Assassin’s Creed: Unity PlayStation 4 review

The first, true current gen Assassin's Creed outing has arrived, and Aaron finds out if Unity is more than a yearly update...

Designed from the ground up for the current generation consoles, and not limited by a development cycle that’s divided between two generations, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, prior to release, looked every bit the showcase title. It was created to be a true evolution of the series in terms of lifelike realism and world density. Of course, with Ubisoft’s recent performance in delivering a title that doesn’t quite live up to the teasers (namely, Watch Dogs), most took these claims with a pinch of salt. Now that we have the full game, we can see if Assassin’s Creed: Unity delivers on its current gen promises.

Vive la Revolution!

Set during the French Revolution, Assassin’s Creed: Unity casts you as new series star, Arno Dorian. As with all of the series’ protagonists, he quickly becomes involved with the Assassins and the Templars, and the his story runs parallel to the ongoing Abstergo tale. I’m not going to delve too deeply into this here, though, in the interest of avoiding any spoilers, except to say that Arno’s journey involves a lot of the same activities as his previous counterparts, this time in the scenic city of Paris, one of the most impressive locations we’ve seen thus far in the series.

In creating the world of Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Ubisoft has done a superb job, and Paris of the Revolution is recreated in stunning detail. Beautiful, yet dirty. Majestic, yet humble. There’s a clear division of wealth here, and the game succeeds in showing this divide. Arno flits between both extremes in his journey, and for the most part, it’s another fine history lesson, albeit one with plenty of artistic license.

Although some locations of previous games occasionally had that copy and paste feel, Paris has no such issues. It’s huge, packed with masses of detail, and feels very organic in layout. The increased population, all milling around and interacting with both each other and the environment, and the greater detail, including a large number of interiors, makes for a world that’s far more absorbing in terms of placing you in the period. Simply walking through the bustling streets in fun, as you observe the people of Paris. Some may be simply milling around and chewing the fat, worried citizens may be boarding up doors to protect against attacks or looting, and some may be engaging in full-on sword fights, as enemy factions don’t take too nicely to each other. It’s a rich place, full of activity, and that’s just the NPCs.

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In terms of Arno’s adventure, a quick glance at the map, and the glut of activity icons on it, shows that the dev team haven’t skimped on things to do. Although the core game has taken a step back from the naval aspect of Black Flag to a more traditional AC experience, à la Assassin’s Creed 1 and 2, there’s a whole lot of content, both old and new to dive into, and this time it’s all wrapped up with a far more focused approach to stealth.

Shadow Dancer

Although the Assassin’s Creed series has always had some form of stealth mechanic, right from the first game, this stealth has largely been very simple, relying on you blending into crowds, or staying out of sight. The actual mechanics have been mostly automatic (such as hiding in bushes, as in Black Flag). In Unity, this has all changed, and Arno has an actual stealth mode, and the ability to stick to, move along, and run between cover. There’s also a Splinter Cell-style last known position feature that shows where the enemy last saw you. This makes it easier to lure and avoid foes.

The new stealth abilities mean there are more actual sneaking missions, and more approaches to take in each. Because of this, in terms of your method of completing your goals, Unity is probably the best Assassin’s Creed yet. Even an early mission gives you various possibilities, which you have to find and figure out yourself, and finding a sneaky way to hit your mark without ever being detected, or killing anyone else, is very satisfying.

Sadly, the stealth and cover system, although welcome, isn’t implemented as well as I’d hoped it would be. The controls are clunky at best, and it can be a nightmare getting Arno to stick to the cover you want, especially around a corner, and the cover switching seems very hit and miss, with him simply leaving cover and standing in the open, even when the switch cover option is available. It’s just not fluid enough I’m afraid, and can lead to unwarranted detection.

This sluggishness carries over to the combat, an area where Assassin’s Creed is seemingly doomed to suffer with each and every iteration. The combat here could well be the most challenging, with more of a focus on actual combat and not just counters, which is a good thing, but this is hampered by a very slow and sluggish input and response. Arno responds so slowly to your commands it often feels like he’s lagging behind a few button presses, and when you’re trying to tackle multiple foes, having to parry, dodge, and counter, it just feels wrong. It’s a real shame, as Arno has some great moves and new takedowns, as well as weapons, but at the moment the combat of Black Flag remains the best. With Shadow Of Mordor nailing this style of combat so well, Assassin’s Creed really needs to evolve.

Luckily, one area where Unity does improve is the parkour. I found this to be borderline broken in some areas of Black Flag, but here it’s far more reliable, and a new high and low free running system makes it easer to traverse the city. By holding R2 and X, Arno will free run upwards, gaining height, whilst R2 and circle will perform a controlled descent. The latter of these is a brilliant addition, as carefully climbing down from heights in the past has been overly tricky. Here it’s simple.

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What’s more, the addition of all sorts of interiors makes chases far more interesting, as there’s almost always a building you can dive through in order to lose your pursuers. In fact, the game in general makes a greater use of interior play, including a superb recreation of Notre Dame, and even simple pass-through interiors are detailed, and look the part.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Assassin’s Creed: Unity has several blemishes that stain its otherwise impeccable appearance. Texture pop-in is present, especially on characters, whose textures load in as they approach, or slowly appear during cut scenes, and the overall frame rate, whilst decent for the most part, can take a dip during plenty of activity. It’s certainly no 60fps stunner, thanks to Ubisoft’s decision to stick to 30fps, but I’d question whether it even hits 30fps at times. There’s also a good deal of graphical and AI glitching, such as plenty of clipping, and characters getting stuck in the environment and other people. During cut-scenes, I often saw NPCs walking right through Arno, which made an otherwise sexy-looking scene look poor.

Then there are the loading times, which seem to be the longest in the series so far. This may be due to the lack of a controllable Arno during loads to distract the player, but sometimes loading takes so long, the game even has to show you a loading bar, just to let you know it hasn’t crashed. These loading times aren’t consistent either, and are seemingly random in their length.

The big shame here is not only the impact these hiccups have on the game, but the let down of a true current gen experience. Assassin’s Creed: Unity is clearly current gen, there’s no doubting that, and it does look great (not as good as the pre-release footage, though), but the performance and glitches are very jarring, and hurt the overall experience.

The parkour, whilst better, still suffers during frantic encounters, and getting Arno to climb where you want him to, or go through a specific window can sometimes be infuriating.

Who done it?

I may be disappointed by some of the technical faults, and control response in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, but one area where I’m more than happy is with the general content. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a ton of stuff to do here, with a decent and well-paced story, and a collection of side missions and collectibles. AC games always have plenty of diversions, but here they’re more interesting in my opinion, if not as fun as sinking and boarding enemy vessels in Black Flag.

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A highlight has to be the murder mystery missions, in which Arno is tasked with investigating and solving a murder. You have to find and inspect evidence, question suspects and witnesses and, once you’ve sifted through the information, you have to figure out who the guilty party is and accuse them. You need to be careful though, or you could accuse the wrong person. It’s a simple bit of Cluedo, but it’s a great addition. So too, are the Nostradamus puzzles, which give you cryptic clues to the solution, leading you on a exploration of Paris.

You also have a home base to control and renovate, which generates more income, and there are always events that occur at random that you can interfere with, such as robberies or the rescue of innocent civilians. Rifts are interesting, which I won’t spoil here, but are a definite highlight, and there’s the usual selection of view points and collecting diversions.

Assassin’s Creed: Unity also has an improved player customisation, with all sorts of weapons to buy and clothing items to dress Arno in. These items not only change Arno’s appearance, but also boost various stats, raising his character level. And yes, you have the option of unlocking ‘legacy’ outfits from previous games. Some of these are unlocked via in game actions, whilst others need external help, such as using the mobile companion app, or Uplay.

All of this is contained in what has to be the largest city map the series has seen so far. It may not be the size of Black Flag, which was an entire ocean region, but in terms of a densely-packed city, no other entry has approached this level. It’s genuinely impressive.

Better with friends?

Of course, I can’t miss out one of the game’s biggest new features, and that’s the addition of co-op. Much was made of this during the pre-release hype, and although I’m certain many will ignore it (Assassins’ Creed is always a solo game, first and foremost), it should be given a chance, as it’s both fun and implemented well.

Various missions can be tried with friends, (but not all), and finding friends to play with is easy. You can invite them, jump into a co-op mission, or you can locate other people in he world, who appear as NPC glitches in the Animus, with those on your PSN friends list appearing in your HQ.

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The co-op play can be great, and with a good team you can have a riot tackling missions in carefully planned out ways, but the performance issues that plague the game, and a constant need to consult the map to find out where you’re going can break this up. In single player it’s not such an issue, as you’re going at your own pace, but with others the need to keep up makes things a little bit unnerving at times. And, that’s if the online features work, which isn’t always guaranteed in my experience. Hopefully this will be ironed out, though.

Unified or divided?

Like Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed: Unity has plenty of attractive values. It’s a looker that can show what the current gen platforms and powerful PCs can do, packs in plenty of content, and the new-cop multiplayer is interesting and works well enough. On the flip-side, it also has its share of ugly blemishes. I haven’t even mentioned the item-unlocking microtransactions yet, which is just loathsome. This is a full, retail game Ubisoft, not free-to-play, so stop it!

Assassin’s Creed: Unity is both new and old. It features a new, more complex twist on the core Assassin’s Creed formula with more stealth, but in many ways it’s a step back, returning the series’ roots. As such, although I’d certainly recommend the game, especially to fans, Black Flag remains the best outing in my opinion, for its bravery of trying something different and expanding the series’ horizons. If you didn’t like the naval combat, however, Unity may be the one for you.

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4 out of 5