Final thoughts on Assassin’s Creed Unity

I finished Unity yesterday. On my new PC, it ran beautifully — there was a tiny bit of stuttering that a patch fixed. Good stuff.

The game itself, however, was something of a mixed bag. It did combat very well; in a comment to a friend online, I remarked that the hardest Assassin’s Creed games were the first one and Unity. Everything in between was relatively easy. I loved the way they simulated Paris; the whole “let’s jump around to different islands!” gameplay from Black Flag and Rogue was a bit stale. AC really excels at cities — they should stick to cities from now on. None of the new gadgets was earth shattering, but I did like the way they incorporate gear and gave Unity a more “RPG” feel. Another big favorite was the new way they handle major assassinations — they give you a playground (so to speak), a couple of possible ways to gain an advantage, and then they turn you lose. No eavesdropping missions (for which I am eternally grateful) or insta-fail stealth missions.

As for things I definitely didn’t like: Ubisoft is based in Montreal. You know what’s in Montreal? French speakers. Lots and lots of French speakers. What language does everybody speak by default, in Paris, during the French Revolution? Hint: It isn’t French. They didn’t even have French accents — some of them were blatantly cockney, in point of fact. At least they tried Italian accents for AC 2 and its direct sequels.

The co-op missions are a nice touch, but you can’t unlock some of the game’s skills without them. I don’t like playing with people I don’t know. Sure, you can solo the co-op missions, but there’s no downgrade in difficulty. Some of them almost make it mandatory to be in two places at once. Have co-op missions by all means, but please don’t make them required to unlock everything.

The whole Initiates companion app died a painful death, as it deserved. GTA V had one, but it was entirely optional and added little to the game (or took little away). Some of the Unity chests couldn’t be unlocked without their stupid app, though. Also, the microtransaction stuff was REALLY off putting. Anybody who pays for “Helix credits” deserves to have their license to game revoked. If I pay $60 for a damn game, why would I pay hundreds more just to boost when I’m playing multiplayer? Which I don’t play? Nothing is locked behind the Helix wall, but I just think it’s silly to even ask for stuff like that in a AAA release.

I’ve left the story out so far. It’s the part of the game I struggled the most with. For an Assassin’s Creed game, there were hardly any twists to the plot. There’s one major one at the beginning and one in the middle, but that’s about it.  The lack of “modern day” segments in the game also hurt, in my opinion. I liked the overarching storyline and thought it connected the series together. Granted, Unity was supposed to be an entry point for the franchise, but still, I can’t imagine too many people bought Unity who’d never purchased the game before. Some of my favorite characters in the game just weren’t there to interact with. That was disappointing. I think the series has suffered a bit in direction with the departure of Desmond Miles. He was another connecting thread that’s gone now, replaced by a faceless protagonist I don’t like.

I do think the game captured Revolutionary France quite well. The major players in the Revolution are all there. Danton is largely left for co-op mode and Marat is simply the topic of a couple of side missions, but you get all the Mirabeau, Robespierre, Napoleon, Marquis de Sade, and other figures you can handle. I wish they would have done more with the actual historical figures, like Lafayette (who is referred to but never encountered). The Committee for Public Safety, the raison d’etre for most of the Terror, is pretty much just Robespierre and a tiny hint of Saint-Just. You get very little idea that there are wars going on, but that I can live with.

Arno Dorian, the main character, takes too long to show actual personality. His interactions with the female lead, Elise, are his strongest connection to any other actor in the game, but they only come in spurts. Speaking of Elise, she’s one of the stronger female characters in AC universe and a good counterpart. I liked her quite a bit. Arno himself is too… empty, I suppose. He has one defining trait: love for Elise. Everything he does (and he does a lot) is for her, directly or indirectly. He’s better than Connor (the worst protagonist in the AC universe) but he’s not particularly memorable. The supporting cast is good — the Marquis de Sade is played up quite a bit — but without a strong central character, the storylines aren’t as firm. I almost wish the game were about Elise, not Arno.

The side missions were very good, and helped flesh out Paris a lot. The murder mysteries were a lot of fun; the riddles were challenging (I had to have help on some) but not unfair. The crowd plays a huge role in the game and it’s very well done. The controls could still use some work. There’s a lack of precision in some very tense moments when doing parkour stuff and the camera work looks like a diseased ferret is running it. It will jerk around during combat; the camera works okay in open space, but inside a building, it’s not very good. It’s just too low.

The DLC, in some ways, was actually a big improvement. We see Arno forced to play off a support character that isn’t Elise and he doesn’t do horribly. The guillotine gun was a fun weapon and I liked the raider system (where if you kill the leader of a gang, they run). I hope that makes it into the next game.

All of this might make it sound like I didn’t like the game. I actually did. The gameplay was smooth and the mechanics that didn’t involve climbing are much improved. I had a blast just fighting in the streets and I couldn’t take on gangs of twenty guys without dying. I had to be more strategic. The stealth system has never been better. There were genuinely emotional moments from time to time. The overall package is very fine. The weaknesses of the game range from annoying to very frustrating, but nothing that made me throw up my hands and quit. Some elements were painful enough that I don’t want to play them again. There was also one particular storyline that really bothered me.

Bad stuff happens to Arno at one point in the game. He decides to get drunk. Okay, fine. He’s French. He loses his watch (which belonged to his dad, who was murdered). That sucks, Arno. So he proceeds to scour this town and kills just massive numbers of people to get his watch back. It turns out that during the night, a friend of his found the watch, and hung on to it. So, he killed (and I do stress KILLED) dozens of people, not because they attacked him, not because they were Templar, not even because they were bad for France. He assumed his watch was stolen so he chopped people up. Then it wasn’t stolen. And nobody ever speaks of it again.

Ubisoft, in general, does a very good job of setting up context for the assassinations. You have to kill person X because he’s a bad dude or is a traitor or something. Maybe the motivations are a little gray. That’s fine — I want realism, and few people are big enough bastards to just get killed without anyone caring. But Arno’s decision to slice through most of a town because his watch was never stolen… that bothered me. If I want random violence, I have Saints Row. If I want slightly less random violence, I have GTA. But I expect Assassin’s Creed to be far less random.

Perhaps the best way to sum up my opinion of Unity is to put it into context. I could have sworn I’d ranked the Assassin’s Creeds in the past, but I can’t find the list, so here’s the new version.

8. AC III — For me, Connor kills the game. He’s just so, so bad as a protagonist and always complaining. The setting (Colonial North America) was good and I liked the supporting characters and there are some cool new features; it’s certainly not a bad game, by any stretch, it’s just my least favorite AC.

7. AC the original — The original handled the moral ambiguity of the series much better than any successor except one. It just doesn’t hold up well. It’s much too linear and there isn’t a lot to do outside of the main quest. Still, without this game, we have no franchise, and I did like Altair.

6. AC Revelations — Constantinople had a ton of class and I loved watching mature Ezio and how the game felt different as a result. The replay value isn’t as good and the tower defense stuff was extremely stupid. The plot itself is a bit forgettable.

5. AC IV: Black Flag — These next few are very, very close. My #1 and #2 are very clear in my mind, but the next three could be in almost any order. Black Flag took everything that was good and original about AC III and improved upon it. Edward Kenway was a fun protagonist, the naval aspects were amazing, and the Freedom Cry DLC deserves some major props. I wish it had a major city in it, though. Havana is okay, but it’s probably the weakest main “city” in the series.

4. Unity — I just wrote 1000+ words on it. So, yeah, read them again, I guess? If you forgot?

3. AC II — Ezio was so entertaining as a main character. Renaissance Italy was a perfect setting too. Familiar, yet not so familiar that the characters seemed played out. Some of the missions might be a little frustrating from time to time, but the overall package is exceptional.

2. AC Brotherhood — The direct sequel to AC II. It does everything AC II did, but better. So many fun twists to the game are introduced and the chance to explore Rome was easily worth the price of admission all by itself.

1. AC Rogue — You only get to be a Templar in one game. It is the Brotherhood to Black Flag: you take an awesome game and make it much better. The protagonist, Shay Patrick Cormac, starts out as a little bland, but as the story develops, he very quickly makes his presence felt. The North Atlantic was an outstanding setting and had tons of character all by itself. Looking at things from the Templar side was so different, yet so familiar, that I just loved it.

We’ll see where Victory ends up next year.

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