The Assassin's Creed titles have felt like Ubisoft's own little game design sandbox ever since they kicked off the annualization of the series with Brotherhood. While it has yielded some excellent results, Assassin's Creed Unity feels like that sad amalgamation of toys left in the sand when it rains. Amazingly, those toys are still fun to play with if you bring a few friends along.
Set in the middle of the French Revolution of the late 1700s, Assassin's Creed Unity follows the story of a young nobleman turned assassin, Arno. Falsely imprisoned for the murder of his adopted (in a sense) father, Arno turns to the Assassins to hunt down the man who actually killed his semi-paternal figure. There's plenty of Assassin and Templar intrigue abound, but unlike the compelling tale of vengeance woven through Ezio's story, Arno just falls flat. In part, it might be due to the fact that he (and the rest of the cast) sound like they came from the suburbs of London instead of Paris, France. In part, it could be because very little time is invested in the character before he's off being an assassin; so who cares what came before or why he's doing what he's doing now? It's parkour time! Finally, it most definitely is due to the overall "gamification" of the entire affair.
Assassin's Creed Unity is:an open-world game where you run, climb, jump, shank, and sneak as in previous titles an action-RPG "light" game where your character's equipment determines his effectiveness in combat, how well he can sneak about, and how much ammunition/healing items he can carry a game with a mobile companion app where you can recruit and send assassins on quests, similar to the mini-game introduced in Brotherhood (called Nomad missions); success in these will allow you to open chests in AC:U that yield money or gear a game with co-op side missions that yield money and randomized loot a game with "murder mystery" side missions where you search for clues and questions witnesses a game with a semi-social aspect where players can form clubs, get points, and compete against other players' clubs for bragging rights and some rewards a game that is at the forefront of Ubisoft's new "Initiates" program where all of your progress throughout the AC franchise can be tracked and rewards doled out (not working at the time of this writing) a game that features microtransactions allowing you to bypass everything in the past four bullets a game that is the testing ground for Ubisoft's new graphical engine for next-gen consoles
If that sounds like too much for one game to be, you're right. There is too much going on at any one time, both in and out of the game proper, that it begins to feel like you're just jumping from one mini-game to the next without ever having time to settle into "the game proper." But all of these serve a purpose, albeit a sinister one for an Assassin's Creed game.
If pressed I could not tell you a thing about who the other characters in the story are, why Arno is on a Templar hunt, or what the French Revolution has to do with any of it. I could, however, tell you all about the gear I've unlocked from the various systems mentioned above, what's been beneficial in co-op vs single player, and what mission I'm pursuing in order to get the next piece of gear. The entirety of Assassin's Creed has been turned into a sort of terrible loot grind.
Assassin's Creed II introduced the idea of gear/loot with the different weapons and outfits with which you could equip Ezio; some weapons did more damage while others had a better chance of parrying attacks or had better reach. Regardless of the weapon you chose, progression throughout the game was determined by the story missions. Certain abilities and certain areas only became available once you progressed in the main campaign. Given that so much was tied to it, it was a good campaign, too. Ezio was a strong character, as were those around him; so much so that I remember actually cheering when I finally assassinated Borgia. Assassin's Creed Unity switches this equation around, placing the emphasis on loot and collectible hunting over the story by giving your character and all of the missions a “level.”
Your level in Assassin’s Creed Unity is determined by the one piece of gear you currently have equipped with the lowest rating, meaning you’re only as strong as your weakest link. Considering you have gear slots for your head, torso, arms, legs, waist, and weapon, that’s a lot of gear for which you’ll have to dish out Francs in order to get yourself up to a high enough level to tackle the later story and side missions. Francs, the primary monetary unit in the game, is earned by completing those same missions, building up your base of operations and collecting income at regular intervals, and from various chests scattered throughout the world. Once you’ve earned up enough money, you’re ready to buy some new gear.
But wait! First, you need to unlock it. Gear can be unlocked by completing story and side missions, playing co-op missions, doing missions in the Assassin’s Creed Unity Companion app, ranking up in the AC Initiates program, and completing “crowd” objectives (random mini-events, like tackling a thief or killing some criminals, that happen as you just walk the streets of Paris). Once you’ve unlocked the gear and bought it, now you can upgrade it using Creed points. Creed points are earned by running around doing assassin things, like assassinating people while blended in a crowd, or from a haystack, or using a distraction.
This would work well as an experience system if it was used for both gear levelling and character levelling, but the latter is handled by yet another system: Sync points. Sync points are earned by completing co-op and story missions and are in turn used to unlock certain skills (e.g., a communal Eagle Vision, more health, mastery of weapon types), for your character. So, if you’re really looking to get everything out of Assassin’s Creed Unity, prepare yourself to engage in all of the offshoot and subsystems and spend much of your time “on the grind.”
Of course, a lot of this is entirely optional. You don’t HAVE to go in search of the best gear or even the best middle-of-the road gear. Just playing the regular story missions will earn unlock enough gear and doing a few side things will get you enough Francs to be able to afford it. Being left with only a lukewarm story to play through, however, isn’t much of a consolation. If Assassin’s Creed IV was a great pirate game slightly spoiled by the Assassin’s Creed elements, then Assassin’s Creed Unity is an Assassin’s Creed game spoiled by trying to turn every little piece of it into its own game. The one shining beacon of hope in all of this is that the various systems that undermine the single-player experience actually make the cooperative play that much better.
In many ways, Assassin’s Creed Unity feels like a prototype of a larger scale multiplayer game, sitting at the edge of MMO territory. While many of the story and side missions are solo only, you’re free to invite other players to your game at any time to run around Paris together getting the various collectibles (which aren’t shared among the group, though the crowd objectives are) and engaging in specific co-op missions. These missions vary in the maximum number of players allowed (from two to four) and in their difficulty.
The higher the difficulty of the mission, the better gear you and your teammates should have in order to beat it, but it can be won through sheer tenacity and good strategizing by team. Successfully completing a mission rewards you with some Francs, some Sync points, and one piece of gear from a specific list for that mission. Unlocking a new piece of gear each time you play a mission, along with Francs and Sync points, definitely gives them some replayability, even if the mission is the same each time. It reminds me of the way missions and loot is handled in Payday 2, to a degree.
The missions themselves are split between two different types: co-op missions and heists. The co-op missions usually entail doing the sort of activities, i.e., follow some person to a location, steal something, assassinate a particular target, that you do in the main game. These activities are strung together to form a sort of narrative with some basis in historical events. For example, one particular mission started by giving my squadmates and me a little background about a particular Citizen that stuck his nose too far into things and is now on his way to the guillotine. We needed to first break into a prison to get a key from a guard, then locate the Citizen’s notebook that contains some valuable info on the Templars, and then rescue the Citizen himself from a public execution ground. Each phase of this required scoping out the area, planning the best approach and which guards to take out first, and using some distraction methods to get all the guards running at one person while the other slipped in unaware.
The heist missions are more straightforward, i.e., make your way into this place and loot it, and are, perhaps, even more cooperative. These missions give out bigger rewards the more stealthy you are. If you manage to go through it without getting spotted, then you’ll get a big pay out. Get seen a bunch, and you’ll only walk away with a few Francs, so you’re strongly encouraged to take a more stealthy approach and better coordinate efforts between players.
If a player falls in combat during a co-op mission or heist, there’s a brief window of time provided where another player can revive him or her. In co-op missions, players that don’t get revived will automatically respawn at the nearest checkpoint. Should all players fall, then everyone gets respawned at the nearest checkpoint. For heist missions, however, the death of one player means the death of the entire team and you have to start all over. Engaging in an all out murder spree should things go bad, then, is not encouraged. Getting away, staying alive, and becoming anonymous are your best bets.
Both types of missions can be started straight from the pause menu by going into the “Progression Tracker” and “Co-Op Missions” portion to choose which mission you wish to undertake. Friends can also be quickly invited to your game and missions made either public or private, depending on how social you’re feeling. You might even get notifications, occasionally, that a co-op mission is currently underway nearby and all you have to do is go run up to the mission point on the map to join it.
Regardless of which mission type you choose, both of these missions feel like the evolution of the “Wolfpack” mode found in the previous two Assassin’s Creed games. Instead of being tossed into an arena with a timer and being given a series of unconnected and random tasks to complete, co-op missions and heists in Assassin’s Creed Unity have their own little story and each new objective is linked. It also has better “co-op moments.” Coordinating with your team to take down a group of guards all at once is a spectacle to behold. Finding yourself cornered by a group of foes only to have a teammate drop from above or pop out of a haystack to quickly dispose of them is awesome; intentionally planning and executing such a thing is epic.
All of the systems, gear, and skills (like having shared Eagle Vision or creating an ammo cache for teammates) that are put at your disposal in the game are designed in such a way that they truly shine in co-op. This is the co-op experience I’ve been waiting to play since Wolfpack was first introduced. And whereas that previous attempt split these kinds of things off into an entirely separate multiplayer mode, with its own skill system and gains, Assassin's Creed Unity merges it all into one.
This merging of systems is what make the single-player experience of Assassin's Creed Unity feel like a bloated blob of different game designs and ideas, and the cooperative experience feels so good. It is perhaps why there have been so many initial bugs with the game, as there are so many systems at work to help support a world where players can group up and shank some Templars at any time. Ubisoft has strived for more connected experience for Assassin’s Creed fans, and it is both a success and a failure.
The Assassin’s Creed games we have come to know and (for some) love over the past few years have fallen victim to popular gaming trends and various external gaming constructs. But from those fallen ashes a new type of Assassin’s Creed is starting to emerge. One where we are free to pursue the Templars with our friends. The cooperative experience for the franchise is starting to look very bright, indeed.