Assassin's Creed: Unity is stuffed full of unnecessary connected features that distract from the core gameplay and frustrate the user. Ubisoft, let's stop this.
I have a lot of love for Assassin's Creed: Unity. I think it's one of the best entries in the series to date story-wise; I love Elise; and there are half a dozen other things about it that pleased me enough to smash through most of it in a weekend.
It's not perfect though, and although I've touched on this briefly I think we need to talk about some of its more unpleasant problems. Assassin's Creed: Unity is over-burdened with extraneous, poorly-implemented features which draw attention away from the gameplay itself, are difficult to use or in some cases just don't work - namely the companion app, Initiates and microtransactions.
I can absolutely understand what Ubisoft is trying to do with these three features: it's trying to draw players into further engagement with the brand, both to foster an ongoing relationship with it (Initiates and the app) and to extract money from them (the app, microtransactions).
I could deal with that, although it seems unnecessary when we already have Uplay as a sensible platform for all those things, if any of them were a pleasure to use. They're not, though.
The Unity companion app
The Assassin's Creed: Unity companion app is dreadful. On Android, it's a battery-draining resource hog with constant, unnecessary notifications. It's slow and unresponsive, crashes regularly, and is barely usable on small-screen devices.
“Playing” this game is just dull work, like the worst kind of social and mobile games, but lacking any of the charm and accessible execution that can make those games a pleasant distraction.
Bad app design is frustrating but forgivable, I suppose, and maybe the iOS version is better. But the app also fronts bad game design, and that makes the whole thing a chore to use. You know I'm not the sort to invoke the Game Police but the companion app is barely interactive. The Glyph "puzzles" are boring slogs, and the assassin missions are very similar to those found in Brotherhood - but with no in-game impact. "Playing" this game is just dull work, like the worst kind of social and mobile games, but lacking any of the charm and accessible execution that can make those games a pleasant distraction.
Furthermore, the main point of the app for most players, unlocking the blue Nomad chests in Unity, is a hassle. It's not just the laborious, time-wasting effort of "playing the game" that's the problem. it's that if you unlock a chest while you're away from youre PC and console, it doesn't actually unlock. You need to be using the app as you play Unity.
This is astonishing to me. I like companion apps when they have second screen functions. Being able to quickly check the map or other information is super useful (I use the Destiny app a lot to avoid Tower visits, for example). I like companion apps when they let me keep adding to my game experience when I'm on the go by continuing to progress (Far Cry 4's Arcade Poker can unlock in-game content, for example). But what is the point of an app that has a whole other game in it that you have to play while you're trying to play the main game?
In order to use the Unity app most efficiently, you need to have it open all the time while you're playing (draining your battery hugely), and to be constantly checking on it. I had to keep pausing Arno's adventures, which I was enjoying, to pick up my phone and faff about in shitty menus. It was not fun. It didn't make playing Unity more fun. It was a chore and it soured the whole experience for me.
It's probably also worth noting that at time of writing using the companion app puts you at risk of having your save game wiped.
Assassin's Creed: Initiates
Assuming you don't just switch off all the icons in the map filter, which I highly recommend, there's another kind of chest that begs for your attention - although they're thankfully less obtrusive than the dozens of blue Nomad chests you need the app for. To unlock the gold chests, you'll need to join and level up through Assassin's Creed: Initiates.
Initiates seems to be some sort of Assassin's Creed loyalty program, designed to encourage and reward franchise fans. The higher your level, the more chests you can open, earning yourself various in-game goodies. It looks like you progress either by showing Ubisoft that you've played a bunch of Assassin's Creed games by synching your saves to Uplay, or by completing "drills" in unity for those coming onboard late in the franchise's lifetime.
That doesn't sound like too bad an idea, does it? (Again, Uplay could do this just fine, but I suppose Ubisoft has given up trying to make it popular.) Unfortunately, it just doesn't work. Some people seem to be having no problems with it but others can't get any joy out of it. Ubisoft has done a terrible job of explaining how the scheme works, and is yet to implement the drills - although presumably that's because it's too busy working hard to patch out Unity's much-discussed launch issues - among other features.
I'm taking it on faith that this is all going to be sorted out soon, and indeed my Initiates profile suddenly propagated this morning, elevating me to level seven and partially acknowledging the fact that I've played the shit out of this franchise. It still doesn't acknowledge any of my Unity progress. I also still can't open the stupid chests, and every time I came across one in-game, with that notification about needing to be level 11 or whatever, it makes me rage out a little.
Then there's the microtransactions. Many players resent these on a matter of principle, but there are others who genuinely enjoy shortcutting their play time by buying packs of currency and unlocking everything early. I find this pretty ridiculous (Why don't you want to play the game? Why are you even loading it up?) but putting all that aside, there are serious problems with Unity's microtransactions in particular.
Kotaku has done a pretty good job of breaking down some of these issues, notably the fact that you can buy currency well before you can actually use it, and highlighting the most egregious one: one of the packs on offer is $100 worht of currency, and the game does not have $100 worth of purchasable items.
What the actual, Ubisoft! Does the left hand know what the right is doing? Unless some DLC comes along that adds in extra weapons and equipment that can be bought and upgraded with purchased in-game currency, you'd better think about refunding the unspent cash. And you'd better get that DLC out fast, and it had better be free, if you want to salvage this situation; nobody's going to spend that much on co-op boosts when the end game equipment is already over-powered.
It's a real shame that Assassin's Creed: Unity is groaning at the seams with so much unnecessary guff. That and its awful launch are surely going to overshadow the good things, although I'm hard pressed not to feel that in this case Ubisoft hearing loud and clear that this sort of nonsense needs to end is worth it.