NOTE – For the sake of reading comprehension, here are the seven major Assassin’s Creed games in order of release:
- Assassin’s Creed
- Assassin’s Creed 2 (Part 1 of the “Ezio Trilogy”)
- Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (Part 2 of the “Ezio Trilogy”)
- Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (Part 3 of the “Ezio Trilogy”)
- Assassin’s Creed 3
- Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag
- Assassin’s Creed: Unity
I didn’t play Assassin’s Creed Unity until almost a year after its initial release, so I thankfully bypassed its infamous litany of game-breaking bugs (though it was by no means bug-free). I’ve always really liked the Assassin Creed series even as it transitioned from a conceptually brilliant idea with inconsistent mechanics to a mechanically soundness bogged down in a lot of the worst design ideas utilized by modern AAA developers (ie. annual sequel releases, barely altered sequels, micro-transactions, lazy narratives, unending gameplay gimmicks, etc.). ACU falls somewhere in the middle of the pack of the seven major AC games in terms of overall quality, somewhere below Black Flag and AC2, but somewhere above AC3 and Revelations. However, I find Ubisoft’s design philosophy for Unity to be… interesting, though not inspired.
Unity is the first AC game to be released on this generation of consoles. This early console period is always rough for game developers trying to learn how to work with new tech, especially AAA developers who are expected to turn out top-of-the-line technical products with elite graphical and sound design. Developers respond by reducing their focus on creativity and sophisticated game design in favor of technical polish and trying to avoid bugs. Thus at the beginning of each console cycle, consumers end up with a lot of bland, boring, safe, but visually gorgeous and highly polished games like The Order: 1886, Ryse: Son of Rome, Knack, and Killzone: Shadowfall.
Ubisoft seemed to be well aware of this pitfall and instead tried to approach Unity with a slightly modified strategy. Like other developers, Ubisoft scaled back on big design decisions with Unity, especially in comparison to its well-received predecessor, Black Flag, but they elected to use this opportunity to experiment with tweaks to the core mechanics and narrative structure of the AC series. I don’t think most of the tweaks were successful, and apparently even with a greatly scaled back scope Ubisoft’s notoriously fractured development team was unequipped to handle a new console generation, but I still think this strategy was a fairly smart one.
To elaborate, consider the progression pattern over the course of Revelations, AC3, and Black Flag to Unity. Revelations was the third AC in the “Ezio trilogy” and was rightfully criticized for representing the ongoing stagnation of the series since AC2, if not AC1. AC3 was a scattershot attempt to revitalize the series with a seemingly endless array of mostly mediocre mechanical add-ons and alterations, including moving the series outside cities, increasing collectibles, building a homestead, commanding armies, and of course, naval battles. Finally, the series struck gold with Black Flag by elevating the previous game’s successful naval battle mechanics to the forefront and utilizing a beautiful and enormous open world filled with a nice mixture of cities and wilderness. Unity, on the other hand, strips the wonderful freedom of naval combat for traditional AC gameplay, and trades dozens of ports in a huge open world for a single city (even the first AC game had three cities).
A few too many reviewers noticed this change and immediately declared Ubisoft to be lazy. This sentiment wasn’t helped by the fact that Ubisoft completely and hilariously failed to utilize the new technology properly. But lurking beneath Unity’s small scale and disastrous technicals is an interesting attempt to see what does and doesn’t work with the core Assassin’s Creed experience, which, more so then adding on clunky mechanics like naval combat, is actually something AC has been begging for since Brotherhood. It’s just a shame that most of the new tweaks don’t work.
(In a strange way, Ubisoft’s approach to gameplay in Unity may prove to be reminiscent of the Dark Souls sequel philosophy, wherein every new game retains almost all of the core mechanics, but introduces minor tweaks which are either retained or discarded during the next installment. We will see if this comparison pans out based on the next AC’s design.)
The biggest change Unity introduces to Assassin’s Creed’s core mechanics are found in its melee combat. Unity’s developers opted to cut back on the flashy swordplay of the earlier games in favor of a slower fighting system which introduces some legitimate challenge into the combat for pretty much the first time in the entire series history.
The logic behind this move was sound. AC combat has always been fun, but also absurdly easy, especially for a game ostensibly based on stealth which is supposed to punish the player for resorting to open melee fighting. Nearly every enemy could be beaten by mashing the basic attack button and occasionally countering. This formula was somehow made simpler and easier in later games as more weapons were made available (guns, bombs, etc.) and combo systems allowed for faster chain kills, until by Black Flag, even average players could easily fight off dozens of enemies with little effort.
Unity slows down all melee action, and limits the player’s basic attack to three continuous strikes before requiring a cool down, thereby ensuring that enemies with lots of health can survive repeated melee volleys and put up more of a fight. Enemy variety is greatly increased, and the player has to figure out different strategies for fighting each type. Guns still exist, but the enemy soldiers are far better at using them than in previous games. The combo system has been completely eliminated, and finally different weapon and armor types have an appreciable difference beyond aesthetics (another first for the series). When combined, all of these tweaks enable Unity’s combat to actually be challenging; charging head-first into situations designed for stealth is no longer an option.
Unfortunately, the beneficial gains of increased difficulty are offset by the clunkyness of the combat design as a whole.
The AC series has always been a power fantasy. The games allow players to take control of supernaturally gifted combatant/athletes and pull off amazing physical feats with simple button prompts. The fighting has always been easy because there is a Skinner box enjoyment to gracefully and effortlessly dispatching armed mooks, and such design reinforces the player’s connection with his overwhelmingly competent protagonist. Undoubtedly, the old AC combat needs restructuring to better incentivize stealth, but the solution is not Unity’s combat.
As a result of the slower, more difficult combat, the sentiment I gleamed from Unity is that the player-character, Arno Dorian, is an inferior assassin to his predecessors. After all, Arno is slower, has fewer attack moves, can generally take fewer hits, and is just worse at killing enemies than Altair, Ezio, Connor, and Edward. Perhaps this is a game design problem unfairly induced by Unity existing in the context of a larger series, but regardless, its combat design is still fundamentally undermined by how it contrasts with other games in the series. That is, Unity is worse at being a power fantasy than its predecessors because it made its protagonist less powerful.
But even if Unity were a standalone game, its combat would still be mediocre and annoying. The camera gets lost in confined environments, enemies typically take too long to kill, and worst of all, combat can feel kind of… unfair. Given that the game takes place in late 18th century France, everyone has a pistol, if not also a rifle, so large groups of opponents have this irritating habit of letting you melee fight one or two mooks while two or three others stand 20 feet away and just shoot you. Ok, that’s probably a smart tactic, and I wouldn’t have a problem with it if the game provided some viable counter measures, but it doesn’t. Black Flag’s human shield move is gone and enemy bullets magically pass through allies and random bystanders unperturbed, so your only recourse is to constantly roll around on the ground like an idiot or make a run for solid cover.
For some reason, the hidden blade (the series’s signature weapon) has been reduced to contextual button prompt use instead of existing as its own weapon. In its place, Unity introduces a functional, if weirdly designed upgrade system. The AC economy is yet another one of the series’s long-standing mechanics which doesn’t really function well from a gameplay perspective, but still kind of works to serve the game’s general theme. In past games, money was far too easy to accumulate, but there wasn’t a point to buying anything since all of the weapons were close to identically effective, and armor was useless since the combat was so easy (though Black Flag was a bit better than its predecessors). But these systems still sort of worked because it was fun to dress your assassin up in cool costumes and slaughter waves of guards with a variety of flashy armaments.
Since Unity is actually challenging, the player must continually upgrade himself through new weapons, armor, and skills. Money can only be acquired through side quests and collectibles, so these parts of the games are de facto mandatory to some degree. The basic design of Unity’s economy is fine (a decent amount of money-making effort purchases equipment of comparable quality), but the system is weighed down by stupid marginal design decisions. Why on earth is armor divided into five separate components (head, chest, waist, wrist, and legs) when even Skyrim only has four components? Why does the best item in each category always costs ten times more than the barely inferior second best item? Why go through the vast majority of side quests when a handful of them grant ridiculously disproportionately large rewards (ie. most quests give $500-3,000, but a few give $20,000-50,000)?
And then of course there are the microtransactions. Unity would not be a Ubisoft game if it didn’t try to squeeze real money out of you for extremely minor gameplay alterations. Obviously I didn’t actually spend any real money on digital equipment, but apparently Unity’s system is bad even by the low standards of microtransacting.
A lot can be said about the Assassin Creed series story, but for the sake of brevity, I’m going to keep this general description short: The series has a great premise which has been weighed down by Ubisoft’s rapid sequel strategy, and by this point, Ubisoft has no idea what to do with the “modern” story, while they have, for the most part, settled into a barely competent rhythm for the “past” stories since Brotherhood. In Unity, the modern story reaches a new height of laziness while the past story tries a few interesting tweaks (though it still has plenty of derivative elements) with moderate success.
In Unity’s present day, a random guy playing an Abstergo (the modern Templar front group) produced video game is contacted by assassin hackers who promise to show him the truth behind the Templar-assassin war by letting him play through the unedited memories of Arno rather than the whitewashed version of history presented by Abstergo. They also ask this unnamed player to find a guy in Arno’s time who is important for magical reasons. This is an idiotic framing device.
In the first game, Desmond Miles could only play through Altair’s memories because they were genetically related. Apparently Abstergo found a way past that and now anyone can live through anyone else’s memories. Ok, that’s fine. So why do the assassin’s need to contact random gamers to find important things throughout history? Why can’t they just boot up these memories and search on their own?
And of all the time periods to show this guy to demonstrate why the assassins are good and the Templars are bad, why choose this one? Unity has more bad assassins and more good Templars than any other AC game. Hell, Arno gets thrown out of the assassin order two-thirds of the way through the story for being heroic, and proceeds to save France from tyranny without their assistance. And as vaguely defined as the assassin and Templar goals are throughout the series, they are somehow even vaguer in this game, since characters on both sides rarely even pay lip service to what they are fighting for. Maybe the modern assassins should just show the gamer any of the other AC games where the Templars conspire to start wars, enslave populations, and commit genocide. Ok, so there is a little bit of that stuff at the end of Unity, but it takes a long time to get there and the actual assassin organization does almost nothing to stop it.
Fortunately, the past story is amongst the better of the AC games. Since Brotherhood, Ubisoft has settled into a holding pattern wherein the protagonist is bland but likeable (except for moody Connor from AC3), goes through a token character arc, gets involved with major historical events, and then resolves whatever conflict was started at the beginning of the game despite said conflict being uneventfully stretched thin across the game’s entire run-time. Black Flag seems to be the apex of this model. Unity tweaks the formula by pushing the historical aspects into the background for the most part and instead focuses on character drama.
Arno spends most of the game trying to avenge his adopted father (despite him being a Templar) and reconnecting with his old girlfriend (who is also a Templar). The broad outlines of the story are excessively reminiscent of past games. Arno is a somewhat moodier Ezio, his relationship with his father figure and his girlfriend resembles that of Connor and his father (all of these relationships divide along Templar-assassin lines), and Arno’s friction with the assassin order is similar to Altair’s story in the first AC.
Also, while I appreciate Unity’s attempts to develop interesting characters, the game sacrifices its fascinating historical backdrop a bit too much. It was actually strange to me how little all of the characters had to say about the earthshaking events going on around them. Even late in the game when the assassin-Templar war finally intersects with the French Revolution in an interesting way (the Templars try to hi-jack the revolutionary government to build a fresh government/society from scratch without prior traditions interfering with their world view), the historical interaction is too sparse and rapid. Major events like the great famine, the execution of Louis XVI, and the rise of Robespierre are introduced in a short cut scene, resolved in a single mission, and then quickly forgotten.
Where Unity’s story works is with effective character beats and occasional genuinely emotional moments. Whatever part of Ubisoft made Unity seemed to have taken cues from whatever part of Ubisoft made Far Cry 4, because every random minor character has fun quirks which make them stand out amongst the dozens of guys you do and don’t kill throughout the game. Even if I don’t remember their names, I still recall the personalities of the old Templar hard-liner, the sleazy slum master, and the nerdy accountant suddenly imbued with political power. It takes a lot of creativity to think of these characters and skill to put them in the story without reducing the whole narrative to a parade of showy weirdos. I appreciate Ubisoft for the effort.
I know the AC series is supposed to be the poster boy for middle-of-the-road video game storytelling, but I maintain that every once in a while the games will have story beats that knock it out of the park. Ezio’s retirement at the end of Revelations is one example. Connor and his father’s relationship (until its anticlimactic ending) in ACIII is another. Unity reaches those same heights with a mid-game reveal and confrontation which I was genuinely not expecting. While the fractured nature of Unity’s story produced plenty of mediocre subplots, a few others also managed to excel beyond my normal expectations for the series, like the assassin order in-fighting and Arno’s relationship with an upstart Napoleon Bonaparte.
There is plenty more I could write about Unity, both good (its back-to-basics mission structure, beautiful city design, etc.) and bad (its terrible intro, lazy side quests, etc.) but I’ve already written way more than I thought I would on the game and I’m too busy playing The Phantom Pain to continue. I just want to convey one final thought on the Assassin’s Creed as a whole.
As I finished up Unity, I was reaffirmed of my long-time sense of the Assassin Creed series. The AC games are good. They always have been, and they probably always will be. However, they could obviously be so much better. The series is weighed down by its need to achieve broad appeal and rapidly churn out sequels. The creative spark that started the series so many years ago has largely vanished and Ubisoft is content to hit a minimum level of innovation to keep its audience around for the next instalment. Part of me thinks that writing an analysis like this is a complete waste of time because neither Ubisoft nor its massive fan base cares about changing the AC formula. But I think a big change in game design is possible, even within a behemoth like Ubisoft. Maybe it will require an AC game to horribly crash and burn, or maybe the series’ mechanics will be so outdated that the need for change will become obvious. Either way, eventually the series will have to evolve, and I think its core premise and even the people behind it, have the potential to create a truly great product.