As­sas­sin’s Creed Unity

PC, PS4, Xbox One


We’re half an hour in, be­ing chased through Ver­sailles by a West Coun­try black­smith, when we head, sigh­ing, to the audio set­tings. As­sas­sin’s Creed has long evoked a stronger sense of place when heard in its mother tongue, but never be­fore has it felt like the only op­tion. Our hero, Arno Do­rian, should not sound like he has ar­rived fresh from a stint on Mr Sel­fridge; a Ver­sailles black­smith shouldn’t seem like he’s fresh off the boat from Taun­ton. French it is.

A few things are lost in trans­la­tion, ad­mit­tedly. Cutscenes have been built for English audio, so to play Unity in French is to un­der­mine its cur­rent-gen-only vi­su­als with PS1-era lip sync. And only prin­ci­pal di­a­logue is subti­tled, so you’ll miss out on a lot of in­ci­den­tal chat­ter. This has been part of the pack­age ever since ACII, but it’s never been so pro­nounced – Unity’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Paris is enor­mous, sure, but it’s the den­sity that hits you rather than the sprawl, with throng­ing crowds and tightly nes­tled build­ings as far as the eye can see. There are mod­elled in­te­ri­ors, too, from the ex­plorable town­houses in posh quarters to stacked apart­ments else­where. And it all looks de­light­ful: re­mark­ably lit, lov­ingly tex­tured, im­pos­si­bly de­tailed and teem­ing with life. Unity’s Paris is in­cred­i­ble, and sets a new stan­dard for open worlds, if only in scope.

Ex­e­cu­tion, how­ever, is another mat­ter. At launch, dis­cus­sion about the game cen­tred mostly on per­for­mance is­sues, although we’ve wit­nessed only a hand­ful of truly bizarre pieces of be­hav­iour among the count­less thou­sands of Parisians whose paths we’ve crossed. Nat­u­rally, ex­pe­ri­ences vary, but to many fel­low play­ers we’ve talked with, the game isn’t as crip­pled by glitches as its memes sug­gest. Which is just as well, be­cause there are plenty of prob­lems else­where.

Do­rian is the big­gest of the lot. In a se­ries that needs grace­ful he­roes, he stands apart as a bum­bling buf­foon, a new tra­ver­sal sys­tem mak­ing him the most un­wieldy as­sas­sin to date. It’s a de­cent con­cept – hold the right trig­ger to nav­i­gate hor­i­zon­tal space, press one but­ton to make him go up, another to de­scend – that fal­ters in prac­tice, with too much over­lap be­tween the three sys­tems. Try to es­cape a sword fight and Do­rian may hop onto a grave­stone; turn and scarper from a group of pur­suers on the street and he could well clam­ber up a lamp­post. He is con­founded by win­dows, never en­tirely sure if you want him to go through them, above them, or sim­ply to hop in­ces­santly be­tween the cor­ners of Paris’s many small bal­conies. A prompt that claims you can en­ter win­dows with L2 seems mis­lead­ing at first and, later, like an out­right lie. L2 also trig­gers stealth mode, a crouched stance in which Do­rian re­tains his habit of hop­ping onto nearby fur­ni­ture, while a oneb­ut­ton cover sys­tem some­how man­ages to be ba­sic and botched at the same time. Do­rian, like his fore­bears, has no prob­lem stay­ing out of sight out­doors, but when you

There are some noble in­ten­tions here, almost all of them un­der­mined by Ubisoft ask­ing that you wres­tle with a fool

do fi­nally get him to go through a win­dow, you might as well sim­ply un­sheathe your sword and get on with it.

Sadly, com­bat has never been weaker. Built around an Arkham- style coun­ter­at­tack sys­tem, there’s an awk­ward pause be­tween a parry and a follow-up, as if Do­rian is sur­prised at his suc­cess. It’s un­re­spon­sive, woolly, and lack­ing in fi­nesse. It’s also where Unity’s most calami­tous prob­lem is most of­ten ex­posed. Fram­er­ates fluc­tu­ate from un­com­fort­able to un­bear­able, some­times even drop­ping to sin­gle fig­ures. Busy com­bat scenes are the most reg­u­lar cul­prit – es­pe­cially in the co-op mis­sions, where the en­emy count scales up – but even away from bat­tle and with­out thou­sands of NPCs on­screen, you can ex­pect fre­quent slideshows. It be­comes de­press­ingly clear that Unity needed a few more months in the oven, yet there was some­how enough time for Ubisoft to make its stan­dard morass of open-world busy­work, and for the business de­vel­op­ment teams to work their dark magic. Cer­tain chests are locked un­til you’ve played the com­pan­ion app and oth­ers un­til you’ve lev­elled up in Ini­ti­ates, which sup­pos­edly tracks progress across the AC oeu­vre but has re­fused to recog­nise the pres­ence of almost the en­tire se­ries in our Uplay ac­count, even Unity it­self. Mean­while, a pre­mium cur­rency speeds up progress through the new cus­tomis­able loadout sys­tem, and you can buy melee or stealth boosts with mi­cro­trans­ac­tions.

As­sas­sin’s Creed games have al­ways been ex­er­cises in for­give­ness. To en­joy them is to over­look their foibles: their com­bat and me­nial tasks, their lack­lus­tre sto­ries and mis­sion de­signs, their mod­ern-day guff. What is most frus­trat­ing is the ob­vi­ous ef­fort that has been made to ad­dress some of those long-stand­ing flaws, and the ex­tent to which that ef­fort has been un­der­mined by the loss of a crit­i­cal few months of pol­ish. Do­rian, for all his blun­der­ing, is like­able; no Ezio Au­di­tore, per­haps, but no Con­nor Ken­way ei­ther. The story, while an unimag­i­na­tive re­venge tale, uses the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary pe­riod spar­ingly and well. Lose a tar­get in a tail­ing mis­sion and you can just track them down again, rather than re­set to a check­point. There are some noble in­ten­tions here, almost all of them un­der­mined by Ubisoft’s re­fusal to put you in con­trol of a hero, in­stead ask­ing that you wres­tle with a fool.

It was not so long ago that we praised Ubisoft for its will­ing­ness to de­lay big re­leases for the sake of qual­ity. Clearly the buck stops at As­sas­sin’s Creed, which has be­come too im­por­tant to the bal­ance sheet to slip beyond Thanks­giv­ing. The patch­ing process has be­gun in earnest, and in the un­likely event that ev­ery­thing is fixed, this might ri­val the best this se­ries has to of­fer. At re­lease, it of­fers a stag­ger­ingly beau­ti­ful world filled with un­fin­ished sys­tems, ugly cash grabs, and a string of missed op­por­tu­ni­ties.

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