What’s old is new again… kind of
If our time spent wandering the Parisian streets in Assassin’s Creed Unity has taught us anything, it’s that Arno Dorian is a self-serving man. Almost all of his actions, whether aligned with the cause of the Brotherhood or not, weren’t altruistic, but rather, efforts for personal gain. With his attention wholly divided between personal vendettas and the apple of his eye, Arno was the least sympathetic model for role-playing Assassins since, well, last year when Edward Kenway held that mantle.
Given his affinity for all things Arno, it should come as no surprise that the Dead Kings add-on extrapolates upon that theme heavily. While Ubisoft dialed up the protagonist’s selfish pretense, it took pause with the gameplay and varied it up moreso than the base game.
That is, as much as can be expected with the tried-and-tested Assassin’s Creed formula.
Assassin’s Creed Unity: Dead Kings (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Released: January 13, 2015
Dead Kings eschews Unity‘s crowded Paris in favor of the relatively quaint Franciade (present-day St. Denise). It’s there that Arno longs for passage to Cairo, but one last task awaits him. He has the wealth of kings to find, and it’s wrapped up in layer after layer of mystery. It’s the sort of treasured prize that turns men mad and converts former allies into evil, no-good-doers (as confusing and not elaborated upon as that is).
Actually, that’s the bulk of what Dead Kings does wrong: it weakly strings together plot points that might be okay on their own, but are cohesively unconvincing. There’s the greed of mankind constantly trying to one-up one another to be the first to take sole possession of the coveted, secret treasure. There’s a supernatural element wherein spirits guide Arno along the way, if he can solve their rudimentary puzzles. And, there’s a child sidekick that tries taking the entire operation down from the outside, whom Arno reluctantly teams up with.
Not that all of this is outside the realm of possibility for Assassin’s Creed; it’s just that it doesn’t quite work in this instance. Really, it smacks of a love letter to Raiders of the Lost Ark more than anything else. One setting in particular evokes memories of the Spielberg classic if you’re willing to trade snakes for rats.
That isn’t to say that Dead Kings doesn’t feel like an Assassin’s Creed game; it very much does. That’s wildly evident by the sheer amount of content in the add-on (especially considering how much of it consists of menial tasks). The six main missions are a sizable chunk, and the rest mostly serves as the filler that has become synonymous with Ubisoft open-world games (for better and for worse).
Despite Franciade boasting a respectable three outdoor regions, it’s the underground interiors that are highlighted for a change. They feel otherworldly in a sense — a foray through dimly lit, maze-like, narrow passages when we’re used to anything but. It’s not at all a stretch to say that these spaces double Dead Kings‘ playspace from three to six different areas — two halves that are polar opposites from one another.
In these tunnels, packs of explorative scavengers roam with intent to loot — ravaging caves, tombs, and human remains in pursuit of wealth. While their numbers are strong, Dead Kings mercifully grants an out for almost every combat situation. Each group has a leader, and once he’s dead, his followers quickly surrender rather than suffering the same fate. Essentially, this means that a well-timed assassination maneuver or a crafty projectile blade to the head disposes of a half dozen men instead of just one.
It may seem like a small example, but it kind of acts as a knowing nod from Ubisoft that perhaps the tedium of the Assassin’s Creed rubric is in need of some sort of shake-up. Maybe it’s not ready to fully relent, but at least it allows clever assassins to work smarter, not harder.
That potential revelation extends to the gameplay in that the six campaign sections possibly serve as the best sample platter of Assassin’s Creed missions in recent memory. Interchanged with relative frequency, Dead Kings offers stealth (though not required), combat sequences, environmental puzzles, and exploration-based platforming challenges, all in the few hours that it has to work with. Unfortunately missing are elaborate assassinations (hands-down, the best part of Unity), but nevertheless, this add-on should nicely placate the impatient franchise fan that’s easily bored with the “same old, same old” despite the fact that it’s still kind of exactly that.
For all the directional changes that Ubisoft took with Dead Kings, the most confounding decision is that the add-on isn’t really comfortably positioned for any one audience. Those that have completed Unity will find it a bit under-challenging, as end-game gear will usually quickly eliminate the mid-level opposition. However, Dead Kings takes place after Unity ends, meaning that anyone that’s statistically aligned with the enemies will have to play the game out of order.
All in all, Dead Kings adds up to a package that’s somewhat schizophrenic in nature. At times, it seems like both the story and the gameplay aren’t quite sure where they want to go. Even more surprising, it kind of works. Anyone that knows Assassin’s Creed will feel an innate familiarity with Dead Kings and maybe even a bit of excitement (particularly the last section, which conjures memories of a classic series moment). However, there’s an air of freshness about it that works in some ways and falls flat in others. Dead Kings isn’t likely to reignite anyone’s love for Assassin’s Creed, but it certainly won’t extinguish any existing flames, either.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided for free to the public as apology DLC.]