To start things off, I will first admit that I only started playing the Assassin’s Creed series on the 4th one, Black Flag. Who can resist the lure of playing pirates for goodness sake. That being said, as it was only next generation in the sense that it was still designed with the older generation in mind, I was expecting quite a lot from Ubisoft. I enjoyed Black Flag and Watch_Dogs, and am actually thinking of going back to play the previous Assassin’s Creed games. This game was receiving a lot of press, both good and bad, even before the game was released, and before we discuss the game itself, I want to briefly touch on these.
Before the game was even released, Ubisoft was given a royal scathing by various groups who felt that the multi-player mode of the game should have had the option to make your assassin a female. While I can understand this desire, there are significant drawbacks to this. From the technical standpoint, this means that there are now two sets of animations, one for male and one for female. Speaking as someone who does 3D rendering, I can confirm that there are differences in the joints of a male and female model, and they become quite apparent when they are in motion. There is also additional texturing and skin weighting that would be required as, obviously, the female form has more curves to it. From an HR perspective, you also have to hire a new voice actor for the female voice. Programmers need to add in extra options. In the end, it is a lot of work and money and time, and it’s only used in one small portion of the game. That isn’t even the worst of it. When you play the multi-player, you see yourself as the main character and the other players as ‘other’ assassins. With this in mind, all these customization options, including a female character, would be useless, as you wouldn’t even get to see the result of any of them.
The second controversy is the one which garnered a lot more attention, and rightfully so. Ubisoft had a press embargo, where all media outlets who were sent press copies of the game were not allowed to publish their reviews until twelve hours after the official launch of the game. This means that not only were potential customers not able to get any kind of feedback on what the game was like, it caused it’s own press backlash as they wrote about the embargo. This may or may not have tainted the reviews of many sites, as the large publisher wielded it’s power rather sloppily here. I will leave speculation as to why this was done to others, and focus only on what we know. This was after a two week delay, as the game was supposed to be released on October 28th, but was pushed back till November 11th.
You start off the game playing as Arno Dorian, a young boy who grew up in Versailles, visiting the famous palace of France with his father who is there on business. Since it’s the beginning of the game, I won’t worry about spoiling that he runs off to explore the palace, returning to find his father murdered. He’s then taken in by a kind man, the father of the other child you were exploring the palace with. Needless to say, you come into the brotherhood of assassins, through means I will not spoil. The character has a good voice actor, and they did flesh out his personality quite well, making him believable as well as seem at home in this city about to go through a revolution.
You have a selection of weapons you can use besides your standard assassin’s blade. One handed blades, long weapons like pole-arms, or heavy weapons like the bardic or claymore for melee, and pistols or rifles for ranged, plus all the other little things you can pick up from skills. Your character also chooses from various gear, which along with skills, determine your effective level. You have various hoods for your head, jackets for your chest, forearm cuffs, belts, and pants. All of these have a look, an effective level, and various changes to your melee skills, health, stealth skills and ranged skills, all of which can be upgraded as well. On top of that, for customization, you can choose an outfit look which will override the default look of the individual items to give a different outfit. Some of these are only unlocked in ways I will describe later, and include assassin outfits from the previous games. In addition, you have a swappable color palette for everything, so you can either really stand out or blend right in.
- Bracer Choices
- One Handed Weapons
- Long Weapons
- Heavy Weapons
- Black Flag Outfit
- Outfit Old School
- Dark Colors
- Bright Colors
The game plays very much like the previous Assassin’s Creed game, with various missions, main story lines, side items to gather, and puzzles all around. There is also an interesting mechanic of solving a murder, where you question suspects and witnesses, examine evidence, and then get to make accusations as to who is the murderer. The idea is very interesting, but it does have a few issues. For one, some crime scenes have multiple locations to investigate, and the game doesn’t make it very clear there are multiple areas. If they are discovered through the investigation, the game should come up with a more visual way to tell you there is a new scene or area to investigate. Some of the mysteries are also quite simple in a negative way, with only one person even being a possible suspect.
Ubisoft did try to streamline how you move around the world by having one button set you to free running, which then can be used to climb buildings or descend them. However this still has issues as, occasionally, when you want to go one direction, say down off a roof, the game will take you on a slightly different route, which can make chases more than a little frustrating. When you are trying to chase down a pick-pocket, or catch a running criminal, this can be a real pain.
The fact that the crowd reacts appropriately to you running into them is a nice touch, however. If you run into a city watch, they will even tell you to stop and may get violent if you don’t.
But with all of these nice things, there are some glaring problems. After the first patch (not the day one patch), I had times where the game would have a mild freeze every few seconds, textures going out of whack, and objects jumping around. Arno’s jacket kept flapping at these freezes, as did one of the other character’s hair strands. The only way to fix this was to completely shut down the game and reload it. It would happen quite a bit, so there seems to be some problems in the way the memory is handled in the game. Not only this, but there are also problems with holes in the world. As anyone who has played a game with a world designed in 3D knows, there are bound to be areas where the mesh doesn’t come together quite right, and the game can’t handle it. This creates holes in the mesh, which sometimes you can move through. In the case of this game, since the ground does not exist under buildings which have no internal structure (a memory saving trick) if there is a hole in the side of the building, you can fall through them. I did this twice on my play though. Luckily, you can still activate your fast travel, so you can escape the endless fall, which is better than many other titles.
Another issue I heard about, but didn’t experience personally untill almost finished the game, is that the carts of straw, the common hiding place and way to get down from high spots, have their own set of problems. Apparently on rare occasions, you cannot get out of them. I experienced this when I attempted to kill a guard and pull his body into the cart. His corpse ended up crumpled up in the air next to the cart, my camera was frozen, and I was not able to move. Again, with the holes in the world, you could use the fast travel to escape. This is not a solution to the problem, merely a band-aid. Ubisoft claims to be working on the problem, but the mere fact that this bug made it to a release version should be quite embarrassing.
The city of Paris never looked so glum, squalid and poor. But then again, that is kind of the point, as the areas where the rich live, you can definitely see the difference in how the two halves live. The world does seem vibrant, the city very period appropriate, and everything looks like it belongs there. The view from some of the various synchronize points in the game are quite breathtaking. It almost makes me want to visit the city in real life, simply to see how much it has changed.
I have mixed opinions however, as many of the issues with the game were of a graphical nature. The messed up flashing textures are bad enough, but the inverted or missing skin textures on random characters I heard of were truly disturbing. Thankfully, these bugs I never noticed or ran into myself, but the screen shots I have seen online of them are quite frightening. I’ve seen this happen in games before, and it’s never a pretty sight. There’s also a problem with the lighting at certain times or missions where it becomes so black you can’t even see anything. Even changing the brightness, turning off all the lights doesn’t help. You can’t see a single thing except going into Eagle Vision mode constantly, which, of course, has a cool down. Navigating at such times becomes nigh impossible without running into guards. Other times, the textures on various pieces of clothing of city folk would randomly change. This most often happened when there were large groups of people, which was quite frequent, hence a bit of an issue.
The soundtrack of Assassin’s Creed Unity wasn’t bad, and was very period appropriate, but felt rather uninspired. Whether this was intentional, drawing from the downtrodden feel of the city, or it was just poor choices is hard to say. The voice acting was well chosen, but not unexpected. As the game takes place in France, and was made by the Ubisoft studio in Montreal, finding people who spoke French or had strong enough accents was likely quite easy. It was a little unnerving at times to have people speaking French around me, not because it was the English version of the game, but that I never did pick up the language, despite two years of it in school. But even here there were more problems then just bland music. There were times where the dramatic music would cut out for no reason, only to return a couple seconds later, which kind of spoiled the dramatic tension that had previously been built up.
The main storyline is definitely one area of the game where Ubisoft didn’t make any major mistakes. This was the one thing I enjoyed fully in the game, as it seems Ubisoft can deliver a good narrative experience. While you do meet some of the major players in the French Revolution, including Napoleon Bonaparte, it’s never in a way where you can ‘change’ the course of history. I couldn’t see any points where it felt like things were too forced, and the character’s fit in with their action based on their personalities. Even the bit characters all felt like they had proper motivations. Some of the side missions, the “Paris Stories” areas, felt a little forced or even a little silly at times, especially the ones with the crazy fortune teller woman. I don’t want to reveal anything of the main story, however, as it well worth playing.
Level & Mission Design
In this area, other than the technical issues, Assassin’s Creed Unity does a decent job of living up to expectations. Paris seems quite alive and vibrant with all the people in it. The buildings and environment are quite appropriate, and the actions of those in the world are very lifelike.
There were some strange issues not related to the graphics, however. Occasionally, an NPC citizen would spawn in weird locations, like on top of a cart or in the middle of a wall. Once, I even saw someone halfway into the ground before suddenly popping above ground and walking on like nothing had happened. Whether this was due to poorly designed world meshes or just poor placement of assets is unknown.
The missions themselves were well designed and balanced properly. A mission which was higher level than you were geared/skilled for was definitely harder than one you were over geared for.
This controversial feature of the Unity actually felt more tacked on than anything else. Or, to paraphrase the Napoleon quote in the article title, vanity made the multi-player, liberty was only a pretext.
The multi-assassin missions didn’t really add anything to the game, except having some famous parts of the revolution as something you could witness in a closer way. Yes, they were nice, as sometimes a tough mission does need a little help, but to be honest, some of them felt so easy compared to later missions in the game, you could probably solo them. Since all the missions are co-operative, there is not even a hint of competition either. No scoreboard was provided for as to who did the best or worst, who scored the most kills, or who was detected the most. While these statistics aren’t necessary, some people like to see where they can improve, or what areas their partners lack in, so they can cover them in those areas. Sometimes simple metrics like this can go a long way towards player satisfaction.
Ubisoft could have easily had real competitive multi-player in the same styles as they had in Watch_Dogs: races to get to a target, tail another assassin, pick their pocket, or even compete to get the most strikes of enemies without being seen. There are literally dozens of options which could’ve been even easier to implement than female models, but nothing was even ventured.
Beyond the Console
Like Watch_Dogs, Ubisoft decided to tie it into other things as well. Their website, http://www.acinitiates.com/ gives fans of the series bonuses for completing more of the previous games. Having completed only one other game, I was at level 2. There are rewards for achieving higher ranks, including the assassin outfits of previous games, but they are only accessible by achieving higher levels on AC Initiates. They plan to have more activities you can complete for more experience, but these extra activities aren’t implemented yet.
There’s also a mobile game which you can play, allowing you to send teams of assassins to complete. These missions give you gold, missions and other goodies in the main game itself. However, I was very disappointed to see that they had a “premium” upgrade to the game which added more features to it. A companion app/game like this should be free for all who have the full game, and never charge money for anything additional.
I am going to be brutally honest here: Ubisoft should be ashamed of themselves. The problems I experienced on the PS4 version of the game were nothing compared to the PC version. A fellow reviewer and friend of mine said it was completely unplayable for him. I had huge problems of my own with playability, and some of the issues could have been found with a more extensive beta testing phase. But of course, as we know, Ubisoft expects to put out a new game like this once a year around this time. They might want to consider making that every two years, and give themselves some time to work out the bugs. This game was full of them, and they were detrimental to play at times.
While the story was good, the graphical issues, the lackluster music, and the poor design of the world with holes in it, left me almost regretting this purchase. But all that being said, I can’t fail the game completely, with a severe hope that they can put a little more effort into quality control the next time around. The game visuals are excellent, the storyline is good, but the entertainment and audio are only okay, and gameplay is very bad in the case of Unity. There is a problem with having a yearly release schedule, and we are seeing just how bad that problem can be, especially with this being a new console generation. Please note that this low score is not a reflection on the development team entirely. In fact, the game has all the markings of a development team which actually cared and wanted to make something great, and hoped to deliver a superior product. Most of the lost points were from the publishing and management side, which apparently wanted to push the product out the door without it being fully realized.
In the end, Ubisoft, I am disappoint.