Not long after starting Assassin’s Creed Unity, I made an abrupt (and possibly fatal) sartorial decision: changing my assassin’s uniform into a lovely shade of yellow. The main character’s name is Arno, but I had already taken to calling myself the Mustard Pimpernel, defender of the third estate and scourge of aristocratic dandies everywhere.
Clearly, this isn’t the ideal summer fashion for a career in lethally striking from the shadows—especially when those shadows are being cast in drab browns on the mud-caked thoroughfares of Revolutionary-era France. I made this decision, though, because the game felt interminable to that point. Dressing like the Gorton’s Fisherman and running around with what I think was a trident was the only possible way to stay invested in the story, which is, you guessed it, the bone-tired tale of an ages-long battle between factions known as Assassins and Templars.
It has been quite a stretch since Assassin’s Creed last graced the shores of the old country; Assassin’s Creed III covered the American Revolution, and AC4 is a rousing pirate adventure set in the Caribbean. Unity, what seems like the hundredth installment in the last five years, begins in a France on the cusp of democratic ecstasy. There is civil unrest pretty much at all times, which makes it difficult to run through the hungry throngs. Free running on the city roofs certainly sees less foot traffic, yet the towering gothic spires and densely packed neighborhoods also prove difficult to traverse. But really, there’s no hurry. Paris is something to be savored, not stabbed repeatedly with retractable wrist blades while performing parkour over Notre Dame Cathedral.
The story’s protagonist, Arno, is the son of a respected French Assassin trying to broker a truce between his crew and the Templars. Because peace is for chumps, child Arno’s father is killed in the opening sequence, and the boy is taken in by a friendly Templar and his daughter. When we next meet Arno, he has grown up into a cheeky manservant, but once the monarchy is overthrown, he’s quickly transformed into a cheeky mass murderer.
If nothing else, Unity is loyal to the history of Assassin’s Creed—and that’s the problem. Assassin’s Creed IV, the previous game in the series, felt like a big step forward, as if the developers actually identified what was fun about the series and reacted accordingly, even if it meant making a less conventional Assassin’s Creed product. Despite a few bright spots, its successor is a step back. This edition’s biggest innovation—cooperative missions undertaken with the help of other players—sounds swell, but in practice ends up being little more than random single-player missions packed with more enemies. Part of the romance of being an Assassin is working on your own. If I wanted to be part of a team, I would’ve joined a dodgeball league.
But the problems run deeper. Storytelling, it’s fair to say, was never the series’ strong suit. But it’s reasonable to expect at least a weak and irregular pulse of an engaging plot. In Unity, players can put away the defibrillators, because the story and characters set new standards in flat-lined blandness. Even the Marquis De Sade, one of the era’s more colorful characters, can’t do much to pump life into this fairly pointless series of fetch quests. (Unless players apply a filter, the game’s map is so packed with symbols denoting places to go and chores to do that it’s rendered all but useless.) Sade’s contribution doesn’t go much beyond a blouse with an extraordinarily deep V-neck. Playing the game with the characters speaking French instead of English helps the atmosphere, but just a little.
“But how’s the actual assassinating?” you ask. Pas bon. Lousy controls stymie not just the player’s ability to sneak around undetected but also Arno’s ability to survive the resulting melee. (This is yet another reason my fatalistic Arno wore yellow.) It’s Unity’s bad luck to come on the heels of Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor, which plays a lot like the game Unity should have been. Parrying enemy attacks feels sluggish, and that’s a problem when you’re fighting half a dozen guys after accidentally jumping on a ledge and revealing yourself. I often found myself annoyed that I couldn’t flip over a gendarme and then make his brain explode, Mordor-style. Or make my own brain explode. One or the other.
There might be some things about Unity to like for those looking to relive the Ezio Auditore-led days of Assassin’s Creed II, but otherwise, it marks a return to a darker time better left behind. If the Assassin’s Creed universe is going to survive, it has to think beyond sticking some Ezio clone in a new historical epoch and making the same game over and over again. Ubisoft has proven that it is capable of pushing the series in a novel direction, and that’s why the complacency of Unity is especially disappointing.
Assassin’s Creed: Unity
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal (lead); Ubisoft Annecy, Bucharest, Chengdu, Kiev, Montpellier, Quebec, Shanghai, Singapore, Toronto (supporting)
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4