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Assassin's Creed: Unity - things I love, hate and love to hate

Assassin's Creed: Unity does a lot of things right, a lot of things wrong, and a lot of things the jury's still out on. Let's go over it all in exhausting fangirl detail.

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I've been playing Assassin's Creed: Unity all weekend, and I have a lot of opinions. I've helpfully grouped them into positive, negative and confused on the three pages below, so you can pick which set you feel most aligned with or against and flame as appropriate.

Do us all a favour and don't go counting up the words on each page and making an overall judgment based on that; it's much easier to be negative than positive, and on balance, I'm having a pretty good time so far.

Assassin's Creed: Unity - things I love

The three kinds of free run (now that I've figured them out)

In previous Assassin's Creed games, you'd spot a place you wanted to go, and you'd push the movement stick forward. Your assassin would encounter an obstacle and stop. You'd press the free-run (or high profile for the old school killers) button, and push the movement stick again.

Sometimes you got where you needed to go. Sometimes you'd encounter a climbing puzzles and spend a while moving the analog stick in various directions until you got there. And then quite a lot of the time you'd just sail off into space at a random interval, usually to splat on the ground. It was less then satisfactory.

In its endless efforts to make traversal less of a deadly roulette, Ubisoft has introduced free-run-up and free-run-down buttons. Basically, if you want to get down or up in a hurry, you hold one or the other button and Arno takes over. It's especially good for getting down; faster and far less deadly than simply dropping.

In its endless efforts to make traversal less of a deadly roulette, Ubisoft has introduced free-run-up and free-run-down buttons. It’s especially good for getting down; faster and far less deadly than simply dropping. It works really well in chase sequences, because it means you’re not just holding down jump as you leg it, at risk of ending up back at street level.

The new system works really well in chase sequences, because it means you're not just holding down jump as you leg it, at risk of ending up back at street level. Instead what you do is hold down free run and steer, looking for those carefully constructed paths, and using free-run-up and free-run-down intermittently to smooth the process. Want to hop over a stack of chimney pots rather than drop down among them and have to climb out the other side? Make sure you hold free-run-up, and even if you're pointing slightly the wrong way, Arno will aim for the highest point, so you land neatly on the chimney. Want to drop down to a rope to cross a street quickly? Hold free-run-down and Arno won't leap across the street to hang from a ledge, wasting precious time.

This will take some time for veterans to get used to. If you try to do one of those boxes-to-beams-to-poles sequences, for example, and you hold free-run-up, Arno is more likely to jump for the edge of the wall, if it is within reach and higher than the beam you're aiming for. You need to use plain old free run for that sort of thing, even though you'll be jumping. Once you make that mental leap (ah ha ha ha), it's great.

Spoilers: it doesn't always work, alas. See "traversal" on page two.

Co-op missions (when the other guy has any clue what he's doing)

Wow, it turns out Assassin's Creed is pretty fun in co-op. A couple of you scattering around the arena - two on the roof, one in the crowd, perhaps - to suddenly strike at multiple targets is deeply satisfying. Converging on a single target is great, too. Stealth is even more tense with two of you at it, especially when you don't know the other assassin and how they approach the game, so you need to be on your toes and ready to adapt your plan. Walking around a high-security corner into the arms of a guard, only to have my co-op partner silence him with an immediate air assassination, is one of those water cooler moments I'll never forget.

Animations

Ever since Assassin's Creed 3 Ubisoft has been justifiably proud of its animations, but Unity really takes it to a whole new level. There's an astonishing variety of melee animations in this game, even if you stick to one class of weapon, so that as of Sequence 10 I'm still seeing new ones all the time. It's very easy to perform a stylish finishing move, and they look great - the blood splatter all over Arno (and everyone and everything else) is a nice touch, too.

In quieter times, take a moment to check out how Arno moves. Watch the way his arms and legs flail when he uses a lift or makes a leap. See how his tread adjusts to the slope of the street, and how he pushes NPCs aside. Watch him mantle and squat on ledges. Especially watch him during free-run-down sections, if you can. This is a long, long way from Altair and Ezio; the earlier assassins look positively stiff by comparison, and it's worthwhile watching them side by side with Arno just for that revelation.

If all else fails, give a round of applause for the motion-captured cutscenes, which are terrific. Ubisoft gives Naughty Dog a run for its money nowadays.

The equipment system (now that I understand it)

Okay, so: the combined strength of your weapons, armour and skills adds up to your player level, which is displayed as a series of diamonds. Mission difficulty is indicated by diamonds.

At first, I got really frustrated by this. My approach to open world games is to do all the side content first (I abandoned this tactic after an hour or two; see "the content glut" on page two) so I can afford all the best gear before I tackle the story, but most things seemed way too high level for me to do, and new gear was massively expensive, so I couldn't level up

It turns out the difficulty really only refers to how tough and numerous the enemies you'll meet are, so if you can ghost a mission you'll earn a fat reward with little challenge. Once you have a bit of money coming in (invest everything in your Theatre Cafe chain!) it's really easy to buy new gear at about the same pace as the main storyline ramps up the difficulty.

Once you can afford stuff and get your level up, then it's worthwhile thinking about doing side missions to unlock specific pieces you like the look off - aesthetically and stats wise. It's possible to build in very specific directions, to make yourself super sneaky, kind of tanky or perhaps well-stocked with ranged weapons.

Some of the outfits are ridiculous and others are ridiculously good, and the same definitely applies to the colour schemes. Playing dress-ups is surprisingly fun, especially as the fabric in the game is so good. By gum, someone at Ubisoft should win a not insubstantial award for the way the costumes look and move.

Arno

I like Arno! He's got a bit of that Ezio scoundrel way about him, but in a more innocent, playful way. He's serious about his tasks, but has much more of a sense of humour than Connor. He's in it for himself, but he's far less gruff than Edward. And he's not a prat, which - bless him! He's one of my favourites - Altair spent a lot of time being. Arno makes me laugh, and I believe in him and especially his reasons for doing the things he does, and that last is more than I can say for any of them since Altair.

Arno's hair

I was very disappointed when Arno got a hood and covered up his hair. It's one of the best ponytails yet to grace gaming. Some of the other important characters have good hair too, helped along by the fact that the setting is pretty much Wigs A.D., but Arno's was amazing. An excellent graphical achievement. (His stubble, on the other hand, was an utter disgrace. It looked like the oversized, hairy thigh of another NPC was clipping through his face. Good riddance.)

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This is a glitch but it illustrates my point.
The dialogue

As with any enormous Ubisoft game the writing is patchy as heck, and I have absolutely no idea why, in attempting to recreate the feel of the tremendously colourful French language, Ubisoft chose to make everyone English, both in accent and slang use.

Despite this, some of the incidental dialogue is just terrific, in a way that's hard to explain. Here's a very silly example: infiltrating the palace I came across a pair of guards caught up in a moment of revolutionary zeal, horrified by the excess of the ruling class. "Would you look at that?" one said. "It's gold, innit?" the other asked. "I reckon it is," said our first speaker. "Fuckin' hell," the second concluded, in tones of disgust and awe. This genuinely made me laugh out loud and briefly consider not killing them where they stood. (Still did it though! Gotta get those Creed points.) Another little example is the ongoing conversations between your maid and the manager of your home base. I have a passing investment in whether she ever gets to go on a walk with her beau or whether the upstairs hearths will always need seeing to.

Even out on the streets, where very little is scripted, you hear a lot of amusing things. Guards will call you "whoreson", "shitstain" and - my personal favourite - "filthy moderate", which makes sense historically but is just hilarious to hear suddenly hooted at you.

I'm also very fond of the ranting of women in the crowd. A woman standing on a platform rousing a mob to political fury is one of the most powerful images of the French Revolution, and I love seeing it in Unity. Even the paper sellers are firebrands. Terrific.

The characters

Confession: I'm terrible with history. I have about the same level of general knowledge as a curry that's been in the back of the fridge a week too long. I almost never have any idea who any of the people the Assassins and Templars are dealing with are, and I usually don't care, despite all the cutscenes and encyclopaedias and really laudable attempts to educate me. I liked Assassin's Creed 2 and Brotherhood quite a lot, because I knew who the Borgias were, but apart from a bit of "oh yes George Washington, he went over a river once, didn't he?" I have otherwise been totally at sea for the entire franchise to date.

I don't think this matters much as what Altair and especially his successors got up to in the Animus never mattered much from game to game, except in terms of who they had babies with, and I've never felt the plotting would stand up to any attempt to pay attention to it. I'm similarly lost in Unity (Templars bad? Templars good? Templars bad? Get to the point Ubi we all know it's going to be "Assassins bad" eventually) but for once I actually know who some of the people are.

And what people. I met the Marquis de Sade and he did not disappoint me, having a Russell Brand-like beads-and-open-shirt outfit going on. Napoleon is depicted in such a way that you suddenly remember that almost everything you know about him comes filtered through a British lens, and now here is a perspective informed by a cultural history shared with France. I even grew quite fond of a voiced but otherwise generic fortune teller quest giver, to the point where I went to look her up and find out what happened to her and if she were really real. Unprecedented engagement.

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Assassin's Creed: Unity - things I hate

The framerate

You know me friends, I couldn't give a rat's arse about frame rate, for all the blithering about monitor refresh rates and what not. But whether a developer chooses 24, 30, 60 or any other FPS, I expect it to stick to it, so that when I push a button the thing I want to happen happens sometime within the realm of time I have come to expect it. Unity's not very good at maintaining this, and I've fluffed any number of double assassinations as a result.

I understand why it happens because it always happens in the same places; a couple of hundred NPCs are milling about on screen and everything just goes to shit. Time slows down noticeably, and the first time this occurred I wondered if Arno had just gotten a bit tired of sprinting from place to place. (Amusingly, there are set-pieces where time does slow down, and every time it happens I think it's performance dipping again).

I'm playing on PS4 and while I've definitely noticed and been irritated by the problem, anecdotal evidence suggests the PC and Xbox One versions have it much, much worse. I should note that I didn't get the game till after release, so I missed the reportedly very buggy first few days, and that this is the only major issue I've encountered so far. (Otherwise, I've only seen a bit of clipping, weird NPC behaviour and dodgy physics, all of which are to be expected in a huge open world game, unfortunately. None of it has been game breaking or even that distracting, and nobody's face has come off.)

The content glut

You can have too much of a good thing, Ubisoft, especially when so much of what you've got is repetitive tasks. Assassin's Creed: Unity has so much to do that I despair of ever doing it all. Even before you synchronise, the mini-map is constantly pinging with chests, collectibles, missions, points of interest and I don't even know what else because the map legend is incomplete.

After you start synchronising, shit gets real. Looking at the map is genuinely frightening. How are you ever going to do all that stuff? There's no way to block it out, either; none of the map filters quite suited my approach (collect all the things, ignore side missions, still see important points like underground entrances) and as you walk around you're constantly assaulted by mission prompts and invitations. It's bananas. I can't imagine who could look at it and think "yes this is a good way to spend weeks of my time" but that person is not juggling three lives and a dozen unplayed games like the rest of us.

The cover system

It's broken, as of this weekend; sometimes pressing the button moves you in and out of cover, and sometimes it just makes Arno twitch. And you can't go around corners while staying in cover, which seems like a ridiculous oversight. This has the hallmarks of being a great addition to the series, stealth-wise, but at present it just sucks and you can't rely on it.

Ubisoft's attention begging

I really am pretty upset about this one: some of those chests I mentioned above? You can't open them. There are some you'll be able to open once you reach the end of Sequence 9 and spend some skill points, but there are two other kinds that are just completely unavailable to those of you wanting to play offline.

The first of these are nomad chests, and are unlocked by playing the mini-game that comes with the Assassin's Creed: Unity companion app. This app is a slow-loading battery drain, and the Nomad missions are a much less fun version of the excellent Brotherhood Facebook game, locked behind frustrating glyph "puzzles". I still haven't actually figured out how you make it open the chests, but I'll let you know as soon as possible.

There should be some way to disable this shit if you’re not interested. Not being able to get to 100% is going to annoy offline players, and having them clutter my map is annoying me. It seems really cumbersome to do all this stuff, and not particularly rewarding when you finally get there, from what I’ve gathered.

The second set of chests are unlocked through Assassin's Creed: Initiates, a rather confusing promotional affair where you apparently demonstrate your loyalty to the Assassin's Creed franchise on top of your existing demonstration of loyalty to Ubisoft through Uplay. I've played every Assassin's Creed game and I'm almost certain I've connected Uplay whenever I could, and yet I am level one, if not level zero. I have no ideal how you go up levels, because as of this weekend the damn thing is still broken.

Honestly, there should be some way to disable this shit if you're not interested. Not being able to get to 100% is going to annoy offline players, and having them clutter my map is annoying me. It seems really cumbersome to do all this stuff, and not particularly rewarding when you finally get there, from what I've gathered.

Fucking Uplay

Jesus Christ Ubisoft, what the hell has happened to Uplay? I understand you want to pull an EA and have players sign up for a publisher-wide persistent identity, and last time I checked in, you were doing a pretty good job with that. By performing simple in-game tasks and accumulating points I could unlock rewards - usually in-game content for the same title. I could never earn quite enough points with one game to get all the rewards for it, which since they were all unnecessary vanity items that didn't count towards completion I merely admired this clever tactic of yours and used my Far Cry 3 points to buy more Assassin stuff.

Now, though? I can't even understand what's happening every time you insist on my visiting Uplay because I've unlocked a reward. As far as I can tell, the "rewards" I've unlocked include a two for one offer on microtransaction items. No, Ubisoft. This is a full-priced triple-A title with a season pass and numerous complicated and expensive add-ons, which already requires me to join two different loyalty programs and use a companion app in order to get to 100% completion! I do not want to buy any things and I don't want you interrupting me every few missions to remind me to go get my exclusive avatar for a website I am never going to use again.

If any of this stuff made any sense when you look at it I'd still be disgusted, but I'd be disgusted and less confused.

Traversal errors

I understand that Ubisoft keeps introducing new traversal tricks and animations, as well as building more varied geometry, and that the difficulty of designing a smooth traversal system therefore increases with every release. But for goodness' sake, Ubisoft, this is game seven even if we just count core releases, and Arno still can't hop up a single step without triggering a disastrous chain of events.

As I mentioned above, the free-run-up and free-run-down options help a lot, but there are still going to be loads of times when you end up going completely the wrong way, or Arno starts shimmying in a circle around a chimney pot rather than jumping off. In a game that is, at its heart, all about about parkour, it's frustrating and embarrassing that there are still so many problems with traversal.

The game constantly shouts at you to pull the left trigger to enter a window, even though 99% of the time Arno will just climb in on his own. The other 1% of the time, he’ll jump up to the ledge above. On these occasions, pulling L2 does not make Arno go through the window. The one time you really want to specify that he should go through the window, the window button does not work.

Let's talk about a few persistent examples; these occur so often that I can't explain them away as "oh, I should have specified free-run-down" or "oh, I wasn't pointing the stick precisely the right way". First up is windows. For some reason the game constantly shouts at you to pull the left trigger to enter a window, even though 99% of the time Arno will just climb in on his own. The other 1% of the time, he'll jump up to the ledge above, and you'll have to make several attempts before he'll get the idea - if he does at all. On these occasions, pulling L2 does not make Arno go through the window. The one time you really want to specify that he should go through the window, the window button does not work. Why? Why, Ubisoft? Why? I've lost count of the number of times this has ruined an infiltration attempt. I can take you by the hand and guide you to specific windows it always happens in.

Here's another one: Arno cannot go up a single step. I wasn't being facetious when I mentioned this before; it makes me so mad. This is the situation: one or more guards are standing on a section of geometry that is on a less than shin height different altitude to the section you are standing on. You approach stealthily. Arno stops at the platform lip. He will not take the single step required to "climb" up or down to the platform the guard is on, and you are just slightly too far away to trigger an assassination. You know what is going to happen, but you do it anyway: you press the free run button (or free-run-up or free-run-down as appropriate) and nudge the button forward. Arno leaps majestically into the air in high profile, usually ending up clinging like a frog to the wall by the astonished guard's face, and all hell instantly breaks loose.

Because of this bullshit, I did so many swears this weekend, with such magnificent anatomical precision, that my housemate and his girlfriend left the building and only came back when they had enough baked goods to fling into my growling, snarling corner to feel confident in their survival.

Interiors

Explorable buildings! Really bring the city to life by letting Arno inside fully one-third of the city's buildings! Then maybe kit them all out with exactly the same cookie-cutter interior and make navigating them a hopeless jumble of nonsensical stairs, non-interactive doors and ladders! Also combat will be impossible inside them! Yeah! That's the best way to spend our time and money!

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Assassin's Creed: Unity - things I love to hate

Paris

Credit where credit is due - Paris is huge. Ubisoft really outdid itself rebuilding France's capital, and the first couple of times I synchronised at a viewpoint, I actually felt a bit sick looking at the scale of it - especially after looking at the mini-map and realising how much there was to do.

After a while this feeling of awe wears off, as you start to be able to see what falls within the borders of each district, and what's just a bit of flashy window dressing. After you become familiar with the river and bridges, in particular, the city becomes pretty navigable, even without the many fast-travel points.

That said, it never becomes really pleasantly navigable. Paris is an old European city where buildings squeeze together in endless terraces, and when its denizens ran out of room to build sideways, they built up. In theory this would make for great long rooftop sequences but in reality there's so much verticality in the free-run design that even with judicious use of free-run-up and free-run-down you'll often end up sailing out into space and plomped back down on the ground, or running off at a tangent to your actual goal in order to stay up.

I don't know if this is a product of faithful design (surely Ubisoft didn't recreate Paris's street system accurately?) but it makes trotting around the city something of a chore, especially with the vaunted crowds milling about. Getting from A to B ought to be a delight in an Assassin's Creed game, but this iteration lost a lot of the joy that Black Flag brought back.

The crowds

It is genuinely cool seeing so many NPCs on screen, and Paris definitely feels much more alive as a result of its teeming masses. But I would really, really like them to get out of the way.

For whatever reason, the "gentle push" and "violently shove" buttons have been taken away from free-running, so if you need to move stealthily or quickly through a crowd you just can't. Blending is much easier and more effective, which is great, as it's finally become a tool I feel I can use reliably, but I really don't think it makes up for all the times I've been detected or caught because some idiot stepped to one side suddenly or Arno leapt across an alley to shove a man out of the way rather than just run past.

They’re always fleeing and panicking in huge numbers. "Mon dieu – cadaver!” someone will scream, breaking off from literally haranguing the crowd from atop a pile of dead bodies.

The other problem with the crowds is that they're mostly just window dressing. Although you're still allowed to shoot them with free aim (Warning: Arno did not kill civilians), there's no legitimate way to interact with the people of Paris any more. You can't hit them, or pick their pockets. You can't hire them to follow you around. You can't sacrifice a bit of synchronisation to off them, for your own sick satisfaction (damn minstrels) or to cause a distraction.

Moreover, when they are serving any function, their behaviour is just annoying rather than interesting or useful. They're always fleeing and panicking in huge numbers ("Mon dieu - cadaver!" someone will scream, breaking off from literally haranguing the crowd from atop a pile of dead bodies). They freak out if you run, and they're not much use for stealth if you walk, either; that blending I was talking about earlier? No matter how carefully you off a guard from blend, the pack around you instantly scatters, leaving you exposed to any mates he had around.

Animals

It's a bit petty to say I hate this, but Ubisoft made the decision to remove the ability to interact with animals, and I don't like that. Assassin's Creed 3 and Black Flag did a wonderful job of filling the world with beasties of all kinds, which you could hunt, be hunted by, or just stop and have a friendly chat with, and it was great. That was a leaf out of the Red Dead Redemption book that should not have been forsaken.

Unity has a very urban setting, so it makes sense that Ubisoft scaled back the animals. As much as I hate to admit it, this is not a horse-friendly city. Even if you had one you'd only get bogged down in the crowd or do so much riding back and forth looking for way through a row of terrace horses that it'd be quicker to just climb over, as laborious as that is. So, I get it.

You can’t tell me Arno – and indeed, all the Assassins we’ve met so far – aren’t cat people.

But there are some animals, and since they're in there, it's okay to point out how shallow they are. There's one horse, copy paste every time somebody needs a carriage drawn. There's one dog, similarly cloned - and it doesn't do anything. Nothing! Last and best (I don't count birds) are the cats. You won't notice them dashing about in chases and battles, but in quieter moments up on the roofs you'll hear a yowl and look around and there will be a little cat, watching you, ears primly alert to your interloping ways.

You can't tell me Arno - and indeed, all the Assassins we've met so far - aren't cat people. Meeting in the moonlight in the secret world of chimneys and shadows, there's no way he wouldn't bend down and scratch that little guy's ears briefly. Not being able to do so gives me a little pang of sadness. I have no idea why Ubisoft removed this genuinely pleasant little feature, but it's a step backwards.

Combat

Oh, I'm so torn. Combat has always been a bit rough in Assassin's Creed, because in the first game it was always meant to be what you did when you had fucked everything up royally and were about to be brutally sent back to the last checkpoint (if that final boss fight was part of the original design I'd be very much surprised). It's really been improved a great deal over successive sequels to the point where it's both challenging and satisfying.

Unity plays to the strengths of the system. You have a simple arrangement of tools - bombs, melee, ranged - which are easily selected and thrown together with one button commands in a delightful bit of sandbox-like play. Within melee combat, you can parry, dodge, charge or just attack, and knowing when and why to use each of these is where the skill comes in.

Unfortunately, this only works out in theory. In practice, it's nearly impossible to tell the various kinds of guard apart until they start attacking you, and then you lose track of which is which as they mill about (those combo-performing bastards are particularly hard to spot). Identifying and dodging deadly ranged attacks is near-impossible, and very, very buggy. The camera is a nightmare, as it doesn't do anything to help you keep your opponents in view, and when you're inside a building it's just - it's really very bad. It's not fun in there, ever.

On the one hand, this all plays into the assassin thing, you know? You're not supposed to be able to take down huge groups of baddies when shit hits the fan; you're supposed to flee and try again (I think the fact that you can no longer drop a smoke bomb and quickly switch to the hidden blade to assassinate a dozen guys is a good change). On the other hand, the shit is always hitting the fan, and since guards never go back to a true neutral state once they've been alerted once, you have no incentive to do anything other than beat them up or die trying.

The meta-narrative

I know everybody hated Desmond except me, but I really loved untangling the story of what was going on in the meta-story. Finding all the secrets in the modern-day sections pleased me a great deal more than collecting things in-game did, and I never understood people who criticised the storytelling without mentioning the absolute bollocks going on in the Animus. But whatever! It's gone now, and we don't even have the Abstergo employee story of Black Flag to comfort us.

Nope: nowadays you play you, a video gamer hooking up to the Helix, the commercialised entertainment spin-off of the Animus. Ubisoft quite boldly opens the game with the Helix menu without explaining any of this, but before long the Assassins show up and tell you Abstergo is using your neurones to help them gather data (sort of like Folding@Home, I assume). Since in the meta-narrative Templars Are Bad, you immediately agree to join the Assassins and are promptly initiated.

On the one hand I feel the storytelling has benefited from this change, as it feels like the writing team spent more time stringing Arno's missions into a cohesive narrative than trying to outdo the twists and turns of the last batch of conspiracies and soft sci-fi. On the other, and bearing in mind I haven't finished yet, I feel a bit disappointed that there's no mystery to discover. I was genuinely entertained and engaged by uncovering secrets from the modern-day storyline in Assassin's Creed 2, Brotherhood and Revelations especially.

Assassination missions

Every couple of missions you go and do a real, proper assassination and it's rad. There's a bit of a cut scene showing you the arena, then you're let loose to take down your target. each of these I've seen so far have been very different from each other, and pretty great.

The reason this one's not going in unmitigated "love" territory is that each mission seems to have one optimum solution which you're guided to by the optional challenges and opportunities. These make the assassination mission a great deal of fun, but they also take the creativity out of it. Apart from picking your door, there's little for the player to decide on.

I understand why Ubisoft feels the need to do this - remember how hard some people found the freeform approach of the first Assassin's Creed game? But since the choices are "do what Ubisoft tells me" or "walk through front door killing everything till I reach the goal", I'm a little disappointed by the increased linearity in mission design.

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