Special Series Playthrough - Assassin’s Creed
Unity was so terrible on release that Ubisoft gave away the DLC for free – if Ubisoft apologise, you know it's bad. It even tainted the follow up, Syndicate, harming its sales. I’m kinda looking forward to the game that nearly assassinated Assassin’s Creed.
Part seven; Unity
In the modern era, the Templars discover the IT guy/Sage they shot in Black Flag has actual Isu DNA, and begin the ‘Phoenix Project’. We watch a PowerPoint – who have they prepared this for? – explaining their plan to mine his memories. But the DNA is incomplete so they need another Sage to complete the sequence; just use a frog, didn’t you listen to Mr DNA in Jurassic Park? Imagine the memories we’d play.
Right now we’re playing on a Helix, Abstergo’s VR console which streams video games. In reality we’re reliving DNA memories so the Templars can monitor for Isu clues while also scanning us for DNA strands to exploit – sounds like Facebook’s privacy settings.
Vive Le France! We’re gaming as Arno, who we met as a child in Rogue when Shay stopped by to murder his Assassin dad. Taken in by dad’s best friend, who strangely enough is a Templar, Arno grows up to become a charming, easy-going lad having a DTF relationship with his step-sister. Typical Frenchman. Life is good until he chooses not to deliver an urgent message to Step-dad and instead follows sister Élise to a party hoping to get some. What he gets is accused of murdering their dad and thrown in jail.
Brooding in the Bastille, Arno innocently displays his ‘sight’ abilities to an Assassin, who helps him escape. Returning to Élise, now a Templar, she blames him for Dad’s death and boots him out. With nowhere to go, Arno is inducted into the Brotherhood, who allow him to investigate the killing - but Arno discovers his two dads were working to bring peace to the Templar / Assassin war and that some were opposed it; so which side did it?
And now a word from our sponsor. An Assassin, Bishop, pauses our game (clearly not a gamer then) and explains she wants us to find another Sage so they can locate his body and stop the Templars from finishing the DNA sequence. Being a silent hero, presumably we accept. And at first glance, that might have been a mistake.
Sacré bleu. AC:U is a mess. It’s over-stuffed, over-complicated and over-doesn’t work. Black Flag had gotten free-running near enough right, but AC:U demolishes that style then only half rebuilds it. There’s now extra keys to trigger running up or down, which requires flow-breaking timing, and once you’re on the wall its insanely fussy; he’ll pause mid-climb but is it because he can’t make it or needs some encouragement? Why do we have to keep clicking to climb? And if he can’t make it, insisting too much makes him commit suicide. It’s just not dynamic like Edward’s dashing through battles and across masts and treetops.
And Arno has been over designed as well; he does all those cool twists, leaps and turns to get over things which look cool but often it’s like he’s got MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” stuck in his head. He’ll crab left and right, bounce, flail or just stop, stricken with indecision because the game is caught between doing a heroic slide across a table or going around it. Often he just sticks to an invisible path like he’s on train-tracks and you’ll go miles out of your way before he can be coaxed off – when that happens during missions, ‘reduce distance to your target’ is doubly annoying. Not my fault! It’s just not intuitive and sometimes when it’s clearly Up that’s needed, he’ll only respond to Down.
Continuing the ‘improved into a failure’ approach, sword play is now ‘fencing’ – there are times I feel like Errol Flynn but it usually doesn’t work and Arno’s not helping either; he’ll be an inch away from a guy and instead pirouette across the room to stab some guy just minding his own business. Once you’re dealing with groups it’s impossible, and Arno often won’t recognise a threat until he’s been hit so you can’t defend him, or he’ll delay using secondary weapons; I’d get surrounded, hit ‘smoke bomb’ and he does nothing. Then, too late, he drops all his smoke bombs.
Besides swords, there’s larger weapons like pickaxes and the ‘Guillotine gun’, an axe with a mortar in it. They’re great but for some reason Arno can only have one primary weapon – equip the Guillotine or a Rifle on his back and his scabbard and holsters’ empty? Most surprising is hidden blades are no longer an optional weapon. They only come out when he’s in a position to do a hidden kill. I miss walking about flicking out my blades.
We do get a new silent weapon though, the phantom which fires frenzy/sleep darts and brings back crossbow gameplay. It’s not very phantom-like though, I can fire it silently from the midst of a crowd and still alert every guard in Paris. And when you do get spotted, it’s game-over. The various bad guys are crack-shots, they can fire through/around a crowd and never miss and are far better at fencing. When all this is combined, you spend a lot of time running away. Well, running, then yelling at him to get off something.
And then there’s his outfits. Like all good Frenchmen, Arno has an outfit for every occasion and some are hilariously garish for a stealthy assassin – a High-Vis hood? Each item has multiple ‘modifiers’ that impact his offense, defence, awareness, and stealth; hoods, trousers, bracers, belts, shirts can be upgraded and have so many modifiers and additions that must be balanced against the rest of his garb, eventually you just go ‘that’ll do’. Not even a Frenchman should take this long to get ready.
There’s now a skill-tree system to improve his abilities. Arno has been training for a year, but doing what? He’s basic as best and getting XP requires actions outside the usual process – which Arno/the game tend to ruin. For example, a regular assassination doesn’t get XP but an aerial one does; and you have to unlock those, only for him to miss or stab a random – ‘Arno did not kill innocents’ – he didn’t kill many guiltys either.
I was comfortable in the notion that we’re reliving an immutable memory – when we deviate, we desynchronise. But with Bishop’s ability to hack Arno, the feeling of being in historical memories is lost. Especially when the hacks stretch credibility; one gives Arno T-1000 shapeshift abilities which is so ridiculous and only works for a bit. Why? Great legs though ...
Occasionally Abstergo gets wind of our cheating and we get booted off the server, falling into a beta-stage (as if Unity wasn’t Beta enough) and we have to escape undefined memories; running through France’s new underground, clambering the Eiffel Tower during WWII while Nazi planes take pot-shots – it makes no sense, but then anything’s better than wandering Abstergo’s offices.
Further removing it from the memory concept, AC:U was built as a Co-Op, and the single-player misses out on a lot of side-missions and upgrades unless you have friends willing to pop in and help, and I don’t. I have friends obviously, just none stupid enough to own Unity.
And you know what, they’re missing out. After a few hours I finally get my eye in and suddenly see a really good game. The missions are all exceptional and, a first for the series, fair. Paris just keeps getting better, it’s never dull to walk around and while we’re not that involved in the Revolution, we see its effects; Paris is a powder-keg with outbursts, protests and fights, there’s a genuine sense of tension. It’s rammed with destitute lower-class citizens living in hovels while around the corner are the effete elite in palaces and pretty cobbled streets, and as the Revolution takes hold you start to see posh gents holed up in the hovels and commoners partying in burned out townhouses. AC:U is focused and intense, almost cloying and oppressive.
We do meet the Marquis De Sade, portrayed as a Russel Brand-style bohemian, and Napoleon, who is fun; the DLC Dead Kings includes a killer line where a kid mouths off to him but gets cut off just before calling him a shortarse. Besides those cameos and the Revolution background, we’re not directly involved in the events; AC:U is focused on its own story which being the Assassin / Templars war, is great.
While the Assassins are paralysed by indecision and those in its ranks who oppose peace, the Templars provoke the Revolution to force out the royalty, deciding commoners are easier to control when they think they have freedom. It’s heady stuff, especially seeing the Assassins less than perfect for once, but it doesn’t quite deliver on its promise; even with Élise, we don’t gain any further insight into the Templars, so we miss a chance to see both sides reflect on the war and their beliefs. Still, both sides fighting over an Isu artefact to help restore them to greatness is solid enough that you try to stick to the main mission. It's what we're here for after all, and it's great to finally get into some AvT squabbling after several games being more interested in the real world than the secret one. But there are a lot of distractions.
There’s so much that the map gives you a headache and Paris is ruined by tons of icons vying for your attention. Random assassinations, Nostradamus predictions to translate, crowd events, revenge stories, collectables, mysteries to solve and murders to investigate; they are samey XP grinds. You can lockpick chests in a frustrating mini-game - I only got 500 from a chest that cost 375 in lockpicks. You even re-enter the Helix server to do Mario-style timed runs collecting glitches; Mario would make a brilliant assassin. Within the Server we can also recover other gamers lost in the memory; anything I should know, Bishop?! Arno can also rebuild cafés and doing their side-missions generates more money and upgrades them. It’s nice enough, but who the hell redecorates a café in the middle of the Revolution?
One chest unlocked Shay’s costume – dress up as my dad’s killer? Insensitive. That is one thing Unity is missing though; Shay – it could have been an amazing mission for Elise to check the Templar records and reveal who offed dad but Arno never mentions it – to even have tracked down an elderly Shay to see how he’s reflecting on things now could have deepened his character and given Arno a perspective on the Templar-Assassin war. Shame.
Arno is a great character though, impetuous, bristling against the Creed in favour of revenge, he has some great comments and reactions. He’s a serious contender for Ezio’s crown and shares similar story beats - and his flair for the dramatic. Even his viewpoint syncs are a bit theatrical. Eventually, as he breaks the Creed in favour of exposing the conspiracy, Arno is banished – and Élise becomes a target of the Templars for her modern-thinking, so they forgive each other in favour of getting their respective houses in order.
Like the main plot, their relationship isn’t quite as compelling as it seems; they’re not Romeo and Juliet nor do they actually clash; Élise is the fairest Templar in existence, even more than the ones in Rogue. The assassins’ fight for freedom and the Templars are committed to control – Arno and Élise are the perfect opportunity to look at what we’ve been squabbling about, but it shies away and ends it on a too convenient note. Still, they have a great relationship and she’s as feisty and witty as he is – when we rush to save Élise, who defends herself better than we do, Arno immediately gets lost in a hedge maze and we have to fight and find our way out. A mission where she escapes in a Hot Air Balloon and we chase her across rooftops before leaping aboard for some well-earned romance is just brilliant.
When it works, AC:U is the best game since AC Revelations; it looks beautiful, it’s got an AvT focused story, Assassinations can be done multiple ways, Paris is dripping with atmosphere, and even NPCs and their actions are distractingly good. It’s dramatic and emotional, but for every awesome moment there is some infuriating flub as if it’s doing the splits; one huge step forward and one huge step back – and we’re in the middle, which is a ball-ache.
AC:U was further sullied by some blatant sexism; in co-op you could only ‘be’ Arno which makes zero sense especially given the shapeshift hack, and when that backfired, Ubisoft said it was a workload issue; too much hard work to represent women? You walked into that one. Even the game’s animation head called bullshit. Ubisoft then really pissed people off saying the series has always catered to minorities. And? Ubisoft were Arno standing on a Leap of Faith, and they randomly threw themselves feet first towards concrete.
Unity wanted to be the AC Revolution, and at times it really is – after ACIII and Black Flag’s RPG ambitions, we’re back to a focused AC game with some almost brilliant improvements.
I came close to crowning this my new favourite AC game, but too many frustrations and a hesitance for the story to go all the way means Revelations is still the winner.
But … surprise, Arno is my new favourite assassin. He starts off carefree then becomes reckless, even dangerous before finding his place; he’s got some great one liners, a realistic perspective and a good personal story. At first I thought he was an Ezio clone but he becomes his own man - that it ends with him watching over Paris like a dandy Le’Batman is awesome. Plus, he’s knocking off his step-sister. Everything is permitted …
I’d have been happy playing an Arno trilogy, he really could have gone onto better things, or at least a better game. Sadly, this is au revoir for Arno, there’s no way Ubisoft would resurrect him since that would dredge up memories of his game too, and that’s a shame.
Next, we’re off to Victorian London to play Assassin’s Creed: Peaky Blinders.