Assassin's Creed: Unity

What happened?

By all accounts, Assassin’s Creed: Unity should have been magnificent. It arrives riding in on the waves of Black Flag’s reinvigorating commercial and critical success. However,  instead of gracefully stepping off the Jackdaw to meet its adoring fans, itslips on the gangway, smashes its head on the dock and falls backwards into the harbor’s shallow pool of filthy water. While Unity delivers the trademark Assassin’s Creed experience set in a gorgeous recreation of France in the 1790s, the game is all but ruined by disastrous online connectivity issues and insipid social media hooks that reek of meddling by upper management and marketing. You know things are bad when the publisher has to create a live blog to address problems and upcoming patch notes.

Ubisoft’s maligned online services deserves the full share of blame for Unity’s failure. To be blunt, none of it works. Unity’s online co-op, a feature Ubisoft Montreal heavily promoted during E3 and future presentations, doesn’t work on the PlayStation 4. Instead of a separate hide and seek multiplayer game, players can work together to complete special co-op missions and heists separate from the main story. A nifty idea, however, almost one week after launch I haven't been able to participate. A “Go Online” option exists for these mission types, but selecting it does nothing. The only method that seemed to give me any feedback was either selecting the "Play Together" option from the pause menu or from the mission select screen via the in-game map. A window pops up that counts how long I've been in the queue and after waiting over 30 minutes, I wanted to give up. Here’s the kicker: there is no way to leave the queue. The only way to do so is to either quite the game entirely or kill the main character. As a small mercy, many (but not all) co-op missions can be played solo, though the size of the play area and high enemy count suggests that working with friendly assassins is recommended. Other online tools, like the Clubs and viewing a player contact gave me the same server error messages.

Another online problem that is sure to turn consumers against Ubisoft - much like the peasants revolting against their corrupt aristocratic overlords - are a series of unique treasures chests and rewards that can only be collected by connecting to Uplay, the Assassin’s Creed Initiates website, and a Unity companion app. Black Flag offered the same tie-ins, though it had the decency to keep them away from the core game. This, too, doesn't work. I cannot sync to Uplay because the website gives me a server error when I try to link my PSN account. The Initiates website only displays accurate information as long as I access it through the game, as opposed to viewing the website on my iPad or PC. And the Unity companion app also won’t detect my PlayStation 4 game and insists that I connect to a PC instead. Until these services are fixed, which doesn’t appear to be any time soon, I am locked out of treasure chests and legacy gear. The content itself isn’t worth complaining about, though it does set a bad precedent.

The failure of Ubisoft’s online service is a severe sticking point to an otherwise decent and intriguing Assassin’s Creed adventure. Black Flag did well because it was such a shift away from the norm. Unity, on the other hand, plays things safe and by offering many parallels to Assassin’s Creed II. Arno Dorian, a French stand in for fan favorite Ezio de Firenze Auditore, is shaped by two significant tragedies that affect his life. As a child, Arno witnessed his father - an Assassin - murdered by an unknown figure. He is adopted by the kindly Francoise de la Serre who raises the boy without mentioning his allegiance to the Templar Order. While sneaking into a party to see his childhood love, Arno once again is helpless as his second father is ruthlessly killed in front of him. Arno is framed for the crime and sent to the Bastille where he meets veteran Assassin Pierre Bolec, who brings the boy into the fold.

Arno’s story doesn’t have much of a “wow” factor, though it's far superior than the half-assed modern day segments that eschew interactivity for cutscenes involving talking heads that deliver cheesy exposition. According to the fiction, Unity is actually the product of Abstergo. Operating under the codename Helix, the game is a consumer grade version of the Animus that lets players experience different periods of history. Their underlying motive is to crowdsource the search for Sages, humans rich with Precursor DNA. By hunting down the resting places of Sages, the Templars hope to harvest their genetic material and create powerful weapons and technology. The closest the game gets to depicting the modern day fight between the Templars and Assassins are Abstergo server sweeps that force the you to seek out data rifts that lead to brief playable eras, such as the 19th century and World War II.

Unity has the expected hooks that have since become standard. The main story is spread throughout a series of missions intended to uncover the mystery of Arno’s adopted father and the greater war between the Assassins and Templars. Outside of the story, there are plenty things to do while exploring Paris, like finding (numerous) collectibles and take on side missions.  More often than not, the side content is more compelling than the main game. Arno will work with other assassin’s to disrupt Templar influence, help the good citizens of Paris fight their aristocratic overlords, and solve small scale murder mysteries.

Borrowing another page from Assassin’s Creed II, Arno can use the funds he collects to renovate his base of operations. Renovation carries with it certain window dressings, though more importantly it increases the amount of spending money the property generates. Beyond fixing up the mansion, money buys weapons and clothing from Unity’s hefty catalogs. The amount of customization options is staggering and lets you create a distinct look (which also makes online allies easier to spot in a crowd). Gear can be purchased with in-game cash and Creed points upgrades them with bonuses to health, melee, weapon and stealth. If you don’t have enough money, Ubisoft offers Helix points, obtained by spending real money in the PlayStation Store, to "hack" (i.e., buy) the item. Fortunately, money is easy enough to earn and I haven't run across a situation that required to buy Helix points, making their inclusion nothing more than an odd curiosity.

As an up and coming assassin, Arno is weaker than his counterparts. Ubisoft tweaked combat to make it difficult to fight off a large group of enemies. Gone are the infinite combo tactics. Instead, Arno is encouraged to run when faced with overwhelming odds. The most surprising omission in Arno’s repertoire is the inability to catch the attention of guards by whistling. This makes stealth sequences trickier for the wrong reasons. How can I lure targets away from mission critical items and alarm bells? You can purchase noise making cherry bombs, but they never seem enough to pull targets away from objectives. The player is left to either waiting for patrol routes brings targets close by or let yourself get spotted and rely on the new Last Known Sighting mechanic to put them in range. If caught and forced on the run, Arno can now free run his way down to perform controlled descents instead of blind leaps. This is a useful addition even if it isn't perfect. Completing missions yields Sync points that can unlock new abilities, such as the double air assassination, stun bombs, and blending into the environment. A growing moveset is Unity’s most positive features, as it affords the ability to tackle the game’s assassinations missions, arguably its best moments, in their own way.

Whether its stealth or open combat, death happens frequently. Interestingly enough, a shockingly low police presence allows you to get away with murdering someone in full public view without anyone so much as raising an eyebrow. People running away is the extent your actions cause as there is no one nearby to suggest that stabbing people in the eye is a bad thing. Perhaps this is some commentary about the state of affairs in revolutionary France. Other Assassin’s Creed games made me feel like I was always being watched, which made for a great sense of tension and urgency. In Unity, killing people gets boring fast because it is incredibly easy to do. French soldiers try to maintain the peace, but are undermined by Templar-backed militiamen.  Constantly shaking down the populace, Arno is frequently ordered to kill them before they do the same to innocent bystanders. As much as it sucks to see some poor sap get a sword to the belly, there’s no consequence for walking away. There’s barely any reward for helping them, either. You can loot the bodies, though the amount earned is paltry compared to mission rewards and treasure chests.

Amidst the negativity Unity inspires, the visuals are worthy of extreme praise. Paris is absolutely beautiful. The PlaySation 4 is capable of fantastic textures for characters and the city itself. Impressive lighting effects combined with random weather effects and a day/night cycle brings the environment to life. Never have I been more excited for synchronization cutscenes! The map is large and buildings are so packed together that freerunning across rooftops is a liberating and joyful feeling despite the familiar jank. The city of Paris offers a fantastic sense of verticality, too. Taking a nose dive off the top of the Notre Dame cathedral makes my stomach flutter every time.

You can’t go far without finding an article that discusses Unity’s numerous technical hiccups and glitches. I purchased the digital version and haven't experienced the problems affecting other users. I did have a moment where the frame rate took a sharp drop and it hasn't been a problem since. Texture pop-in is a bit of an issue that doesn't greatly effect the visual experience. The only sincere beef I have are the atrocious load times. Seriously, how is this a problem? Black Flag ran just fine on the PlayStation 4 so I have a hard time accepting “new console jitters” arguments.

Assassin's Creed: Unity does have its moments though any goodwill is ruined by a complete breakdown from the promised online functionality. In fairness, about 95% of the game can be played without having to connect with other players, though Ubisoft deserves to be taken to task for not ensuring the game's marketable features work at launch. Finding enjoyment in Unity requires a great deal of patience, more than anyone can afford. I want to like the game, and I do to some extent, however I cannot ignore that it's broken. And there is no patch that can ever save Unity from its tarnished image.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.