I know nothing about Assassin’s Creed. I mean I played the last one, y’know, with the pirates? But it’s not like I followed the story or anything. I bought it because, well, pirates, man. Muppet Treasure Island is, like, my favourite movie. So I was mildly surprised to discover that this new instalment, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, was not about pirates at all. Was this some kind of nefarious trick? Or was I simply an idiot for not knowing anything about massive videogame franchises? We may never know for sure.
I studied the box curiously, as my dog casually intimidated the postman, leaning over him and blowing cigarette smoke in his face. Judging by the box art, Assassin’s Creed: Unity is an 18th century period reimagining of the ’90s classic Multiplicity starring Michael Keaton.
“Well good then” I said, suddenly realising that that was exactly what I had wanted all along.
But then, after a lengthy loading screen, it turns out I’m playing Michael Crichton’s Westworld, as I delve into an, albeit virtual, amusement park that lets me piss about in the background of important historical events. One minute I’m chillaxing with Jacques de Molay himself, the next I’m a pudgy little child called Arno Dorian, running around Palais de Versailles, stealing apples, chasing girls, finding the corpse of my father, y’know, the usual. Flashforward ten years. Arno is now a charming, conceited, well dressed little prick. He’s chasing the same girl and getting chased by men he’s wronged. He’s kind of like an 18th century modern day Errol Flynn, or perhaps I mean Flynn Rider. Either way, he’s the sort of chap who, when being chased by guards or thugs, will stop to make a witty remark before he jumps out of the window. After a misunderstanding at a party, Arno is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, escapes, is accused of a terrible act of selfishness (which he did commit) and is then sort of abandoned to make his own way in life. He does this by drinking a lot, and then running about randomly in a beautifully realised open-world Paris, whilst dressed in filthy rags and ogling strange, glowing patterns that aren’t really there.
This is my kind of guy.
So it’s probably not a spoiler to say that you eventually become an assassin (this being an “Assassin’s Creed” game) and the assassinating is fine, but it’s the running around, collecting things, buying things and doing side missions that I was really interested in. Y’know, the stuff that doesn’t matter. And while there’s a lot to be said for scaling the awegasmic architecture of Paris like a handsome, bloodstained Quasimodo, nothing in the game really comes close to being a pirate.
There are a couple of fun little distractions, such as the sleuthing, which involves using your “eagle vision” (… what?) to look for clues to solve various murders. Once you’ve collected enough evidence, you can then go through your case files, draw your conclusions and accuse the person you think is responsible for the crime (but if you get it wrong you lose precious, precious points!). That’s cool, it’s not quite “hunting for buried treasure” cool or “boarding enemy ships in the middle of a storm” cool but it’s better than nothing.
There are some great moments dotted here and there, such as a mission that sees you sprinting along rooftops after a hot air balloon, while tiles and chimney pots explode under heavy fire from your pursuers. But for the most part Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a practical affair, find your target, kill your target, move on to the next one. At no point did I feel any real excitement, I just sort of got on with things, casually taking lives and escaping exploding buildings in the same way a cashier packs shopping. Perhaps this is down to the fairly uninteresting plot, or the protagonist Arno, who only really comes alive when he’s hanging out with his childhood sweetheart Élise (who is a lot of fun). Or maybe it’s just the setting.
Paris is undoubtedly very attractive, it’s both grandiose and grubby, and the game manages to present a kind of gritty, dystopian world without sacrificing the colour pallet. The contrast between the rich and the poor is immediate and visceral, the huge swarms of city dwellers fill the streets, and the ability to blend into the crowd is great, if a little ridiculous considering you couldn’t look more suspicious if you had “assassin” painted on your back. Then there are the little touches: the dusty interiors of bookshops, the wandering chickens, the magical brooms that sweep themselves, Fantasia style, the goats that leap into the air and never come back down… No, wait, that can’t be right. Er, anyway, the difference between running around the streets and sticking to the rooftops is so striking you may as well be playing two different games. However, as lovely as Paris is, running, jumping and sliding about in one big city gets repetitive, and I never really felt a strong desire to explore.
And yet, casually knifing an enemy in the throat, and slipping back into the crowd before he’s even realised he’s bleeding, is never not satisfying. And duelling with swords has its charm, although you’re incredibly vulnerable in open combat. I could never quite get the hang of the pistols. One time I shot a man in the face and he completely vanished. For a moment I thought I’d killed a wizard, and then I started to realise there was something about this city, something that wasn’t quite right. Disappearing enemies, magic brooms and flying goats were only the first signs of a glitch in the Matrix, and as the game progressed things got weird. At one point I was playing a mission where getting seen meant game over. I had attracted the attention of a guard, the better to lure him into a trap, and was hiding, ghost-like in a cupboard. The guard walked up to the cupboard, just out of reach, and proceeded to wait, politely, for me to come out. At first, I assumed he would walk away, perhaps continue his patrol, but no, he just waited, eyes fixed on the cupboard, until I sheepishly emerged. Another time, Arno, possibly fed up with my overall performance, left the game entirely. He just walked away, from one rooftop to another, unhindered by gravity, and all I could do was watch him go, as he got smaller and smaller off in the distance.
Apart from the glitches, of which there are many (although they’re almost always hilarious) the game is just not as polished as you might expect from a huge blockbuster title. At times, it felt like I was playing Knightmare, inputting commands and just hoping Arno responds. Go left Arno. No, your other left.
It’s a shame, but unless, like me, you enjoy playing sandbox games full of useless stuff to collect, to give your hands something to do while you listen to the radio, there’s not a huge amount of fun to be had with Assassin’s Creed: Unity. It feels like a step backwards from the pirates one, exploration is not as thrilling, the distractions are not as distracting and the game locks you out of content if you don’t have an “app” or aren’t on multiplayer.
Speaking of multiplayer, let us never speak of multiplayer.
It may seem very unfair to constantly compare Unity to another title in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, but it’s worth noting just how little this game has brought to the table. In many cases it’s actually taken away from the table. Sure, it looks better, a lot of the action is smoother, but in terms of creativity and charm Unity is lacking. As pretty as the graphics are, I would have appreciated it all a lot more if the game’s creators had shaken things up a bit.
But, despite all its failings, I kind of like the game. Yes, being an assassin feels like a job, rather than an escapist fantasy, but there is something relaxing about methodically murdering people. Although, I’m sure “relaxing” is not the vibe the game developers were going for.
Of course, the biggest disappointment of Assassin’s Creed: Unity is that nobody speaks in a ridiculous, over-the-top faux French accent. Instead, everyone is inexplicably English. What a wasted opportunity.