That a new Assassin's Creed game is coming this year to new-gen consoles is no surprise. That Assassin's Creed Unity is new-gen only, however, is a pleasing fact, because it'll be the first game in the series that has the opportunity to fully explore the PS4 and Xbox One's new tech. Which raises the question: What does that mean for Assassin's Creed on a granular gameplay level? Yes, we all expect it will be super pretty, but the new hardware it runs on can do more than cram additional pixels onto our HDTVs? Oh yes. Much more, indeed.
See, I've played Unity--and though my demo was brief, it showcased the many ways in which Unity sets itself apart from previous AC games. It's tougher, placing a bigger emphasis on stealth; it's smarter, forcing you to actually take advantage of the many tools at your disposal instead of mashing the counter-attack button for an easy win. And, naturally, it's stupid-gorgeous. Oh, and the co-op stuff? Excellent fun. Read on to see how my hands-on co-op mission played out, and what sort of exciting changes Unity has in store.
Joining a co-op mission
So how does one actually partake in a co-op mission in Unity? It's simple, really (in fact, multiplayer here works much like it does in Watch Dogs. Very painless). Located throughout the single-player setting are NPCs that offer a host of co-op missions--these are not tied into the main story. Some, like the heist mission I'm about to start, are meant for grinding cash, which you use for purchasing some pretty badass rewards (more on that later). These types of missions are "endlessly replayable", as their guard and objective placement are randomized. Other co-op outings are more narrative based and add context to the overarching plot in relation to the Brotherhood's motivations and whereabouts.
Simply talk to the NPC, choose whether you want to play a mission with random players or strictly with friends, and it zaps someone into your game (or you into theirs) with a super quick loading screen. As for competitive multiplayer: sorry, co-op's the only MP option in Unity.
This is my Arno. There are many like him, but this one is mine
Before I jump into the details of my co-op mission, there's something you should know. Unity is basically an Assassin's Creed RPG. By completing mission objectives, both in single-player and co-op, you gain skill points, which you then use to develop Arno's skill set. He has four different skill trees, each with many abilities and passive upgrades to unlock.
The deadly tree increases his combat effectiveness; the unseen tree improves his ability to remain hidden; the agile tree makes him better at evasion and parkour; and, finally, the resilient tree increases his survivability. Play long enough and you'll max out every skill in every tree--and when you take your Arno into a co-op mission, all his unlocked talents come with him, allowing each member of a group to specialize in their own particular style of play. Neat, eh?
Eagle Vision's awesome overhaul
Alright, back to my co-op mission. The task set before me and my partner: find and loot a chest hidden somewhere in the level. Sounds easy enough. We start off on a rooftop; below are some wagons, a large wall surrounding a few shacks, and a ton of enemy guards. It's also the dead of night, which makes seeing all the enemies in the area rather difficult. The developer I'm partnered up with suggests I check out Arno's Eagle Vision, which should help--and it definitely does.
Activating Eagle Vision in Unity sends out a sort of pulse, highlighting all enemies within its radius, including ones you cannot see in your direct line of sight. And, thanks to the fact that my Eagle Vision has been upgraded in its respective skill tree, those enemies remain temporarily highlighted in the environment for all players in the mission even after I deactivate it. This proves invaluable for strategizing our approach to each encounter. With the enemy's position exposed, my pal and I dive off the rooftop into a fresh, cushiony pile of new-gen hay.
Relearning how to fight
Eager to see how creative Arno is with flashy kills, I pop out of cover ready to throw down. I count six guards in my immediate vicinity. Stealth? Who needs it--this is Assassin's Creed, I'll just counter-attack these guys to death. As I sprint toward the nearest guard, my partner hurriedly tries to warn me over his mic: "Wait!" Too late, I jump-stab the guard in the neck. His friends, not amused by the loss of their brother-in-arms, walk toward me. A guy with a puny sword takes a swing, and I counter--but as I thrust my plainly visible hidden blade toward his jugular, one of his comrades knocks me on my ass, preventing the kill.
The hell? What dark sorcery is this? Since when does more than a single enemy attack at a time? One gets a good jab in with a spear; I take down a single guard--just barely--by the time a big oaf lodges a great axe in my chest cavity. Well then. Turns out, Unity revamps the combat to such an extent that taking on more than a couple enemies at once is damn difficult. The familiar contextual inputs are all there: dodge, counter, etc., but good luck using them with any effectiveness when you get dogpiled by a large group. So how do you survive such a scenario? Smoke bombs, my friend. Smoke bombs.
Surviving with the new stealth mechanics
OK, take two. We again dive into the hay pile, and this time wait for the group of guards to pass. They disappear around the corner of a nearby building, so we head to the wall in front of us and lean against it for cover. Just beyond it is a small field that contains a handful of enemies and an alarm bell they'll ring if we're spotted--and wouldn't you know it, we have to get through that field to reach our objective. First thing's first: gotta take down that guard near the bell. Using the dedicated crouch button(!), I quietly walk to a bit of cover near the soon-to-be-victim.
Unfortunately, I overstep just a touch, and he catches a glimpse of me out of the corner of his eye--not enough to raise the alarm, but enough to verify that he saw something. A ghostly silhouette of Arno appears at the exact location I was spotted (well, well--who put Splinter Cell in my Assassin's Creed? Not that I'm complaining). Just as the guard is about to find me out, my co-op buddy jabs him in the back of the skull with his Phantom Blade--a hidden blade / crossbow combination. Um awesome. The crouching acts as an easy-to-use stealth mode that reduces the noise of Arno's footsteps and makes him harder to see, while the silhouette is a powerful tool for planning your next action when you're accidentally spotted. I dig it.
The power of two (to four)
Those changes are all fine and well, but what about the co-op experience itself? In short: it's awesome. My partner and I combine the strengths of our very different assassins--me, with points in stealth, and he, with a combat build--to devastating effect. My enhanced Eagle Vision lets us plan numerous synchronized assassinations. I sneak up behind an isolated guard for an old-fashioned hidden blade kill while my teammate skewers two unsuspecting enemies at once.
We continue clearing out the field, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike each target. I pull one into a hay stack (from which he'll never return); meanwhile, my co-op pal stalks the nearby rooftop, clearing out the sentries above. I distract, he kills. He rushes sword drawn in to a group of enemies, and I silently pick them off during the confusion. It's beautiful.
The beauty of simplified navigation
With the field now entirely devoid of life aside from my co-op partner and myself, I'm free to toy around with Unity's movement controls a bit more before continuing on to our objective. In previous AC games, you sometimes have to hold, like, 800 buttons to properly sprint and climb up a building. In Unity, there's simply a "parkour" button (in this case, mapped to the PS4 pad's R2 button), which makes Arno sprint and climb anything in his path. Ah. Much, much better.
It's an elegant input solution that, in my experience, smartly deciphers what it is you're trying to do. Need to run? Climb a building? Hop a fence? Dive off a perch? R2, baby. It does it all, no need to also hold three OTHER buttons at the same time. A simple life is a happy life.
Earning sweet rewards through co-op play
Enough toying around--time to get to that chest we've been hunting. A quick scan with Eagle Vision tells me it's in some sewers just beyond the Field of One Thousand Corpses. The stairwell is easy enough to locate, and there's little resistance within. After performing a few sprinting assassinations of my own, the chest is finally within my grasp. Inside is a boatload of cash--which I promptly use to buy a new chestpiece. And it isn't just for visual flair.
There are more than 200 pieces of equipment in Unity, and all of them directly affect Arno's stats in some way. That chestpiece I just got, for example, is better suited for players who prefer to brawl; it increases my armor, yes, but also reduces my disguise radius and ability to blend into crowds. Other equipment slots have similar effects; a lighter pair of boots might marginally increase your movement speed while heavier ones allow you to fall from greater heights without taking damage. All of your progression--your skill point unlocks and purchased gear--persist with you through cooperative play and single-player. Speaking of
But... what about the single-player?
My hands-on demo ended when I finished the co-op mission, but I did get to see a gameplay reel of some of the most important structural changes in Unity. The biggest two: the massive crowds, and the overhauled mission design. Read on.
Watch any trailer for Unity and you'll see massive crowds wandering the streets of Paris. As in, thousands of independent AI characters on-screen at the same time. Impossible on last-gen hardware, but very possible thanks to the PS4 and Xbox One's tech. Thing is, these huge crowds have really important effects on the gameplay.
The most notable (and seemingly obvious) is that Assassin's Creed's "social stealth" tenet no longer means trying to stay hidden in a group of three same-looking NPCs. There are droves of people to lose yourself in, which in turn means that Arno can legitimately hide in a huge crowd. This also plays a huge role in Unity's RPG-like qualities. Without crowds this size, there'd be no need for stats like Arno's disguise radius, or his ability to blend more quickly and stay hidden while blending in restricted areas. You can also use the crowd to your advantage more effectively; sometimes you'll be able to incite riots, allowing you to sneak into certain areas undetected.
Exploring the black box mission design
And here we have what I think is the most exciting aspect of Unity's overall structure. Instead of forcing you into linear missions--tail that guy and remain undetected, eavesdrop on those dudes without losing line of sight for too long, etc.--each mission in Unity has what the developers call a "black box" design. Meaning: Here is a giant, playable area, with many hidden paths and secret opportunities--now complete your objective in whatever way you see fit. And if you muck up an objective? Fear not: for the most part, the only fail-state is death.
Let's say you initially start a mission by stealthily trailing your target. You learn through his conversation with others that he's going to visit a church in the city to confess his sins to a priest. Guess what? You can kill that priest, disguise yourself, then kill your target through the confessional window if you want. Or you could just ambush him somewhere along the way. Oh, here's another cool thing: if your target is alerted to your presence while you're trailing him, the mission doesn't end--it just evolves into a chase sequence, which itself may evolve into a gigantic combat encounter. Be careful, though. The mission doesn't end until you successfully complete your objective and ex-filtrate. You're given all the tools you need to succeed. How you use them is up to you.
Assassinations are more fun with friends
OK, now are you sold on Assassin's Creed Unity? I was pretty indifferent until I played it myself, and sweet mother of pearl is it shaping up to be an awesome game. I'm particularly excited about all the RPG-ish elements. Stats? Skills? And--finally--an open-ended mission structure? I'm in.
And if you're looking for more, check out 8 reasons Assasin's Creed is secretly a game about cats and Why we probably know the names of the next 27 Assassin's Creed heroes.