E3 was dominated by two particular gameplay ideas this year, with the ability to go and visit anywhere that you can see in a vast gameworld on the one hand and online co-operative play (usually for four players) on the other. Assassin’s Creed: Unity is set to be the embodiment of both of these, as it recreates the urban sprawl of Paris for you and your friends to explore the French Revolution for yourselves.
While my hands on time didn’t exactly set me loose on the rooftops of Paris, to soak up the sight and sounds (but thankfully not the smells) of the late 18th Century, it did let me sample the co-operative side of the game alongside one of the developers. Showing off a new heist mission, it saw us delving underground and into the catacombs under the city.
The first thing to grapple with, as with any time I pick up an Assassin’s Creed game, is the controls. However, things have been tweaked since the series’ last outing, and though there are similarities, such holding the right trigger to run, you’re now holding A or cross to ascend and B or circle to descend alongside it. A minor change, but one that made some aspects of the controls feel even more foreign than they usually do.
Though it’s always been a game to do with stealth, it’s only now that a proper stealth stance has been added, and a quick pull of the left trigger will see Arno crouch, so that you can better hide from view behind cover and walls, without designated stealth areas like bushes or carts of hay. If you’re spotted somewhere you shouldn’t be, you can still avoid raising an alarm if you get back out of sight quick enough, with a ghostly marker placed to show where the enemy last spotted you, just as in recent Splinter Cell games.
Compared to the murder-fest that was shown off at E3, the Heist missions that I was privy to at Gamescom had a rather different objective, namely to find a chest of loot and escape the area with the goods without being detected. With the alarm raised, your potential reward diminishes over time.
You can actually play these co-operative missions on your own, if you like, but they’re all designed to accommodate either two or four players, which you can invite from your friends list or even be matchmade with. In this case, the mission was designed for two, and saw us head underground to search for the chest, but it could just as easily have been within a building above ground.
Cleverly the mission layout will change each time you play. Heading underground, the tunnel layout will shift around, locked doors will be dynamically placed and so too will be guards and the chest that you’re trying to find. Though there should be tons and tons of co-op mission givers dotted around Paris, it means that there’s that replayability to them all, so you won’t have to go out of your way to find a fresh challenge.
In this instance, it was a fairly simple affair. Sneaking around while crouched highlighted enemy guards on the mini-map, which overlaid the underground layout onto the city streets, so we could always tell when it was safe to take someone out and when not. This and some handy smoke bombs did give me ample opportunities to knock enemies out rather than kill them, another common stealth mechanic that’s being integrated. Of course, you can subsequently murder them and loot their corpses, if that’s something you really want to do.
While not essential to allowing me to progress, encountering the locked doors was somewhat more troublesome for my particular version of Arno. Character customisation is a big part of Unity, giving you much of the flexibility of tweaking and upgrading the Jackdaw in Black Flag just with a human. This ranges from assigning skill points to let you pick locked doors and choosing your upgrade path, to picking your outfit from Arno’s hood and down – incidentally, this is also a place for microtransactions so that players can unlock items early.
What all of that flexibility means though, is that rather than being purely cosmetic, this can all spill over into the gameplay. It won’t just enhance your abilities to tackle single player missions in the manner of your choice, but there’s greater potential for more nuanced teamwork when it comes to more difficult missions. On a simplistic level, my guide to the co-op mission was chatting to me and giving me a few pointers as I played, while dropping smoke bombs so we could tackle clusters of guards efficiently and unlocking certain doors for us to go through, but it could potentially be a lot deeper than that with four more diverse and advanced characters working together.
That, for me, is the more interesting side to Unity’s co-op play. It’s logically quite easy to cater to two players with identical skills, while you can deliberately craft puzzles and situations around pre-determined and unique characters, but Ubisoft is going to let players create their own character’s style (admittedly within defined parameters) and drop them into randomised missions and levels. It’s going to be fascinating to see how it comes together in the end product.