Assassin’s Creed Unity Review – Xbox One


One of the benefits of operating a website that is not reliant on ad dollar traffic or rushing to have our scores posted on some meta-ranking site is that we can review our games whenever we want – even a month after they release.  This usually allows us to spend more time with a game and hopefully even complete it before writing our review, but in the case of Assassin’s Creed Unity it has actually given Ubisoft the time to actually “finish” the game before we even started to play it.

Anyone who tried playing Unity during November likely faced off against some seriously broken code, random video glitches, and all sorts of connectivity issues with the companion app and Initiates website.  It took Ubisoft nearly six weeks and four patches to sort it all out, but just in time for all those Xbox One bundles being unwrapped on Christmas Day, Assassin’s Creed Unity has worked out nearly all of its major issues and now stands as one of the best, and my second favorite installment in the franchise.

Assassin’s Creed Unity pretty much reboots the core narrative of the game.  There is no more Desmond and no more meta-game within a game where you are working for a video game company.  When Unity begins Abstergo has already launched their Animus-based video game to the world, allowing anyone to relive famous historical moments, only they are seeking to rewrite history to suit their own nefarious needs.  That’s where you come in; recruited by hackers mere moments after completing the obligatory tutorial level, you assume the role of Arno, a gifted assassin from the French Revolution era, to uncover and foil Abstergo’s evil plans from within their own.

The story is perhaps the weakest in the series history, but does a suitable job for setting up one of the most detailed and immersive worlds in gaming history.  Created exclusively for next-gen systems, Ubisoft has tapped the power of the new consoles to create an epically large and intricately complex living, breathing city where streets are so crowded I was feeling a bit of claustrophobia sitting alone on my couch.  Honestly, the story is merely just one of the many diversionary activities in the game, but one you’ll need to visit from time to time to advance the various level lock rewards for items and skills.

For those who still cringe at the premise in Black Flag where Edward simply put on an assassin’s cloak and was magically bestowed with assassin abilities, Arno has a slower and more realistic road to the rank of master assassin.  He starts as nothing more than the spoiled ward of a prominent politician, but when framed and imprisoned for his death he is recruited and trained by the assassins lurking below the Paris streets to uncover a Templar plot.

What this means for the gamer is that you will be starting off with minimal weapons and no skills.  Every weapon and piece of armor you equip needs to be purchased (or unlocked) and every ability and skill you master needs to be purchased using a variety of currencies.   Obviously you have money used to purchase items from conventional stores and street vendors.  You’ll need to use Creed points to upgrade your gear after the purchase or to unlock new abilities or you can try to hack those upgrades for a discount.  Even simple things we’ve taken for granted in past games like a two-person wrist blade attack or the ability to throw a smoke bomb or toss loose change to the crowd must now be purchased.  Some skills like lock-picking have multiple ranks you’ll need to master to get through tougher locks on doors and chests.  Ubisoft carefully balances the availability of these upgrades, spreading them out over the course of the core story, so you don’t get too far ahead of yourself.

Assassin’s Creed has always been about map-clearing for me, and Unity goes overboard with the activities and items you’ll need to complete to cleanse the map of all those thousands of icons.  In the past I tend to go hit all the viewpoints to reveal each sector of the map.  That in turn reveals all sorts of new icons like chests, murder mysteries, assassin missions, social clubs, and more.  Even after 20 hours of OCD gameplay my map is still extremely cluttered with quest items and locations.  Something as simple as chests has now been broken down into your normal white chests, blue Nomad chests, and yellow Initiates chests.  Nomad chests must first be unlocked in the Unity Companion App playable on your phone or tablet – more on that shortly.  Initiate chests originally required unlocking using the Initiates website, but that ended up being so broken they just unlocked all of the chests and inventory items in the game – you still have to collect them, but visiting the site is no longer required.

Murder mysteries are all over the map and have you uncovering various clues around a crime scene, interviewing suspects much like a Sherlock Holmes game, and ultimately accusing someone of the crime.  If you catch the criminal you get to pick (unlock) a new weapon.  You can also renovate a theater/café as well as numerous social clubs around the city.  The former earns you money inside the game while the social clubs provide you with three bonus missions per club as well and periodic revenue for the Unity Companion App.  And if you want to earn that special suit of armor hidden in every Assassin’s Creed game you’ll want to tackle all of the Nostradamus missions to reveal the secrets they contain.   Those alone will take you 3-4 hours.

Another fun diversion are the Rift missions.  These are tears inside the Animus system that allow you to go into other simulations and rescue other trapped “agents”.  These are presented in an open-world Pac-Man parkour game where you race around other variations of Paris collecting data fragments until the location of the agent is revealed.  You then must save the agent before collecting even more data modules before escaping the rift before the timer expires.   This also plays into the concept of periodic server sweeps that scan the game world looking to eliminate hackers from the system.  You’ll need to race to the escape portal before the wall of cleansing light removes you from the system.  These are some of my favorite moments in the game, as one has you escaping via a portal on top of the Statue of Liberty and the other has you climbing the Eiffel Tower in 1944 occupied Paris while getting shot at by enemy planes.

With the streets of Paris so overcrowded you’ll likely want to use the rooftops or underground tunnel system to get across the map quickly.  You can also fast-travel to any unlocked viewpoint or social club – another good reason to unlock those early.  The parkour system for Unity has been completely redone, and you now have the ability to make your way up or down obstacles by holding down the corresponding button along with the right trigger.  This makes navigating the increasingly complex architecture a fluidic dream and creates some thrilling moments of seamless movement.

Movement issues from past games are still present.  Arno sticks to everything when you have that right trigger squeezed, so you really have to be aiming precisely or you might find yourself climbing a light post rather than the wall behind it.  Unity has more indoor locations than ever before.  In past games you could duck into a door or window and a short cutscene would carry you to the other side of the building.  Now there are complex interiors with multiple levels, locked doors, and hiding places that need to be thoroughly explored.  You’ll definitely need to master the left-trigger to seamlessly vault into open windows and balcony doors.

Combat has also been tweaked and made even more deadly.  Gone is the combo system that allowed you to one-hit kill man after man in a group fight.  Things have more of a Batman Arkham vibe now where you will want to be watching for the incoming attack indicator and block/counter.  Arno is outnumbered in most of the encounters so stunning, smoking, delivering a staggering blow, or just running away to reposition is often necessary, but even so I found myself dying a lot more in Unity than any other Assassin’s Creed game, and not just in the story fights.   I would often die just intervening in some random mugging on the street.

Crowd events are really fun and turn Arno into a vigilante of sorts.  You can’t go more than 3-4 city blocks before some random crime occurs; an attempted murder or robbery, and depending on the crime you either get to kill or tackle the perpetrator.  What is really cool is that you can just be walking down the street and overhear a conversation that you just know is going to go “bad”, and if you hang out for a second you can usually stop a murder before it begins.   Ironically, there is no public perception meter so killing a murderer before or after he commits the crime still gets you the credit, and tackling a mugger only adds to your purse since you are not even offered the chance to return the money to the original victim.  These crowd events help break up the monotony of the longer trip across town; at least until you unlock the fast-travel points.  They also provide you with some really nice cash and item rewards.

While using the Unity Companion App is certainly not required you are going to have a lot more fun with the game if you are able to use it.  In Black Flag the companion app basically allowed you to run shipping missions around the globe earning money and upgrades for your pirate ship.  In the Unity app you will control a Brotherhood of assassins; much like the older games did within the game, only now it’s all mobile.   The app features the exact same map and all the icons from the map in the main game, and updates by syncing with Uplay.  You can also sync directly to your console to track Arno’s location in real-time.

The relationship dynamic between the app and the game is incredibly clever and completely addicting, so much that I was playing the app when I was out of the house or even lying in bed at 4am.  Here’s how it works.  On the app map there are eight sync points.  Once you sync an area in the main game you will unlock a Glyph Puzzle on the app map which is basically a three-stage puzzle where you must tap on a 3D building to send out a vision pulse then quickly rotate the object around and locate all of the glyphs within a fixed number of tries.   Once you have solved the puzzle three linked mission icons appear.  Within each of these are three more sub-missions; each requiring assassins of a certain skill level and each taking a certain amount of time to complete.  You’ll need to complete all three of these missions three times each.  The first two times unlock a blue Nomad chest on the console map and the third time unlocks a Nomad mission.  Once these rewards are unlocked on the console Arno can go to that icon and open the chest or start the mission to earn the special reward.   That’s 216 missions you can play from your mobile device with some taking upwards of 24 hours to complete.

Also, from the app map, you can assign unused assassins to any of the renovated social clubs to increase your periodic earnings, and use those cash rewards to upgrade your Brotherhood members which can include up to 15 assassins, four of which can be assigned to any single mission or one per club.  I’ll be the first to admit I was pretty upset when I started Unity and came across my first blue chest that I couldn’t open, but now that I am 20+ hours into the game and the app I have to admit it’s a pretty awesome system.  However, I think it would have been better if the game wasn’t showing you icons to things that required another device and app to unlock.

One of the big features of Assassin’s Creed Unity is the new co-op play.  Scattered about the map are numerous co-op missions and heist icons that allow for up to four players to join forces and work as a team.  I have to admit I was skeptical, right up to the point where I played my first co-op mission.  The concept actually works as well in execution as it does in theory, and I’ve had a blast playing co-op on several missions and even joined a club for some organized multiplayer.   You can also create your own club and designate your main focus such as exploration, completionist, or missions.  You can also start a co-op mission and the game will try to invite any nearby players to fill in the missing slots.  The only issue with this is that you’ll need to form a chat party outside the game if you want to talk and work together.

This is the first Assassin’s Creed game developed for next-gen platforms only, and while the game might not be as glamorous as Black Flag there is a lot more going on.  The city is massive and the population of a single city block rivals that of an entire village in Black Flag.  There is so much complexity, both indoors and out.  The game offers fantastic lighting effects and some excellent textures with an impressive draw distance and minimal pop-up.  There was some odd texture popping in the cutscenes but everything in the game looked great.   The new combat and parkour animations are exciting and flow together seamlessly.  Combined with outstanding voice acting, awesome sound effects, and a Hollywood-feature worthy score, Unity is the epitome of interactive cinematic storytelling…at least when there is a story worth telling.

Assassin’s Creed Unity is basically a 12-15 hour story buried in 80-100 hours of activities, so if you are the type of gamer who enjoys seeing a cluttered map full of icons and can’t wait to clean them all off one by one then look no further.  Ubisoft seems to have mastered the art of creating the largest open-world games (Unity, Far Cry 4, The Crew) and cramming as much random addictive material into those worlds as possible.   Thankfully, Assassin’s Creed Unity elevates map cleaning to new levels, adding some historical insights, brushes with greatness (Napoleon is a cool dude), and political intrigue, all set against the backdrop of the French Revolution and one of the greatest virtual incarnations of Paris ever created.

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