Assassin’s Creed: Unity has always had the reputation of being the black sheep of the franchise, and it had big shoes to fill. Coming out after the superb Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, which took the series to the high seas, and Assassin’s Creed 2, which many fans still consider the best, it may never have been possible to reach the top.
However, Assassin’s Creed Unity also was a massive undertaking. It was the first game on a new series of consoles. It added multiplayer and attempted to expand the map to a massive city, and all this while trying to return the series from the pIrate adventure of Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, to the original core experience of crowded city streets.
Assassin’s Creed Unity has problems, but what struck me as I’ve finally played it in 2021 is that there are so many different and distinct parts of the experience, nothing was like what I heard anyone describe. When it came out Unity was considered unplayable, but now it seems Unity has been refined into a flawed but full experience.
The most unique feature of any Assassin’s Creed game will remain its story. The setting, themes, and characters will always be important, and this time around, based on a new generation of hardware, Ubisoft thought the larger crowd technology would allow them to use the French Revolution as a backdrop.
Visually France looks good, and there are large scenes, set pieces, and moments in the game. The problem is Unity’s story seems to drop the ball. Our main character is named Arno, he was born to an Assassin who is killed in the first scene of the prologue, then taken in by a Templar, who is also killed early on to send Arno on a quest for vengeance. And then you suddenly find out the Templar’s daughter is also a Templar.
This last point is just told to the player, rather than being part of the narrative. There was one point where she said “I’m a templar you’re an assassin” as if they were different races. At this point, neither character had been outed as belonging to either group and it just set an attempted dichotomy between them as if their factions were already decided and both were defined.
After the opening of Assassin’s Creed 3, fans had wanted a deeper look at the Templar faction, but while Rogue attempted and failed to deliver on that, Assassin’s Creed Unity falls back into old patterns so hard that it forgets to establish those patterns, and just treats them as foregone conclusions. Assassin’s good, Templars bad, the main character is an assassin because he always will be.
Yet even that could have worked if the rest of the story could tell an interesting tale involving the French Revolution and the Assassins and Templars fighting throughout it. But rather than intertwining the story with the Revolution, or using Unity as a chance to educate or play with the French Revolution as a set-piece, Unity appears to just treat the French Revolution as a drapery.
I think Unity’s story’s biggest flaw comes from the company that made it. Ubisoft is a French company with French employees who probably know quite a bit about the Revolution and felt like namedropping a few major members of it would be sufficient. Assassin Creed: Unity doesn’t attempt to address the ongoing revolution or situations behind it. The revolution and causes of it are a non-issue for the game, and because of that, it’s almost possible for players to not even realize that the Revolution is going on because so little time and focus are devoted to it other than as a setpiece.
It’s a shame because over the twenty hours or so the game takes, Arno the main character becomes less interesting as the story seems to treat him as a character moving through another game’s story that isn’t explained, rather than one tied to it. Even when the game focuses on his quest for vengeance and his interactions with the Assassins it’s hard to care about any conflict in the game because every character and group feels like they haven’t been set up. It’s just the foregone conclusion that everything is in place here as they always have been.
The one thing that saves Assassin’s Creed however is its attachment to the same formula that has continued to give the series a lasting appeal. Stealth, combat, and assassination, and for the most part Assassin’s Creed Unity continue to give fans what they want.
Arno can assassinate enemies stealthily and slip away into the night without another word, and once again the experience feels great. While Arno starts a bit weaker than he could have, adding the ability to assassinate two targets at once, and his gaining a few new tricks throughout the game quickly makes him a formidable foe.
The only problem is that Assassin’s Creed Unity seems to take delight in making their upgrade system the most confusing I’ve seen. Players don’t just earn experience points and level up. While level-up systems are a bit of an eye-rolling expectation in the first place, Assassin’s Creed Unity decided to make players get skill points by completing the story missions or multiplayer missions. While the latter will get dissected later, the story missions are a good way to earn these valuable skill points. However, after a few critical upgrades, most of the skill purchases I made were more due to the number of skill points I left unused rather than a specific desire for the ability. A dual assassination kill was important, more health, more co-op abilities, or that ability to lock pick that was never required was disappointing.
The major change to the formula is the ability to equip Arno with rifles and larger weapons, however, the sword and pistol were efficient enough to never require changing, and while I tried the long-range combat for a single mission, I didn’t find it to be a radically different or better experience. The different weapon styles seemed like an attempt to create a more interesting battle system, but very little of it seemed useful or important to the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed Unity, and that felt like the big change Unity was pushing for the single-player content. A change that was never really explored outside of a single mission.
There is also a detective-style mission where Arno travels around, investigates a murder, and decides who is the murderer, but almost every time, the murderer was quite obvious after gathering all the clues, so it became a reason to read some in-game text and just point the finger at the most obvious suspect.
The bigger issue with the gameplay is one of a changing style. Instead of a single-player experience that players are used to, more multiplayer styles have leaked into the game. Players are no longer monolithic characters, but now have a complicated level system that takes numerous factors to decide how deadly the player is. This includes the number of skills purchased, and which weapons the players are using. Those weapons allow Ubisoft to offer microtransaction.
There are three major microtransactions. The first is unlockable equipment that might be able to be earned in-game through slower progression. The second is unlockable maps for the game (that originally were part of the in-game monetary system in Assassin’s Creed 2). The third purchase is a group of boosts for multiplayer.
I won’t go into this further, I often say “All microtransactions are bad”, and in this case, they are included in a mostly single-player game. Nothing here changes my opinions, they’re still terrible, and Ubisoft continues to disappoint at the length they’ll go to try to steal a few bucks from the consumer.
I say mostly single-player because Unity has added multiplayer to its formula, however, I really couldn’t experience multiplayer, and after 7 years since launch, that’s understandable nor did I have a strong desire to. I never really felt Assassin’s creed was a multiplayer experience. Arena and deathmatch style combat had been tried before, the single-player experience was intended to tell a story or experience the world.
The fact that Assassin’s Creed Unity doesn’t even try to explain how there are multiple of the main characters in the same location, not even trying to reference the Animus or the “game within a game” concept is disappointing. The Multiplayer levels seem to be geared towards the exact number of players requested. Playing with less will result in a far harder and worse experience, and I was quickly dissuaded from trying after a couple of failed attempts while playing solo.
As mentioned earlier at launch Assassin’s Creed Unity was a very buggy title. Modern gaming allows developers to patch their shipped titles, and in Unity’s case, Ubisoft has done a good job, however, there are still issues. I’m still staggered that I was able to find a handful of bugs. While these occurred on an adventure that took over 30 and only occurred a few times, it’s still shocking that most of the issues I found were the same as mentioned at launch. Physics glitches, the world not loading, issues with pop in and more.
The glitches are a minor footnote now, and barely affect the game, but the fact that they still exist in smaller quantities makes me think this was a game trying to be too ambitious and has fundamental flaws to the engine.
At the end of my journey though I reflected on what I saw. I saw a French Revolution but had no context for why, or who was involved other than a sparse few characters. I had a typical Assassin taking down Templers, but done in such a way that if this was the first game I played in the series, I would feel completely lost. I had the gameplay that I still love from the original titles, even if it was trying too hard to do something unique and failing.
Ultimately though I can appreciate the challenge of creating Unity for a new platform at the time, at the end of the day, Unity doesn’t live up to what has come before it, which is a real shame.
And thus I give Assassin’s Creed Unity an arbitrary
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