08/02 – I’m halfway through the XCOM 2 review and it’s shaping up to be a monster, so I’m postponing it to tomorrow so that I can a) finish it and b) get some screenshots that aren’t of the late game.
So I guess it’s admission time: I would not have had anywhere near as positive an opinion of Assassin’s Creed: Rogue as I did if I hadn’t immediately gone on to play Assassin’s Creed: Unity afterwards. Rogue is a great game, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t until I experienced the series debacle that is Unity that I realised I’d been taking a lot of the good stuff Rogue was doing completely for granted. It turns out there’s a hundred little things about Black Flag and Rogue — from the ease of the movement to the speed of the combat (even if it is a bit button-mashy) to the sheer sense of freedom that having a ship gives you — that you don’t notice until they’ve been replaced with clunky, regressive mechanics that take the AC series back at least five years to a time when it was far weaker as a game and was coasting largely on the strength of its history porn and a charismatic main character. This was fine when the star of the series was Ezio and the games were all set in Renaissance Italy (and Constantinople) and abused the historical elements of that setting in a particularly egregious yet crowd-pleasing way. It’s less fine when you have a lead with all the charm of a particularly smart-ass 12 year-old; a locale that, while not inherently dull, is something that Unity summarily fails to do anything even remotely interesting with; and an additional half-decade on the clock that means your game comes across as a relic from the very historical time period it is supposed to be set in.
Unity adheres almost slavishly to the formula that the Ezio trilogy already beat to within an inch of its life. It switches the relative freedom of the Caribbean/North Atlantic for a single city – an 18th century Paris that’s caught up in the epic convulsions of the French Revolution – and introduces a new protagonist in the form of Arno Dorian who is trying so hard to be the French Ezio. He’s young, orphaned by the Templars, and full of ill-advised rage and fury in his first (and in all likelihood) only outing that causes him to make some amazingly bad decisions during the course of Unity’s baffling plot. The game tries to play him as the same sort of carefree rogue that Ezio was, except it’s not nearly as well executed and he comes off a smug asshole instead – when combined with the terrible decision making mentioned above, it’s a toss-up between Arno and AC 3’s Connor for “Most Unlikeable AC Protagonist”1. He falls in with the Assassins and starts chewing his way through a series of Templar stooges yadda yadda yawn I have played this game literally ten times already and the only thing interesting about Unity’s plot is that there’s a tenuous truce between the Templars and the Assassins that you spend all of your time actively sabotaging (firmly against the orders of the Assassin Council, which further reinforced the “Arno is a fucking idiot” impression I had).
There’s the usual framing guff about magical precursor artifacts and super DNA memories, but I think the thing I’m going to save most of my opprobrium for is the modern-day metaplot, which has always been a way for the Assassin’s Creed series to plumb exciting new depths of awfulness. It started out with the confusing saga of Desmond — and I suspect I was in a minority by actually liking Desmond himself, if not his story’s coherence — milked him for five games, moved on to the self-referential disaster of being a developer at Ubisoft self-insert Abstergo Entertainment in Black Flag and Rogue, and has now reached a new low by having my modern day avatar be… a guy (or gal) playing a video game. The Assassins call you up inside the game and ask you to help them decode Arno’s memories; this interaction is done directly with the player via your TV screen/monitor and it is absolutely cringeworthy because it’s played 100% straight, like the Assassins are on such hard times they really need the help of some schlub who spends all of his free time glued to a videogame trying to get sweet sweet cheevos2. It makes the stakes so much lower to be essentially playing yourself, not to mention being somehow more implausible than the ridiculous doomsday storyline of Desmond.
I also have some issues with Unity’s use of the French Revolution setting. It was actually one of the things that intrigued me about the game as it’s a very unusual choice for the time period and I thought I might learn a few things, or at least see something I hadn’t seen done before in a video game. Unfortunately Unity makes the choice to use the Revolution more as a backdrop for its terrible plot than as something that drives the plot itself. It doesn’t help that the Revolution doesn’t have quite the same cultural penetration as the Golden Age of Piracy or the Italian Renaissance; it doesn’t have all that many well-known historical figures it can deploy in support of its setting, and the ones it does use are wasted in five-minute cameos. I didn’t get a great sense of a city in turmoil; the new engine allows bigger crowds on the streets but Paris didn’t particularly feel like it was undergoing a revolution, and since the plot wasn’t really interested in communicating that either it means that Unity doesn’t really have any historical flavour to it. Even the architecture is a bit boring, as aside from the landmarks 18th century Paris falls into the same blandly repetitive pitfall as AC 3’s Boston did. The amusing thing is that Ubisoft apparently agree with me, as they keep abusing glitches in the matrix to pull Arno out of the Revolution setting and into other time periods such as La Belle Epoque and World War 2. These are visually interesting, but creatively bankrupt as they are just painstakingly scripted experiences of the sort you’d find in a Call of Duty game. One of them even has a turret section. I’m laughing about it now, but I really wasn’t at the time.
Speaking of that new engine, there’s been a couple of other “innovations” that have finally made their way into Assassin’s Creed from other games. In particular it’s finally stolen Splinter Cell’s “last seen” mechanic, where passing out of the line of sight of a pursuing guard will leave behind a static silhouette that they’ll converge on instead of you. This is…okay, I guess, except for the new guards all being Terminators with very long vision ranges who have no trouble reacquiring you from three hundred metres down the street in the middle of one of those huge crowds. The Terminator thing is continued in Unity’s new combat system, which — in keeping with the rest of the game — is absolutely godawful. It’s supposed to be modelled on fencing with parries and ripostes being the order of the day, but the complete absence of the customary Break Defense button means it seems stilted and slow in comparison to the fast-paced massacres of Black Flag/Rogue and even AC 3. Higher level guards will have their guard up all the time, meaning you have to sit there and wait for them to hit you, and then counter and riposte.
This combat flow is not particularly interesting, and it’s rendered even worse by the removal of an explicit dodge action for evading gunfire; the Human Shield mechanic is gone (which is a big shame because I really liked it) and instead you have to repeatedly roll along the ground like a really shit Sonic the Hedgehog when you see the gunfire indicator come up – and even then you’ll only dodge the shot about a third of the time. This is particularly aggravating when you’re facing five guards and *all* of them whip out pistols at the same time since all guards have access to firearms now, not just the specialised snipers from Black Flag. Even more aggravating is that if a guard is winding up for a sword swing and you move back out of range, they’ll cheat by sliding forward (with no animation) as far as it takes in order for them to hit you. Oh, and regenerating health is gone; we’re back to the bad old days of chugging medicine to restore health. Because the combat system is so frustrating to deal with I lost health all the time, and because medicine is so expensive I ended up having to search every single corpse in order to keep my stocks up. Finally, and most bafflingly, Eagle Vision now has a cooldown. It’s like they were actively trying to fuck up everything Black Flag got right by deliberately crafting an AC game that would annoy the player as much as possible.
Unity makes further missteps when it comes to Arno’s inventory. You now level him up with Creed Points (or whatever the fuck) and unlock gadgets that way rather than having them made available to you at set points throughout the plot, meaning it is entirely possible to go through the entire game without getting access to stun grenades or poison gas. Because Unity now has microtransactions for in-game currency the usual Assassin dress-up has been subverted so that Arno’s various outfits now provide concrete stat bonuses and gameplay advantages; you can either grind for hours to buy these with regular old francs, or you can get them right now by buying Helix Credits! Aside from how distasteful it is that this system has been tuned so that you have to fork out even more money to get the most out of it (I paid for this game once already, Ubisoft), you also end up looking like a fool as you equip the clothing items that provide the best bonuses instead of the ones you like best in terms of looks. There are far more pieces of clothing available than in previous AC games, but since they only exist to support this bankrupt system of microtransactions I’m not going to give Unity an inch of slack for providing a theoretical increase in variety.
I never thought I’d say this, but Assassin’s Creed Unity handily beats out Assassin’s Creed 3 for the title of Worst Assassin’s Creed Game. I rag on AC 3 a lot and it was pretty terrible in a number of ways, but it did still have a few good points, such as the boat sections that provided a template for Black Flag and Rogue and some excellently-directed cutscenes (big spoilers if you’ve not played AC 3 yet). By contrast Unity basically doesn’t have a single redeeming feature that I can think of, except maybe that Ubisoft had fixed most of the notorious bugs by the time I got around to playing it. It is a pure regression of the series that ignores everything good that Black Flag and Rogue achieved, and that’s a natural consequence of the annualised nature of the AC series. In order to crank out an entry every year Ubisoft have to have multiple iterations in development at the same time at different studios, and that results in the series having this very Jekyll and Hyde nature where innovations in one game will not be present in the next because each of them were being developed in isolation according to their own set of design rules. In the case of Unity those design rules basically haven’t moved on since AC 2, and are combined with a dick of a protagonist, the worst plot the series has seen so far (and for AC that’s really saying something), a so-so setting, and the weaponised war crimes of game design that are now common to all Ubisoft games: an open world map that is absolutely crammed with pointless, inconsequential shit for the player to do, and an economy that’s been designed to try and induce the player to part with more cash via in-game microtransactions after they already shelled out for the game’s RRP. The only “good” thing about it is that after a string of 10-12 games that got more-or-less favourable reviews out of me I thought I might be getting soft, and so I’m actually a little relieved that I did force myself to play AC: Unity: it is quite obviously and unabashedly A Bad Game, and so I can fairly give it the thrashing it so richly deserves.
- The similarities with Connor don’t stop there, as Unity has a similarly tedious tutorial sequence where you play Arno first as a young boy and then as a horny teenager. This didn’t really help endear him to me. ↩
- Yes, I realise my saying this might seem a little ironic, but I do have a balanced life. Honest. ↩