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Assassin’s Creed: Reviewnity

December 26, 2014

 "Does this game feature a pirate protagonist?" "Arrr no"

Assassin’s Creed Unity is a really good game that suffers for also being a really terrible game.

Hmm.

Let’s unpack that a little.

Ubisoft claimed the game was demanding because performance was CPU-bound. (CPU stands for "crashes, parity, and Uplay, presumably.)

Unity has been mostly written off as the disappointing, bug-ridden, barely-functional problem child of the already fatiguing series, featuring quirks that range from the gamebreaking (lead char falling through the ground) to the hilarious (characters with no faces, the audience-proxying Heckling NPC, &c.). I can’t speak much to the bugs, to be honest: no doubt they exist, but my PC seems to dodge the majority of the issues, holding steady in the 45-60 fps range, well within the wearingly-battered expectations for an Ubisoft PC port these days. The biggest problem – and it’s a swelteringly large one – is a fairly persistent tendency to “hang” for 10 to 15 seconds; the game likes to take a little breather to catch up with itself. It’s weird and annoying and apparently unfixable, like an unscratchable itch, or pop music.

The trade-off for these niggles is a genuinely impressive increase in on-screen NPC counts, cutscenes (however interminable) with prettier faces, what feels like a generational leap in lighting effects, and an important new location known only as “the indoors”. Squeakingly worth it, all told, and another month or three of polish could likely have smoothed out the glitches, but then that would have entailed paying the devs another few months of salary, and more people worked on Unity than live in Lichtenstein. Probably. (A gambly wager: Ubisoft will, at some point, consolidate their many dev houses into a single entity upon an island they’ve purchased, and establish themselves as a sovereign state.)

But behind all of that nonsense, there’s definitely a strong game. For the first time, really, since the very first entry, three decades’ worth of games ago,  the game’s focus is squarely on the titular assassinations. And some of them are really wonderful, feeling more like a Hitman mission than an AssCreed one. Instead of making you tail a guy to eight different corners of a map before impatiently stabbing him in front of two dozen enemies and running off to the nearest haycart to await their losing interest, Unity stands you outside an enormous mission area, gives you a number of approaches and mini-objectives, and says “Go kill a dude”.

This results in such fun scenarios as stabbing your target in the Notre Dame cathedral’s confession booth, or sneaking through a beautifully-rendered mansion, choking out and tranq-darting hapless guards on your way to swapping out a party host’s wine for a poisoned bottle, hiding (in plain sight gasp) as he stumbles to a private corner to be sick, then – in an amateurishly fatal but plausibly well-intentioned attempt at medical assistance – trying to let the wine and vomit out through a new wristblade-shaped hole in his stupid throat.

Better still, it all plays out in a Paris that is brought to life in breath-taking splendour. The moment-to-moment geography may remain the same old ramp-window-ledge-brick-rooftop combination, but once you hit those rooftops, you’re in Paris, a world away from the identikit tropical shanty towns of Black Flag, and a true step forward from the recreations of Rome and Constantinople that went before.

And yet yet yet yet yet.

A JOKE: What is the opposite of the Statue of Liberty? The Statue of Limitations.

Like a delicious piece of lunchmeat placed between a flavourless, bug-infested rice cake and a sad, seven-year old, icon-strewn slab of Ryvita, the joys of Unity are sandwiched between the aforementioned technical quibbles, and the sad, seven-year old, icon-strewn legacy of the Assassin’s Creed series. The map screen is less a helpful guide than a demented alien’s puzzle game, the kind of map R. Crowe might have drawn in A Beautiful Mind if he used hieroglyphics and a blindfold. Mission alerts stack atop loot locations stack atop fast travel markers, all unhelpfully navigated via “sticky” movement – rather than letting you move your cursor freely across the cartographic catastrophe, the map actually uses a kind of auto-aim, nudging you in the direction of the nearest icon, and reliably pointing you at the thing beside the thing you wanted to look at. There are at least four games’ worth of map hotspots in Unity, and it would be a far better game with a quarter of them. Fill the world up with discoverable loot for the stupidly-determined gamer if you must, Ubisoft, but let them be secrets rather than items on a checklist.

A major presence on that map are the dozens of sidequests the game presents. Fun but slight and repetitive missions, such as stealing an thing for a person, or stabbing a person for a thing, mingle with a promising new feature for the game: murder mysteries. Sadly, they’re so much unfulfilled potential for now. They present you with  crime scenes, and for reasons never satisfactorily explained, you play Sherlock to these homes, questioning witnesses and piecing together clues to finger, Poirot-like, a culprit.

(Okay, here’s the explanation: the city’s only working policeman is perpetually asleep at his desk (only waking when you bring in a perp to reward you with heavy weaponry) so naturally it falls to a professional murderer to put other murderers behind bars. It’s like a Jonathan Creek game, but instead of using your quirky magician skills to unpuzzle crimes, you’re instead using your murdery instincts. It’s a majestically awful conceit, made tolerable by its unrepentant silliness.)

They’re a fun diversion for a while, but they don’t amount to much. One scene memorably featured a crime scene with one clue and one possible killer. Turns out the one possible killer was the killer. Agatha Christ-on-a-bike more like.

Hanging out in Notre Dame, the same old thing we did last game, not a thing to do, but talk ACU

The main flaw the game inherits from its forebears is an insidious need to be all things to all people. Want a stealthy assassin game? We’ve got it! And we even put in a dedicated crouch button! (Unfortunately, the game’s sticky over system is maddeningly unreliable, the kind of thing a B-tier dev might have stuck in a third person shooter circa 2007.) Want to collect four billion in-game items in a pointless quest to “100%” the game? We’ve got it! (But a third of it’s locked behind companion app frippery and a heap of other “connected universe” pish that’s about as welcome as a priest in a creche.) Want a 2014 AAA action game with intrusive storylines and an inflated sense of self-importance? Bow howdy, lookee here. (But we ditched 98% of the running storyline everyone already hated, because we can learn some lessons at least six games later than expected.)

In the end I came away from it, as with every other Assassin’s Creed game, really rather liking it, but not wanting to see another one for a long, long time. There are lessons it needs to learn from other games’ successes (it’s been said countless times since Shadow of Mordor came out, but the Nemesis system really is tailor-made for the AC franchise) and lessons it needs to learn from its own failings.  But this game’s beating heart is revolutionary Paris, and exciting parkour derring-do across its rooftops, and that seems to be just about enough for now.

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