Assassin's Creed: Unity
The first thing most players of an Assassin’s Creed game do is get really high. They find the nearest spire or tower, a viewpoint from which to unlock new waypoints – new destinations for trouble making or commotion calming. Up and up, hand over foot over hand, and then a leap of faith: into a haystack, usually.
Assassin’s Creed Unity, the first game in Ubisoft’s series to release exclusively on new-generation consoles – an alternative AC game, Rogue, is forthcoming for 360 and PS3, continuing the popular naval battles of 2013’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – is full of tall buildings for its protagonist, Arno Dorian, to scramble up. As the game’s set in Paris during the French Revolution, there’s no Eiffel Tower to tackle – the city’s most recognisable landmark wasn’t finished until 1889, 90 years after the Revolution’s end. But the massive Notre Dame de Paris is here in all its virtual glory, a perhaps unprecedented achievement of environment art that took over a year to create.
Standing inside the real-life Notre Dame, it’s just a cathedral. A pretty famous one, of course, and circled by tourists – but it’s where people come together to do whatever it is that people do inside these places. Which isn’t usually killing. In Unity, it’s the location for one of the game’s first assassinations – Arno must sneak into the gigantic, one-for-one-scaled building undetected and slyly trail some ugly bloater whose destiny is to get shanked.
Assassin’s Creed Unity – E3 2014 world premiere cinematic trailer
We – meaning me, testing the game during a four-hour preview in Paris – achieve our goal and the tubby target goes down like a sack of spuds. This being Assassin’s Creed, his dying moments reveal information, detailing our next hit. But Unity isn’t all murder – how very dull that would be. Its team has crowded 18th century Paris with a cornucopia of complementary attractions – I embark on side missions to both reclaim waxwork heads for Marie Tussaud and solve a monastery murder on behalf of a can’t-be-arsed gendarme – and extended the open-world’s boundaries so as to stretch beyond expectations built upon previous series entries.
Sure, Black Flag was massive – it gave you a great big slice of the Caribbean, during the Golden Age of Piracy, to play with – but none of its cities really wowed in size. Unity’s Paris does. From that first ascent, the message is clear: you’ve never explored a digital city quite like this before. The view spreads beyond the horizon, and it’s the power of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 that makes that possible.
“There is no way Unity could run on previous-generation hardware,” senior producer Vincent Pontbriand tells me at Les Invalides, our apt preview location (like Notre Dame, it’s one of modern Paris’ aged landmarks that plays a role in the game). “We’re already pushing this hardware, with so many NPCs and assets on screen. We had to make the move to new-gen [consoles] at some point, and while we know they haven’t the same market share as the older models, we have to be brave.”
Pontbriand concedes, though, that Unity isn’t a perfect perusal into new hardware possibilities – the development team had to cut just a little from the end product, something that audio director Steven Dumont seconds. “This is the first new-gen game for us, which makes it difficult as we were working in the dark for a year and a half, because we didn’t have all the specs. The first game of any new generation is a challenge – after that it gets easier, with one or two behind you.”
The step up in processing power necessitated the creation of new tools, which the team will take forward to future projects. Says Pontbriand: “This year was all about production, but last year we were creating new tools and technologies, which we can now use on future games. We never take this for granted – it’s one game at a time, and then we read the reactions.”
The reaction to the preview code I get to play is mixed. Several glitches appear during my time playing the game, but it’s important to stress that this is not the end product. I won’t go into specifics because they will be fixed by the time the game ships, but let’s just say it’s among the buggiest previews I’ve ever sat down in front of. However, regardless of unwelcome moments, Unity was still a lot of fun, albeit familiarly so.
Unity is recognisably part of a set of games rather than a fresh, standalone take on what Assassin’s Creed stands for. But tougher combat (which I liked), a newly introduced stealth mode to combine with smoke bombs and cover (another plus) and enjoyable co-operative play (which I only briefly participated in, but was hilarious, in a good way) point towards something more refined next time. “This isn’t a brand-new experience,” confirms Pontbriand. “It’s more an evolution of what AC used to be.”
“The next game will be even better, because we know the tools we have to work with,” adds Dumont.
Assassin’s Creed Unity – story trailer
The massive city – which features a complex sewer system beneath its busy streets, and plenty of accessible buildings that require no pause in play to enter – is soundtracked not just by the bustle of thousands of individual AIs, but also the dynamic score of three composers. “There’s co-op, and single player, and side missions – so it would have been impossible to work with just one composer. The game is so big,” says Dumont.
One of the three brought in to provide the music for Unity is Chris Tilton, whose credits include several games and the TV series Fringe.
“The sheer scale of Unity is something I haven’t worked on before,” says Tilton. “We had to create music with the knowledge that the player can be taking multiple approaches to a task in the game.” That first assassination features ten different ways to play it – I go fairly direct, but other, less confrontational routes are available, to make Arno’s life easier. “The main challenge therefore became how to work in melodic ideas that could change at any moment.”
It’s probably not what Tilton wants to hear, but a great soundtrack is rarely one that’s overly noticed during the playing of a game. That it becomes a natural part of the overall experience means it’s doing something right – and at no moment of my four hours with Unity do I hear a cue disappearing down an inappropriate direction. “Everything has gelled together,” says Dumont, “and the end product is awesome.”
Music rarely makes a game, and it’s the review scores for Unity that will ultimately decide its awesomeness – among both its immediate family and the widening pool of software available for the One and PS4. I get the feeling that the team is prepared to see Unity fall short of the reception Black Flag was met with – its Metacritic scores in the high 80s will be tough to match. Unity won’t be a bad game when released, but nor does it, on a preview showing, truly differentiate itself from prior iterations. Except, perhaps, for that stealth mode – squeeze a trigger and the game slows, Arno crouches and enemies in the vicinity become marked on a mini-map. It seems odd that a series based on assassins wouldn’t have included this before.
“It is very obvious!” Pontbriand laughs. “We thought of the stealth mode late in production and, once we’d implemented it, the cover mode we had before became less useful. I have no idea why we didn’t think about it before, as it’s pretty easy.”
Nothing is as easy in an Assassin’s Creed game than heading up – its leading characters always possessing firm grips and limited acrophobia. From the top of Notre Dame, Ubisoft’s vision of a city going through incredible social and political changes is remarkable, their Seine a little thinner than the real deal but still slicing through Paris as it should. It’s a tempting invitation: I want to climb, run and leap my way to its four corners. But there’s no time for that kind of exploratory gaming when there’s a despicable sewer-dweller to be dealt with. Back to the murder.
Assassin’s Creed Unity is released for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Windows on the 13th of November. The game was tested on Xbox One at a preview event in Paris, the attendance of which was covered by Ubisoft.