Feature Article

The Newfound Storytelling Potential of Assassin's Creed Unity

Arno he didn't!

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Have you heard of Arno the Bold? He was one of the greatest figures of the French Revolution before his name was lost to the passage of time. An eccentric man, Arno was known to wear a garish purple hood best described as "wizardly." He also wielded a rather large and imposing pickaxe, or la Pioche de la Justice as he referred to it. But when Arno wasn't going for dips in the Seine, he was devoted to bringing liberty to all his fellow Parisians. No Templar was safe from Arno the Bold. Nor was anyone who looked at him funny. And I suppose anyone who got caught in one of those smoke bombs he was always throwing around. Arno was a bit sloppy about that.

Okay, so maybe my version of Arno wasn't all that great of a hero. But Assassin's Creed Unity, with its newfound dedication to customization and open-ended mission design, has this way of making you feel like you're building your own story. Yes, it's definitely still an Assassin's Creed game, but after four hours of scaling Parisian rooftops, I like where this game is going.

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Making Sure I Had the Right Look

The very first thing I did in Assassin's Creed Unity was jump into the character customization screen. I knew right from the start that I wanted to stress-test the options that this game had to offer. After all, customization options have existed in Assassin's Creed since the early days, but they've all been pretty modest and mostly cosmetic. I wanted to know how far Unity had gone to improve on that legacy.

Pretty far, as it turns out. Within each clothing category are dozens of gear options, many of which bear wonderful names such as Handmade Napoleonic Breeches or Legendary Phantom Hood. Some are subtle fashion choices, while others are absolutely ridiculous. However, all of them come with different stat modifiers, affecting things like mobility, health, and sneakiness.

I decided to buy the Handmade Medieval Hood because it provided a nice health boost--something that would come in handy now that Ubisoft has made the combat more challenging--and also because it made me look like a totally sick wizard. I paired it with a Handmade Medieval Coat because I am a man who cares about fashion consistency, and then added a Handmade Prowler Belt because it was actually three different belts all bunched together and that just seemed like a good value.

But what color would I paint my new gear? Unity lets you select from a broad assortment of color swatches, which like the gear itself can run from the modest to the absolutely garish. I first went with a greenish color called Emerald Regret because, well, it's called Emerald Regret. But then a bright purple purple hue caught my eye and I decided to go with that. A wizard's gotta stand out.

Finally, it was onto the weapon screen. I knew that a man wearing a bright purple wizard hood wouldn't settle for some boring sword, so I took a look at some of the more eccentric weapon options. Would I go with the bident (like a trident but with two prongs instead of three) or the pickaxe? The bident looked pretty amazing, but I figured the pickaxe was a better fit for a people's revolution. That bident had royalty written all over it.

Feeling confident in my look, I decided to try out some some story missions.

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Exploring the Assassination Sandbox

After an early mission that shed a bit of light on Arno's entrance into the Assassins' brotherhood, I was given my first target: a slimy fellow named Sivert. These big assassination missions work quite a bit differently in Unity compared to the last few entries in the series. Think of them as big, open-ended sandboxes similar to early Hitman games. In this case, my target was hanging out inside the Notre Dame and it was up to me to figure out how to get into the heavily guarded cathedral, how to kill him, and how to escape without being swarmed by guards.

It's a structure that leaves you a lot of choices, but you wouldn't know that at the beginning. That's because Unity is very eager to suggest a few key options by leaving them sitting prominently on the screen like any other mission instructions. An example: there's an associate of Sivert's who's going to have a secret meeting with him in a confessional booth. If you take this guy out, you can surprise Sivert during this would-be meeting. A nice way to deal with your target without drawing any attention, right?

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Probably, but I wanted to forge my own path without any hand-holding. So I shrugged off the game's suggestions (the other included a man who had keys to a special entrance) and set out in search of my own way in. After doing a lap around the Notre Dame, I found a well leading down into the catacombs. Down there, I was able to discover a secret staircase leading into the cathedral. I did my best to sneak around any suspicious guards without raising too much attention, and quickly managed to blend into a crowd of people watching a priest give his sermon.

After a little while, I caught a glimpse of my target walking just beyond the throng of church-goers. He was flanked by guards, and my window of opportunity was a short one, so I made a split-second decision. I threw a smoke bomb, let the chaos and confusion spread like wildfire, and planted a blade in Sivert without anyone noticing. Before anyone could see what happened, I was already strolling back to my underground entrance. Mission successful.

What makes these types of missions neat, though, is the sheer number of options you have for approaching them. There are all manner of entrances and opportunities to take down Sivert. I actually replayed this mission and found an open window up on the roof, then prowled up in the rafters before doing a slick aerial takedown on Sivert. Sure, this attracted a whole bunch of angry guards who nearly killed me (guards now use group tactics much, much more effectively) but I managed to escape by the skin of my teeth. I suspect these missions are going to provide some of the best replay value in the entire game.

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Making a Mess With Friends

Another thing about Unity: some of the game's best stories are going to emerge from co-op missions. I had a delightful time doing a four-player heist, a mission where we all had to sneak through a large and rather elegant palace stealing valuable art. Only this palace was bristling with guards who really don't like having their art stolen.

These heist missions reward you for stealthiness and precision, so the more you alert the guards the more cash you stand to lose. It's an impactful penalty given that all the money you make in these missions can be used to kit out your character with new gear both in single-player and co-op. (You use the same character across all game modes.)

On top of that, you can also unlock unique co-op skills to lend a hint of class-based roles to these missions. That includes things like group healing, dropping shared ammo caches, and shared eagle vision. So between this and the fact that the palace was a huge building with all manner of balconies and windows to sneak through, there was a lot of potential for stealthy cooperation.

Not that that did us much good. See, my teammates were great. They were organized, sneaky, and surgical. Then there was me, the Leeroy Jenkins of the team. I was the one charging headfirst into a room, letting my teammates clean up my mess while I pocketed the art. This led to some pretty hairy situations, but finding a way out of them was so much fun that I didn't even care. Arno the Bold plays by his own rules. Probably all that river water he's gulped down from swimming across the Seine.

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A Few Causes for Concern

I really enjoyed playing Unity. There's the terrific atmosphere of Paris, with its filthy streets and dense crowds of rioters. There's the new improvements to the movement system, like the ability to parkour down buildings just as easily as you can parkour up (an absolute godsend when you're searching for hidden entrances like those windows on the Notre Dame). It's a return to the series' roots, but one that makes huge improvements on those fundamentals.

That said, there were some things that bothered me. As much as I like the idea of the catacombs, that vast underground network of tunnels and sewers you can sneak through to find hidden entrances to places, those confined spaces really don't mesh well with the camera. Half the time I was down there, I was fidgeting with the camera--which was often bumping into the walls--to get a better look at nearby enemies. At other times, I was simply lost, unable to find an exit as I ran into one dead end after the next.

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Then there's the return of tailing missions. Ubisoft has talked a big game about its adaptive mission design for Unity, promising that when you're asked to tail a target and you get caught, it's capable of turning into a chase mission on the spot instead of simply throwing a "mission failed" screen at you. I like that idea a lot. I'd like to try one of those missions. I did not get to try one of those missions.

Instead, I was asked to tail a target--a twisted doctor named LaTouche--in order to find his little hospital of horror. I was happy to see that when I let him get too far away, the game didn't make me start over; it merely asked me to go find him again. A nice change of pace from the way these missions worked in earlier games. But when he caught me outright, it was mission over.

Talking to one of the designers, he assured me that these missions are now extremely rare and this particular one was a necessary evil because you had to know where his hideout was in order to advance the story. Be that as it may, these instant-fail tailing missions have long been one of the most frustrating parts of the series and I'm sad to see they're still in Unity at all. They're at such odds with the new focus on customization and open-endedness that they now look even more out place than ever.

Those issues aside, I enjoyed the four hours I spent playing Assassin's Creed Unity. I definitely like what's been done to broaden the potential for emergent gameplay and player customization, and the way you move about the world feels smoother than ever.

I should probably rethink that purple outfit, though.

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