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French Revolution?

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    Assassin’s Creed Unity

    Rating: 4.0 – Great

    French Revolution?

    I hate annualised franchises. Mostly.

    The mere thought of thousands of people lining up to get the newest Call of Duty, Battlefield, FIFA, Madden or NBA 2K on launch day makes my skin crawl. When it comes to the just-as-annualised Assassin’s Creed however? Well, I’ll admit I have a soft spot for the series.

    Assassin’s Creed: Unity marks the sixth year in a row Ubisoft has given gamers the latest installment in their now flagship franchise – and to put it simply; it’s very good. Ridiculously detailed graphics, startling improvements to the parkour mechanics and some genuinely refreshing new features make Unity an overall excellent game to experience. But the presence of recurring issues from previous games and an incredibly dull story leave me wondering what Unity could have been had the development team been given an extra year to work on it.

    I hate annualised franchises.

    One of the first things you’ll notice with Assassin’s Creed: Unity is just how. freaking. amazing. the game looks. Every visual aspect has been crafted to an almost absurdly-high standard, from individual tiles on the pavement glistening from the recent rain, to main character Arno Dorian’s robes flickering in the wind. From dynamic facial expressions and body movements in general gameplay (not just cutscenes), to Paris’ many landmarks basking in drop-dead gorgeous sunlight. Assassin’s Creed games have always been known for their buoyant cities, full of various things to see and do, but Unity is the first time that the city has really felt alive.

    The liveliness doesn’t just stop at the visuals however, with incredibly detailed and varied non-playable characters filling the Paris streets and turning the city from just a hub within which to start missions to a living, breathing community. The sheer number of people milling around can get a smidge annoying if you’re in pursuit of someone, but perching yourself on a nearby building and just watching the Parisians go about their business really is an absolute marvel. Or, if you’re feeling a little devious, watching a huge crowd descend into mass hysteria after a guard gets killed in their vicinity is similarly enjoyable. All in all, Assassin’s Creed: Unity really raises the bar in terms of visuals and open-world interactivity for new-generation gaming.

    On the topic of raising standards, another quantum leap Unity makes over its predecessors is with its re-imagined parkour (or ‘free run’) mechanics. In previous titles, holding the sprint trigger and jump button whilst moving meant your assassin would climb up any object or jump across any gap in their path. The mechanic worked well enough, but it wasn’t perfect. Trying to get back to ground level from a building often resulted in your character either frustratingly leaping to the next building instead, or leaping off haphazardly and having you pray they had enough health to survive the fall.

    In Unity however, Ubisoft has split the free run mechanic into two; free run up and free run down. Free run up is more or less the old free run, with Arno always looking to get to the next branch or ledge when jumping across a gap, whilst free run down allows you to control your descent down buildings nicely, grabbing on to windowsills and awnings along the way. Many Altairs, Ezios, Connors and Edwards lost their lives over the years thanks to bungled leaps off lofty landmarks, but thanks to free run down in Unity, Arno rarely ever suffers the same fate.

    Free run isn’t completely seamless however. Arno still inexplicably refuses to reach certain ledges from time to time, and although the game tells you a simple press of a button will let you enter windows when climbing, it only ever works about half of the time. Those criticisms aside though, Unity does an incredible job of taking the series’ already renowned parkour mechanics to a whole new level.

    The most reassuring improvement in Unity however is the infinitely superior main missions to the unreasonably monotonous eavesdropping in Black Flag. The far greater variety of missions and variety within missions in Assassin’s Creed: Unity is perhaps the most triumphant aspect of the series’ first new-gen foray. Arno simply has far more interesting pursuits than Edward Kenway did, and the actual assassinations have a far greater degree of open-endedness than ever before. For the first time ever you’re encouraged to plan your route of attack (and escape), with numerous means of murdering the most evil men in Paris allowing assassination missions to replayed again and again. Whilst Black Flag had a breathtaking open world, the main missions themselves were decidedly mediocre. Unity raises the bar in open-world gaming, and trumps its predecessors in the section of the game you’re really supposed to enjoy.

    In addition to the missions, the combat system has also undergone a small overhaul. It’s nowhere near the frustrating tedium that plagued the first Assassin’s Creed, but Unity does make you feel – for the first time in a long time – vulnerable when faced with multiple enemies, which is a good thing. Assassins are supposed to operate in the dark, with as little weaponry or equipment as possible. It was admittedly quite satisfying to be able to brush aside an entire platoon of enemies without any real skill in previous games, but that didn’t exactly encourage you as a player to stay unseen. Arno can still more than hold his own in a 3-on-1 fight, but Unity definitely encourages and rewards you for staying out of combat.

    Where the main missions of Unity may be clearly superior to Black Flag, one deficiency the game unfortunately shares with its predecessor is a story that just doesn’t get off the ground. Lead character Arno is almost a carbon copy – visually and as a person – of Ezio from the series’ Renaissance trilogy, and none of the other supporting characters in the game do much to distinguish themselves at all.

    In terms of actual storytelling, it is truly bizarre and completely immersion-busting to have the entire, supposedly French cast, talk in thick British accents. The middle-eastern themed Assassin’s Creed had people speaking English in Arabic accents, and then II, Brotherhood and Revelations had the cast speak English in Italian accents – it worked. Maybe having the last two games set in English-speaking countries made Ubisoft simply forget that’s how they did things, but in any case having Napoleon Bonaparte speak in a cockney accent sticks out like a very sore thumb.

    Assassin’s Creed: Unity may do its best to throw you off with a shallow story and jarring voice acting, but there are thankfully some incredibly deep brand new features that give you another layer within which to immerse yourself in Arno’s world. One such feature is an enormous character customisation mode, with hundreds of different swords, axes, guns, hoods, coats, gloves, belts, leggings et al. to deck your assassin in – not to mention the myriad of colour schemes available as well.

    Additionally, you will also receive credits for completing missions that can be redeemed for new abilities. It is slightly annoying that some previously stock-standard abilities (like Double Assassinations) need to be unlocked through this method, but it does mean that you can truly tailor Arno to suit your playstyle without being forced to make a fundamentally game-altering decision at the start of the game – before you’ve even played it and got a feel for the style that suits you.

    Another new feature worthy of commendation is the quaint set of ‘murder mystery’ side missions, were Arno picks up a lazy police commissioner’s slack and uses his eagle vision alongside conventional investigation skills to crack cases. The genuinely interesting mysteries give the Assassin’s Creed series a thinking element not previously seen, and go some way to reminding you that, outside of the copious bloodshed and general insidiousness, the Assassins really are there to help the public after all.

    Stepping outside of the in-game world altogether for a moment, and it’s incredibly disheartening to see shameless monetisation tactics creep their way in to the Assassin’s Creed experience. Whilst completely optional, the ability to buy and upgrade weapons with real money is something that belongs in an iPhone game, and the presence of such a feature in a big budget title is a sad indictment on the industry. Additionally, the number of chests scattered throughout Paris that can only be unlocked through playing the game’s companion smartphone or tablet app is absurdly high. Ubisoft were nice enough to mark these chests on the map and exclude them from the game’s overall completion checklist, but there is nothing more ludicrous than Arno sneaking past five guards in the dead of night and picking the lock on a decadent treasure chest – only to have the game stop and have a pop-up prompt him to download ‘the app’.

    If anything, Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a lesson for everyone. The hype for Unity was nowhere near as high as last year’s Black Flag, and an unacceptable number of serious glitches at launch would have understandably put even more people off. Ubisoft needs to learn that their development teams need time to get things right, and that the public needs time (i.e. more than one year) to rekindle their passion for the Assassin’s Creed series. But at the same time, Unity serves as a lesson in patience and perseverance for gamers too. Because under the plethora of issues and controversies that have surrounded Unity since day one, there is a very, very good game waiting to be enjoyed.

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