It’s not supposed to go this way. New entries in annual franchises are meant to introduce incremental changes, sell several million copies, and leave fans debating whether the adjustments and new story justify the price tag.
You’ve no doubt heard about the bugs by now, and had a chuckle at gifs of Unity’s more egregious glitches. You’ve probably also heard Ubisoft claim it will work around the clock until things are fixed. The trouble here is that many of the technical issues Unity has – and there are many – are so deeply embedded in the game’s mechanics, I’m not convinced they will be sorted to anything resembling a satisfactory level by the time Assassin’s Creed 2015 drops, let alone within the next few weeks.
First, the additions. The Paris of Unity is an amazingly vibrant place full of incredible art, architecture, and people. Landmarks like the Notre Dame cathedral have been reproduced in exquisite detail, and should singlehandedly silence those still questioning whether games can be art.
The usual Assassin’s Creed fastidiousness when it comes to historical tidbits, along with the inclusion of several famous faces only help things along. Unfortunately while functional, the story that takes place in these revolution-era streets just isn’t particularly memorable, despite some interesting tweaks to the silly meta stuff the Creed series so adores.
Leaping about the city is theoretically easier thanks to new Parkour Up and Parkour Down commands, but as is the case elsewhere, implementation is spotty at best. All too often Arno will snag on a piece of Paris’s lovingly-detailed scenery or ignore all movement commands altogether, like an ED-209 trying to navigate a dry riverbed. His movement seems several steps behind the incredible fidelity of his environment. Just try climbing in a window when you’re in a hurry – it’s like Arno doesn’t understand that such a thing is even possible.
Parkour works great compared to the new cover system. Both entering and exiting cover is extremely problematic, and it’s often impossible to do either while remaining crouched, which is madness in a stealth game. It’s also rare that Arno can go anywhere once hunkered down, even if said cover is something reasonably flat like the side of a wagon. Instead, he must stand completely upright, walk to the side, and hopefully be able to hide again a few feet down. Hilariously, cover does seem to render him completely invisible, even to enemies on the same side of it as he is.
Combat has never been the calling card of Assassin’s Creed, but attempts to improve things have unfortunately made it worse than ever. The camera is the biggest problem, requiring constant adjustment to keep enemies in the frame so attacks can be seen. It also zooms in to an untenable level when in narrow spaces, and is often obscured by the scenery.
The lock-on system is also terrible, and counter-attacking remains the best way to go despite the lack of an auto-counter button. Enemies telegraph attacks, but alerts often don’t appear, and on top of that, enemies can shoot through each other without penalty to hit Arno, so don’t think you’re safe from gunfire just because you’re surrounded. As with the parkour, time spent fighting the controls massively detracts from the overall experience.
Obviously, glitches abound. Mission markers disappear or don’t show up in the first place. NPCs react seemingly randomly to your presence. I’ve fallen through the world, prompts don’t work, there are clipping issues, and a lot of animations clash horrifically. The frame rate is anything but steady, mild pop-in is routine, and load times are too long.
The game’s biggest problem is the AI, which is catastrophically stupid. You can follow a mission target and murder his bodyguards one-by-one between his over-the-shoulder glances, and he won’t bat an eyelid. Enemies give up looking for you because you’ve entered the house they are standing in. Bodies of colleagues are met with fleeting alarm or complete indifference, as is Arno himself.
The new gear upgrade system is satisfying though, despite containing optional microtransaction shortcuts for everything. There are a decent number of distinct and upgradeable weapons to choose from across four classes, and all clothes give RPG-style bonuses to things like movement, health, and so forth.
There’s also neat new skill upgrade systems for both singleplayer and co-op, although four separate currencies is three many. In short, the game isn’t lacking in customisation options, which is great given that players will want to distinguish themselves in the new online co-op.
The co-op itself works well, all the above bugs notwithstanding. It’s only available on select missions, but having between one and three extra assassins darting about the rooftops is undeniably awesome. Unfortunately, the frame rate drops that are just bearable in singleplayer can properly hamper gameplay here as the game strains to keep up with the antics of four players in its detailed open world.
When the fighting begins – and it always does, because few people online are the least bit interested in taking the stealthy approach – things tend to devolve into a juddering mess. You can’t blame players for diving into a scrap though, as four Arnos are a force to be reckoned with.
There is a grosser element to the game’s online systems beyond microtransactions: you must play the game’s mobile app to unlock access to many in-game chests. It’s not always clear which ones are tied behind this immersion-breaking paywall either. Speaking of, you’ll get a nice big on-screen alert every few minutes if you haven’t spent all your ability points, even if there is nothing you can spend them on. At least you can scale back the HUD.
In case it wasn’t already clear, much of Assassin’s Creed Unity is simply unfinished, but when the game isn’t struggling to reconcile its outdated systems and flash new city, it really sings. And once the peculiarities of parkour and combat are adjusted for, Unity is actually enjoyable. The system that opens up more assassin possibilities the more side missions you’ve completed is great, for instance, and it’s hard not to be slightly forgiving of the game’s the faults when you see the scale of what it is Ubisoft is reaching for.
But the fact remains that much of Unity is simply underdone, so instead of a great leap forward, it represents a case-in-point as to why the annual releases are a terrible idea, even for the biggest, most-resourced publishers. Gamers have long known this, of course. Perhaps now, with share prices dropping, publishers will accept it too.