So my brother picked up a copy of Assassin’s Creed: Unity on day one, because of course he did. And he asked me to play through it from start to finish, because of course he did. And I played it for no more than an hour the night of release before getting bored and frustrated and going to bed, because of course I did.
Okay, I know that’s not exactly fair to the game. I’ll give it another swing somewhere down the line, because I want to give it -- and the series at large -- a chance. But Unity hasn’t made that easy for me so far. I’ve been lucky enough to avoid some of the now-infamous glitches so far (barring getting glued to a chair for a few seconds during a chase), but so far it’s been kind of scattershot. By which I mean pretty scattershot. And, you know, not great.
The game starts with some guy using a lightning sword (huh?), and then cuts to Arno as a kid so players can putz around, and then cuts again to him as a hyper-smug Aladdin wannabe who walks around with a sword in broad daylight and can naturally do the standard parkour because…uh…is he already an assassin? Or is he just that good already? Well, whatever. I guess it’ll be explained. But what’s happened so far hasn’t clicked for me. I can say it’s not as aggressively awful as Watch Dogs, but the tradeoff is that it’s aggressively boring.
Weirdly, Unity made me think back to The Wind Waker. You start off as a sleepyhead hero in a lobster shirt, but you’re given an objective -- get a present from Grandma -- to advance the plot. You have all the time you need to do that, but until then you’re free to explore Outset Island. You can jump on rocks to get Rupees, chat it up with locals who’ll chat back (and teach you gameplay mechanics, like crawling and carrying pots), swordfight with Orca, and just plain enjoy the sights. Humble beginnings, for sure, but stronger because of it.
Compare that to Unity. You’re playing as some guy in red and white who’s suddenly tasked with chasing some other guy while there’s a big fight happening all around you. So you follow that guy and beat him, but you get stabbed by cutscene’s end. Then you flash forward to kid Arno, and you have to follow some girl and steal an apple (so a guard who I swear wasn’t there before can spot you and teach you some of the stealth mechanics). Then you get another cutscene where Arno’s dad is found dead, which would be a bit more impactful if we’d spent more than three minutes with the guy. Just a bit, though.
And then you’re adult Arno (who looks eerily similar to Jake Gyllenhaal for some reason) and have to escape from some smithy brutes. And then you have to go follow a carriage. And then you have to sneak into a manor or whatever because there’s a letter that has to be delivered right now. And then those same brutes catch up to you somehow -- setting aside the fact that they had to sneak in too, albeit through an open door -- and they fight you. And then I lament having to go through a combat sequence in an AC game while hot off the heels of Bayonetta 2. And then you escape again. And then you have to sneak into a ball.
Don’t worry. It’s about 5% more riveting than I make it out to be.
What really gets to me about Unity is that despite popping up on these spiffy new consoles, I don’t feel like the game is even trying to sell itself. Okay, sure, I’ll concede that virtua-France looks good, with all the awe-inspiring architecture and attention to detail you’d hope for, but it all rings hollow. Unless there’s a mission to be dished out, you can’t have any meaningful interaction with NPCs other than bumping into them. In all fairness you can watch them interact with each other -- a couple being lovey-dovey, for instance -- but you’re an observer and nothing more. You’re invisible to the world before you even put on the hood.
I understand that adding in Zelda-style interactions for everything and everybody would be impossible. And on top of that, I understand that games -- AC or otherwise -- are all about creating illusions, and giving the feeling of depth without actually providing it. But the illusion in Unity wore thin from the get-go. It’s a feeling I share with AC3; I broke off from following some dude to chase after a thief who stole an apple, and followed him into an alley. But when I finally made my approach, the thief stopped cold, dropped the apple, and went straight back to walking aimlessly -- just like the hundreds of NPCs lining the streets.
I just don’t get it. I can’t get a handle on the design philosophy here. Okay, I’ll give the franchise the benefit of the doubt and assume that I’m just the square peg getting mashed into its round hole. But even so, am I being crazy here? Am I really so wrong to wonder what the appeal for this franchise is? Am I really, considering how much dissent there is and how many comments express concern at best? I have issues just with that philosophy; it feels like for all the effort put into rendering these worlds, it’s all for naught because the core of the game is largely “go here and kill this guy”. And if Unity’s start is anything to go by, you could charitably add “follow this guy” or “avoid those guys”.
It seems like Unity is the straw that broke the camel’s back, but if you ask me that camel was already a shambling corpse. I mean, didn’t AC3 pretty much flay everyone’s expectations and become a black spot on a franchise noted for issues notable since AC1? I know there’s some kind of blind faith in the franchise that keeps the zombie camel trucking along, but at this stage in its life can we at large keep pardoning it? Should we? If Ubisoft is content with doling out stories of varying quality and gameplay with long-noted faults, why is it that a bug-riddled, microtransaction-pushing, embargo-abusing game is some perceived “last straw” for a franchise that saw fit to push three incrementally-changed editions of a sequel?
And so I have to ask: do we need Assassin’s Creed anymore? Because the way things are now, I say no.
I want to like this franchise. I really do. I like history, like my father before me -- and the idea of exploring fully-realized worlds leaves me chomping at the bit. But that’s the clincher; I want fully-realized worlds, not just facsimiles of them. Maybe that’s why I like the Zelda games; they’re exponentially smaller, sure, but even the decade-and-a-half-old, single-town Majora’s Mask managed to infuse a level of character into its world that you’d never expect, or even ask for.
The impending doom affected them, and they in turn affected you, while you --the hero -- went on to affect both by resolving the conflict. There was weight to be had there, even if you spent a day talking with the apologetic Anju, or a night with the postman. (Don’t think too hard about the sexual implications of that line; I know I didn’t.)
But as much as I praise Zelda, I recognize that modern games -- AC well among them -- have the potential to go WAY farther. You get to be a part of history, conceptually speaking; you get to experience life in that world, learning and understanding what it was like to be in colonial America, or revolutionary France, or whatever comes our way next. And I don’t mean having an assassin forcibly inserted into the midnight ride of Paul Revere, or being there for the signing of the Declaration of Independence; I mean making them a part of the setting. An active participant, rather than an observer.
It’s to the point where I find myself thinking, “Hey, maybe we don’t need Assassins, or Templars, or Animus, or Abstergo, or any of that. Just have the setting and be done with it.” I’m not even joking. Historical fiction is an established, viable genre, and it has been for years. It’s true that the games would lose their overarching plot and connective tissue, but sometimes I wonder if that’s really such a bad thing. Do you need assassins and ancient rivalries and conspiracy plots in history, which has more than enough exciting clashes in its own right? I say no. Cool stuff has happened in the past; you don’t need lords of stabbing and future VR to embellish what’s already interesting. If you did, then we’d all be hailing 47 Ronin as a cinematic masterpiece…which it is certainly not.
I’ll concede that (ideally) the appeal of Assassin’s Creed is the ability to chart out and execute the assassination plots of your design. I’ll also concede that combat and murder aren’t immediate failure-states in games -- because if I didn’t, I’d have to hate Bayonetta 2. And of course, I don’t have a clear-cut answer on how I’d handle conflict in a hypothetical, hyper-historical AC game of my own. I have ideas, but they’d probably only appeal to S-tier nerds (“Press X to Improve Your Social Standing”). So if you like that -- and the franchise in general -- then you’re not wrong for it. There is merit to the franchise.
That all said, I thought that the appeal of Black Flag was its ability to turn you into a pure pirate, and minimized the franchise’s conventions (the assassin storyline well among them) for the sake of making you a scourge of the seas. Likewise, I thought that Black Flag was one of the best-received games yet, if only because it eased the sting of AC3 while also being NOT about Ezio again. So what does it say about the franchise when one of the most well-received of the franchise is also one of the biggest departures from the franchise? And where do you go from there when you can’t rely on naval adventures without playing fast and loose with geography?
Maybe the guys at Penny Arcade had it right. Maybe this franchise is rudderless.
I’m not so cold as to say that Unity should be the last AC game ever. I agree with the common opinion: Ubisoft needs to stop with these yearly releases -- and yikesy mikesy, this year has two of them -- and spend time figuring out how to take the franchise to the next level. From what I can gather, Unity isn’t it; if anything, it’s a symbol of non-progression. It tells me that Ubisoft isn’t just content with staying in a rut, but letting the cement pool around its neck. That’s not a good place to be in, especially when the same company once implied that new hardware would promote innovation.
But I have to go back and ask the same question as before: do we need Assassin’s Creed anymore? Think about it: a lot of the mechanics it paved the way for, like stealth and parkour, have been co-opted by other games. Its combat can’t compete with games that have a stronger emphasis on it (the Arkham series) and/or style in spades (insert any given Platinum title here).
If you’re looking for a meaningful story with meaningful characters, you can get that from a handful of BioWare titles, at a bare minimum. Any given triple-A release is downright guaranteed to have big setpiece moments, and that cinematic appeal so often spoken so highly of. And if you’re hungry for innovation -- as we all are -- then, well, you can look virtually anywhere else. Anywhere.
The nicest thing I can say about Unity is that it looks good. And that it lets me visit Paris. And that I get to meet Napoleon at some point, I guess. But if I can replicate two of those three (maybe all three, ostensibly) just by cracking open a book or running a Google search, then maybe -- just maybe -- something has gone wrong.
Now then. Let’s see how Far Cry 4 turns out.