With Black Flag a rum-swigging success story, the question on Ubisoft’s collective lips must have been: “What do we do after the drunken sailor?” It was never going to be easy to follow in Edward Kenway’s slightly wavering Assassin footsteps but as you squint up at an eagle circling the spires of Notre Dame and take in the bustling chaos of French Revolution Paris, you’ll quickly realise that - despite enjoying your Caribbean holiday - you’re home now. Assassin’s Creed Unity manages to not only deliver an astonishingly beautiful recreation of Paris, but an open world sandbox so dense and rich you feel like there isn’t enough time to see everything on offer. Proper assassinations step back into the limelight, free-running takes on new levels of slick rooftop traversal and (despite some less attractive ‘Creed hallmarks making an unwelcome return) Unity’s visuals feel genuinely new-gen.
Unity is the tale of Arno Dorian. Without spoiling too much, he’s on a quest for some serious vengeance and finds himself quickly popping on a hood and hidden blade and becoming embroiled in the Brotherhood of Assassins just as Paris decides to overthrow the monarchy. Handy. Refreshingly, unlike AC3’s determination to hit every location on the American Revolution tourist map, Arno’s journey is distinctly more character-focused. Expertly woven into the narrative, the Revolution itself is a clever story tool as the Assassins and Templars wrestle for control in a tumultuous political environment. If that doesn’t sound cool enough, there are severed heads on sticks too.
The fact that Arno is a likeable soul with a sense of humour and a sharp tongue made the 50-or-so hours I spent with him a pleasantly enjoyable experience. Add in the ‘fiery Templar’ Elise and, despite her continent-crossing accent (seriously, is she English, American, Australian? It's bizarre), you’ve got some characters worth caring about. As a big fan of Ezio Auditore, I find this young Assassin pleasantly reminiscent of the charms of the Renaissance Master himself, and followers of Edward Kenway's rogue-like personality should be suitably charmed too.
Paris is enormous, beautiful and positively dripping with atmosphere... and blood, from the newly hewn victims of the ‘National Razor’. Ditching old-gen tech means thousands of non-player characters wander the streets waving flags, burning effigies, frequenting markets and going about their daily business. As Arno careers through the newly introduced interiors of buildings to escape inevitable pursuers (who don’t like his habit of stabbing their bosses), the inhabitants scream and dive out of the way. The level of detail, as you find your way inside buildings such as Notre Dame, are an atmospheric joy as dust billows under your feet and shafts of sunlight fill the halls of the sparkling homes of the French aristocracy. Impressive contrast lighting means the game takes a second for Arno’s eagle eyes to adjust as you plunge out of an open window to make an escape, meaning you never quite know what’s going to be on the other side.
It might seem a bit bizarre that a man who inserts a blade into a jugular roughly every hundred and eighty seconds is rewarded for solving murders but let’s not ask too many questions eh? Unity’s Murder Mysteries are a (dying?) breath of fresh air, complete with gory historical artwork and plenty of clues scattered across the streets of Paris. Sometimes it’s glaringly obvious who your suspect is - “Oh hi, you sound /mental/” - but turning on Eagle Vision and getting sleuthing is a satisfying addition to the frankly overwhelming number of side quest distractions. Plus, Horrible Histories style, you get a free gory lesson without even feeling like you’re learning
This being the first new-gen-only AC, Ubisoft has finally taken the time to tinker with the main pillars of the franchise and free running has had a welcome overhaul with the addition of parkour up and down buttons. While free run down takes a few hours to get used to after years of hammering jump and hoping you don’t fly backwards off a wall, Arno’s deft twists and turns, as he descends to the bustling streets, quickly become a satisfyingly stylish way to travel. New-gen tech also means you can’t stop watching his coat swish as Arno leaps between buildings in a single, exhilarating, gymnast-style bound, or slides deftly inside an open window.
But what of the ‘assassin’ part of Assassin’s Creed, you ask? The stabbo? Well that’s here too, and combat has had an overhaul to pop the odds squarely in favour of the opposition. Where Black Flag celebrates the mashing of the counter-attack button with its ships-full of human-shaped, hidden blade cushions, Unity has removed the feature altogether. Attack, parry, and roll are your new friends. Add in the reinstating of the rather old school health potion feature, and open-combat is considerably trickier and more difficult to get used to.
It can be upgraded with skills and your choice of armour, but you’ll quickly find yourself avoiding large groups of civilian-police and guards, unless you fancy a frustrating dose of desynchronisation. Combat is ultra gory and satisfying once you’ve mastered its art - whether you choose two handed heavy weaponry or a sword and pistol combo - but it’s in trying to avoid it where Unity falters slightly. While the encouragement of stealth is no bad thing, especially with the welcome return of large scale assassination missions where you can choose exactly how to play, the game suffers from the franchise’s traditional 'clumsy enemy AI' and occasional stealth hiccups.
A few other AC bugs linger; you can be spotted behind cover, enemies will either forget you in an instant or continue to hunt you from afar, and the game’s desperate insistence to not let you interact with mission objectives while your conflict indicator is high is infuriatingly last-generation design. "I’m here," you scream, "isn’t that enough?" It’s worth saying too that frame-rate wise, I experienced things slowing down occasionally through busy scenes, in both review and retail copies. Another unwelcome AC hallmark returning to plague the new generation.
Yet Ubisoft has learnt from many previous mistakes. Eavesdropping has been pleasingly binned as a campaign staple and the few tailing missions that do appear are without any of the eyeball pulling frustration of previous games. Despite plenty of typical Creed maguffins there’s a distinct sense of fun pervading the story missions too, with a sprinkling of Hollywood hokum as you experience a surprisingly interactive initiation into the Brotherhood and chase a hot air balloon across the rooftops of Paris.
Assassination missions are plenty and have a cinematic vibe as Arno identifies numerous ways to enter forbidden areas. Plus, the ability to perform additional tasks in these missions adds an enjoyable extra layer to proceedings. Add in the Rift sequences, where Arno crosses into a series of other time periods, and it’s clear there has been an injection of sheer joy into Unity that no fan of the Creed can miss. It is however worth noting that the game still suffers from franchise problems of old, occasionally bogged down by its own memory sequences and with a final Templar boss that you’ll just be glad to get out of the way so you can head back to Paris and keep collecting chests and hanging off gargoyles.
True greatness lies just one handhold out of reach as previous issues rear their ugly Apple of Eden shaped heads. You now play in The Helix, Abstergo’s consumer version of the history hopping Animus where players can play as previous Assassins. It's Ubi’s gentle way of trying to untangle their own plot wires down the back of the Assassin TV cabinet and the possibilities it offers now seem endless, if a little cheaty. A video game within a video game? Meta just got a whole lot simpler.
When it comes to extracurricular activities, side mission content is positively gargantuan and your map will quickly, happily overwhelm you. Paris Stories, indicated by an Assassin symbol on the map, are an incredibly varied selection of over 40 missions, pulling you deeper into the history of the city. Starring Revolution 'celebrities' such as the Marquis De Sade and Madame Tussaud, these missions are no longer just a case of travel to point A to stab exhibit B, but investigation missions, bodyguard duties, sabotage plans and seemingly endless fragments of fascinating history that always build on the richness of the world. Add in chests to open, cockades to find, artefacts to discover, murder mysteries to solve, Nostradamus riddles that transform the city into a cryptic treasure hunt and a slew of social missions (phew) and Paris is enough to send you down a hole of OCD induced collect ‘em all despair. Even more interestingly, the game rewards exploration by not popping all the goodies on the map from the start. Sneaky...
Then there’s the small matter of playing with your friends. It is called Unity after all and herein lies the reason for the customisation options on offer. For the first time, you can personalise your Assassin fully and where this could have been a risky step, the customise section is a confident addition that rapidly endorses the feeling of achievement as you progress through the story. Arno is ever evolving, unlocking new sync points to spend on skills, and Creed points to upgrade items of clothing. The level of choice on offer is gloriously varied. Plus, the dilemma of choosing between double air assassinations or professional lock picks at a stage when you’ve only got nine sync points to spend is a far cry from the unlimited equipment in previous entries in the franchise. Unity is far better for it. Like Assassin pocket money, you can save up again to buy, but it’s choosing what you need for the murder at hand that’s key.
Taking to the internet with your Assassin is relatively simple too. Co-op missions and heists are scattered across the map. Not wanting to aggravate the lone wolves out there, these can all be played alone. However, they have been designed for two to four players and are best played that way as you sneak with friends through heavily guarded areas, and make the most of group skills. Co-op missions each have their own narrative too, and moments of emergent gameplay are enjoyable as you battle guards on the ground, only to have a group of comrades rain down with air assassinations from above. Shared stealth is ridiculously satisfying and it’s been worth the wait for the feature to be implemented in a meaningful way. Being part of a pack of Assassins, each armed to the teeth with their own abilities, hurtling across rooftops on the way to a Heist is a joyous new way to experience the franchise.
Unity manages to push the series forward enough to make this truly great, it’s only sad that a few left over hiccups have carried over from the previous generation. Traditional Creed problems aside, this manages to be an unrivalled murderous sandbox and Paris hands over a visually impressive blood drenched historical playground.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One at a review event. It was then played again - by several editors - on retail copies on PS4.