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The Tech Deck

‘Unity’ in the face of adversity

Title: Assassin's Creed: Unity

Genre: Open-world action/stealth

Platform Reviewed On: PC (also on Xbox One, PlayStation 4)

Publisher: Ubisoft

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal

Release Date: November 11, 2014

Assassin's Creed: Unity is the best broken game I have ever played. 

Sure, broken may seem a strong word; Unity is, in fact, playable, or at least playable enough that I was able to sink twenty hours into the game. But that time was spent amid dismally frequent framerate jitters, obnoxious, all-too-common freezes, and the occasional program crash. The handful of patches that the (likely overworked) developers at Ubisoft Montreal have been churning out over the past several weeks have smoothed out the rampant texture pop-in that plagued Unity upon its release, but many of the game's most egregious technical issues remain unfixed as of this writing. 

That's not okay. When a publisher asks consumers to lay down sixty big ones on its latest blockbuster, the assumption is that the game will be technically competent, devoid of the serious issues that Unity possesses in droves.

But here's the thing: Despite how numerous and pervasive Unity's technical problems are, I loved my time with the game. Its overwhelming bugginess annoyed me, but never enough to make me want to set down the controller. From a gameplay standpoint,  Assassin's Creed: Unity easily outclasses all of its predecessors. It's huge, dense, and stunningly beautiful, and if you're a fan of the series who's willing to look past Unity's glaring technical problems, there's a solid chance this entry will end up among your favorites in the franchise.

Like in AC2, a small section of Unity takes place before Arno dons his getup.

Sob Story

Players take up the robes and blade as Frenchman Arno Dorian, the son of an Assassin who's taken in and raised by Templars during the years of tumult surrounding the French Revolution. The character of Arno seems an attempt to recapture the brash, witty likability of series favorite Ezio Auditore, but this young man is missing the spark of unpredictable energy and endearing ingenuity that made us all love Ezio in the first place. He ultimately ends up feeling like a husk of the character he was meant to be -- though he's at least got a few amusing quips to spout here and there.

Arno, along with most other voiced characters in the game, is portrayed as having an English accent despite his French origins, with some French vocabulary sprinkled throughout the dialogue in an attempt to sell the setting. This seemingly insignificant stylistic choice annoyed me to no end, and made it hard for me to ever feel totally immersed in the world of the characters.

It's no surprise, then, that Arno's entire plight falls rather flat. The central conflict involves Arno being thrust into the shady world of Assassins and Templars after an attack on his family (a setup that also may sound familiar to fans of Ezio's story). It's a decent little yarn of intrigue, but ultimately boils down to a long string of kills as Arno climbs the target food chain, gleaning small pieces of information and story advancements along the way.

The French Revolution setting functions more as a backdrop than a vital narrative element like the American Revolution was in Assassin's Creed III, which ends up being a good thing, as it makes the story feel less like a historical highlight reel and more like a genuine (albeit far-fetched) piece of historical fiction. Put simply, Assassin's Creed: Unity never made me question how my history books missed the unstoppable, hooded figure who single-handedly won the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and I appreciated that.

The crowds are impressive and manage not to feel too clunky.

The other half of Arno's story involves his relationship with Elise, a young woman who belongs to the Templar Order. Exploring the implications of a romance between an Assassin and a Templar could have been interesting, uncharted territory for the series to explore; unfortunately, the writers choose instead to meekly side-step this topic's complexities by placing Elise firmly on the Assassins' side for a large majority of the game.

Of course, this wouldn't be Assassin's Creed without the inclusion of the meandering modern story segments that have become something of a pointless series staple. Anyone hoping for a return to prominence of the present-day sections, a la the days of Desmond, will come away disappointed. These portions are mercifully brief and unobstrusive, usually boiling down to infrequent voice-overs. However, the gameplay segments revolving around modern-day interference are the surprise standouts of the game. They're few and far between, but function as phenomenal changes of pace that (without spoiling anything) let players see Paris from some unexpected angles.

The City of Light

That's not to say that Paris is a place that players will ever feel a desire to escape during their time with Unity. The city itself has more character than any of the game's human stars. Paris is a bleak place; the national turmoil is evident in the grimy streets and constant public violence on display. Though the city's large crowds certainly do nothing to ease the game's framerate stutters, they go a long way towards selling Paris as a living, breathing place. 

Also assisting with this facet of immersion are the accessible building interiors, which are now more numerous than ever before and make the city feel fuller, more layered and densely populated than the pretty, flat canvases that we're used to seeing in the series. The city may not be as large as Black Flag's Caribbean expanse on measurable terms, but Paris feels infinitely more immense.

When one of Unity's technical hiccups isn't interrupting the experience, Paris looks far better than any of the series' previous settings. Speaking purely in terms of realism, Unity is the most graphically stunning video game I have ever played. Its indescribably realistic shadow and lighting effects must be seen to be believed. Just about every visible surface of Unity's sprawling cityscape is stacked with an extraordinary volume of texture detail, and character models are no less impressive. Unity's visuals are on a level that's sure to make players stop for minutes at a time just to soak in its beauty. 

Character customization is bound to entrance aesthetic-minded recruits.

Back to Basics

Players will have a hard time halting their play for too long given how entertaining Unity's gameplay is. Rather than devoting manpower to developing new, unnecessary mechanics (I'm looking at you, den defense), developer Ubisoft Montreal has addressed a myriad of issues that have plagued the series since its inception. The once-breezy combat system has been given a total overhaul, and the result is both an increase in difficulty and a vast improvement.

Taking down enemies is no longer as simple as chaining a single, successful counter into a one-sided slaughter. Though some players may miss the feeling of badass-ery that came with such formidable might, the majority should soon come to enjoy the renewed tenseness of open conflict. You'll be forced to expend most every resource at your disposal should you hope to survive Unity's toughest encounters. More often than not, the best option is to run away -- especially in Unity's surprisingly robust suite of side missions which, though not compelling in terms of narrative, offer stiff, well-designed challenges that demand careful play and offer worthwhile rewards.

Unity's story missions will also force players to think on their feet. In fact, these portions make up one of the strongest main campaigns of the Assassin's Creed series, mostly thanks to how totally Ubisoft Montreal responded to player criticisms of past installments. Yes, those tale-the-target missions are still present, but with a new level of adaptability. Now, they force players to track down their targets again if they become separated instead of placing them back at arbitrary checkpoints.

The set-piece assassination missions are also more adaptable then ever. Each of these moments, most occurring at the tail end of one of Unity's twelve sequences, presents a myriad of possible solutions to the ultimate goal of planting a blade in the target's belly. They're ripe for instances of memorable emergent gameplay, and identical objectives will likely result in unique stories from player to player.

Less successful at weaving the game's disparate gameplay elements into a cohesive whole are Unity's batch of optional co-op missions, which support groups of two to four players. These side-missions function as enjoyable diversions, but they fail to encourage cooperation among players and, more often than not, ultimately devolve into chaos.

The weapons on offer are all equally viable and fun to use, though their adherence to three basic classes gives a sense of diminished variety when compared to past Assassin's Creed titles. Also disappointing is the lack of contextual adaptation that Unity offers up in relation to these items. For instance, players are no longer capable of using their main weapons to perform up-close-and-personal assassinations -- all of those must be completed with the hidden-blade. There'll be no more skewering of unsuspecting guards with dual cutlasses as in Black Flag - primary weapons are instead relegated to use in open conflict.

Unity's co-op diversions are disposable fun.

Once you've receded again into the shadows, Unity's revamped stealth system is given a chance to shine. Though it's still not as smooth and adaptable as in Ubisoft's stealth darling Splinter Cell, the system makes true stealth a far more viable option than it's ever before been in Assassin's Creed. Both the new last-known-location and cover mechanics are imperfect but enormously helpful, and players are forced to utilize both should they hope to avoid the heightened awareness and intelligence of Unity's guard AI. 

Well-fashioned Assassin

When you're not fighting or stalking, you'll likely be either free-running over Paris' rooftops, or customizing Arno's appearance. Both of these activities are highly entertaining, holding much more value than the forgettable distractions that grabbed for players' attentions in past series entries.

 Assassin's Creed's signature free-running system sees its most notable enhancement thus far in Unity with the addition of downward parkour. Though conceptually simple, the new ability to vault down structures as quickly as Assassin's Creed protagonists have always climbed up them turns out to be a godsend. The system adapts flawlessly to the context of the player's situation at nearly every turn, an improvement that can be stated for most of Unity's free-running mechanics. Though the removal of the ability to jump from the side of a building is a perplexing choice, you can expect to, as a whole, have Arno do as you intend a vast majority of the time.

Character customization is another strong, albeit superficial addition. Not all players will get hooked on the idea of messing with the fashion of their assassins, but those that do will be wowed by the exquisite detail of each piece of custom gear. It's easy to craft a tailor-made assassin who looks just as sleek as the pre-created ones of the series' past. Or, if you so please, you can have Arno run around in a dorky party mask for all of Unity's duration.

The Verdict

So here's the deal; yes, Assassin's Creed: Unity is more broken than any AAA game releasing with a sixty dollar price tag has any right to be. And no, it doesn't do anything to mend the narrative woes that have plagued the last few series entries. But it's also a rollicking good time in a beautifully realized historical playground, and its drawbacks never once irked me enough as to stop me from heartily enjoying myself all the way through.

Verdict: 3/5 stars