Ahoy me-hearties! Shiver me timbers! Keelhaul the rapscallions!
These are three phrases that do not feature in Assassin’s Creed: Unity because it’s not quite Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. And it’s to the credit of Unity that the biggest complaint about the latest in the series is that it isn’t quite its swashbuckling predecessor. Black Flag’s piracy-based take on the Assassin’s Creed universe followed an arguably po-faced and pompous Assassin’s Creed III, replacing all the fun Connor Ratonhnhaé:ton undoubtedly stripped from the yearly gaming blockbuster. So, where does Unity sit? Well, somewhere in the middle.
Instead of adventures on the high seas, Unity throws you into the revenge-tainted boots of sharp-tongued playboy Arno Dorian in the heart of a revolution-torn Paris as he’s pushed into a world of assassinations and conspiracy. Without the historically iffy waves of Caribbean piracy, Unity sinks back into the AC mould of casting our protagonist among real-world events, without the detrimental crowbarring of ACIII.
As a spectacle, Paris is simply breathtaking. Streets are clogged with people and there’s a real sense of revolution brewing, as well as tiny odes to detail like NPCs holding hands in alleys and parks, finally giving life to AC’s extensive playgrounds. If ever there was a way to show off how visually stunning and detailed next-gen console gaming can be, climb to the lofty tips of the Notre Dame cathedral and just spin the camera around. Unfortunately, it’s a spectacle ruined by lacklustre AC stalwarts like repetitive guard interactions, boring chases, fucking scripted stealth and, more alarmingly, game-crunching graphical bugs and frame-rate drops. Some of these are forgiveable in understanding the sheer scale of the whole thing, but there’s a sense of Unity being rushed through development to make its mark as the first proper next-gen AC instead of deviating from or evolving the proven formulae of the series. Its story is definitely serviceable though, with a closer focus on the characterisation of the likeable Arno instead of just ramming him into every historical event of the time period (and occasionally outside of that too…). Although, after about a million (approx) AC games, the tiresome feud between the Templars and the Assassins truly needs a little more oomph to have any narrative impact. Luckily, Unity has some great set-pieces to play through – when it works, it REALLY works.
While Ubisoft have streamlined free-running this time round (with the ability to parkour up and down as you bolt around the streets and through accessible buildings), it can feel clunky and unintuitive at first. No matter how skilled you think you are, you’ll still find Arno leaping and clinging to things you don’t quite want him to. Close combat, too, has been given an overhaul replacing the button-mashing, arcade fun of Black Flag with a more realistic parry, roll and attack combination. While the naval boardings of Black Flag allowed you fluid and unbroken chains of attack and defence with swords and guns on hoist sails, slaughtering huge groups of enemies almost single-handedly, Unity’s less forgiving combat mechanic sees you lurking in the shadows more, looking for murderous methods to avoid direct confrontation. Essentially, there’s a lot more in the way of assassination involved, and the positively heaving Parisian streets provide excellent cover. An interesting addition, though, is the necessity of purchasing skills with XP, including some of the more mundane ones, like being able to skulk anonymously on a park bench among NPCs.
Gone is competitive multiplayer, one of the series’ more surprisingly endearing features, replaced with selected co-op missions that rely on other humans having mastered the the game, or you being as good as they are, otherwise disharmony and desynchronisation ensues.
That Unity feels like a step backwards into safer territory for the franchise doesn’t belittle the fact that it’s still hugely gratifying to play. Revolutionary Paris is an astounding period to mess around in and perfect to show off just how the series will be able to utilise next-gen technology to create more vast and busy environments in the future, but there’s a part of you that wants to explore it properly instead of having it as a beautiful map to chase some prick for ten minutes.
While Black Flag opened up the Creed universe to an action-packed exercise in joyous adventure, Unity does its best to rein that in, harking back to earlier AC titles. The much-applauded formula Black Flag expanded upon with rollercoaster glee is refined but missing a lot of its heart. Regardless, Unity is massive, it’s impressive, it’s enjoyable and it’s exactly what you want to satiate your yearly Assassin’s Creed blood-lust. Arno is probably one of the more likeable protagonists since stubbley-faced lothario Ezio and you’re happy enough spending your lengthy 50-hours-or-so game time with him. There’s something satisfying and comforting about the return of an old-school Assassin’s Creed title, and certainly one that’s likely the best of its ilk since ACII. But, you know, not once did we get that feeling of open-ended adventure we got as we boarded the Jackdaw to a cheering crew… not once.
[Michael J Fax boots up Black Flag]
Assassin’s Creed: Unity is available now for PS4, Xbox One and PC.