I've already talked about the the history of open-world games in a previous article. The idea has been around a very long time and we've begun our next console generation, which also means the PC baseline can move forward. Developers are now beginning to explore what they can do with the additional power and their experiments are carrying them in different directions. This series of previews will cover how these developers are bringing their own spin to the open world genre. On Wednesday I covered Batman: Arkham Knight and yesterday I talked about Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, so today I turn my gaze onto Assassin's Creed Unity. (No semicolon according to Ubisoft.)
Assassin's Creed Unity takes the series to Paris, France during the French Revolution and places you in the Animus chair controlling assassin Arno Dorian. Poor people are starving and rioting, rich people are dying, and somewhere in that mess is the Templars. Arno has to take up his weapons, including the all-new Phantom Blade - a mix between a crossbow and the Assassin's Creed staple Hidden Blade - against the various factions and restore true freedom to France. At least I hope so; the line between "good" and "evil" gets real thin in the series at times.
Though Ubisoft Toronto was rumored to be the lead developer of this year's Assassin's Creed, Ubisoft Montreal is holding onto the reins for Unity. Nine studios are helping Montreal with the game: Ubisoft Toronto, Ubisoft Québec, Ubisoft Annecy, Ubisoft Montpellier, Ubisoft Bucharest, Ubisoft Kiev, Ubisoft Shanghai, Ubisoft Chengdu, and Ubisoft Singapore. This year's iteration seems to play like previous versions (we had a live one-on-one demo that was unfortunately hands-off) but Ubisoft is changing things up a bit.
For one, Assassin's Creed Unity is only for current-generation consoles, meaning PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Anyone still jamming with a Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, or even Wii U is currently high and dry for AC action. This focus means that Ubisoft doesn't have to worry about scaling things back. The publisher is targeting 1080p resolution at 60 fps for the game, according to an interview with GamingBolt. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag was patched up to native 1080p resolution a few months after launch, so this could be doable for Ubisoft, but I'll be surprised if they hit the 60fps target.
The city of Paris looks amazing, with ancient cobbles, filthy puddles, and huge crowds of citizens. Seriously, the crowds are a stand out in Unity, which makes sense given the setting. Arno can navigate through huge gatherings of peasants and soldiers as they cheer for beheadings or hear proclamations from the nobility. Assassin's Creed has always had crowds as a stealth option, but this is the first time that there's a sense of grand scale on display.
There's also a larger focus on interiors this time around. More buildings open their inner workings to the player and most landmarks, like the Notre Dame Cathedral, have robust interiors that reflect their original states back in the 18th century. Ubisoft is also using the interiors to do some world-building; one squatter's haven was ramshackle and torn apart, but still had clear signs that it was once a popular tavern. It helps give the game a sense of setting, something that the Assassin's Creed series has always been great at.
On the gameplay side, one big change is the addition of Parkour Down. The right trigger remains your free-running button and if you hold that down with the A button (my demo was on an Xbox One controller) you can parkour upwards like normal. In previous AC games, when you needed to get down you either had to Leap of Faith into a hay pile, or slowly make your way down by releasing your hold on ledges. In Unity if you hold the right trigger and the B button, Arno will parkour downwards, making his way to the streets below in the same smooth manner that brought him to the rooftops. Wall-running has also been implemented in the limited fashion because Ubisoft Montreal wants players to keep their flow while moving through Paris. An Ubisoft blog post I found later also says that you can unlock further parkour moves as you progress through the game, further customizing your Arno.
There's also a new toggle for Stealth Mode, which allows Arno to duck into cover, crouch, and move silently. From what I've seen, it looks to be a lighter version of the stealth system found in Splinter Cell: Blacklist. In stealth mode, you will stick to nearby cover, but you're not attached to it; you can peel off by just moving away from the cover. Another Blacklist mechanic is coming over to Assassin's Creed with the Last Known Position system, which leaves a faint outline of Arno where soldiers and Templars expect him to be. This makes breaking line-of-sight far more important, which you can do with Smoke Bombs. Don't worry, the infamous and overpowered Smoke Bombs have been toned down from their previous incarnations.
These gameplay changes bring Assassin's Creed Unity closer to a strong stealth experience, but the biggest change is four-player cooperative play. Competitive multiplayer, a feature of every Assassin's Creed since Brotherhood, has been nixed in favor of drop-in/drop-out coop. Unity borrows from another Ubisoft game, Watch Dogs, for the multiplayer. Every player will be Arno in their own game, while the other three players will be nameless assassins.
The coop play is also pushing Ubisoft Montreal towards deeper customization, something I mentioned briefly earlier in this article. There's new systems allowing players to bring Arno closer to their playstyle. This means different armor and costumes, different weapons, and a skill tree to unlock new moves, new upgrades, and improved parkour. When you jump into someone else's game, you'll be your Arno. (And yes, I do wish they allowed for female player models in game. Missed opportunity there.)
I'm hesitant to say this is awesome, because while I like the idea, I'm imagining that three additional players will actually lessen the stealth aspect. The change to line-of-sight-based stealth should help, but picking the right friends to play with will be key to making Assassin's Creeed Unity's multiplayer work. When it all comes together with a good crew, I expect Assassin's Creed Unity to be something special. Until then, all I can say is I need to play more.
I still have some big questions about Assassin's Creed Unity: Who is Arno as a character and where does he fit into the setting? What gameplay can we expect from the near-future era? And what kind of matchmaking will be available for multiplayer? I hope to get answers to those questions prior to Unity's October 28, 2014 launch and when I do I'll bring them to you, dear readers. But right now, I can say that Ubisoft Montreal's vision for the future of open-world gaming isn't about just being bigger, it's about experiencing one of the most tumultuous periods of history. It's about dragging the series closer to the stealth action it sometimes forgets and improving the overall flow of your movement. And it's about playing together, with your Arno side-by-side with his (your?) Brotherhood.