Assassin's Creed Unity is at once comfortingly familiar, yet drastically different. For all its recognizable tropes, and for all its throwbacks to Assassin's Creeds of old, Unity is surprisingly progressive. The sprawling narratives and endless procession of historical figures that have come to define the series have given way to a sharply focused, personal tale that eschews moments of joviality for something altogether much darker in tone.
But where else could the series have gone? Its complex Abstergo storyline has long since jumped the shark, leaving more recent entries in the series to wade through the mess and attempt to find some coherency. Unity ties itself into the wider Assassin's Creed universe, but does so only briefly and rather apathetically compared to its predecessors. Its opening--a trailer for Helix, a commercialised version of the Animus intended for entertainment purposes--might suggest otherwise, but if you were hoping for a deeper dive into the muddled mysteries of Abstergo, you won't find it here.
This isn't so much of a problem if, like me, you found the Abstergo stuff to be a distraction anyway; it's nice to be able to focus on the historical narrative without too many jarring interruptions from the "real world." This does mean that the historical narrative had better be a great one, but Unity's doesn't quite meet the mark. Arno is certainly one of the most charismatic and well-acted Assassin's Creed leads I've seen--cocksure, mischievous, and just enough of a jerk to still be lovable--but the story never exploits his charms to the fullest.
It certainly tries, though. Unity shies away from having a vast collection of ancillary characters, focusing instead upon its lead Arno and his love interest Elise. With fewer of those secondary characters around, many of which tended to play a more lighthearted role, the story is much darker in tone than anything else in the series. It evolves from love story, to revenge tale, to murder mystery, and then circles right back to love story again, all at a heartier pace than one might expect from an Assassin's Creed game.
So it's hard to get bored, or at least hard to be indifferent to Unity's story. But, given the singular focus, that all-important chemistry between its two leads just isn't strong enough to tie the whole thing together; I cared enough to want to see things through to end, but not enough to be truly moved by any of its events. It doesn't help that the story is filled with all manner of clichéd conversations of deceit, and betrayal, and gibberish about honour. This might be par for the course in Assassin's Creed, but given the effort to reign in the sprawl, it'd have been nice to see the same effort extended to adding more variety to the dialogue--and I don't think we need to see yet another Assassin's Creed start with the death of a family member.
Similarly disappointing is how little the story ties into its setting, particularly since Unity's portrayal of a Paris scarred by the civil unrest of the French revolution is one of its greatest triumphs. The attention to detail that's gone into the city is nothing short of astonishing. As the story progresses, the city crumbles before your eyes, the streets becoming awash with citizens burning effigies and waving flags in protest, while loyalists and revolutionaries battle over the future of their homeland.
The benefit of Unity's exclusivity to the latest generation of consoles isn't immediately obvious, particularly if you're focused on face-value aesthetics, which look only slightly more impressive here than they did in Black Flag. It's only when you explore Paris' many districts do you realise that the sheer scale of the city is incredible, not only in terms of its explorable limits, but in the huge number of citizens wandering its streets. A mission where you're tasked with performing an assassination amongst a crowd of thousands shows how Unity is as close as the series has ever come to creating a tangible, convincing city.
But Unity's story and its single-player missions do little more than skim over some of the finer points of the French revolution and the struggling Parisians, the setting serving as an extravagant backdrop to Arno and Elise's private shenanigans. Part of the joy of Assassin's Creed has always been in how it explores and toys with history, and--despite the benefits of an increased pace--that's sadly been lost here. Where Unity's more progressive elements succeed (and indeed, where most Assassin's Creed games rarely falter), is in its combat and its missions. There Unity's stripped-back approach has resulted in a wonderfully freeform and satisfying stealth experience.
Where you'd previously have to complete a mission in a certain way--poisoning a drink, or sneaking in through a certain entrance--Unity leaves those decisions up to you. You're still given hints about what to do, with Arno scanning the area for potential infiltration points and eavesdropping on exploitable civilians--but you can choose to completely ignore them and forge your own path. In one mission I had the option of setting some prisoners free from a jail cell as a distraction to get me into the building. I chose to ignore that completely, and attempt to sneak in via the roof, where snipers mercilessly gunned me down.
No, not every plan is going be a rousing success, but the fact that you're given the freedom to choose is far better than the enforced hand-holding of old. I also quite like the trial and error approach, planning out the perfect assassination route after multiple attempts. Indeed, after a few tries, I had that roof approach licked, jumping into the building through an open window and blending into a crowd of bourgeois loyalists before sneaking up on my target and making the kill. With multiple options of attack available, the replayability factor here is huge, giving you more of an incentive to go back and nail those bonus conditions for completing a mission.
These excellent sandbox-style assassinations make up the bulk of Unity's missions, but there are sadly still times when you have to stealthily tail a target, only to have to start over if you put a single foot wrong and get spotted: it's time to put these pointlessly frustrating missions to bed. Thankfully, Unity's new co-op missions eschew these dated ideas, and are largely based on large-scale sandbox assassinations. Most fun are the heist missions, where your team is rewarded for stealth: the more people you alert along the way, the less cash you get at the end. It means that every member of the team has to work together efficiently and precisely, without any forced fail states outside of everyone on the team dying.
The ability to highlight potential kills for your teammates, as well as unlock skills like shared eagle vision, do a great job of reinforcing this idea of teamwork. The most successful and entertaining heists come from putting together a varied team, with some members focusing on close-range attacks, and others taking point with long-range weapons and sniping any stray enemies. The co-op is a nice addition then, if not the go-to multiplayer mode you might have hoped for. Integrating the co-op into the single-player campaign (with new missions opening up as you progress) is a neat idea, and it makes for more cohesive ties into the storyline. But it also means that the co-op is a mere sideline to the action, rather than something you'd want to plough a lot of time and effort into. Sadly, the excellent competitive multiplayer from previous games doesn't make a return.
Outside of the main missions, well, it's fetch quest central for the most part, along with a few assassinations. The excellent stealth mechanics make these missions more exciting than they have any right to be, though, particularly thanks to a few new tweaks that solve some age-old problems. Breaking line of sight with an enemy now creates a visible silhouette of your last known position, which makes it easier to know exactly where you've been spotted, and which areas to avoid. It also works rather well as a lure. Enemies often investigate your last known position, and if that happens to be right by a ledge or a behind a doorway, it makes for an easy assassination. The parkour system has been tweaked, allowing for greater freedom of movement. It means you aren't locked into a set course during a climb, so you can easily move diagonally across a surface, or descend with fewer awkward animations. Arno's new phantom blade ensures you always have access to a silent, long-range weapon, opening up new avenues of assassination that would otherwise have been closed to those who didn't opt to hone Arno's skills in projectile weaponry.
Speaking of weaponry, gone are the complex crafting systems of old, replaced with a far friendlier cash system: complete missions, get cash, buy and upgrade weapons and armour. This simplicity is good, because there's a dizzying amount of stuff you can buy, all of which has some sort of effect on Arno's skills. For example, certain hoods extend the range of your eagle vision, while certain pants increase your stealth abilities. The chest, forearms, waist, head, and legs can all be customised to your liking, giving you noticeable boosts across melee, stealth, health, and ranged attacks, as well as a unique look if you opt to tweak the colours.
Annoyingly, some of the content is locked out unless you take part in the web-based Assassin's Creed: Initiates, while there are also certain chests in Paris that you can't open unless you unlock them via the Assassin's Creed Companion App. I'm all for giving people the option to extend the experience onto mobiles and tablets, or on the web, but those things should offer standalone extra content; locking stuff out of a game you've just dropped $60 on is infuriating. And it's not like that companion app is any fun either. Dull puzzle games and Top Trumps-like Nomad missions do not make for an exciting second-screen experience.
There are other irritations too: clipping issues, NPCs randomly walking in midair, and unstable frame rate during busier scenes all do their bit to suck you out of the moment, but at least none of these glitches were game-breaking. The new, freer parkour did cause a few problems though. For the most part, the freedom to scale and descend buildings at more subtle angles makes the parkour much smoother, but it also makes it far too easy to jump to the wrong part of a building, or scale down the wrong section of wall and straight into the path of an enemy. The enhanced parkour is great when it works, and immensely frustrating when it doesn't.
Also, despite whatever canonical reasons Ubisoft gives, it's really weird to wander around revolutionary Paris and have every conversation play out in a thick British accent. And not just your stereotypical typical toff accent either. They're all here: the street urchin, the cockney, and the West Country farmer. Playing Unity is just like taking a tour of Britain, only, you know, in France.
Not all of Unity's more progressive touches are for the best then, but you might spend more time noticing what's old than what's new. The terrific city atmosphere of Paris, the focus on parkour, and the incentives for performing stealthy assassinations, all these things hint at a game that's trying to return to its roots after branching out so wildly in its past two iterations. Yes, Unity is the most ACII-like of the series since, well, ACII, and while it never really hits the dizzying heights of Ezio's jaunt through 15th century Italy, Unity's similarities are comforting enough to take the edge off its less-than-successful changes.
But is it the next-gen Assassin's Creed game we've all been waiting for? Not quite. It's very good, maybe even great in places, but the story's smaller focus has come at the expense of its exquisitely rendered backdrop. The grandness and spectacle that so often graces the finest Assassin's Creeds is sadly sorely lacking here.