Assassin’s Creed: Unity has the unenviable task of rebooting the somewhat stale Assassin’s Creed franchise (only the sailing sections salvaged Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag). However, that’s no excuse for the one-step-forward, two-steps-back approach it takes, in which the graphics appear to have been enhanced at the expense of everything else familiar to the series. Gone are the ambitious improvements to your base, competitive multiplayer, the platforms-and-puzzles exploration of tombs, and the ability to move about the “real” modern-day world. The result can’t help but feel reductive, especially when the very first thing the game shows you is a teaser for all the genetic memories and locations you won’t be accessing. Adding another needless, overarching goal for the franchise (Project Phoenix, which uses the Animus-replacing Helix software to locate individuals with traces of a Precursor’s triple-helix DNA) is poor compensation for this.
Where Unity succeeds—at least when it’s not suffering from game-breaking glitches to do with poor collision detection and spastic frame rates—is in fulfilling Helix’s slogan: “The Past Is Your Playground.” Thanks to the power of next-generation systems, the streets and landmarks of 1790s Paris are not only crisply rendered (right down to the glint of light off Notre Dame’s stained glass), but each district is populated with distinct mobs of angry, revolting citizens and intelligent, reactive guards. It’s also never been easier to move about, as the Free Run function (i.e., parkour) has been split across two buttons, to allow for more versatile vertical ascents (and now, descents). The most enjoyable parts of the game, ironically, are those that don’t involve piss-pot assassinations, but instead focus on exploration. Deciphering Nostradamus’s enigmatic quatrains is a fitting evolution of the glyph hunting from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and Vidocq’s deductive murder mysteries value motives and a keen eye far more than Unity itself. There are even time-trial events in rift portals, clearly inspired by BioShock Infinite, that take you to alternate versions of Paris: a Nazi-occupied Eiffel Tower, a besieged medieval Bastille, and the Metro tunnels.
But the main content isn’t nearly as well conceived. Arno Dorian’s quest to redeem his name and avenge his father is a one-note affair, and even his pursuit of the lovely Élise de la Serre (a rival Templar, but inexplicably not an evil one) is tangled up in that. The consequences of Arno’s brash actions are glossed over, and the last three sequences of the game feel redundant, with back-to-back assassinations occurring first at public guillotines and then private dinner parties. And while you’ll briefly meet characters like Napoleon and the Marquis de Sade in the main campaign, they’re tangential to the plot. In fact, the majority of scenes with them occur within the optional Paris Stories side missions, and there it seems as if developers are merely dropping names in order to season otherwise bland missions. (See, for instance, anything to do with Madame Tussaud.)
Similar concerns extend to co-op missions, which inexplicably replace the stealth-based multiplayer and survival modes from previous installments. When the connection is stable and everybody’s using microphones, there’s a thrill to be had from a quartet of synchronized kills. In actuality, the poor matchmaking (which allows any player to tackle any mission, regardless of the level of their gear) turns potentially elegantly designed levels into irritating displays of brute force. There’s no finesse to be found in the sight of four players distracting each other with smoke, stun, and poison grenades as they take on every enemy at once. The few levels that remove this option work well, such as “The Infernal Machine,” in which two players must clear out snipers along a narrow street before they can blow up Napoleon, and the Heist missions, which penalize your monetary gains each time you’re spotted. By and large, however, there’s not nearly enough to see and do in order to justify playing through each mission the three times required to collect every unlockable item.
It’s not as if Unity isn’t trying though—and that’s perhaps what’s most frustrating. Arno is fully customizable, and you can actually see the difference in difficulty depending on the skills you purchase for him and the weapons and armor you use. Powerful leggings, for instance, might shield you, but they won’t mask the sound you make; a cowl might increase the powers of your eagle sight, but they’ll do so at the expense of your health. Likewise, a spear might give you range, but its sluggish swing might serve you poorly in a fast-paced fencing showdown. (Button mashing, sadly, maintains the dominance of light, one-handed blades.)
Despite the title, Unity is all over the place, a jack-of-all-trades that seems almost determined not to master any of its fundamental components—and let’s not even talk about the in-game content unlockable only through a deceptive (and separate) mobile “companion,” gated behind Ubisoft’s annoying uPlay servers, or found on the weird Initiates web app. Never mind that there are some interesting new features: A game of this nature simply cannot fumble as poorly as it has on the execution (pun intended). It’s fine for in-game characters to call the rift portals “a mess of broken code,” but it’s a heads-will-roll offense when Unity can be similarly summarized.