Giv­ing you Paris to ex­plore, will As­sas­sin’s Creed: Unity prove an Arc de Tri­om­phe?

XBox: The Official Magazine - - ASSASSIN’S CREED: UNITY - Pub­lisher ubisoft / De­vel­oper ubisoft mon­treal For­mat Xbox One / re­lease date 13 nov

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.

Notre game

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.

En­core tri­col­ore

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.

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