Assassin's Creed Unity may be the latest entry in the franchise, but for the lead team at Ubisoft Montreal, it's a chance to start over again. Seven years, seven games; all building from a common core established in the first Assassin's Creed. From a presentation and technology standpoint, the series was tied to the last generation of consoles, so Unity is a chance to see what Assassin's Creed can be on the next generation.
Last week, I headed to Las Vegas to take a look at the game Ubisoft has been building for four years. I return this week with a cold and impressions about what I've seen. So let's get the easy part out of the way. Is Assassin's Creed Unity good? From my multi-hour preview, I'll say "Yes, but with caveats."
Is what I saw as smooth or polished as last year's Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag? No. Black Flag was the endgame of seven years of annual development, with eight studios and 900 developers bringing together everything they had previously learned. I found Black Flag to be nearly perfect. In contrast, Assassin's Creed Unity has some rough edges.
The Rebuilding Year
In sports, there's the concept of "the rebuilding year". The idea is a team starts fresh, tossing out everything for a chance to build a foundation for something better. The problem is they need time to work out the kinks and get everything running like a well-oiled machine. When you hear the phrase in sports talk, it's usually when management wants fans to tough it out for one more year, with the promise of something amazing in the future. It doesn't always work out.
In the gaming industry, the closest thing we have to the concept also deals with sports. Sports games like Madden, FIFA, and NBA 2K run annually, building on a solid base year-after-year. At beginning of a new console generation, these franchises have to throw away everything that came before and start anew. Like real sports, sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't.
Ubisoft Montreal was tasked with creating the first "fully-online Assassin's Creed" and providing the series with a new lease on life, creative director Alex Amancio told the assembled previewers in a stage presentation. Assassin's Creed Unity is the result of Ubisoft Montreal stripping the entire Assassin's Creed-making machine down to the frame and rebuilding it from scratch. There's some great ideas here - a refocus on stealth mechanics, a heavy customization element, and a rethink of the parkour system - but there's also a bit of chug in the engine instead of the smooth purr of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. Some of that may be down to the preview platform of choice - Xbox One - but the rest is down to Unity being a fresh start.
The Play is the Thing
The preview build dropped me into Sequence 3 and 4 in the overall game. Narratively, young Arno Dorian is just starting out with the Parisian Assassin's Order, under the tutelage of his surly mentor Bellic. Dorian's story seems like it will finally deal with the subtleties of the entire Assassin/Templar War that's raged on for ages. Dorian lost his family at an early age and was subsequently adopted by Templar Grand Master François de la Serre. Oddly enough, De la Serre's assassination is what drives Arno into the Assassin Order that his biological father once belonged to; an assassin seeking to avenge the death of a templar is certainly a new direction for the franchise.
Even beyond Arno's motivation for being an assassin, there were also hints in both sequences that Paris' Assassin and Templar Orders actually held a truce for many years prior to the Grand Master's death. A deeper look into the grey areas of the war is something I've been looking forward to for a long time, so I'm glad Unity is stepping up to provide it. I'm also happy to see the wide variety of masters Arno will serve, including a lady and someone of African descent (the timeline would be right for the latter to be Eseosa, the grandson of Black Flag's Adewale).
Assassin's Creed has changed, something I could tell in my first few minutes of play. Unity feels more like a return to the original Assassin's Creed than a continuation of everything Assassin's Creed II started. The city feels dirtier and more realistic. Part of this is the architecture, which is amazingly detailed. There's more buildings with available interiors this time; Amancio said one-fourth of Paris has explorable interiors, as opposed to the smattering of explorable buildings in AC III and Black Flag. The other part is the citizens. The crowds are bigger; stepping into a city hot spot means dealing with crowds of hundreds of people. They're everywhere and they react to each other. Extremists bully citizens, criminals steal or kill, and the National Guard reacts to these events. In some cases, it's actually better for you to let the guards handle trouble within the city instead of taking things on yourself.
Unity feels more like a return to the original Assassin's Creed.
The rooftops are blessedly-bare this time around, because who needs to patrol the roofs when there's so much happening below? That meant I had time to play around with the new parkour system. Here's how it works: holding down the right trigger shifts you in Parkour Mode. If you just hold down that trigger, Arno will navigate on roughly the same plane he's already on. If you're on the ground, he'll stay on the ground. If you're on a rooftop, he'll try to work around the same height. You switch elevations by also holding either Parkour Up (A button on the Xbox One controller) or Parkour Down (B button).
It took me a moment to get used to, but once you understand the system, you'll also see the possibilities. It's also important to get the subtle points of Parkour Up and Down. If you jump off a low roof with with just the Parkour Mode trigger held, it'll work like classic Assassin's Creed: you'll leap outwards from the roof in a long jump. With Parkour Down, you'll drop straight down. When you mix and match all three Parkour modes, getting where you want to go becomes easier. Free-running around Paris is a lot of fun when Parkour works.
Unfortunately, here's where one of the rough edges appears. If you remember the first Assassin's Creed, then you'll remember that the movement system would work... until it didn't. Yeah, all that is back. While I was playing him, Arno got caught in spots and corners where he just wouldn't do anything. He'd be there hanging off a corner, I'd hit the button to drop, and he'd just sit there. Eventually, I'd figure out a direction that would get Arno moving again, but until then you're just flailing around and hoping something works. You'd run into the same kind of thing in Assassin's Creed III with trees or ship rigging, but if feels like the buggy nature of Arno's movement is a step back from Edward's game. I'd say the combination of more natural architecture and the new Parkour system are adding together to create a few issues here and there.
Bringing Back The Stealth
Assassin's Creed Unity is about deciding what the core of Assassin's Creed is. Ubisoft Montreal's answer is "stealth over combat". Combat is still the same counter-and-attack action that we've all gotten used to, but things are on the harder side in Unity. The chain kill and counter kills are gone, meaning it's not as easy to take down enemies. Countering is still easy - just hit the parry or dodge button when you see the enemy attack indicator - but you won't get that instant kill afterwards. You also have to contend with enemies who are more willing to stab you in the back while you're attacking their friends.
This shifts the gameplay back towards the first Assassin's Creed, where running into more than three or four guards was a problem. In later games, counters and chains meant you could dispatch whole regiments without issue. Now, it's better to run away when things get heated instead of standing your ground.
Unity borrows heavily from another Ubisoft title, Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Left Trigger shifts Arno into a low-presence mode, making this the Crouch button fans have been asking for since the first game. Pressing A snaps Arno in nearby cover; you can disengage by pulling directly away from the cover or hitting A again. Blacklist also hands Unity the Last-Known Position indicator: a ghostly-outline of Arno that shows where the enemy believes he is. Line-of-sight is way more important in Unity, meaning Smoke Bombs, corners, and those new building interiors are major tools in your arsenal.
"This game is different from other Assassin's Creed games. It's played differently. That's the whole point."Unity creative director Alex Amancio
Ubisoft wants you to rely on stealth again and these options make utilizing that stealth easier. The missions have been re-tooled to be less linear, giving you more ways to reach and dispatch your target. More ways in, more assassination spots, and more ways to escape once the deed is done. There's also a move away from one major crutch, Eagle Vision. Instead of it being a mode you toggle on-and-off, it now lasts for a specific period of time and comes with a short cooldown. I can see this change being a contentious one for many fans, but I got used to it after an hour of play. Eagle Vision in its new form is something you turn on quickly to see around corners, instead of keeping it on to monitor enemy movements.
Running like a bat out of hell to kill a target is still possible in Unity, but getting back out again is harder now. Fighting your way out against overwhelming numbers tends to end in death. Stealth seems to be the go-to playstyle. Assassin's Creed Unity is just a slower, more methodical game than Black Flag was. I'm not sure how fans will adjust to the new (old?) style, because there's a definite sense of weakness in Arno compared to his invincible, army-murdering brethren. And that's completely intentional.
Life in Paris
You'll unlock new areas by ascending to a tall spire and looking out on the city, just like every other Assassin's Creed. The synchronization still shows the the immediate area in a 360-degree pan outwards, but I saw some stutter and what looked like screen-tearing. I don't know if that's an Xbox One problem or a Unity problem, but you now have a heads-up.
Synchronization shows you many of the available missions within the region. These missions include direct Campaign tasks, Paris Stories, Murder Mysteries, Treasure Hunts, and other small actions you can undertake. Campaign missions will further the story and tend to follow one target or set of targets for the entire sequence.
"We're back to something that looks a bit more like Assassin's Creed 1," said Amancio. "Every sequence that ends in an assassination, we spend that sequence introducing you to the assassination target. If you don't know who you're killing, it's just murder. If you get to know the character, it becomes more meaningful."
I think it's still murder, just the meaningful kind. I assume that's better?
Paris Stories are the new Brotherhood missions with a narrative twist; they break down to the normal go here/kill people/steal stuff mission structure, but they involve smaller historical figures or legends. In one series of missions, I stole back severed heads for wax sculptor Marie Tussaud, while in another I killed a series of people under the mad orders of the fortune telling Marie Anne Lenormand. The characters popped up in later Paris Stories as well, giving the missions a sense of continuity. They're definitely side missions though; while quest givers are fully-voiced, there doesn't seem to be any lip-syncing.
Murder Mysteries and Treasure Hunts are another return to the slower, more methodical feel of the first Assassin's Creed. Murder Mysteries have you investigating deaths, going to specific areas and looking for clues with your Eagle Vision. Once you collected enough clues, you can accuse any witness you've talked to of committing the crime. Get it right and you get the full reward; get it wrong, your reward gets docked a bit, and you have to try again. These were probably my favorite side-missions in the preview, giving me a bit of slow-paced, old-school adventure game fun in the middle of all the running and stabbing. The Treasure Hunt missions give you clues hidden in the writings of Nostradamus that lead you to locations for loot. I started a Treasure Hunt, got my cryptic first clue, and decided I did not have enough time to delve into that mission type. Sorry, folks.
Other missions deal with things like the Cafe Theatre, Assassin's Creed Unity's version of AC II's Villa or AC III's Homestead. This is your base of operations. You can pay to upgrade it. The upgrades unlock new rooms and new missions in addition to sending more money flowing into your coffers on a regular basis. You can also shift the crowd makeup in certain areas towards your favor by unlocking satellite houses for the Cafe Theatre.
It's worth noting that missions don't scale depending on your available skills or gear. Every mission has a five-star rating: one star is easy, five stars are hard. As you add skills and gear to your Arno, you'll also have a comparable star rating, which should help you know when you're ready to tackle a specific mission. Of course, this means you can attempt a five-star mission with a one-star Arno if you're up for the challenge. Think of it as a guideline, not a rule.
Go Your Own Way
While you're running around, stabbing fools, and looking cool, you'll be getting Creed Points (yes, they probably could've been called something better). The game throws these at you for doing things an assassin would do: killing folks, completing missions, making successful getaways. Creed Points are essentially experience points and they feed into Assassin's Creed Unity's second biggest feature: customization. With Creed Points and money, you can upgrade your Arno in a few different ways.
"Our old linear structure was a bit dated. It was cool back in 2007, but as we iterated through it, we felt it needed a new beginning," explained Amancio. "If you're going to let players play the way they want to play, then you've got to give them more ways to play. That means customization. Assassin's Creed has traditionally been about the narrative. You're following a story. This is effective in a more linear and narrow game. The problem with the open-world is the narrative tries to push you forward, while the open-world tries to get you to explore. You're getting these two parts of the game fighting against themselves. By changing the motivation from narrative to player progression - everything you do in the city gives you something to progress Arno - it becomes more relevant."
The problem with the open-world is the narrative tries to push you forward, while the open-world tries to get you to explore. You're getting these two parts of the game fighting against themselves."Unity creative director Alex Amancio
This customization is pretty deep and it branches out into a number of areas. At the highest level there's skills, equipment, and boosts. Skills push your Arno towards different playstyles and fall into four categories: Melee, Ranged, Stealth, and Health. Melee is all about making you a better fighter up-close, Ranged focuses on your ability to use Pistols and Rifles, Stealth beefs up your assassination and hiding skills (with the brand-new Disguise ability), and Health just makes you more of a tank. Some may have issues about the things gated behind these skills though. Especially in the Stealth section, where you have things like Double Assassinations and Blending via benches, things that players are used to being a standard part of your arsenal in previous games. Here they're moved into customization vectors. Your friend might be able to kill two dudes from the air, but you can survive them surrounding you; it's about bringing you closer to Arno by making him yours. It works pretty well once you've picked a direction.
Next up is equipment. You can buy equipment with money or it'll be rewarded for completing certain missions. Arno is given his Hidden Blade, ranged Phantom Blade upgrade, a basic one-handed sword, and Smoke Bombs for free. Everything else needs to be earned or purchased. Weapons break down into five categories: One-Handed, Long, Heavy, Pistols, and Rifles. Armor is another six categories: Head, Chest, Forearms, Waist, Legs, and Outfits. Every weapon and armor piece offers a stat boost in one of the four skill categories I mentioned before, meaning your look should give others an idea of what type of player you are. Unfortunately, this means you can't be a melee beef tank while looking like a lithe assassin.
To give you an idea what you're working with here, I counted 24 one-handed weapons, 23 long weapons, 22 heavy weapons, and 37 different head pieces to work with. There's a lot of options to unlock in the game. There's also 30 different pre-set color groups - sadly, you can't set your own colors in Unity - and six outfits representing other Assassin's Creed protagonists: Ezio, Altair, Connor, Edward, Shay, and Thomas de Carneillon (who?). By the end of my play session, my focus on stealth meant my Arno looked a bit like a hooded homeless drifter decked out in green; the early stealth clothing options scream "peasant". Your customizations also carry over into cutscenes; it's omission that plagues other titles, so I'm glad Ubisoft was on point in this aspect.
Finally, Boosts are a bonus to your combat or stealth capabilities, allowing you to deal more damage, take more damage, or hide much better for a short period of time. All the Boosts available in the preview build had a duration of three minutes, but I'm not sure if that'll carry over to the final game.
You can change your loadout on the fly, tailoring your Arno to specific missions. I didn't see anything stopping you from pausing in the middle of a mission to switch in a different weapon or piece of gear. In fact, for the latter half of my preview time, I was switching Arno's color scheme and pieces of his gear at random. It was fun in cutscenes to say the least.
I previously wrote that customization might be Assassin's Creed Unity's killer feature and from what I saw, I was right. I think player will have a lot of fun showing off their Arno in screenshots and videos online. I do take issue with how some standard abilities have been moved into the skill system, but that's an issue of tuning, not the system itself. I was also sad to see that skin color, an option available in the Unity website's Character Creator, was not available in the preview build I played.
Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité
The last major addition to Assassin's Creed Unity is cooperative multiplayer, which replaces the competitive multiplayer that's been a series staple since Assassin's Creed Brotherhood. I'm not a big multiplayer guy, so I've mostly avoided the competitive multiplayer in previous AC games. Coop in Unity breaks down into two different repeatable mission types: Brotherhood Contracts and Heists. There are 11 Brotherhood Contracts, which use a three-act structure to tell a story with a few randomized mission elements, and 7 Heists, which are more randomized free-for-all missions with no plot. The missions are either 2-player or 4-player, so not every co-op mission can run the full 4-players. At this event, Ubisoft had a 2-player Brotherhood Contract and 4-player Heist available to play though.
I had fun, even if this fun may have been helped by the Ubisoft employees joining me on my capers; the 2-player mission was played with an Ubisoft employee, while 2 devs joined me and another journalist in the 4-player mission.
The Brotherhood Contract had my journalist/dev pair trying to free a spy named Paton, who's been sending people to the guillotine as traitors via his eavesdropping investigations. Those investigations clued Paton into the fact that the Templar Order is a secret organization up to no good, so he tells his boss, Maximilien de Robespierre. Unfortunately for Paton, Robespierre is a Templar, a fact that finds Paton thrown in jail for treason. It's up to you and a friend to free Paton and kill the Templars who would see him dead.
The three acts of the mission involved stealing a Warden's Key, finding Paton's secret notebook, and then freeing Paton. It's rather a vanilla Assassin's Creed mission, but having another player beside you is surprisingly enjoyable. I was a bit hasty in stealing the Warden's key, tipping off two guards in the process, but they were so focused on me that they missed the dev sneaking up behind them to deliver the killing blow. A later part of the mission had us killing Templar guards at different areas of the execution site. The dev had set up a perfect assassination spot, ready to pounce on our final target, but he missed one sniper on a roof. I was there to silently dispatch the sniper and the assassination went off without a hitch. Moments like that make you feel like a badass.
The benefit of another person is they can lessen all of the mistakes you'd normally make alone. You always have a general sense of where your coop partner is via their ever-present icon. It pays to stay close to them, but not too close; you want to be able to save them, or at least minimize their mistakes, but you don't want to get caught in the crossfire when they screw up. The Last-Known Position is still handy in coop, making it simple for you to take down foes while they're hunting for your friend. There are also special skills just for coop, like the group healing ability my assassin had equipped, or another skill that shares the information found via Eagle Vision with the team.
There there was the Heist, which scaled the action up with 4-players. This was still fun, but way more hectic. The Heist in question had us sneaking into a guarded mansion to steal a painting, but there were multiple hiding spots for the painting itself. That meant reaching a number of different spots on the map and examining each potential winner. Of course, the correct painting happened to be the very last painting we scanned, something the developer assured me is completely random.
In 4-player co-op, there seemed to be a near-constant stream of one or more players tripping into guards and causing an all-out melee in their section of the map. The other non-dev in my play session was constantly stumbling into combat and he even died at one point while I was on the other side of the mansion. When a player in the team falls in battle, the rest of the team has around 45 seconds to revive them. If that player completely dies, the whole team fails, meaning your group is only as strong as its weakest link.
I'm sure that last idea saddens some potential coop players. Yeah, you have to rely on the team. To me, this means Assassin's Creed Unity's matchmaking is key. I asked the developers present about the matchmaking system, which seems to be partially-based around the star ratings I mentioned before. The game attempts to pair you with other players who have the same star rating, while also trying to find people who compliment your currently equipped abilities. Unity will try to stick a heavy with a stealth character, or a ranged assassin with a melee specialist.
The co-op icons for each player also clue you into their personal specialities. Of course, you can still change skills and gear on the fly if the system goes awry. Great matchmaking is key in any online game mode and in Assassin's Creed Unity the difference between a great team and a melange of failure is so wide. (Splinter Cell: Blacklist's Spies vs. Mercs online mode had the same issue.) This remains my biggest question mark for the live game, despite the assurances of the Ubisoft team. At the very least, coop looks like it'll be fun with friends.
Finishing the Heist rewards all four players with the mission pay-out, plus an additional bonus. Again, the new focus on stealth is apparent; this bonus starts at 50,000 currency and then gets docked when you do things that aren't stealthy. (Your humble previewer had the highest bonus pay in his run-through, thank you very much.) If you're going to be buying some of the most expensive equipment in the game, doing repeatable Heists seems to be the way to go.
Overall, the switch to co-op is a change I prefer. Again, I've never been a huge competitive multiplayer fan. I like to play with people, not against them. Ubisoft has gone a long way towards making co-op action a seamless part of the single-player game: co-op missions appear on your map just like any other mission and you can decide to play them or ignore them. I forsee myself ignoring them until I finish off Arno's story, but I won't ignore online completely as I have in previous AC games.
A Fresh Start
Looking back over the words I've written above, I feel like I came away with a more positive impression of Assassin's Creed Unity than I had when I was in Vegas. There's a lot of great ideas here, but the painting feels a bit unfinished in places. The digital city of Paris looks great, but the performance is rough at times. The new Parkour system is a welcome change, but Arno gets stuck occasionally. Stealth takes the cake again, but combat is more unforgiving than it's been in the past.
Unity is looking good so far, but from a pure polish standpoint, Black Flag currently reigns supreme. (I guess it says a lot when the person you have to beat is yourself.) Unity is Assassin's Creed 1 again, a new start for the franchise with all the problems inherent starting from scratch. And while I definitely enjoyed my time with Unity, I admit that my vision is already moving towards Assassin's Creed 2015, to see if it can improve on this base they way Black Flag improved on Assassin's Creed III and Assassin's Creed II improved on Assassin's Creed. If a jump like that is in the cards, AC 2015 will blow some minds.
Until then, Unity feels like a great rebuilding year.