Unity has a lot to live up to after last year’s entry into the series. Black Flag came along with a drastic but very welcome change to the usual city-scaling and face-stabbing formula in the form of naval warfare. Taken from Assassin’s Creed 3 and expanded, the piracy aspect of Black Flag was excellently realised and breathed a new life into a formula that had begun to grow a little stale. It seems a little strange that Ubisoft have dropped the ships entirely for the first current generation only entry in the series then, instead focusing on a huge, dense recreation of Paris with gameplay far more similar to that found in previous games with significant improvements.
The assassin this time around is Arno Dorianf, who we first meet as a child along with his friend Elise. Elise is an important character in Unity and it’s not onky because she’s a love interest, as she stands independent of that as a character with her own wants, one in particular being vengeance for the murder of her father, for which Arno was framed. This prompts Arno to join the assassins, where he is trained, and soon you come to your first assassination.
Possibly the best thing about Unity are these assassinations. Not only numerous, but they’re expansive, often taking places in huge environments with many options for gaining access, sneaking around and, of course, the kill itself. When you start an assassination, Arno will use eagle vision to highlight a few vulnerabilities you can take advantage of, then it will tell you how many guards, entrances, secret entrances, and whether there is a special assassination opportunity.
Notre Dame plays host to your first assassination mission, as shown in trailers. Here, there are 10 entrances plus a secret way in, plenty of guards, and crowds of civilians all over the place. The special assassination has you killing the target in a confession booth, should you choose to do so, or you can go for one of the usual methods: a blade in a crowd, or an air assassination. You just have to be sure you can get out, as you need to escape the area and become anonymous to finish the mission or you’ll have to go again.
You likely won’t be fighting your way to the objective, particularly not earlier in the game, as combat has been overhauled. Gone are the instant counter kills from previous games in the series, instead a counter will leave an enemy open to attack and you can chip away at his health until it’s low enough for you to finish him off. This makes combat genuinely difficult and you will likely die pretty often while you are getting used to it. It takes real concentration and patience to take on a group of more than three or four enemies at the same time, or at least liberal use of smoke bombs.
The difficulty is a welcome change, but for whatever reason there are a few features from the previous games that are absent. One I personally miss is the ability to grab an enemy to use as a human shield. The only ways to avoid taking a bullet now are rolling when they shoot or killing before they do. It feels limited, and it still takes five minutes of aiming before a guard actually gets around to shooting his gun. This may be necessary so you can avoid it but it still looks absurd, especially when two guards are stood four feet apart, aiming their weapons at each other.
Grabbing and throwing guards is no longer possible either, which means no more pushing guards off of roofs, which is a shame. You will have to make do with your own weapons too, as you can no longer fight with just your fists or take an enemy’s weapon away from them, nor are the hidden blades a selectable weapon any more, instead being used automatically purely for assassinations. This is remedied slightly by a large selection of weaponry to choose from, but if you enjoyed skewering soldiers on their own swords you’re out of luck in Unity. There seem to be significantly fewer kill animations than there were in previous games as well, after a couple of hours of play and plenty of fights you will have seen them all and they begin to grow a little stale as a result.
Despite more limited options for combat, the added difficulty makes it a net improvement over the systems in previous games. The likelihood of losing a fight shifts your focus to more imaginative methods of getting things done, which Unity accommodates beautifully. In addition to smoke bombs and berserk blades, you can also make use of stun bombs, cherry bombs, and poison gas in your lethal pursuits. The hidden blade is now called the phantom blade and is actually a wrist mounted crossbow that is used to shoot lethal and berserk blades silently. Arno also only has one so double assassinations look a little more showy than before, though again, there are only a few animations.
Most importantly, Unity is the first game in the series to include a proper stealth mode. A tap of L2 will have Arno lower his profile, allowing you to quietly sneak up behind those guards and introduce them to your phantom blade. Eagle vision is also improved, it now highlights enemies and useful items (like lifts and chests) in a radius around you for a short time and has a cool down between each use. These changes make Unity much more of a stealth game than any other game in the series.
Again though, there are a couple of things missing. You can no longer whistle to attract enemies to your position, making cover and ledge kills few and far between. You do have cherry bombs but they attract all enemies in a radius so they don’t fill the void that Arno’s inability to whistle leaves behind. You also need to be particularly careful when going for a double assassination as it can be a little difficult to tell if you’re targeting both enemies or not. There was a number of times I died or failed missions because I jumped onto just one guy instead of two and his mate started using me as a scabbard.
With the improvements though, you can call Unity a stealth game with a straight face, and the “because it’s a game” excuse for unrealistic mechanics doesn’t need to be used quite as often, though it does still come into play every time you jump into a haystack from the top of one of Paris’ many huge buildings. Your consumables such as bombs, bullets and medicine are quite limited too, so you need to think and plan how you’re going to use them as you can’t really rely on finding them on bodies, though shops are pretty common.
There is also a little bit of RPG mixed into the game, too. Skills are available to buy using sync points, which you earn by completing story missions. These range from lock picking through heavy attacks for each type of weapon to upgrading health. While there are a few you can use to tailor Arno to your play style things like lock picking are pretty essential considering the sheer number of locked chests and doors. You can pick your weapons from a very sizeable selection containing everything from swords, axes, to halberds depending on your preference and how much money you’ve got. The weapons with better stats are particularly expensive but by the time you reach that level of play you will be bringing plenty of money in from pubs that you can renovate around the city.
You can also change Arno’s clothing, each item of which will have stats associated with it, letting you further tailor Arno to your preferences with more storage or improved eagle vision range and such. The problem with this is that a lot of the weapons, clothing, and even chests dotted around Paris have to be unlocked via other means, whether it’s uPlay, the Unity companion app, or using AC Initiates. Ubisoft are really pushing it when it comes to this, there are plenty of chests that you flat out can’t access unless you devote some of your time to playing the companion app and it gets old pretty quickly. Weaponry and clothing can also be “hacked” using a currency that you can buy with money, so there’s the microtransactions.
Graphically, Paris is truly marvellous to behold. It is incredibly dense and packed full of side missions, but it’s the scale of the buildings that really elevates (pun intended) it above previous games. The landmarks are faithfully recreated at a 1:1 scale, and they are genuinely huge. Looking down from the top of Notre Dame at a crowd of a hundred people is breathtaking. Stopping to admire the scenery is a common occurrence as everything is just gorgeous. There are frame rate problems that will supposedly be patched out, usually around particularly sizeable crowds, but despite this, it is truly impressive how large the crowds of Parisians can get. And yes, there is a mission with 10,000 NPCs, though I didn’t stop to count them, and it is really quite an achievement.
A stroll down Paris’ streets shows a city that is really populated, and there are various things going on around you. Criminals can be killed to protect civilians, thieves can be tackled, but after a while you tend to tune them out a bit because they happen so often, or you do them if they’re not too out of the way. You do get money for doing certain amounts of them so it can be worth doing, particularly earlier in the game. I did encounter a few side missions that I couldn’t complete due to a bug, such as being required to kill someone who isn’t hostile so I couldn’t attack them, which was quite annoying and repeated when I restarted the mission.
In various places around the city you can start co-operative missions. As you might imagine, the moment you go online you’re likely to encounter three people who just fight their way through, with stealth barely being considered. It’s fun, but it’s not very assassin-esque. When you are with a group who knows what they are doing, however, coordinating is satisfying, so gathering a few like-minded friends is probably a good idea.
Inciting large crowds into rioting like we have seen in gameplay trailers doesn’t actually seem to be possible in the game, which is a shame, and while it seemed that the assassins were facilitating the French Revolution you actually spend quite a lot of time fighting against it and protecting nobles. As ever, the narrative is woven through real life history in quite a masterful way, and there’s plenty of reading to do if you feel like immersing yourself in the history.
The HUD has a few problems, mostly in the form of some elements constantly overlaying others, making you sit there are wait until it’s gone so you can see properly. This is pretty annoying and a bit of an oversight but as always in Assassin’s Creed, you can turn individual elements of the HUD off to work around it.
Unity is an impressive technical achievement despite its issues, and it is certainly a significant step forward for the series as a whole. The difficulty of combat encourages use of the overhauled stealth system, perhaps signalling a shift towards a real focus on stealthy gameplay in the series, which is certainly exciting. And on top of that, it’s utterly gorgeous almost all the time.
Version tested: PS4