There’s a common saying which is a stitch in time saves nine. Replaying Assassin’s Creed Unity six years later is like being asked to re-make the entire garment from memory while blind-folded.
In its twenty-something hours of brief, stilted story and spiraling hundred hours of side-content, Unity paints a convincing impression of where a story might have gone. Arno’s journey from smack-talking street rat to master assassin is a less interesting, far less detailed retread of Assassin’s Creed II. By the time I put down the controller, I can say for certain that Unity is not just unpolished, it’s genuinely unfinished.
The story is a retread of ideas already worn so thin it’s almost comical. Ezio is a loud-mouthed, plucky youngster who gets into all kinds of trouble. But when his family is killed he strikes out on a revenge quest, using the Brotherhood tools to do so.
In the end, he must self-actualise by realising that revenge is bad, and that there are more important things (like precursor artefacts).
If you thought that was a typo and I meant Arno, it’s not. Ezio and Arno both share exactly the same story (Arno gets a healthy side-salad of Romeo and Juliet). Hell, they even look very similar.
These similarities speak to the intention behind Unity. The game was supposed to be a soft-reboot of the franchise, a reset from the swashbuckling of Black Flag or the frontier exploration of Assassin’s Creed III. Unity zeroes the franchise to its core: romping through a huge historic city, knifing men from rooftops and blending into large crowds.
If those are the markers of the franchise, Unity ticks all the boxes.
Unity is very dense. The buildings are close, the streets are always full of people. And then you open the map and BAM.
The map is a nightmare of icons.
Made worse by how non-diegetic so many of these activities are. I can suspend my disbelief a little, but who left scores of chests in random locations across Paris will small amounts of petty cash inside? Worse, that certain chests contain gear crafted by master assassins worth upwards of a hundred thousand livres.
Granted not everything in video games needs diegesis to feel coherent, but when every side activity or quest (except murder mysteries, and we’ll get to those) is tacked on without an in-universe justification it saps the motivation for these activities.
Side-quests present as they did in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. Go to a place, receive a contract, do the contract. Brotherhood created a convincing explanation for each contract and how Ezio received it; pigeon coops contain letters from the Brotherhood and instructions for the contract.
But Arno is not afforded such a framing device. Instead, you open your map, find a blue assassin symbol, and walk over a glitch on the floor. No quest giver, no nothing. Except sometimes there is! For certain random assassinations you’ll turn up and someone will be waiting. They’ll dish out some exposition to send you on your merry way.
What’s more bizarre is the game seems to know this is kind of an issue and has solved it in the Paris Stories quest type. These quests follow Arno’s many adventures across Paris — ranging from incidental work for random folk to sticking his hidden blade in the business of revolutionaries and Kings.
There is some flavour text attached to each mission but rarely enough to be convincing. And yet the game’s collectable armour sets points to these quests potentially having a greater context. One that may have been cut for time and budget. Each armour set has a theme. The Medieval set features heavy chain mail and leather. The Sans-Coulettes is the sneaky-stealthy every-man gear.
These armour sets all have corresponding side characters in the Parisian Brotherhood who embody the ideology of one who would wear said armour. So much so I wonder if given another year of development, the game might have you doing a string of quests for an assassin master who specialises in one of these gear types, and progressively unlocking these armour items.
This is pure speculation but so much lines up that if it isn’t the case, the developers missed a huge beat. Again, I’m left with a strong feeling of absence.
This strange lack lames the main story as well. While the critical story missions contain a handful of scenes and characters and a plot, it often feels like you’re experiencing every third or fourth quest of a much more complete game. By the end of the story I couldn’t really tell you the values or goals of any characters aside from Arno or Elise. Which is odd because the story has a ton of great set up.
Mirabeau is the leader of the Parisian Brotherhood, and brokers a peace agreement with the Templars. But the master he brokered peace with is your dead adoptive papa. Unfortunately, as with the rest of Unity, Mirabeau is the most basic version of this character: he stands for peace. And that’s kind of… it.
The core story starts and ends in the most utterly predictable ways, to the point where the most creativity it can muster is introducing characters you’ve never heard of, and will never see again, and leave you wondering “who was that and why does the game think they’re a main character.”
There are still great moments. Your first assassination to break into the work-in-progress Notre Dame, the crazy hot air balloon chase, and Napolean Bonaparte’s introduction. Walking through a Palais the morning after it’s been taken by revolutionaries, stepping over and around corpses left to rot in the corridors. Yet, as everyone who has seen a Zack Snyder movie knows, great scenes does not a good story make. These memorable scenes are footnotes to a lot of empty space.
The black box assassinations themselves make a spectacular re-emergence. Almost every assassination mission in the core story demands something unique and inventive of the player. These missions require patience, tools and wit to succeed. By the end of the game you can cheese some of them by wearing bulkiest armour and wielding the biggest stick. Instead I opted for stealth gear and they never got old.
For the most part, you have to work a little harder and a little longer for those big kills. Whether it’s eavesdropping, stealing keys, picking off snipers, taking out bodyguards, creating distractions, you have to use everything at your disposal to gain access to your target, and plan a successful getaway.
For the first two-thirds of the game it only takes two or three hits for Arno to go down. This means you can’t just run in, stab your man and go. When every guard has a pistol or rifle, you’ll likely get gunned down before you can make your swift getaway. Instead, you have to observe the target. Consider the surroundings. Create an opening, slip in, and slip out. You need to land the killing blow yourself — ranged weaponry just won’t do it (this never makes sense in the fiction of the game but makes the game harder, something objectively in its favour). And each core assassination proposes a different kind of challenge.
Sneaking into the bowels of Paris to knife Rois des Thunes asks you to dispatch small groups of guards as quickly as possible when stealth isn’t always an option. Then to get the man himself, you’ll need to navigate a well-guarded cylindrical room without being spotted.
During the assassination of Chrétien Lafrenière the man is surrounded by dozens of guards and snipers. You have to methodically pick off the guards, and use your tools or a distraction to create an opening to reach Lafrenière. Made more complicated by the fact that Lafrenière roams back and forth, speaking to his men.
It took me far longer to complete this assassination, but once I realised I needed to secure an escape route before attacking, the jigsaw fell into place.
But the strength of these assassinations calls contrast to the flat, empty feeling Paris. Crowds affect reality and the city is alive with activity. Smoke drifts and billows among alleys. Lamps bathe cafes built on patios in amber. Ambient sounds flow quietly below the click of boots on cobblestones. Busted in shop fronts are earmarked with the detritus of bloody revolution.
The game has a remarkable sense of presence and place second only to industry leaders like The Last of Us and Bioshock. That Paris feels real forces you to confront the veil draped over the rest of the game.
The characters are matchstick men, paper: a facade. Once you’ve collected all the collectables and done the story there’s no meaningful contribution or change you can have on the world, except for stabbing random guards or chasing street thieves. Worse is the half-baked ideology the game pretends to explore in the most obvious way possible. I won’t labour on this too much, it’ll have to wait for its own article. Instead, here are some of my gripes with just one main story quest. The issues here are a microcosm of the larger problems in the text.
Mirabeau, leader of the Assassins, is poisoned with a Templar brew. Arno and Elise find his body. This is bad news because Elise was a Templar and will be prime suspect numero uno.
Arno does a bit of investigation, then runs back to tell the Assassin council of Mirabeau’s death and that it definitely wasn’t his side-piece Elise. The council believes him. Arno sets off, with Elise, after the killer. They follow the killer’s trail to a big cathedral.
Arno tells Elise that he “has to do this himself” and confronts the killer. Bam, surprise, the killer is Arno’s mentor, Bellec.
Arno kills Bellec with Elise watching on. That’s the whole mission, end to end. Alright, strap in.
When Mirabeau gets poisoned we’re supposed to be shocked but we’ve spent like four scenes with the dude, and while he is supposed to stand for peace, every time Arno goes rogue and murders people without permission he waves it away.
Arno uses the “I have to do this alone” trope before he’s even sure who the killer is. This isn’t unreasonable for Arno’s character. He’s always running off by himself, but to shelve Elise here runs against his interests. They’re both trying to catch the killer who is so dangerous he killed the leader of the assassins, and Arno’s going after him alone?
There’s no way Elise doesn’t push back, but by virtue of miraculous plot bullshit... nope! She just lets him go because the writers couldn’t figure out a way to have the fight with her involved. Instead, she watches on from the other side of a locked gate. This reeks of first draft nonsense.
It’s also supposed to be a big twist that Bellec did the crime. But there is no way, in this mystery story, to work out or even consider Bellec as a suspect. The game has so few scenes or real interactions with Bellec leading up to this moment. Sure plenty of bonding with him is implied but we never see it, so there’s never a chance for the text to drop hints he might be a bad guy.
This implication of interest is Unity’s biggest crime. At every turn, characters react as if the most dramatic, interesting events are occurring in an espionage narrative turned world-ending crisis set in the heart of a complex revolution where every side of the violence is wrong, but we never get to see it. The most we receive is disjointed, awkward missions that vaguely fit together into a plot. Speaking of...
The core conflict of the story is about challenging the entrenched conflict between the Assassins and Templars but the narrative concludes with “yeah I guess the Templars are so bad we should keep killing them” — to the point where Bellec, a man who betrays everyone in the story in a way that is framed as objectively bad, claims peace is treason, and he’s right. The man who dishonourably kills the leader of the assassins in cold blood ends up being the guy who did the most logical thing in the plot.
By Sequence 9 the story really falls apart. Missions are approximately about undoing the work of the Templar Grand Master, and Arno’s conflict with the assassins is dropped completely until the story needs a down-beat before the final act can kick off.
Missions are passingly related, problems are rarely more complicated than “Grand Master is using X person to do bad thing, kill X person.”
Worse, by the time you confront Germain he doesn’t stand for anything. He rebuilt the Templar order off-screen. He tricked you off-screen. He recruited Bellec off-screen. He goads you into being rash off-screen. The one thing he does on camera is kill Elise in anti-climax, and Arno hasn’t really learned a lesson except, you guessed it, killing bad (unless you’re killing a bad man).
The longer I reflect on these dissonant pieces, the more it seems like the game has no idea what it wants to be. Is it about brotherhood and learning to rely on your betters? A compelling story about overcoming grief? A soft reboot for the franchise? A tale about how being an arrogant twerp and using systems for your own gain is selfish?
Unfortunately, I think the game’s message can be summarised as: revenge is bad when it gets you fired and your girlfriend is killed.
Despite that, the unplayably buggy mess the game shipped in caused the franchise to walk back some fantastic ideas. The cooperative missions are amazing with your friends in discord, to the point where I’d comfortably categorise heisting parisian locations with my pals as the best assassin’s creed experience I’ve ever had. The light RPG elements of the gear progression are just enough to make you feel like you can craft a character while never being so distinctive to ruin the fashion-Souls-esque reward of putting together some dope threads.
In many ways Unity feels like the game Assassin’s Creed always wanted to be, but it was rushed out the door, half-baked. The promise overshadowed the product. The game really is your highschool relationship personified: no matter how good the goods are, all I’ll ever remember is the adolescent sense of what was lacking. What will always be lacking.