dynamics. Black Flag looked nice on next-gen systems, but spend any amount of time ambling through the streets of Havana and you could easily tell that the game was held back by its Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions.

Games like Hitman: Absolution teased the idea of using massive crowds to create new opportunities for stealth, such as the Chicago level where you evade the police by casually stepping onto an L train platform absolutely jammed with commuters. But that was just a single train stop. What if that density were displayed in the wide-open public squares where Robespierre and his fellow Jacobins carried out their executions, allowing you to sneak up on your target in broad daylight just as they're about to drop the guillotine? And then, just as quickly as you've emerged, you've already disappeared into the heaving masses.

That's just one idea. There's a lot more Ubisoft's designers could do with this era. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the back-stabbing and paranoia that characterized the tumultuous revolutionary leadership fed into some new espionage system, where you infiltrate feuding factions and used gathered intel to turn those sides against one another for the benefit of the assassins. Of course, any new espionage mechanics would be an improvement over the antiquated tail-and-eavesdrop missions, but it's something that fascinates me just the same.

Not pictured: human beings.

Let's not forget the artistic possibilities of next-gen hardware, either. There are myriad reasons why Parisians revolted against the aristocracy, but key among them were the economic woes France was experiencing during that era. The lower classes were miserable and destitute, living in squalid conditions. In previous games, the differences between parts of a city have been established primarily through architecture, in the form of buildings rather than the feel of neighborhoods. I'd love to see what Ubisoft can do with next-gen visual effects to really sell the dank, miserable conditions of the poorest quarters and build up the contrast between different parts of Paris. As impressive as cities have been in previous Assassin's Creed games, they've never truly portrayed the dark side of human existence.

Of course, there's no guarantee that Ubisoft will take this era and use it to craft new gameplay opportunities that will harmonize with the setting. As spectacular as Black Flag's naval elements were in reflecting the colonial era, its predecessors weren't nearly as successful. Homesteading in Assassin's Creed III felt half-baked and disconnected from the main story, while the tower defense system in Revelations had little if anything to do with 16th-century Constantinople.

And then there's the question of movement. For all the secondary gameplay systems the series has introduced, the basic feel of running and climbing has remained more or less the same. It's still some of the best 3D platforming in existence, but so many of those little quirks and flaws--the chimney you didn't mean to jump onto, the ledge you didn't mean to leap from--have lingered around for far too long. Black Flag was able to work around this because half the time you were exploring the world by ship, but the on-land missions were always quick to remind you of its aging locomotion. If the basic sense of scaling buildings and dashing along rooftops doesn't feel spruced up in at least some way, it's going to feel like a real missed opportunity.

Yet I remain optimistic. Black Flag established a new creative trajectory for the series, and the move to next-gen hardware should allow the development team to explore ambitious new ideas that weren't possible with older consoles. Who knows how Unity may end up, but I'm eager to see what's in store.

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Discussion

262 comments
generalnene
generalnene

Same crap different theme.

The game being land locked is a step backwards.

The writer is a moron.

chkmode
chkmode

Also why dont they add one or two combos to spice up hand to hand combat a little?

chkmode
chkmode

Ubisoft should give a rest to their idiotic every year release. they should take time and develop game with new mechanics and fresh missions.

Zodiarck
Zodiarck

I'm sick of Assassins Creed. God help me: I may just play a pirate version of this one just to teach ubisoft a lesson (jk). Cause aint no way in heck I'm forking over ANOTHER $60 for the 6th time on this series! Havent I paid enough in DLC already!? :P

gamefreak215jd
gamefreak215jd

Why can't they wait for another 2 years and add many new mechanics like crouch button,improved and challenging combat,etc,?

Slinqy
Slinqy

If they just fix the parkour, add in some cool, meaningful activities [instead of crap like delivering mail and collecting flags and feathers], make combat more difficult, and give you more customization options with your person and equipment, that would fix a lot of the issues they've been experiencing in past AC games.

CatAtomic999
CatAtomic999

Ubisoft has milked the Assassin's Creed cow dry. Black Flag was a solid attempt at making hamburgers out of the old heifer, but now they're right back to square one. The parts that made AC4 fun were the parts that had nothing to do with the usual Assassin's Creed material, but now they're going right back to the standard, tired old AC formula with a scenery swap.


They should've used Black Flag as a launching point for a bigger, broader series about pirates, explorers, and adventurers-- and slowly taken the focus off of AC.

Gankstar_VX84
Gankstar_VX84

liked ac2 and 4, 4 was also the only one i finished and got platinum trophy for, but I played them all, unity shouldn't be landlocked, doesn't mean every game has to be about pirates, just options..  I'll keep an eye on this but might not bother

swantn5
swantn5

i didnt like blackflag and i also lost alot of faith in the series sense this game was probably developed along side with blackflag i doubt anything new is brought into the fold ill keep a eye on it though

nico2000nl
nico2000nl

So, is the AC unity gonna be the same challenging gamplay as AC I, II, III, Bro. and Rev. are?

Cause I was intensely disappointed with the boring and simplistic first person shooter, Black Flag turned out to be.

enough007
enough007

landlocked... France... er hello.. im British. I didnt know AC was turning into a damn horror game.. give me back the seas!

CPTCUDDLES
CPTCUDDLES

I really think this first attempt at assassins creed on next gen is just gunna be very very pretty icing on an old cake.  Ill still get it tho...cuz I like alot of icing on cakes. 

adwerk
adwerk

For new players, sure. For people who played since the first game, dont think so. Havent been able to finish an AC game since revelations, and looking at lets play I simply couldnt get myself to buy AC4 despite it being on sales now.


Tho sailing the seas and explorering the world might be fun, the thought of having to deal with its bland combat and stealth is just too much. New games doesnt just feel familiar, they feel old and "been there done that".

kipsta77
kipsta77

Black Flag was a fantastic game, but a terrible ASSASSINS CREED game! I'm very happy Unity is landlocked. 


Just take AC2,improve on top of that, and your golden!

yogaraj
yogaraj

So true!Black Flag was really the best game in the franchise.

Minasodrom
Minasodrom

i would love a cid meiers style spinoff with the ship engine, a good pirate sim needs to come along at some point!

magyar231
magyar231

I quite enjoyed the sailing, however I am always happy for something new. What I am getting tired of is fetch quests, and the stalking quests. Hopefully this new setting, and fiery historical atmosphere will breathe new life into the franchise.

Pierce_Sparrow
Pierce_Sparrow

Sailing was easily the most tedious aspect of AC III for me. It's one of the reasons I skipped Black Flag (besides the fact that it had absolutely nothing to do with the main Desmond storyline). Being forced to captain a ship always felt like a chore in AC III and took me away from what I really enjoy about the gameplay of the series, that being the sandboxish running around cities and climbing buildings and such. I am glad that there will be less of that kind of stuff. If anything, I feel it should be optional gameplay. I still think that Ubi missed a massive opportunity to go somewhere truly unique like Africa or Asia, but I will just be happy if they go back to the original storyline and answer the cliffhanger that AC III left. 

pip3dream
pip3dream

Super stoked for this as well.  This is a great time period to explore, and I'm looking forward to seeing the artists push these machines...

slappy54
slappy54

It's the zombie IP that just won't die...

crusaderprophet
crusaderprophet

AC unity needs to go back to its roots that the first scene had installed amongst players - the mysterious, exotic and espionage flavor and ambiance of AC with Altair. Such flavor existed across centuries including today's world (Jason Bourne series). The feeling of belonging to a creed that has existed for centuries and maintained secrecy. Living a double life amongst common public, personal sacrifices and choices and their repercussions on mental health, social health and physical health. And additionally, AC Unity needs to pick up on cinematic gameplay like the Uncharted series.

I have always been a fan of AC franchise and the best game for me is the first AC where the concept of being an assassin was such a great fit during the Crusades and the settings of Damascus, Jerusalem etc. 

Vortigrom
Vortigrom

If only they would do away with the whole "Animus" thing.  The worst game feature in history. 

jfmorris
jfmorris

Bigger crowds? Great, more people to bump into when I free run.


Not that every AC game going forward must have ships to be successful, but I get the feeling that despite its next-gen pedigree, Unity will disappoint. Then the next one after that will probably be good.

Fursnake
Fursnake

I am not excited about ACU, unlikely that I will even buy it unless it is just really amazing. The assassin thing gets boring after awhile and ACBF had the naval thing there to break that up. This next game sounds like a step back to the same ole same ole. Being set in Paris the management minigame should be built around a brothel.

Genocide6sic6
Genocide6sic6

"Let them eat next-gen."  I'm still cracking up at that!

shidib09
shidib09

Make the exact same game and i will still buy it year from year add new weapons, moves, and setting good enough for moi haha see what i did there ahhh

kyelo
kyelo

Give me a decent historical based story, make stealth more important and improve the free climb controls. That'll do me.

ahmad996
ahmad996

The only thing that bothers me about the AC series is the combat. It too darn simple. I can kill an entire army with the game's weakest weapons. There should be a reason to buy better weaponry in the game. However stealth was improved in Black Flag.

MjnE
MjnE

Who says it's landlocked? The guy on GAF that leaked AC Unity weeks ago said it would be Paris, England (London?) and a villa/town with management minigame.


If thats true that would mean there is either a landmap between paris and the coast or a fast travel option between London and Paris OR ship gameplay between the locations.

Coldpain
Coldpain

I highly doubt Ubisoft will make another AC as fun as Black Flag anytime soon. Black Flag was incredible because it was so irrelevant to the series as a whole. It was the breath of fresh air people were looking for.

isshiah
isshiah

@gamefreak215jd  the game has been in development for 3 years, already. Just like the other AC games.

Mister_Grumbles
Mister_Grumbles

@CatAtomic999  Your statement of broadening the pirate genre is exactly what I was thinking! I think they could do a lot to expand on the life of a pirate / bucaneer.. seriously, that would be awesome.

weakan
weakan

@adwerk  that is also what i say on that francise as a whole

nico2000nl
nico2000nl

@Minasodrom  Well, the sea missions were pretty good but felt like a "First person shooter" and so the game as a whole was dissapointing. But this gameplay as a "Pirate game" could do very well. They do need to add some interesting story line and some puzzles though. Cause  in AC IV? That sucked.

PixelAddict
PixelAddict

@Pierce_Sparrow   I felt the same way about the sailing aspect of AC3... and it was the main reason I avoided AC4.

Then a friend who's opinion I really trust on gaming told me to give this a try. Glad I listened to him, because it's like they recognized every one of my AC3 gripes (sailing and meaningless "upgrades" being prime examples). Then they improved EVERYTHING.

Give AC4 a try. You might be surprised by how much you enjoy it. I was.

CPTCUDDLES
CPTCUDDLES

@crusaderprophet  ya I agree....there were 3 very distinct citys....a fun, dangerous land to tread in between those cities, and what you were doing felt important. 

CPTCUDDLES
CPTCUDDLES

@Vortigrom  the only reason why the animus may work....is if they bring assassins creed to the year 2100 or some shit 

demondogx
demondogx

@ahmad996 Being able to just murder an entire army kinda kills the need to stealth

CPTCUDDLES
CPTCUDDLES

@MjnE  like ac1....but you had a horse remember that? that was sick

CPTCUDDLES
CPTCUDDLES

@demondogx @ahmad996  in ac3 one time I sat by the docks and disarmed everyone and killed them with there own weapon for like 2 hours until there were literally dead redcoats covering the floor as far as I could see....it was hilarious...but really unrealistic. 

Minasodrom
Minasodrom

@pip3dream @crusaderprophet @mrmusicman247  completely agree, i can remember when i saw the first gameplay footage of ac1 and the targeting bothered me, didnt feel immersive for such a historical game. as soon as it was explained with the animus, didnt bother me any more. plus i really liked the mystery behind it. which is kinda gone now when you think about it..

pip3dream
pip3dream

@crusaderprophet @mrmusicman247  i really thought the animus was a stroke of gaming genius.  it pretty much helps justify the hud elements and things we usually just take for granted because we're playing a video game - and allows us to completely change the setting every game.  what is not to like?