'Assassin's Creed: Unity' adds to parkour adventure but stumbles on glitches
By BRIAN BOWERS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 20, 2014
If Charles Dickens reviewed video games, he might say that it was the best of Creeds, it was the worst of Creeds.
“Assassin’s Creed: Unity” offers depictions of 18th-century Paris and its inhabitants that are absolutely spectacular. And while the story doesn’t exactly rival Dickens’ tale of the French Revolution, it’s pretty good — especially by “Assassin’s Creed” standards.
However, some of the controls are a bit soft and sloppy — a serious problem when you’re playing a game about people known for precise execution. In addition, the game abounds in minor visual and performance glitches.
“Unity” is the latest installment of Ubisoft’s saga about the struggle between the freedom-loving Assassins and order-minded Templars. You play as Arno Dorian, an Assassin caught in a tangled web of love and conflicting loyalties. The story is more tightly focused on Arno than on any previous hero in the franchise, which makes the portrayal more intimate and interesting.
Aron’s tale unfolds amid the chaos of the revolution that overthrew the French monarchy and led to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. The narrative is driven by Arno’s personal quest and the Templar-Assassin feud, but much of the action involves personalities and events at the center of the revolution. During missions in the main storyline, you will meet a lecherous Marquis de Sade, an ambitious Napoleon Bonaparte and a ruthless Maximilien de Robespierre. In side quests, you perform tasks such as gathering the heads of guillotined noblemen so Madame Tussaud can make wax likenesses. The streets are often filled with protesting mobs and the politically active fear losing their heads to the Reign of Terror. As a result, Arno’s Paris is the most dynamic setting in the franchise’s history.
Aside from a few excursions to Versailles, the action takes place in the sprawling city of Paris. You are able to scale the walls and scamper across the rooftops of the city’s most famous buildings, from the cathedral of Notre Dame to the dreaded Bastille prison. All are rendered in stunning detail.
And this time around, you don’t have to be content with climbing the exteriors. You can enter countless buildings great and small. I have to admit that I enjoyed strolling through the palace rooms and comparing them to my memories of Paris. At other times, I was thrilled with the many new opportunities for attack and escape that these open doors provided. While taking in the scenery is part of the fun of “Assassin’s Creed,” the game is really about the action.
Ubisoft has revised some of the parkour controls. It’s a little easier to scamper up a palace wall and it’s much easier to climb back down. However, it also seems that the new mechanics are a bit loose. When leaping from railing to overhang to roof, Arno is likely to go off course and land on the wrong item at some point. And it’s relatively difficult to swing through an open window on the first try. In many cases, this isn’t a big deal, but it can be disastrous if you have a bloodthirsty Templar on your tail.
I also experienced a number of performance glitches, such as getting stuck in a wall, falling through the floor and having an apparently dead enemy come back to life. The worst was during a cooperative mission in which the final goal never appeared on the map, rendering the entire event a bust.
Visual glitches are even more frequent. I saw my share of dancing corpses and characters melding into the scenery, though I never saw some of the more bizarre glitches that populated YouTube in the days just after the game’s release.
When taken together, these minor problems make the game feel like it wasn’t quite finished.
However, developers also made some welcome changes in the game’s format.
One of the biggest changes comes in the online multiplayer mode’s switch from competitive to cooperative play. In some of the previous games, players stalked each other in what was basically a deadly game of tag. This time around, you can team up with one or more other players to help Arno win control of Paris for the Assassins. Players are given a common mission that can only be accomplished after completing several intermediate goals.
While this sounds like a great opportunity to engage in a well-coordinated multi-pronged assault involving stealth and precision, the reality is that most of the players jump right into combat and kill every enemy on the map. While this doesn’t seem like the most stylish way to accomplish the mission, it can be fun and effective.
Another change is the virtual elimination of the modern-day elements that plagued previous “Assassin’s Creed” games. As in the past, you actually play the role of a 21st-century person who is using advanced technology to step into the genetic memories of a long-dead Assassin. Unlike previous games, there is no secondary story based on that modern-day person’s activities. I am thrilled with this change because I found those stories distracting and a bit weird.
The modern-day elements pop up only a few times during the game, mostly to remind you that your ultimate goal is to find a mysterious Templar whose DNA contains a desirable genetic code. On three occasions, modern-day Templars try to follow your digital trail through Paris. This leads to three interesting escape missions that propel you into incarnations of Paris in different eras — including one where you have to scale the Eiffel Tower and shoot at Nazi warplanes. These missions also set the stage for a series of side quests that involve rescuing other Assassin agents who have been trapped in these alternate Parises.
It should probably be noted that “Unity” has drawn criticism because of its unflattering portrayal of some the revolution’s personalities and because of its lack of female avatars in the multiplayer mode. And I have to admit that I was pretty irritated by Arno’s assertive atheistic monologue in the closing scene. Ubisoft precedes each “Assassin’s Creed” with a notice that the game was developed by a team representing many cultures and faiths, presumably indicating that it approaches its subjects with sensitivity. However, that notice rings a bit hollow at this point.
“Unity” had tremendously large shoes to fill after last year rollicking pirate adventure, “Assassin’s Creed IV: The Black Flag.” It had no chance of beating that game in terms of sheer fun and excitement, and it didn’t really try. Instead developers opted for a more tightly focused story and breathtaking representation of Paris. And there is plenty of fun to be found there.
Bottom line: “Assassin’s Creed: Unity” offers an intriguing adventure and a breathtaking setting but is plagued by glitches.
Rating: Mature, primarily for violence and blood
Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PlayStation 4, WiiU, PC