Games Review: Assassin’s Creed Unity (Xbox One, 2014)

I am what could be called an Assassin’s Creed apologist. I’ve defended the series against hyper-critical friends and co-workers, I even managed to find things to like about Assassin’s Creed III — and everyone hated that one. Where many have grown weary of the series since it became a yearly franchise, I’ve continued to look forward to each new installment. I love it’s entire conceit, it’s crazy plot and it’s willingness to experiment from game to game. I point all of this out so that you understand just how much I was looking forward to Assassin’s Creed Unity, and why I’m as disappointed with it as I am.

Set in 18th century Paris during the French Revolution, Assassin’s Creed Unity’s story is centered on a roguish, headstrong man named Arno Dorian. He joins the Assassins after discovering there was a lot about his family that he didn’t know and begins to rise through the Order’s ranks. Arno is very much cut from the same cloth as Assassin’s Creed II hero Ezio Auditore, only he’s half as charismatic and twice as flippant. His introduction, his pre-Assassin appearance and even his manner of dress is so reminiscent of Ezio that you could almost confuse them.

Arno embarks on a mission of revenge and a quest for information into his family (both by blood and by adoption) and their links to the Assassin and Templar orders, his worldview beginning to crumble as Paris tears itself apart around him.

Assassin’s Creed Unity is a stunningly beautiful game. I mean that from the bottom of my pedant’s heart. The architecture is gorgeous and the lighting is incredibly realistic. The character models are detailed and their clothes appear hand-sewn. The game’s highly touted crowds throng in every street, hundreds of NPCs on the screen at any one time. The way the light of the rising sun gleams off the brass buttons on Arno’s coat is breathtaking. So much love and attention has been put into the way this game looks.

Alright. Cool. I want you all to remember that I was nice about the graphics because it all goes horribly wrong from here.

Assassin’s Creed Unity has a single, really big problem. That problem is that it simply isn’t complete. There is no way that this is a finished game. Its problems are so myriad and ingrained that it would be impossible to list them all in this review so I’ll stick to those bugbears that drag the entire experience into the mud.

As stated, the game is jaw-dropping visually, but really only as long as you’re standing still. The moment you begin to move around, even if it’s just shifting the camera, the frame rate begins to fluctuate wildly from a high of somewhere in the mid-20’s (far below the locked 30fps Ubisoft had advertised) to as low as single digits, depending on what’s happening onscreen. This stuttering occurs everywhere — when you’re in the overworld, when you are inside buildings or in tight corridors, even during cinematics, and it affects more than just the look of the game. It begins to bleed over into gameplay as well.

The gameplay in Assassin’s Creed Unity appears on the surface to adhere to the usual series principles — improbably efficient parkour, sneaking, stabbing and disappearing without a trace. When you actually get to grips with it, though, it feels unlike any game in the series. Why? For one thing, it frequently ignores your inputs. Getting caught in combat is about the worst thing that can happen to you because it requires split-second timing to perform properly. Between the laggy frame rate and the unresponsive controls, you frequently find yourself on the wrong end of a sword. The same goes for a lockpicking mini game that requires precise button presses — all it ends up being is a great way to waste a small fortune’s worth of lockpicks.

Missions are a bit of a mixed bag, with much of the campaign being made up of the same stuff you’ve seen a hundred times before. Go here, tail him, stab him, get out of there. There’s little in the way of imagination or invention here. It’s not all doom and gloom though — there are easily a hundred hours worth of content here from side-quests to collectibles. There are some new Rift challenges that see you jumping into a future time period that are extremely cool and there’s a riddle-based treasure hunt that I found quite enjoyable as well. There are a number of different chests this time around, too. Some can be opened without a problem. Others require a lockpick and a certain level of lockpicking skill. Others still require you to play minigames in the companion app on your phone or tablet. This third variety seems like a bit of a pointless timesink but dogged completionists are already cracking their knuckles in anticipation.

One addition to the mission structure that’s pretty interesting are Infiltration Opportunities. These allow you to stack the deck in your favour when trying to infiltrate strongholds or especially difficult areas by altering things like environmental effects or guard behaviours. They actually really spice things up and are a breath of fresh air in a game that’s leaning a bit heavily on some stale ideas.

In another departure for the series, many moves you’ve become accustomed to simply having are now behind an XP wall. You actually have to buy each move with currency earned from completing missions. Until you do, many facets of the series you took for granted — like being able to sit down on a bench to become less visible — are now placed firmly beyond your reach. It’s a bizarre decision and one that adds nothing but a further layer of frustration to the game. Unity also removes some abilities entirely, without explanation. Whistling from cover to lure a guard? Gone. For those who’ve come to expect these things by now, it really makes their omission feel like a backwards step.

While we’re on the subject of currency, let’s talk about the way Assassin’s Creed Unity approaches player income. The game has a total of four different kinds of currency, all of them used for different things. You have Livres (not Francs as you might expect, an easy mistake to make given that they are denoted with an ₣, the Franc symbol). You use Livres to buy weapons, armour and deployables like smoke bombs and ammo. You can make an unthinkable amount of Livres through the Cafe Theatre, your home base, by renovating it and completing missions there — good thing too; almost everything you can purchase with Livres is crazy expensive. You have Sync Points which allow you buy skills that bolster Arno’s move list. You acquire them through completing missions in single player and co-op.

You’ve got Creed Points which are earned through doing Dope Shit (technical term). Aerial kills, double kills, stealthily avoiding combat — the more impressive your antics, the more Creed Points you will accumulate. Mercifully, the game hands Creed Points out at the drop of a hat so you’ll end up with a lot of them. You use them to upgrade your equipment and rank up within your multiplayer clan. Finally, you have Helix Credits. Helix Credits are the most contentious of the four currencies on offer because they are gained via the mechanic everyone loves to hate — microtransactions. That’s right, Assassin’s Creed Unity now has a pay-to-win option where you can give Ubisoft up to $100 to unlock absolutely everything rather than do all the work yourself. You can, thankfully, completely ignore Helix Points entirely and not have it affect your game in any way but its inclusion in the game at all is as mercenary as it is unnecessary.

Another area where the gameplay comes unstuck is in the traversal. Assassin’s Creed is known for it’s fairly smooth integration of parkour into city movement– getting around in these games is exhilarating and, until Shadow of Mordor came out this year, there really wasn’t any other system like it in gaming. Unity’s traversal is a bumpy ride, and it comes back to the game simply not being complete. Clipping is rife and if there is anything in the environment that Arno can get stuck on, he absolutely will. I bungled kill after kill due to Arno getting stuck on some invisible obstacle and having to awkwardly leap about to get unhooked from it. The scenario I’m describing always ended the same way: being turned into a pincushion by half a dozen guards, accidentally aggro’d by Arno’s clipping issues/interpretive dance.

There is a new system for climbing buildings called Parkour Up and Parkour Down. This makes descending a building easier than it’s ever been – no more leaping into nothing and hoping your ankles can tank the DPS. If the game wasn’t in such an unfinished state, Parkour Up and Down might actually work as intended but Arno will frequently reach points on a given building – usually on ascent – and simply refuse to go any further. He’s also not very willing to climb into or around windows unless forced to do so. Interestingly, this issue goes the other way too — in the game’s efforts to make leaping about rooftops more seamless Arno occasionally gets a bit too enthusiastic and will leap off in some truly surprising directions, often imperiling himself far more than you had intended.

At this point, I’m sure you get the idea. Unity feels like a game that has gotten to the stage of development right before Quality Assurance begins and the devs begin the process of optimising the experience. There are plenty of telling indicators of this — chief among them, the lack of a loading screen. The screen literally just turns black while the game loads. During this time, there is no way to tell if the game is still loading or if it’s crashed. As if this wasn’t enough, the load times vary about as wildly as the frame rate — the longest wait I’ve had at time of writing is six minutes, forty three seconds. The game is also riddled with bugs of varying severity — I’ve had Arno abruptly fall through the ground into oblivion, ragdolls contorting in some truly terrifying ways and even had my pistol fire no bullets but cost me ammo anyway.

The multiplayer component is another area that’s received a makeover from previous iterations. Previously, Assassin’s Creed’s multiplayer was a competitive mode, an enjoyably deadly game hide-and-seek. Unity dumps this mode in favour of a co-operative game that sees you and up to three other players tackling various heists and multi-point infiltration missions. These are some of the game’s most interesting missions, and they were one of the game’s biggest draws pre-release. The idea of a co-operative Assassin’s Creed game is a tantalising one, but Unity’s lack of stable code makes for another ungainly, frustrating experience. If you thought the clipping was bad when you were on your own, try getting four people through a mission without getting stuck.

Actually, just try getting four people at all. At time of writing, Ubisoft’s servers have been up and down almost non-stop since launch and the matchmaking is a shambles. I have so far only managed to get one two-player co-operative game to work through matchmaking and the server dropped out halfway through the mission. I got a four-player session running from my friends list but that too dropped out about three-quarters of the way through. Truly disappointing.

It seems the Assassin’s Creed series may have finally met the fate we all feared it would when Ubisoft turned it into a yearly franchise. Assassin’s Creed Unity bears all the hallmarks of a genuinely great game that is about three quarters complete. Given another few months for QA to really optimise the game, Ubisoft Montreal could have turned in a next gen experience that blew everyone away. Forced to meet an unrealistic holiday release date, we have a muddled, broken subpar experience that will deal a serious blow to consumer confidence in Ubisoft titles and the Assassin’s Creed series as a whole. As much as I love Assassin’s Creed, this one really broke my heart.

Everyone is allowed to have an off year, even gigantic AAA developers. I live in hope that this was an anomaly, the product of big ambition and truly shitty timing. I’ll be back again for the next one because, like I said, I’m an Assassin’s Creed apologist. But I’ll be warier. It’ll be hard to ever believe the trailers again.

Review Score: 4.0 out of 10
Highlights: Awesome setting, incredible visuals
Lowlights: Broken, buggy, unpolished gameplay and mechanics
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Released: November 13, 2014
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

Reviewed on Xbox One


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David Smith

David Smith is the former games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.