Last week, horror legend John Carpenter called Assassin’s Creed: Unity his #1 game of the year over on GiantBomb. He didn’t give an explanation and the guys at Giant Bomb didn’t ask for one because, c’mon, he’s John Carpenter. If John Carpenter is even willing to entertain the idea of doing a top video game list, you don’t question the dude.
At the time, I commented that it would be excellent support if I ever decided to write a defense of AC: Unity. After all, between The Thing, They Live, Escape From New York, and Big Trouble in Little China, John Carpenter has (indirectly) been more of an influence on video game narratives and tropes than…well…anyone in film. He wrote, directed, and even did the music for the films that influenced games the most, so the guy is owed at least some deference.
I didn’t actually think I would write a defense of AC: Unity, but here I am. The idea stewed in my head long enough that I convinced myself that it was something I should do. So here it goes.
First off, there is one thing I’m not going to defend about Assassin’s Creed: Unity. And it might be surprising, especially given that I was appealing to John Carpenter’s authority on this specific point: the story.
I haven’t played through the entirety of every AC game. In fact, Unity and Black Flag are the only two I have finished myself. But I’ve watched, with semi-active interest, the entire series since my wife is a big fan of the games. Compared to the rest of the series, the story in Unity is lacking. Altair’s story was cool for being about a Muslim anti-crusader in a game released in 2007. Ezio was the high point of the series; even though his tale was one of generic revenge and self-discovery, he was a compelling main character an the Borgias provided a great antagonistic foil for the era. AC III was a mess, but the writers were going for something bizarrely epic and era-spanning that they deserve a pass. AC IV: Black Flag didn’t have much in the way of story but “be pirate, get rich” is all you really need.
Unity clearly attempts to ape the Ezio by setting up a story of revenge, then adds a dash of AC:III with awkward historical cameos. Outside of a couple sequences–such as when the Unity protagonist, Arno, is murdering otherwise innocent people for wine–the story falls flat. So I won’t defend that.
I also won’t defend the lack of female characters in multiplayer, an issue that haunted the game pre-release. The official excuse was that it only made sense for every player to be a version of Arno, and that it would take extra effort to rig animations for female characters. That’s ridiculous, especially because you spend a decent portion of the game fighting alongside a woman NPC who is just as capable as Arno and also part of the templar/assassin bloodlines. There was a woman co-op partner built into the story of the goddamn game. Hell, even in one of the early co-op missions you end up fighting alongside a different, also capable, female NPC. Why can’t I play as these women?
With my legit criticism of AC: Unity out of the way, let me get down to the point of this post: this is not a bad game. Over the last couple of months, Unity has born the brunt of criticism against the state of gaming in general:
It’s full of microtransactions.
It’s boring and repetitive.
I don’t think this is fair. AC: Unity is fine. If you like the Assassin’s Creed series, you should play it. That’s hardly a dangerous thesis, but a lot of smart people are talking like Unity is terrible. And it’s not. I’ll go through the points above one-by-one.
The Microtransactions: One of the first things you notice when you start to delve into the menus for AC: Unity is that you can now buy, with real money, virtual currency. That currency can be used to upgrade your equipment or purchase timed combat boosts for Arno.
On its face, this looks terrible. As anyone who has played a free-to-play mobile game can attest, these kinds of microtransactions can create a perverse incentive for the developers/publishers to release an exceedingly frustrating game, with the hopes of tempting players into investing money to get past a difficult part. That’s fine if the game is free, but in a full-priced AAA title it’s very worrying. AC Unity invites you to buy up to $100 worth of this fake money. It’s kind of disgusting…
…but it’s also entirely unnecessary. I never hit a wall in AC Unity. I was never overmatched. Any difficult encounter could easily be solved with enough smoke bombs and bullets, which could be purchased with regular in-game currency. And I was never lacking for in-game currency. Simply by upgrading my home base and doing the missions those upgrades gave me, I usually had more money than I knew what to do with. I was overpowered for most of the game without spending any money on AC Bux or whatever they’re called. Unity’s difficulty and economy are not balanced to encourage real-money spending at all.
So why even include the option? Clearly, Ubisoft seeks both a fool and his money. Like “hey, if you want to give us $100 we might as well give you that option.” They might as well have just included a Paypal donation link or something in the menu. That sucks, but it doesn’t affect the game in any meaningful way. It doesn’t make Unity bad, just a little silly.
It’s broken: I was shocked when I ran a Google Image search for AC: Unity and there wasn’t a single picture of the infamous face-less glitch that plagued the PC version of the game. This glitch has become iconic for the game, mostly because it looks terrifying and hilarious. I don’t know how it isn’t a top search result unless Ubisoft forked over some money to Google or engaged in some guerrilla manipulation of the search algorithm. Anyway, here’s the glitch in question:
Unlike the gifs, I didn’t capture this screenshot because I never encountered this glitch. I kind of wish I had, because I imagine it made the cutscenes 10x more fun. I don’t know how common this glitch was, or how easy it was to fix (other games have had similar face-loading issues and restarting the system usually is all that’s needed, but this might be a specific video card issue).
The general consensus when AC: Unity came out was that it was technically broken and unfinished. But the game I played honestly didn’t stand out much from the crowd in that regard. From the last year, here are PS4 games that were “broken” in more significant ways than Unity: Battlefield 4 was unplayable online for several weeks and straight-up deleted my saved game twice so I could never finish the campaign; NBA 2k14 would occasionally prevent me from playing at all because it couldn’t ping a server; Murdered: Soul Suspect crashed after the opening sequence (but before the first save) four times in a row and, as such, I’ve never gone back to try it again. Watch_Dogs acted like my save was corrupted and wouldn’t load until I re-installed from the disc; Dragon Age: Inquisition crashed to the dashboard multiple times and a bug kept me from finishing a character quest line. And that’s just off the top of my head.
Maybe this isn’t much of a defense of AC: Unity as an indictment of modern games, and my subjective experience means little…but outside of once getting caught in the geometry of a hay cart, I never had any actual game-breaking bugs. Not like the games listed above.
What about the performance? The pre-patch frame rate issues? C’mon, the initial console release of Dark Souls was hailed as one of the best games of all time. The frame rate of that game actually made me stop playing and I never picked it back up again.
Of course, Dark Souls was running on old hardware and AC Unity is running on relatively new hardware. These performance hits shouldn’t be happening right now. But to its credit, Unity is pushing the tech envelope pretty hard. The crowds are ridiculous, though probably not necessary. Paris is more realized than any other AC setting to date, with a ton of building interiors scattered around the city. I’d guess there are almost as many buildings you can enter as those you can’t, which is remarkable. And the lighting is easily the best in any open-world, rivaling games that don’t have to worry about scaling and rendering a whole city.
It’s boring and repetitive: Through and through, this is an Assassin’s Creed game. Even more, it’s an AC game without the boat segments that made Black Flag so refreshing. On some level, I understand the complaints. If I had played through every title from AC I – III (all the other ones without boats) maybe I would have felt differently about this game. However, I never finished any of those games because of annoying “tailing” and “eavesdropping” forced-stealth missions that drove me crazy. I’d always hit one that gave me too much trouble and pick something else up. Black Flag had these as well, but I grumbled through them so I could sink more frigates with chain shot
Unity finally fixes these missions, which have always been the worst part of Assassins Creed. For those of you who have not played AC games, tailing missions require you to follow a target and remain undetected. Eavesdropping missions require you to basically do the same, but also occasionally stop and hide within a certain range while the target. These were terrible for two reasons. First, they largely relied on evading the line-of-sight of AI NPCs and the AI of Assassins Creed NPCS has never been reliable. Second, they proceeded on a fixed timeline. You couldn’t just rush forward to the point of your last failure because you had to methodically follow behind an NPC. This made failing and replaying them fucking hell.
There are two (maybe three?) of these missions total in Assassins Creed: Unity. And it’s clear Ubisoft finally understands why they suck, because they are now ludicrously easy. No longer do you have to avoid the line-of-sight of all enemy NPCS–only your target. This means you can get into fights and kill all the guards along the way if you want. Using eagle vision to peer through walls keeps your target in sight. And when you lose your target, you no longer fail the mission. You are just given a new area to search to pick up the trail again.
Major assassination missions are much better in Unity as well. They are now a mix between Hitman levels and Farcry 3/4 outpost missions. You begin the mission outside of a fortified space and have various routes of entry and options to avoid the guards. They embody the best of the Assassin’s Creed concept, and the only downside is that there aren’t more of them.
Finally, there is the side content. Like all recent Ubisoft games, there are a ton of optional side-missions littering the map. It’s so ridiculous and dense that the map itself became a joke shortly after release.
Burnt out on the boring side-quests of Watch_Dogs, I ignored similar missions in Unity. There were “Paris stories”, “Nostradamus Enigma Puzzles”, “Murder Investigations”, and several types of co-op content that I didn’t even touch. I assumed it was like similar shit in Watch_Dogs and not worth my time–context-less fetch quests with no purpose. But when I went back to Unity just this week, I realized that I was wrong.
Almost all of the side content in Unity has some kind of story. Whether it’s just a weird mystery, like poisoned fountains around Paris, or the tale of a murderer hunting down the descendants of inquisition torturers, every side quest I tried felt somehow…meaningful. These missions, while secondary to the main story, felt a lot more like the quests in Dragon Age: Inquisition–often featuring a beginning, middle, and end–than the usual half-assed Ubisoft open world fare.
I understand why a lot of shade was thrown in the direction of Assassin’s Creed: Unity: the story was disappointing and no one likes to see slowdown in a AAA flagship title within a year of a console launch. But in a lot of ways, it’s the best AC title without boats to date. So if you’ve liked the series in the past–and especially if you’ve wanted to like the series but have been frustrated by the forced stealth segments–it’s more than worth your time.