by Matthew Thompson
I slink through the courtyard, squeezing between the revelers that fill the thick crowds of the Parisian plaza. The place is teeming with guards, but remaining among the masses keeps me safe from their inquiries while I scan the surrounding buildings for my target. When I have located my prey, I need to find my way to him. The main entrance is obviously not an option, but greasing the palms of a maid that works there allows me access through an upstairs window across the way. Yet I still remain a handful of rooms away from the man I’m tasked with killing. I begin slowly creeping towards him sneakily slipping my hidden blade into my opposition along the way. Now I come to a fork in the road. One open doorway leads to a well-guarded hallway. Another nearby locked door leads to a corridor that would help me bypass this problem, but I break my lock pick trying to gain entry. I’ll need to get creative.
I take cover next to the first doorway and observe the paths of the defenders who stand in my way. As one begins marching away from me, I lean out to shoot him with a tainted bolt from the small crossbow affixed to my forearm. It sends him into a fit of rage and he begins attacking other members of the party’s security staff. The remaining guard in the hallway adjacent to me goes to see what the commotion is about allowing me to sneak past unseen into a side room, getting closer still to my future victim. The melee that I caused nearby has my target in a panic and looking to get away. I move into a sprint to give chase, but luck is on my side. Right as I reach the room’s exit he turns into me in his attempt to escape the ensuing madness and is greeted with the cold metal of my concealed wrist blade. I follow this with a smoke bomb and a mad dash out of the building and into the throngs of people littering the streets, breaking away from my pursuers in the back alleys of Paris, my mission now complete.
It is in sequences like these that Assassin’s Creed: Unity shines brightest. In Unity’s core assassination missions, you are given a general region where your target resides. If you so choose, you can just find your man with Eagle vision and go in for the kill. But scouring the area will reveal a number of opportunities for a smarter approach. Like stealing a bottle of wine from a local vendor and using it to poison a target. Or finding a map of patrol routes left behind by a guard that will help you find the perfect place to hide away and pounce on your mark from as he makes his way around the area. You might find some folks sympathetic to your cause who will open tunnels to give you an easy escape route or trade some protection services for a future fireworks distraction to lure out your intended for an easier kill. It recalls the freedom of the first game’s assassinations with similar benefits for time spent preparing, but its streamlined approach removes the tedium of the original’s repetitive structure and boring investigation missions.
This isn’t the only step forward for the series found in Unity. The larger crowds mean the social stealth idea Assassin’s Creed was built around is more viable than ever. They have finally added a crouch button for stealth. Some tweaks to the free-running system make it much easier to descend tall buildings when there isn’t a conveniently placed hay bale available and some lovely animations help it all look better than ever. In what can only be seen as an addition by subtraction, the current-day storyline that was always iffy at best and took a turn for the absolutely horrific in Assassin’s Creed III is kept to the bare minimum here. The only times you really break from Arno’s adventure in the French Revolution are actually pretty fun: time-bending moments that task you with climbing the Eiffel Tower or an under construction Statue of Liberty.
It was only a few years ago that I coveted a drastic change for the series’ setting. As much as I liked the Ezio trilogy which ranged from excellent to merely solid, part of the appeal of the series to me was the change in setting and character with each game. That radical change was delivered to me in Assassin’s Creed III, but I soon realized that something fresh and new was no substitute for what I lost in the process. By returning to the grand European architecture that marked the series’ highpoint, Unity regains the wonder of exploring these historic locales. Whether you are just out seeing famous landmarks, taking on missions or simply putting your parkour skills to the test, this step backwards to a familiar style of environments feels more like a step in the right direction for the series. Paris also features more interior locations than previous entries that allow for shortcuts during city chases and, along with the added population, helps the city feel more fleshed out and well-realized than before.
Many of these things helped me remember why I once enjoyed the series so much, but there were still plenty of reminders why I grew tired of the franchise as well. Despite some improvements, stealth remains too wonky for what it tasks you to do and open combat is as bad as ever. In fact, I preferred when it was easier to just kill mobs of enemies with a flurry of counters, the alternative here just makes encounters a more drawn-out annoyance. AI issues also plague the game’s design especially with how baddie-filled some sections are and their uncanny ability to sharpshoot with guns that have no right to do so. These elements pervade so much of the game they can bring down otherwise good moments. While some scenarios went well similar to the one described to open this post, others left me frustrated to the point where I powered through them using brute force without the shred of elegance that help make up Unity’s strongest moments.
There are other issues here too. I was lucky enough to play the game after a lot of the launch problems were fixed. I ran into less glitches than the average sandbox game and didn’t have to deal with chests being locked behind apps and the like. It still didn’t run well though. It still suffered from going way overboard on collectibles. It still has some really bad mission design at times though since I pretty much just mainlined the story I didn’t feel the pain of some of the banal side missions that litter the map. And I found the character leveling/progression to be a bit much, but your mileage may vary there. It might make more sense in the co-op which I didn’t try out, but in single player it at times felt like an unnecessary complication. Finally, I felt pretty indifferent towards the story which took a page out of the Romeo and Juliet playbook, but didn’t come close to reaching the heights of the better historical tales in the series.
I still think the good outweighs the bad here. It probably helps that I went in with such low expectations, but Assassin’s Creed: Unity takes some worthwhile steps forward while also recapturing some of the magic that made me like this series so much once upon a time. The end result is my favorite game in the series outside of Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood. It isn’t the reinvention the franchise needs, but it is a good solid entry for a series that hasn’t had one in years despite how many have released during that time frame.