With the recent trough of Ubisoft sandboxes such as Watchdogs Legion and Ghost Recon Breakpoint, I’m feeling the same tiredness towards sandbox games. Not all are necessarily bad per se, but they do tend to lack variety despite many of their games covering vastly different genres. The Ubisoft Sandbox is a pillar of the game industry stereotype, right alongside the EA Dumpster Fire and the Quantum Break Creepy Sex Scene.
One of the most standout examples is the Assassin Creed series, one of the most popular and well-known gaming franchises in the world, up there with Halo, Mario, and Lara Croft. While the series has had its ups and downs, the series started a slow decline towards the lower end of the Metacritic average in the past half-decade. But where did it begin, you may ask? Out of all the games, with their own flaws and strengths, where was the turning point?
Assassins Creed Unity. This is where the series went from a decent franchise with a unique premise to the Ubisoft staple that bores me to tears just thinking about it. Now before I start, I need to emphasize something: I don’t hate Unity. In fact, there are a few parts I genuinely love and a lot I just like about it. It is not the worst game in the series, just the start of the downfall.
Story: The story of the game follows the generic Assassins Creed template: Abstergo industries do something regarding genetic software, the Brotherhood needs to find a piece of Eden, ETC. But that’s the outside story; the story that most people care about is set at the beginning of the French Revolution, following Arno Dorian, a young nobleman who sees his father, an Assassin, killed, and his adoptive father, a Templar, killed. He joins the Brotherhood seeking revenge and goes on a one-man killing spree because the Assassin leaders are so incompetent they can’t think to send more than one person against an entire order.
Arno himself starts out semi-interesting, like Ezio from AC II, but sort of stays at that rash, arrogant charm and then slowly becomes more and more boring throughout. He looks boring, has no interesting traits to speak of, and his motivation for becoming an Assassin is vague and unsatisfying. Obviously, he wants to avenge his adopted father, but that motivation doesn’t provide the emotional spark that was needed to push the story along. The only time I was somewhat emotionally invested in the characters were with Arno and Elise’s romance, as the two had good chemistry together and gave Arno some much-needed charm and wit, along with a decent few jokes.
My main problem with the story, though, is that the French Revolution, one of the most horrifying periods of human history, only topped by Nazi occupation, was treated as a backdrop to the generic Templar vs. Assassin template. Rather than working alongside it, like AC III did with the American Revolution, the French Revolution is kind of hovering around the story like a fog, always there but never really engaged in the story or influencing any character’s decisions. Maximillian Robespierre, one of the most disgustingly wicked human beings of all time, is thrown in at the end and is shown for maybe two minutes of screentime total. He was the reason the revolution was started and the reason it was so bloody and guillotine happy, yet they treat him like some one-off politician that made a few bad laws.
I felt the same about most of the Templars, and due to all the main enemies looking the exact same, so I could barely distinguish them from one another, there was a lack of stakes in the story. I didn’t care at all about the entirety of the revolution because I wasn’t there for any of it, or at least most of it. There are times where there’s a crowd outside of a palace your trying to break in to kill someone, and that’s about it. There was no battle to protect the citizens of France from the military, like in the admittedly fantastic trailer, or save a woman from being guillotined, just Arno running on rooftops, talking to the Brotherhood leaders, and whining about girl problems. It also ends in the most boring, pretentious way possible, as Arno prattles on about gibberish sayings that make him sound like a first-year philosophy major. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he had ended it off by saying, “I thought the meaning of life was money, but I was wrong because friendship is priceless .”
What’s that college student Arno? Yeah, society does have similarities between us and 1984; here’s a smiley-face sticker.
AC Unity’s premise, story, and characters are frustrating. The setting, characters, and story could have been something special, but wastes its opportunity and squanders the potential—a damn shame.
The gameplay of AC Unity is where the game has its biggest highs and also its lower points. It follows the same formula of the games before it, with the emphasis on stealth, distractions, and general assassin things. The combat has been either improved or ruined, depending on who you ask, as the combat nowadays feels more like a brawler. I like it a lot personally, as it’s no longer the “press b and hold to become invincible” gimmick from previous AC games, so it adds tension and makes you think about if it’s a good idea to enter a fight or not. You have an attack button and a block/parry button that requires you to time it to stun your opponent. This is a simple system starting out, but through the use of smoke/ poison bombs, your pistol, and heavy attacks, which I rarely used, the gameplay gains some more complexity, with all these gained through the upgrade tree.
Speaking of the upgrade tree, a first for an Assassins Creed game, it is beyond a shadow of a doubt, the absolute WORST skill tree I’ve ever seen in my entire life. The upgrades are so minimal, so pathetic and average, that I was stunned they thought it was a good idea. The upgrade tree basically takes essential gameplay mechanics, like double assassination, money pouches, a strong attack, and even the ability to roll after a jump, and locks them behind a skill tree.
Never once was I excited to gain a new skill. It felt like I was losing one less ball and chain that was attached to my leg, which is an ironic statement for a game about the French Revolution. The weapon upgrades were probably even more pathetic, as the only upgrade for all except one weapon was a straight 25% damage upgrade. Every single weapon and the one that had different upgrades was an end game item.
The weapons themselves, though, are actually pretty decent. There’s a lot of variety and different styles, from spears, axes, swords and, my favorite, rifles. Sadly the rifles lack the ability to put on bayonets, which I thought was a lost opportunity. The weapons have a good weighty feel to them, for the most part. This also ties into the clothing system, which gives you the only decent upgrade path in the game, as certain parts increase bullets, medicine, and bomb-carrying capacity. It also can give more ammo to the phantom blade, a useful enough weapon that can kill silently from a distance, as well as be outfitted with berserk blades that can make your enemy go insane and attack their allies, which is not entertaining.
So you’ve bought the right gear, strapped as many bottles of Codeine and blades fused with bath salts to your Assassin themed rolling backpack. Now you leap headlong into the fray, expecting to dominate the battlefield with your sword and crossbow, and jump into a crowd full of enemies.
However, when surrounded by the camera and auto-aim, have a panic attack and seem to try and target everything at once, causing your main character to spin around, attacking an enemy once before targeting another. This leads to the combat feeling less like an epic duel and more of a deadly game of patty cake, as you deal ineffectual damage against enemies, all while being shot at from nine different directions and not being able to see enemies that may be charging up behind you with a giant fire ax. The same problem also applies to the parkour, which is so frustrating to use, mainly because there are indoor areas now, so Arno might decide to hurl himself at the nearest chair and stay there no matter how many times you press the drop button. It’s always been like that, but AC Unity attempts to have new parkour up/down system, which glitches constantly and flat out doesn’t work.
So I don’t recommend getting in large fights with hordes of enemies, but then this is an Assassins Creed game, so the focus is obviously on stealth.
Before I talk about the stealth part of the game, I will admit that I’m not great at stealth for the most part, as I tend to get too impatient for it. So take that into consideration when I say the enemies tend to see you far too easily, and stealth is more of a “cross your fingers and hopes it works out” sort of deal. The phantom crossbow does help out a bit with this, but ultimately there’s an assassination objective, you attempt to stealth, guard spots, then it turns into a historical Batman: Arkham Asylum game for a few minutes.
However, if you can manage the stealth sections, you’ll be rewarded with a pretty great mission design. Before performing an assassination, you will have optional objectives that you can complete at your leisure, be it taking out elite enemies or saving a group of people who will assist you in combat. This allows the missions to play out more dynamically and feels more rewarding when pulling off a successful assassination.
Through the frustrating flaws of the game, there is potential for a real 10/10. Sadly the good points are often outweighed by the bad. If Ubisoft took the time and effort to fix them, it would be alright. Sadly I’m writing this a few months after AC: Valhalla came out, so there’s little hope this review will actually change things.
The best thing about Assassins Creed Unity, hands down, is the atmosphere and setting. Paris truly feels like a place people live, work, and function in. It doesn’t feel like Ghost Recon Wildlands, where everybody is stock still and lazily animated. I personally really enjoyed just walking up and down the streets of Paris and looking at all the scenery. The structures are all well designed and lend well to the missions themselves; sadly, the AI is psychic and can see right through the walls, making it a waste of good level design. The color palettes are also pretty good, although not really for the player character clothes. They tend to be either boring or horrendous to the eyes; my personal least favorite was a purple hood with a mustard yellow and green undercoat, which made Arno look like a Willy Wonka gone completely rogue as if he was about to start hunting down the Oompa Loompas one by one. Others are just complete sensory overload, and I personally walked around with a bright yellow coat and all the entire game. I thought it was funny that a sneaky Assassin whose job is to work primarily in the dark look like he was the patron saint for an Aztec sun god. While Paris looks gorgeous, it is ugly on the inside, by which I mean the map. It’s an absolute cluttered mess of icons, pictures, walls of texts, and indicators that seem to not mean anything. There’s no search option, so prepare mentally, to slowly slide your cursor up and down the map, looking for the one icon you want. The sound effects work well and give the combat weight, and the animation isn’t half bad, so even when the combat becomes an absolute mess, the kills still feel fun and rewarding. One issue I had with the character design was that many of the people in the cutscenes looked the same, which hurt what little attachment I would maybe have had to the boring characters. About half of the characters are older, fat men in suits with grey wigs and black overcoats, so not much in the way of exciting character design.
Overall though, absolutely excellent city design, a shame about the crappy map/ UI and dull, confusing character design.
AC Unity is a game that was notorious at launch for the bugs. From visual glitches to characters getting stuck in walls as enemies take potshots at you. I didn’t encounter the infamous faceless, see-through demon face glitch, but I was frustrated constantly with the other types of bugs. Despite this being a half-decade old game, the bugs are still rampant and numerous, so be warned that this game can be very frustrating to play at points.
Overall: Unity is not a perfect game by a long shot. In fact, I would say at points, it can be a general pain to get through. It had potential, and some parts, such as all the assassination missions that take place in manors, are well-executed and is, what I would say, the best parts of the game. The game can have fun combat as well as looking quite beautiful. However, if you are expecting a rich story experience, then I recommend looking elsewhere.