Assassins Creed Unity review (2020)

Unity arrived a year after the well-received AC IV: Black Flag, and was the first Assassins Creed game to be written specifically for the PS4 and Xbox One generation. Ubisoft really tried to push their technology, with some groundbreaking indoor/outdoor lighting transitions, and insane numbers of NPC’s on the screen. Back in 2014 when the game launched, reviews were lukewarm. There was a lot of talk of visual glitches and bugs, with characters suffering from distracting texture pop-in, and the player sometimes getting so completely stuck on a piece of the world that the game had to be restarted. I didn’t buy the game at the time, although at some point years later I saw it being (almost) given away for £0.99 and grabbed an Xbox One copy. Shamefully, I played it once for about 30 minutes and completely forgot about it, but I remember being quite impressed and wondering if the reviews were a bit harsh.

Fast forward to 2020, and I’ve just spent 3 months playing and completing the amazing Assassins Creed Odyssey, and with an impending Coronavirus lockdown, I decided it was time to look into the other games in the series. My main interest was in Origins, but a bundle deal on Steam convinced me to buy a package of Unity, Syndicate and Origins. Despite being keen to play Origins, it seemed to make sense to start from the earliest game and work forward, so our first stop is eighteenth-century Paris.

Initial impressions were very positive – it’s obvious from the start that the game must have been very expensive to make, with a hugely detailed world full of atmosphere, especially in the opening scenes of a night-time attack on a castle. It’s still very impressive visually even today, and in some ways has never been equalled. On my PC, everything runs very smoothly at 1080p 60fps and looks great. 4k was an option but I decided to go with 1080p and heavy anti-aliasing, which looked more authentic to my eyes, with more muted colours like an old oil painting. I’m not sure if HDR was kicking in at 4k, but everything looked a bit psychedelic.

The story follows a character called Arno Dorian as he finds his way into the Creed, after being framed for murder and being put in prison. The prison escape is a real standout sequence – you have to make your way through the prison while it’s under siege, with cannon fire rattling the walls of both the game world and the actual walls of my gaming room. Once out, it’s time to for an initiation ceremony at Creed HQ, which is a stunning underground chamber as beautiful as any cathedral interior.

Soon though, it all gets a bit tiresome. Arno isn’t very likeable, and every other character in the game is also completely forgettable. Arno’s love interest Elise is often annoying, and she’s badly modelled graphically, looking odd from most angles. As the story progresses, the cut-scenes become boring to a point where I’d find something else to do as they played. There’s an endless list of characters who need to be assassinated, but I couldn’t really work out why, or even remember their names, which all started to sound the same.

The controls initially felt better than expected; original reviews criticised them for awkwardness and unpredictable behaviour, but after a while it becomes obvious that the reviews of 2014 were actually correct. Silly little things happen, like when Arno is directed to jump off a building to street level but he finds some random structure like a small table to land on, instead of the pavement where you want him to go. And occasionally the opposite would happen where I’d try to jump from one building to another, but he would jump into a huge void and fall to his death. It’s also worth pointing out that Assassins Creed control schemes have changed over the years, and my old gamer skills really struggled to adapt to the different button layout after 3 months of playing Odyssey. I kept letting off all my (limited) smoke bombs instead of attacking!

As the story progresses, I started to wonder if the designers of the game really wanted the player to suffer. The story goes from dull to excruciatingly tedious, stretched out with an endless chain of “we need to kill this guy to get to that guy who will lead us to the main guy” events. By the time I got to somewhere around number 9 of the game’s 12 sequences, I just wanted it to end. The only thing keeping me playing was the fact that I’d invested time in getting 75% of the way through and needed to see it through. The only level I really enjoyed playing in the second half of the game was an interlude featuring the Eiffel Tower. I won’t ruin the surprise, but it’s fantastic.

If you have an interest in Unity, and find it for sale cheap enough (which shouldn’t be difficult), I’d still suggest picking it up for a few hours of decent entertainment, but be warned that if you’re the kind of person who likes to finish what they start, you might find yourself really suffering in your quest to get to the end.

In a sense though, it’s the perfect COVID-19 lockdown game. The streets of Paris are absolutely full of people and life, which is a welcome sight.

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