Oh Assassin’s Creed, I’ve always been your defender, the one who totally didn’t mind the yearly releases and the frequent lack of evolution or ingenuity inherent to your system. But every fanboy must have their breaking point, and even a cool French Revolution setting wasn’t enough to make me think Assassin’s Creed Unity just might be mine.
I thought it was a little weird when Unity wasn’t playable to general attendees at E3. I also found it odd that the game had an even smaller presence at PAX. After spending my first hour in-game everything began to make sense though. When Ubisoft said they were focusing their development entirely on maximizing the power of next gen consoles, what they really seemed to mean was they have no idea how to work with next-gen consoles. To say Assassin’s Creed Unity runs poorly on the Xbox One and Playstation 4 is being generous. The game is a technical mess that completely dishevels any merits the core gameplay might have.
What are the technical problems? Well let’s see if we can list them. The first and most obvious issue is the game’s frame rate. As a general rule the game hovers just under 30 FPS, probably averaging closer to 25 with dips into the high teens when encountering exceptionally large crowds. Load times are heinous, sometimes exceeding two minutes just to trigger a cutscene. NPCs behave erratically and will frequently appear out of nowhere, I’m not sure why but I felt like pushing through crowds was a lot slower here than in past Assassin’s Creed games. Our new hero Arno used to have a nasty habit of falling through the ground into oblivion. At this point that bug has been patched out, but don’t worry, you’re still all but guaranteed to find yourself snagged on invisible walls or glitching out and getting stuck halfway inside a building at some point during your adventure.
This is a classic case of poor optimization. The game runs terribly even on a high powered PC with the best graphics cards money can buy. In an even stranger twist, out of the two consoles, Unity seems to run the smoothest on the least powerful one which of course implies that the problem is not that the hardware can’t handle the game, so much as it is that Ubisoft didn’t want to spend the appropriate amount of time to make it work.
It’s difficult to hear about how gaming is this lucrative billion dollar industry and then see a AAA title like Unity. The game spends a repulsive amount of time begging you to give more money and sign up for Ubisoft’s excess services. If you elect not to use these optional services then you’ll be left with a healthy collection of chests you can’t open and a map crammed full of useless icons. And while we’re at it I guess we should talk about the the hotly anticipated micro transactions which arrive in the form of Helix Credits. Upgrades to Arno’s abilities can be unlocked by spending skill points which are only acquired by completing story missions. Helix Credits allow you to bypass the traditional upgrade prices by instead using real money to purchase skills or equipment at a “discounted” rate. This currency will also allow you to purchase map packs to find the game’s numerous side activities, similar to how Black Flag handled its micro transactions. Helix Credits are sold in packs with the lowest priced bundle costing $19.99 and the highest priced one sitting at $99.99.
For exhibiting such a lack of evolution, and even perhaps regression in a lot of ways, it’s extra disappointing that a lot of the core problems inherent to the Assassin’s Creed series are back in full force here. Button input feels very loosely connected to actual gameplay, it’s less like you’re in control of Arno and more like you’re sending him suggestions on what to do next. Combat is slower and more sluggish than it’s ever been before in the series. The game features numerous tweaks to the free running system, including a much needed enhanced method for descending structures, but you’ll still find yourself encountering numerous navigation problems. Sometimes Arno will not respond when you direct him to scale a wall, even though it’s a jump he could very clearly make, a lot of times you can even drop off the wall and then climb the exact same path again and have it be successful.
The co op is an interesting distraction, but also not nearly as big of an aspect to the game as marketing may have lead you to believe. Make no mistake, this a single player experience that occasionally gives you missions to accomplish with a team, there’s no free roam, and you can’t take on any of the required campaign missions with friends. The co op missions work well enough, and at the very least I never found that the additional players made the already poorly running game run any worse.
The most common criticism regarding the original Assassin’s Creed was its lack of variety in activities. Assassin’s Creed 2 addressed the issue by adding a number of side missions and collectibles, the series has expanded further in almost every iteration and Unity feels like it may have reached critical mass. There are over 40 different types of icons that you’ll find littering your game map. Some of them are activities, a vast majority of them are chests you can’t open without signing up for uPlay or installing the Assassin’s Creed mobile app. Shops are obnoxiously abundant with some districts having 4 or more stores within a very small vicinity. I’m not sure what the reasoning behind this would be, all stores sell the exact same things and a vast majority of what they do sell can be acquired through the main menu without ever even visiting a store.
So what does the game do right? Well more than you might think, Arno is probably the best protagonist the series’ has had since Ezio (even if he is pretty much Ezio 2.0), and although his story treads through mostly familiar terrain (Oh a person close to him is a Templar? How shocking!) it does still tell a somewhat interesting story with a liberal dose of political intrigue that wasn’t possible in Black Flag’s pirate setting. I also think that the game’s murder investigation missions might be the most interesting sidequest the series has spit out in a long time. They’re mechanically simple and certainly not as revolutionary as oh say naval combat, but they provide a nice change of pace in the traditional Assassin’s Creed formula. At it’s core, Unity would probably be a perfectly fine Assassin’s Creed game, this is something I want to play and have fun with, but it’s just not possible in its current state.
Assassin’s Creed Unity effortlessly pushes Revelations and 3 out of their proud spots as the worst games in the core series and takes its place as the new reigning champion. Purchasing this game is akin to telling Ubisoft that you’re okay with the Assassin’s Creed series moving in this direction. In fact it tells them that you might even be able to stomach something even worse. If you can’t bear to go a year without playing an Assassin’s Creed game, at least consider picking this up used, I’m sure there are going to be plenty of copies out there shortly.