First Impressions of Assassin’s Creed Unity, or the French are Revolting

4 12 2014

I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed Unity in fits and starts for a little while now, and I wanted to get down some preliminary thoughts. Since I haven’t gotten very deep into the game’s story, there isn’t a lot more to cover than the nuts and bolts of the gameplay. As such, this will come close to being what the #GamerGaters seem to want out of a review. As much as I hate to please those guys, here we go.

I’ll start by saying that I’m a big fan of the series as a whole. I’ve only played the major entries (very little DLC, no Liberation), but I’ve been pleased with the seriousness and maturity of the writing. I was even a bit sad to finish the oft-maligned ACIII. Even though the gameplay didn’t completely gel, it was mostly enjoyable, and I really liked the game’s refusal to bow to sacred cows of US history. I don’t know that it’s going to change any minds about the saintliness of our founding fathers, but maybe the factually true bits like the slaves owned by the founders and the massacres of native Americans ordered by George Washington will make some players uncomfortable enough to raise some questions in their minds.

AC Unity is the first truly next-(well, current-)gen outing in the series, and I think it’s running on a brand new engine. The result is impressive – the visuals are gorgeous. There seems to be a greater variety in the textures and architecture, but where it really shines (no pun intended) is the lighting. The look of sunlight in the gilt halls of Versailles is incredible. The frame rate suffers a bit from time to time, but never enough to become unplayable, and I think Ubisoft has said that fixes are inbound – they may have even arrived already. The dynamic crowds also look great, though the difference in detail between major characters and the street rabble can be a bit stark from time to time. The crowds are also annoying when moving through them, which adds nice tension during missions but becomes very tedious when just exploring.

The combat system has been overhauled, and I’m not sure yet how I feel about it. It may be possible at later levels to carry a variety of weapons as in earlier games, but at the outset, it’s an either-or proposition. You can have a sword or a mace, not both. Intriguingly, some of the weapons are labeled as non-lethal – I immediately gravitated toward these, as I am a goody-goody, and the killing of rank-and-file types who know nothing of the larger struggle always seemed a bit off. Some weapons are better than others when trying to parry strikes, which has removed some of the old “wait and press X to perform a pre-recorded finisher” that characterized the combat of the games to this point. It feels possible to choose weapons to suit your preferred play style, but the game doesn’t do a great job of explaining the advantages and disadvantages of one vs. another. There are stats for power and parry and speed and such, but it’s not easy to compare one to another, and it’s often unclear how these work in actual combat. Maybe I need to spend time in the game’s training room, but that’s not the best way to inform a player’s choices.

Free-running feels a hair less polished than in previous titles. I feel as though Arno is disobeying me more than I ever did with Edward, Connor, Ezio, and Altair. I’ll aim for a clear handhold directly in front of me only to leap to one I hadn’t seen off to the right, and sometimes one above me looks like it’s in reach, but Arno simply won’t grab for it. Other times, I’ll want to drop and he’ll refuse, while points that seem like they should trigger leaps of faith instead allow me to launch out into thin air only to crumple to the unforgiving pavement below. There are also lots of instances where Arno seems magnetically drawn to the next piece of navigable scenery – a jump seems like it’s too short to reach a ledge until the angle seems to adjust of its own accord and he makes it. It’s never enough to become laughable, but is always enough to be a bit jarring.

There seems to be slightly less polish on Arno’s interactions with the world. When his assassin predecessors crawled out of a hay bale, bits of hay would drift off of them. If that’s happening, I’m not noticing it. Leaps of faith into wagons full of hay don’t seem to compress the wagons’ suspension at all – they don’t move a bit. Maybe wagons of the time didn’t have suspension, but they’d still at least jiggle a little or something – there’s a diminished sense of weight in the landing. Similarly, ropes and cables between buildings seem too rigid, with no give at all. This may have been true of earlier games, too, but I hadn’t noticed it before. The inclusion of ample indoor areas to explore helps make the world feel more real and lived in, but the little things like the above strike brief sour notes. The series has never been entirely free of glitches, and the addition of lots more NPCs means lots more opportunities for people stuck in walls or falling through scenery. Luckily, I missed the “no skin” glitch that rendered characters as just clothing, hair, and teeth – that looked eerie as hell. It’s been patched out of existence.

I’m interested in where the story goes, especially since the French government is apparently not pleased about the game’s version of historical figures like Robespierre and Marat. That’s actually part of what makes the French Revolution an intriguing setting. The goals were noble and decent, while the methods absolutely were not. It can be argued that the political purges and overall violence presided over by Robespierre seemed reasonable and unavoidable at the time, but Stalin probably thought he was behaving reasonably, too, and we see how that turned out. I haven’t run into Robespierre and have only seen mention of Marat in the briefing for a mission that has the player stealing a letter he wrote for some thugs that allows them to shake down citizens with impunity. Not painting him in the greatest light, but it could easily be explained as someone craftily abusing Marat’s zeal for the cause to enrich themselves, rather than a callous betrayal of his egalitarian ideals. The game may paint them both as hypocritical monsters, but that hasn’t been the pattern set by previous titles. Well, except for the Borgias. They were just scum.

The current-day story is the weakest yet, with the player taking the role of a player of a game released by Abstergo. It seems too meta-clever for its own good, and it doesn’t do anything to wrap up the Abstergo employee story from Black Flag. I’m sure that I’ll have to buy Rogue to see how that turned out. Assassins Rebecca and Shaun cut into the player’s connection to Abstergo to convince him or her to help them out. They have the player go through a specific memory to inform him or her of the dire stakes of the Assassin/Templar fight and then offer the choice to help them or not. I don’t remember actually having a “not help” option, but I guess that would just be turning off the console and never playing the game again. This set-up creates the rationale behind the new ability to move between time periods as “jumping between servers” to avoid Abstergo’s attempts to locate a player gone rogue, but is Abstergo really dumb enough to think that the Assassins wouldn’t try to piggy-back on their mass exploitation of genetic memory? Even if the Assassins hadn’t tried, did they not consider the possibility that people would discover questionable material and start to unravel the secrets behind the curtain? I guess they were counting on the fact that it’s presented as fiction to prevent that. Still, the mission that Rebecca and Shaun asked me to play didn’t do a great job of explaining the stakes or convincing me. There was no mention of “We saved the world a couple of years ago with the help of machines made by the race that created humanity. Now we’re fighting to prevent a secret society from enslaving everyone. Wanna help?”

So that’s where it stands so far. I’ll probably write more when I have a better grasp on the goings-on. Short version: Good and fun, but unpolished. Maybe the suggestion that the series take a year off ain’t so bad (though the 2015 release is already announced).



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