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

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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.

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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.
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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