Assassin’s Creed Unity is one of the most disappointing games I have ever played. I’m not one to get caught up in hype cycles. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of energy over the past couple years attempting to completely remove myself from the PR whirlwind of contemporary videogaming. I don’t watch prerelease trailers, check out hot new footage, or read the regurgitated press releases. This has made my life better in innumerable ways, but the most important is my profound lack of disappointment in that time period. I’m either pleasantly surprised or underwhelmed, but in either case there was no preconcieved image that the game (or film, or album) didn’t measure up to. It is a wonderful freedom.
I don’t know what happened. I let myself get caught up. I’ve spent the last year playing close to all of the AC games in a row. I’ve been watching the progression, the shifts, and I’ve learned a weird appreciation for the up-and-down rhythm that the series has developed. My downfall was Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (the best Assassin’s Creed of all time). It kissed me on the cheek and tucked me into bed all cozy. It squared the circle. It stood on my lawn with a boombox, told me that I completed it, and helped John Bender deal with his horrible home life all at once.
Foolishly, I thought that the leap in quality of Assassin’s Creed IV over the abysmal Assassin’s Creed III meant something significant for the franchise. I thought that it meant that Ubisoft had learned that more care had to be taken, especially in a yearly franchise where the horrors of development carelessness can wreak havoc on consumer confidence (at least for a year). I was wrong.
Let’s get the mechanical stuff out of the way: Assassin’s Creed Unity is riddled with technical problems. Some examples that I’ve selected for dramatic effect include: In an early dramatic scene, the camera transitions from an cinematic shot to the third-person camera of the normal game. From this position, you are meant to dive off the building, thwarting the plans of your pursuers. However, when this transition happened, Arno merely stumbled into the level geometry, getting stuck in a “tripping” pose until I reset the game. Later in the game, I had performed a wonderful assassination. During my escape, I got stuck standing on a sofa. I had to reset my console. God forbid I ever try to enter a window from a landing with a balcony. Cue several minutes of me struggling to merely hop through a hole in a wall while being shot at.
Beyond the plethora of objects to get stuck inside of or under—at one point I actually fell beneath the street itself—the general control issues that have always plagued the Assassin’s Creed games remain uncorrected. The primary issue has been one one of direction and control. If I want the character to climb or jump to this place in my field of view, will they do it? In previous games, there was a 50/50 shot. Unity attempts to improve on these historical odds by making Arno a little more daring. He takes longer leaps than Edward or Ezio would, closes gaps easier, and climbs more cleverly. Arno also seems to be a little more magnetic than his predecessors, meaning that you can see a little bit of beneficial rubberband that gets him to higher ledges or across longer gaps. In the macro, that’s great; in the micro, that magneticism makes for some incredibly frustrating navigation. Forget trying to climb around a complicated corner or jump across an ornamental roof. You’re in for some beautiful bodily indecision on Arno’s behalf.
Arno’s indecision is the backbone of Unity’s story as well. This game follows many of its forebears in its construction: a young man experiences the loss of a parent (twice!) and is embroiled in the machinery of the Assassins and the Templars in the wake of that trauma. I won’t explain my specific problems with the narrative here—I have many and it would require its own article—and instead merely say two things.
First, almost all of Unity’s story issues emanate from a lack of solid plotting. The game never manages to find any sort of rhythm, and instead maintains a manic staccato pattern throughout. For example, there is a game-changing scene two-thirds of the way through the game. It is a real “Arno needs to get it together!” moment, a perfect moment to amp up the action and the stakes in the last hours of the game. Instead, Ubisoft decided that this was the perfect time for Arno to be drunk, creep through an abandoned palace, and generally do boring, light filler missions for thirty minutes. I understand what the point and purpose was. Arno hit rock bottom and had to find his way back up. However, that sequence shows a total inability for Ubisoft to see the big picture of its own game, to see it as a contained unit rather than several pieces of story that happen to fit together like Legos.
Second, this fits into a larger problem pattern for the Assassin’s Creed games on the whole in regards to the balance of their stories and their open worlds. The appeal for the series is that you, if you so desired, could spend fifteen hours gathering every piece of world garbage that you wanted. You could get all of the crests, houses, and cocades that you desire. When do you do that? You do it when you’re on a break from the main plot. The open world necessitates frequent breaks in the game’s plot so you can jettison into the collectathon whenever the desire smacks into you.
The revelation of Black Flag was that you could take the open world away from the player. That game was unafraid to deny your boat meandering for hours at a time, forcing you to do particular story missions away from your collection fantasies. That bravery meant that Black Flag had a much stronger control of pacing; the mantra was “shut up, sit down, and enjoy this ride.” This totalitarianism worked. Edward Kenway’s journey from pirate to assassin to mature adult is easily the most fully-fledged narrative in the franchise, and it elevated my opinion of how games can tell cinematic stories.
Of course, that’s the real issue with the pacing and plotting. The Assassin’s Creed games after the first are fundamentally concerned with telling a particular kind of blockbuster cinema story. They have the big-budget cinematics, the huge set pieces, and the explosive dramatic reveals. A reader could rightfully point out that what I’ve said about plotting above doesn’t make a lot of sense in the context of a game. “Games are about interactivity and choices,” you might say. “Of course the player should be able to do whatever she wants at any time,” you might protest.
You’re right, of course, but that doesn’t change the fact that the unique failing of Unity is its attempt to fit a completely different medium (film) into the ill-fitting container of a videogame. Unity wants all the action and shortcuts of cinema without earning them in any way. It wants dramatic character beats, but forgets that beats themselves require rhythm. Without that predictable, fundamental backbone, everything feels like it appears from the aether without any planning. Characters betray one another and we don’t know the stakes. Villains are revealed and we don’t know if we should care. Anticlimactic ends are reached and it feels more like we petered out and less like we overcame anything.
Unity has its saving graces. There are wonderful moments of design that should—and must, in the face of the rest of the game—be praised for their originality. One of these is the inclusion of Hitman-esque closed levels where you have to stalk crowds and corridors in order to assassinate a target. These usually have patrol routes, alternate assassination methods, and generally interesting conditions that manage to keep the find-kill-repeat loop compelling throughout the game. Another is the inclusion of Investigation missions that task you with finding a body and figuring out who killed the victim. These are fairly shallow missions, since the solutions are not complex, but they provide an interesting design basis for future games to iterate on.
I keep going back to one thing while writing this review: who can I blame? It’s an insidious desire on my part, but the complex failings on so many fronts have driven me to it. I want to know how this franchise went from its apex to its nadir so quickly. What I’ve landed on is this: it isn’t a specific writer, designer, creative director, or executive. Unity is riddled with problems and mistakes because of Ubisoft’s need to push out an Assassin’s Creed game—or multiple games—every year. There’s no telling what kind of wonderful product we could have gotten if the massive teams Ubisoft assembled to craft this game got another two passes at their respective systems. In chasing a profit, Ubisoft managed to drive an exciting franchise and setting into the ground like an asteroid.
For every moment that was worthwhile, there were ten that made me shake my head or groan. For every mission I enjoyed, there were five that were plainly filler. For every plot point that made sense, there were three that boggled my mind. Don’t bother with Unity. Spend some time with Black Flag or Revelations instead.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com.