The Assassin’s Creed franchise has long been a staple of Ubisoft’s core lineup, and Assassin’s Creed: Unity continues the series’ grand tradition of being set in a turbulent historical period – in this case, the libertarian chaos of revolutionary France. After the fantastic critical reception of the last instalment, Black Flag, this game has some fairly large shoes to fill. Particular praise was garnered last time around for the expanded naval combat and the way it shook up gameplay, and many critics are waiting anxiously to see if Unity can deliver further innovation to keep the series from becoming stale.
We recently got hands-on with the game at its first UK outing at London’s MCM Expo, and one thing that was immediately apparent when we started playing was how surprisingly rough the game looked. Sure, the visual design of Paris in the throes of civil unrest is pretty awesome, and the textures and animations all look great, but the outlines of the characters were a lot jaggier than we’d expect on a triple-A XB1 release. Secondly, the free running feels a lot more stilted and awkward than previous games for some reason. The winding mishmash of Paris’ rooftops would appear to be a perfect setting for the parkour shenanigans of Assassin’s Creed’s hooded heroes – but it just doesn’t seem to flow as well as it should.
The combat has also been extensively retooled, and developers have promised that players will no longer be able to power their way out of danger through hand-to-hand brawls, a feature oft-criticised in the stealth-focused series. However, whereas combat may have been dismissed as too easy in previous titles, Ubisoft have taken Unity and gone sprinting way too far in the opposite direction. Melee combat is now monstrously difficult, and being spotted by guards is as good as a death sentence. Your health depletes at an astonishing rate, and guards have the ability to simply impale you with a one-hit kill if you mistime a counter. In the demo section we played, you can pickpocket a couple of patrolling guards in order to make your assassination easier, but every single time we tried it, we were spotted and murdered, as the local Gendarmes apparently subscribe to the Judge Dredd theory of crime prevention.
An escalation in combat difficulty would have been acceptable – laudable even – if it served to make the core stealth gameplay more rewarding. Alas, this has also been hamstrung. While a crouch function has finally been introduced (in the seventh game in a stealth franchise), it’s now the default setting for your ‘low profile’ mode. Rather than an inconspicuous stroll that no one would look twice at, toggling the low profile mode now makes your master assassin run around doubled over like the world’s shadiest Fagin impersonator. On top of that, the fast walk function has been removed, leaving your only two movement speeds as ‘walking at exactly the same pace as the dude you’re trying to discreetly catch up with’ or ‘full-on sprint at him like you’re in trials for the French rugby team, totally abandoning any pretence at stealth’.
As you can imagine, this makes performing vital tasks like pickpocketing important documents or eavesdropping on guards somewhat difficult. Previously, a botched stealth attempt could be resolved by simply slipping into the crowd until your goldfish-brained adversaries resumed their normal business, but no longer. The crowds, touted by Ubisoft as a major gameplay mechanic in the new game, are surly and uncooperative, and about as easy to infiltrate as the goddamn Freemasons, meaning that shaking off pursuers is nigh on impossible.
To cap it all off, the game is buggy as hell. We leapt from a convenient rooftop once, were promptly shish-kebabed by an overzealous guardsman, and upon respawning found that the game stubbornly refused to let us jump from the exact same spot. Furthermore, when we finally made our way into Notre Dame to assassinate our target, we shivved the guy guarding the confessional booth we were supposed to hide in and patiently waited for our mark. When he discovered the corpse, we thought ‘no big deal, he’ll just look around for a bit before giving up and going back to his routine’. Five minutes later, that bourgeois motherfucker was still staring at the body like he was reconsidering all of his previous life choices and mourning a life tragically cut short – before the attendant informed us that occasionally the game just glitches out and that our time was up.
While these issues could simply be due to the demo being an unfinished beta, with less than two weeks until the game’s launch, we feel like that’s unlikely. In its current state, Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a buggy, frustrating, barely playable mess of a game, and unless some very serious tweaking and polishing happens between now and its North American release date of November 11, this title is going to be about as well received as a shit in a birthday cake.