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Giving you Paris to explore, will Assassin’s Creed: Unity prove an Arc de Triomphe?
Arno flies over Parisian rooftops like a randy urban tomcat, grabbing lumpy bits of edifice as he scales the city, ignoring the pursuing gendarmes on the streets below. Now imagine a group of pasty, sleepy games journalists attempting a similar trip from Les Invalides to Notre Dame. Not on the rooftops, mind – we stuck to the paths, though the Parisian attitude to driving made it about as dangerous. It took ages, and we all got sunburnt.
Thank God, then, that Creed has never been about realism: rooted in bonkers historical rewrites, the series is as much about finding an excuse to climb ancient landmarks as it is about jumping off said landmarks to stab people in the neck. In Unity, Paris has been squished together like family members in a wedding photo to enable Arno ‘Magic Legs’ Dorian to vault from one building to another. That vaulting seems a bit more responsive is due to tweaked controls – while running you can ‘Parkour Up’ or ‘Parkour Down’ to slip through gaps our Assassins of old would have automatically bounded over.
As always, recognisable landmarks jut up from the skyline and demand to be conquered. Notre Dame’s cavernous, stained-glass interior begs to be explored, while Luxembourg Palace’s multiple open windows are an Assassin’s playground. Meanwhile, citizens wander the streets, shouting slurs and chanting revolutionary anthems. Effigies and piles of books burn in the square. Fights break out. Guards remain alert. It’s a very carefully assembled diorama of Revolutionary France, designed to feel dynamic, alive and mercurial, whether it’s far below or all around you. Life goes on, with or without you.
When you’re ready to dive in, Unity offers the traditional story missions, albeit slightly refocused on the build up and preparation for the killing, a concept arguably clouded in recent outings. Arno, an Assassin newbie, is moulded into a silent killing machine as you go – right down to customisable weapons, outfits and his own skill tree. Five minutes after discovering this and we’ve got a hot-pink Assassin with the quietest footfalls in all of Paris, dual-wielding swords and all sorts of murder utensils stuffed up his cerise sleeves.
The main story centres around Arno seeking revenge over his murdered adoptive father through becoming a member of the Assassin Brotherhood. His adoptive sister, Elise, is a Templar; the two are also in love. It’s like an episode of Eastenders, but more French. Paris-stenders, if you will. Underneath the Café-Théâtre is the Assassins’ headquarters, in which you’ll find a group of bewigged old dudes debating stuff and then delegating all the dirty work to you and your sleeve knives. The concern is that returning to an urban setting and more straightforward assassination work isis a step backwards after Black Flag’s epic adventuring; while Unity returns to older ideas, it does it with shiny, new tech.
The first mission we played required us to assassinate someone in Notre
Dame – the designers certainly wanted to show off their most brilliant setpiece, the central, beautiful cathedral, and we don’t blame them. The options fan out before you: distract the guards with a riot, pickpocket a key from a crowd member and enter through the window, find an underground staircase, or smoke-bomb the ground to cause panic and confusion and just saunter in through the front door. You’re like a French kid in a French candy shop, and all the candy is knives. Even with a variety of ways to complete the mission, the emphasis is firmly placed on stealth as any more than three guards in combat will be difficult to manage. There’s no counter-kill, the AI is more ferocious and enemies no longer politely wait to attack one-byone. A clumsy Assassin can no longer
“the emphasis is placed on stealth more than ever before – more than three enemies at once is too tough”
slaughter his way out of trouble.
On the other hand, stealth is more accessible, with more tools, including a short-range Phantom Blade – which is like Spider-Man’s web-slinging wrists, but with sharp implements instead of goo – more HUD elements, such as an on-screen ‘belt’ that tracks nearby guards, and a ‘ghost’ of your character in the last position you were spotted. All of these encourage and enable you to be more strategic and more subtle in your approach. It seems like an attempt to take the series back to AC1’ s original sneak-and-stab pitch, only this time with mechanics that are fit for purpose.
Ubisoft Montreal’s impressive crowd rendering technology powers the game’s organic side quests, whether that’s something as benign as tackling a thief or intimidating a bully, or something more exciting, such as tailing a strange rambling woman who’s apparently had some kind of vision about her future murderers and wants to use you as her private hitman. These are scattered across the map in a satisfying jumble of icons, promising hours and hours of life-consuming play ahead.
Alongside the standard slash-and-dash mechanics are two new types of non-lethal side mission: riddle-solving quests and murder mysteries. Riddles test your knowledge on the city and its history – don’t ask us for answers; we didn’t manage to solve any – to give you a treasure hunt around its landmarks. The murder mysteries give you a chance to be a Gallic Sherlock, complete with clues and suspects, but sadly bereft of Benedict Cumberbatch (don’t be angry, the guy wasn’t invented for another 187 years). It’s nothing trickier than Batman’s detective vision, but it’s a welcome break from climb-jump-stab-escape-repeat.
There’s the usual abundance of side content, accounting for around 60% of the game, according to the developers – but at times, it feels like quantity over quality. Most missions are short, and few have lasting effects other than a few more coins jingling in Arno’s pockets. As with earlier Assassin’s Creed games, the thrill of hopping from mission to mission and gradually emptying the map of icons can quickly wear off for even the most thorough of completionists, but in Unity it’s necessary for character progression.
The game’s new RPG-like system requires levelling up – achieved through completing various objectives and missions - to unlock new skills. Split between stealth, ranged, melee and healing upgrades, these range
from the vital (the ability to use ranged weapons, lockpicking) to the advanced (new types of bomb, co-op Eagle Vision). Although the skill trees are ultimately the same for each trainee killer, the order in which you access skills is up to you: perhaps you’re not so hot with rifles but stealth upgrades are more your bag, or maybe you’re keen to get into combat and your health needs a pre-emptive buttress.
Your uniquely customised characters come together in the much-vaunted co-op, so if your character is a boss at stealth but your friend’s got ranged skills up the wazoo, then you can each play to your strengths to complete missions however works best. Coop-specific levels have procedurally generated enemy positions and tweak available routes – on one playthrough you may be able to zip through the catacombs, whereas a replay could see it blocked off, necessitating another method of escape – to mix it up enough to theoretically never offer the same playthrough twice. The missions themselves are separate to Arno’s central story, although the objectives – rescuing prisoners from the guillotine and taking out targets – do contribute to the plot’s sense of building revolution.
Brotherhood Contracts, tested here in a duo, are entirely new, and seem like they should have been there all along. It drags the co-operative slaying of ACIII’s Wolfpack multiplayer out of a bland NPC-filled arena and into the streets of Paris. There’s something thrilling about co-ordinating an attack with a friend and seeing how their tactics work with yours. One can take the rooftops and the other the sewers in a two-pronged attack to ensure every last person is dead as le dodo. Time it just right and you can even do synchronised air assassinations, a true ballet of blood. If your partner is a bit of a liability, mind, you may just find yourself following behind them cleaning up their trail of mess and/or bodies.
Let them eat co-op
The new four-player co-op is not quite as slick, at least in the Heist we get to test. These tasks, seven in total, must be completed in a group. There’s not so much to explore, and although the mission is interesting – the one we play asks us to infiltrate a palace and steal a painting, while avoiding guards and several fakes – it becomes quite messy quite quickly. With four players rushing around an already heavily populated building, each attempting to either fight everyone or hide, it becomes dominated by the competing agendas – even more so when the points score at the end is dependent on how stealthy you were. Does someone need reviving? No can do: you’re trying to get a healthy score and they’re surrounded by guards like pigeons around a dropped chip.
That’s not to say that it’ll always be that way – but you’ll need voice chat, planning and strategic execution between your friends to really get the most out of Heists, whereas being dropped into a Heist with strangers by the online matchmaking system will likely end in uncoordinated disaster, frustration and that kind of special hatred for humans you can only get from games. Four-player co-op isn’t limited to Heists, though: romping across Paris as a four-man team, slicing bad guys and jumping on chimneys like delinquents could be brilliant fun. It’s just a shame ‘true’ co-op missions are so contained.
There’s no real need to take part in those four-player missions if you’re focused on the single-player campaign – take a look instead at the companion app, continuing Ubisoft’s obsession with crowbarring SmartGlass into its games. Extra content and a real-time map offer just enough incentive to make it worthwhile, but the most useful feature is the heatmap, which collates user data and shows it as an overlay on top of Paris. This can be viewed for in-game missions, one sequence in advance, detailing the most common routes and locations of your fellow Assassins, as well as the places they were spotted most. It provides a strategic boost to your plan of action – if there’s a big splotch indicating a pile of Assassin bods, then you know to avoid that place unless you’re hankerin’ for a shankin’. The app can be accessed at any point – even when you’re not playing, to plan your next mission, or create a bespoke setup for your character – because there’s nothing like pretending you’re a world-class Assassin on the bus. It’s not compulsory by any means, but why not?
Hear the people sync
Perhaps the app feels like one piece of the puzzle too many – such that it’s hard to get a proper grip on Unity as a whole. The nebulous nature of its mix of coop, side missions and a main campaign means that a few hours of hands-on time with it left us feeling confused about what to think. It’s a marvel to look at – from the meticulously detailed environments to the much improved immersion, it’s as much of a joy to play virtual tourist as it is to complete
missions. And while the new co-op can resemble herding toddlers through a maze at times, the new dimension is definitely needed to pep up a game that is otherwise worryingly similar to pre- Black Flag Assassin’s Creed in both its style and its substance. It’s arguably the most conservative game since the first.
With a stronger focus on side content than the main storyline, it’s clear that the designers and developers wanted us to get stuck in to the incredible virtual Paris and take part in its many crowd missions, quests and mini-games to really get a sense of the game. We don’t truly know what the finished product will give us – but we sincerely hope that it’s worth a week of looking like a lobster and suffering from heat exhaustion.
HoverAssassins were a relatively new prototype, but worked to great effect in stealth missions.
Arno’s wedgie ability is excellent at incapacitating any guards in your way.
That’s not a pond – that’s Arno. He’s just that good at disguising himself.
Paris is a sexy, pinkfiltered wonderland ready to be clambered upon to your heart’s content.
Looks like… a grave situation. Eh? No? Because it’s a graveyard? Whatever.
The love story between Arno and his adoptive sister Elise seems more than a bit Star Wars to us.