By Ian Boone. Mobs have taken to the street, howling for blood. Pitchfork and torch are set to establishment and honored structure. Bold figureheads stand up and declaim that the old ways cannot stay, that revolution must come. Am I describing the French Revolutionary backdrop of Ubisoft’s new Assassin’s Creed: Unity, or the general reaction I predict to follow this game? BOTH!

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Assassin’s Creed: Unity, developed exclusively for next-generation consoles (sorry 360 and PS3! You still get AC: Rogue!  Tell me how that goes!), is intended to begin a new chapter for this perennial franchise. In order to simulate the past (mostly for the purpose of being jerks to one another), a shadowy war is being fought for the future of the human race between Templars and Assassins, using technology called the Animus to comb through the genetic history of special individuals.

As you walk into Assassin’s Creed: Unity, you’ll find that Abstergo (the modern front for the Templars) has packaged the Animus as entertainment. Yes, you’re playing as someone… who is playing a video game. If there were full-motion video playing, you’d at least know you were in for a delightful, campy 90s treat. But no, it is 2014, and your Animus-powered historical simulation has been hijacked by one of these pixie-haired hacker girls that always seem to fall in with the Assassins. In short order she’s convincing you to strap on the hose and hood of Arno Dorian in late 1780s France. At some point, Arno crossed paths with a Sage, a person rich with DNA traces from a Precursor race. Abstergo wants to find the location of the Sage’s body (y’know, for science!), but the Assassins want to foil this so they can have ALL the DNA!

I’m generalizing and simplifying a little, but the full detail really doesn’t sound that much smarter: the story of Assassin’s Creed began with a looming apocalypse that has since been thwarted. What happened before it was the cyclical history of two factions killing each other – what is happening now is that same history continuing. Repeating. Stagnating. Newcomers to the series will face quite a lot of backstory to catch up with that will only seem to get progressively worse. And series veterans will only shake their heads as they wonder where their fandom will lead them to next.

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Muddy plotlines and twisting fictions aside, Assassin’s Creed: Unity can be a visually beautiful experience. My favorite moments were found when the game just shut up and looked pretty.

Ubisoft’s development teams have always done an outstanding job recreating historic cities in previous games, and they absolutely nailed it here. The architecture of Paris, Versailles and more are there for you to scrabble up and explore in lush detail. Many buildings also sport lushly appointed interiors for you to sprint through while you’re pursuing or being pursued.  Not all is beauty – there is revolution underway, squalor abounds, and somehow even the smoke-spewing, rat-choked areas still shine with realism.

Sadly, frame rates dip extremely when the pace picks up. When you dive from rooftops, the rushing ground practically comes up as a slide-show. Even some of the more acrobatic moves you perform while climbing seem to bog the game engine down. Not the best first outing for Ubisoft’s next-gen graphics, but this was not my biggest problem with the environment.

Assassin's Creed® Unity_20141112140221The beauty of the physical setting is jam-packed by citizens cluttering it up. While pedestrian traffic has been a big part of the series’ tactics, there is simply too many damn people in the streets this time in Assassin’s Creed: Union. You will see them burning effigies, selling their bodies, and delivering philosophical proclamations to wild throngs. There’s a decent amount of repetition found in these wandering non-player characters, and there’s certainly nothing endearing about them. (Paris could get by with one less bourgeois, blue-coated dandy, especially since they’re milling about everywhere.) And if you are like me, you will cry when you have that thought and realized that the game will not let you draw your sword to cut down these clones.

Randomly breaking out among the populace, the citizenry of France will also try to engage you with dynamic activities. This was a well-talked about feature during the game’s promotion, but it seems to really boil down to five different events (such as stopping a pickpocket). When considered as pieces or props set in this virtual production, the simulated French folk are a little more admirable: they are the moving pieces in a baroque diaspora, giving life and animation to crawl over the set-piece architecture. But you shouldn’t linger on them too long, or trifle with their routines; the beautiful illusion starts to fall apart the first time you see a libertine’s leg bend up and commence flailing at impossible angles.

Arno Dorian navigates this beautiful, flawed cityscape for two purposes: to unravel a conspiracy that threatens both Assassin and Templar alike, and to also maybe to get a little of his groove back. In comparison to previous protagonists like Ezio and Connor, Arno’s abilities are a little lacking. Take Eagle Vision, for example: characters in previous installments of Assassin’s Creed could activate this ability to passively sense enemy auras and uncover hidden secrets. Arno’s version of Eagle Vision works more like a temporary radar pulse that must cool down between uses. This does not feel like a move to create more balance or challenge, it just feels like a downgrade.

But at least Eagle Vision is a freebie, because many other returning moves have to be uncovered through skill trees. The silliest examples of this has to be unlocking the ability to use throwable items. Arno will find stun grenades, but cannot handle their advanced mechanisms until you invest a point into said skill. You can’t even distract the peasantry with a shower of coin until a point is spent. There is a workaround solution: for rebel users with deep pockets, you can “hack” the system by spending real world money to buy your upgrades, weapons and armor.

Assassin's Creed® Unity_20141113004836Once you have on your finest cravat, strapped on your weapon of choice (and budget!), and fretted over what to spend your four initial upgrade points on, the game truly opens up. Major story missions involve assassinating major enemies in heavily guarded areas. Each one of these assassination missions has optional measures you can take to ease your task. You could block exhaust grilles from the sewer to smoke out your quarry, or help some beggars who will turn around and help distract the guard while you escape. These can be fruitless efforts, however; many times these missions will still end in a desperate smoke bomb and wild combat.

Outside of these grisly deeds, Arno can help famous and infamous figures with their laundry lists in assorted side missions. These do not receive the same cinematic treatment that bigger story missions do (you may not even recognize right away that you’re talking to a known figure), but they tend to be shorter and easier to pull off.

ACU5If going lone wolf isn’t your style, you can pal around with others in up-to 4-player co-op. Your single and multiplayer gear and abilities are the same, but your character’s physical features and gender are limited to being doppelgangers of Arno. As of writing this, the multiplayer is in a very bugged state. Numerous attempts to connect to sessions ended with timeout requests or lag issues. I can’t critique what I can’t experience, so I must limit my scornful eye to single player… for now.

Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a hard game to recommend without caveat. This is not what I’d consider a good entry point in the series for newcomers, nor do I feel that longtime fans will appreciate the changes in gameplay or direction.  No one will appreciate the seemingly rushed state of the product at full price. Time will bring patches and price drops, but until then there will be other games.

Maybe we’ll start a Then and Now feature here, and revisit games down the line to see if post-launch treats them kindly.  I’ll get back to you, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, but for now you just aren’t worth it.

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