Thursday, November 12, 2015

Assassin's Creed Unity parades the series' most profound playground

It's a series about dangerous men caught in the ebbs of history, meeting famous figures and recontextualising their place in our collective memory. It seems important, then, that Unity, while continuing that proud, silly tradition, makes its most important actor the city of Paris itself.

To look at it simply, Ubisoft's first definitively new-gen stab at its biggest series is essentially in the Assassin's Creed II mould. While it might not share the Italian setting or increasingly wizened main character as the saga of Ezio, what it does retain is a single, massive urban environment, peppered with instanced missions, a main character who treads an uneasy line between rakish fop or terrifying sociopath, and the gentle air of a game that does what it wants to do (ie offer you numerous ways to kill people while on the sneak) and very little else.

Climbing's been improved a tad, with the ability to direct yourself up and down as well as simply forward, and combat is a little heftier and more difficult, but the format is intensely familiar. The story centres around Arno Victor Dorian, a posh, quip-spouting boy - if Black Flag's Edward Kenway was a volatile Heath Ledger, here we have a smirking Jake Gyllenhaal - who after the death of not one, but two father figures, becomes a far more serious (boring?) man with a penchant for really gaudy coats.

After what plays out like an 18th century John Hughes film set in Versailles and a quick escape from the Bastille as the French Revolution begins, you're thrust into an increasingly convoluted conspiracy story, where Templars and Assassins swap allegiances seemingly at random, never quite deciding if they want to help the Revolution along or stop it, or if they actually like one another this time.

Two different factions of guards on the street are meant to display the different sides, but even they seem to be confused for one another halfway through - maybe everyone swapped uniforms? The intention is to muddy the waters of good and bad a little, but it comes across as a mess - if you're not meant to trust characters it should be because they're well-written, not because they act like mad idiots with the keys to every world government.

That's accompanied by yet another take on AC's perennial modern day sections. It seems even Ubisoft has started to dislike them by now, streamlining so much that they're now almost entirely represented by overdubbed narration - the game posits that Abstergo's games division has now turned the Animus into a hackable games console, Helix, which you're playing.

To be fair, there are occasional cutscenes, a very neat opening device that Ubisoft say we're not allowed to talk about (although you'll see it literally 60 seconds after you start the game) and some brilliantly conceived, but maddeningly underused, sections in Rifts - glitchy jumps in time to other periods of Paris's history. We won't give details away here, but the fact that some put-upon designer slaved to make these beautiful slices of period geography that have been reduced to Time Trial race challenges should be some kind of crime.

But it's that commitment to world-making that saves the game from being simply a murder-obsessed mess. Unity's Paris is a maze-like wonder; an architectural marvel of churches, palaces, slum and shopping districts, public gardens and, above all, crowds. The attention to detail is there - Notre Dame cathedral apparently took 3,000 hours to model, proven by the fact that you'll feel pretty bad as you scamper across saintly statues' heads to get to the top.

Also, the power of new-gen tech means that we often climbed the city's tallest points to get a handle on where to go next (draw distance is, frankly, astounding from even the furthest removed points) or just to look out across the whole breadth of Paris at sunset, in a rainstorm, or as torches were lit for the night.

Indoors, too - and there's a lot of indoors, with invitingly open windows everywhere, and whole major buildings ready to explore - the game looks incredible, with exquisite, context sensitive lighting (we've never gasped in pleasure at being blinded by a sunbeam before) and a particular focus on the finery of pre-Revolution French aristocracy. You get the sense that Ubisoft simply couldn't have made this game before - at least not with an entirely separate proprietary engine made just to render fancy velvet upholstery.

But there's something more human about this place than Ubisoft's brick-and-mortar work has offered before. Primarily it's in those crowds: this is the busiest city we've yet seen in any game. Palace gates are picketed by hundreds of flag waving, heads-on-stick carrying Third Estate protestors, the Champs-lyses bustles and hums with bumbling shoppers, and impromptu street parties force you to slow your parkour march to the next objective just to watch a dance, before you accidentally interrupt the two young lovers canoodling en privy behind the stage.

They're not simple street furniture, either. Crowds are invaluable when you're being chased, if anything because the addition of firearms and realistically tall buildings mean simply hoisting yourself over a roof to get away from guards isn't always viable anymore. But they're also a total nuisance when you're the one chasing, often waddling into your path and slowing you down.

Fire your gun in a crowd and every person in it will react individually, spinning to look at you, bolting or drawing their own swords to join the fracas. They're limited in scope - anyone who isn't a guard is bafflinglyunable to sound the alarm upon seeing you slit someone's throat - but they lend the world a believability the series has never had before.

Playing itself is more than reminiscent of games past, however. Unity's biggest innovation is in turning the series' famously limited main missions into something a tad more open to interpretation. Drawing on Hitman, you're now placed in a single environment, told to kill a single target, and left to approach that how you please.

Secret entrances, unlockable doors and even unique extra objectives (such as releasing nearby prisoners to cause a distraction, or finding out your target will be heading to a confessional booth, where you can hand down your own brand of less-than-holy penance) lend these missions a better sense of what being a genius assassin should feel like - but they're never quite as satisfying as the games they draw on.

Every extra element is marked on the map - sometimes accompanied by giant beacons in the sky, just so you don't miss them - and those sub-objectives are as easy to unlock as they are unnecessary, like extra toppings rather than entirely separate dishes. They're the best story missions Assassin's Creed has seen, but there's still room for improvement.

Side-missions are less worthwhile - Paris Stories manage to squeeze in mini-histories of famous Parisians, but do so mainly in the form of clumsily narrated fetch quests. Nostradamus Enigmas set you tortuous riddles for little more reward than a useless outfit and a chance to sightsee.

Murder Mysteries should be the best of the lot, asking you to travel between crime scenes, detecting clues and interrogating witnesses, but are basically extended 'use Eagle Vision to win' sequences. There are boring, floating, hidden items stuck up trees to collect, of course - and the less said about the few ambient events Ubisoft chucked in to try and keep walking down the street exciting the better.

The much-vaunted co-op mode - which offers two- and four-player missions that occur separately to the storyline - should be the saviour here. It almost is. With a bumped up difficulty, and a little more license taken with how you're using your borderline superpowers (one mission has four of you competing to win a French army tournament to get close to a Templar general), it can be amazing fun - not least when you're saved by a friend jumping in unexpectedly to stab your enemies through the neck.

Sadly, any amount of lag kills the experience, and having one player who doesn't quite match up in skill level can make sections drag as they're repeatedly killed or get lost among the crowds. But then again, the Paris sprawl is more or less what this game is all about.

Ubisoft's true new-gen innovation has been to make a real place for one of their templated games to play out in. That game might be entirely (and occasionally dully) familiar, but the scenery is like little else we've encountered before. Ubisoft's been Forrest Gump-ing history for years in an attempt to get us to engage with it, but we've never felt more like we were a part of the old world than in just walking those streets.

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