Everything. Assassin’s Creed: Unity is bad at everything.
I exaggerate. If you can get it for $5 and you want to parkour around revolutionary Paris, there’s no better option than Assassin’s Creed: Unity. But that’s because no one else is really trying. Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a major step back in basically everything the series is trying to be compared to both Syndicate afterwards and especially Black Flag before.
Unity’s first sin is either its greatest or one of its more forgivable, depending on how you view it: It’s worse at presenting the atmosphere of its setting than other Assassin’s Creed games, but only a little. On the one hand, nothing is more important to an Assassin’s Creed game than its historical tourism. There is nothing else these games do that other games aren’t doing better. On the other hand, Unity is mostly keeping up with other games in the series in this regard. Persistent bugs with things like draw distance, terrible optimization, and NPCs adopting bizarre poses or having jarringly unrealistic reactions all weaken the atmosphere despite the series meeting its usual standards for accuracy in things like architecture (as far as I can tell – maybe someone interested in specifically architectural history would notice similar small flaws that I’ve missed). Example: Occasionally you’ll see two people dragging a third person down the street, just standard French Revolution stuff, but if you bump into them all three of them get jostled and then start walking in random directions, the two having apparently lost interest in dragging the third to whatever fate they’d had planned for him. These things aren’t common, but they’re pretty noticeable when they happen and they impact the series’ major selling point.
Of its three core systems of combat, parkour, and stealth, the first two are noticeably worse compared to earlier games. The varying length of the finisher moves, the fact that you perform such a finisher automatically when striking a dying foe, and the fact that you can be hit from behind while performing a finisher all combine to demand a lot of awareness of exactly how much health is remaining on an enemy bar so you don’t lock yourself into a finisher while his mates line up an attack, something made possible by pushing the attack button one more time than you’d meant to. It’s hard to tell how much of this was intentional and how much is input lag from the game’s terrible optimization, but the combat is annoying either way (lowering resolution helps with the input lag, so particularly if you’re stuck on the button-mashing bit of the midpoint boss fight, it can help to turn the resolution down to 4:3 and play the 8-bit version of Assassin’s Creed).
Health runs out faster (although with enough upgrades piled on you can still be extremely tanky), further discouraging fights against crowds. Enemies have little star ratings, so even common mooks can be health sponges if you happen to be in a five-diamond neighborhood of the city. Your gear can always get ahead of the mooks if you can buy sufficiently advanced stuff, but that means choosing between struggling through the sub-par combat or putting in a ton of grind to get the weapons and armor needed to crush enemies with relatively little effort.
Probably the idea here is that you’re an assassin, and if you’re fighitng more than two or three guys, you shouldn’t be stabbing your way straight through them all, you should be sneaking around, picking them off one by one if necessary and preferably avoiding them all. The game’s stealth system retains its usual acceptable-but-not-great quality, so this is perfectly doable and entertaining, but Assassin’s Creed was never and still isn’t a game about challenge. The crowd combats are significantly harder, yes, but that doesn’t demand greater mastery of the combat. It just demands you skip certain combats altogether (particularly since, while it’s hard to tell for sure without investing more time in getting good at AC:U’s combat than it deserves, it seems like once a crowd reaches a certain size it becomes basically impossible to stay on top of all their attacks no matter how well you fight). But, y’know, sometimes I want to “assassinate” someone by kicking their front door down and sword fighting their thirty guards, and Assassin’s Creed: Unity isn’t actually a stealth game and shouldn’t let its delusions to the contrary get in the way of letting me Errol Flynn my way through Notre Dame and the Bastille.
I might be more forgiving of this turn towards harder combat to incentivize stealth if they hadn’t also fucked up the parkour, which not only makes it less fun to free run around the city (the highlight of the game for many people!), it also makes it far more unreliable and annoying to escape from combat. Previous Asssasin’s Creed games were very good at figuring out where you wanted to go next and going there. The new system in Unity is very bad at gluing me to railings I wanted to hop over, refusing to climb into windows unless I tilt the stick in exactly the right direction (you’re supposed to be able to climb into windows with the left trigger, but as far as I can tell the only part of that feature to get implemented was the pop-up box explaining how it was supposed to work), and occasionally perching on a step in a staircase as though it were a ledge instead of running up them, which is particularly annoying when there’s seven baddies directly behind me. The Bastille is almost innavigable because the windows in and out of the interior (the only way in, since the gate’s locked up tight) are glitchfests that cause Arno to hover a foot away from the wall, from whence the dynamic parkour system is unable to find any new ledges for him to grab above or below, all the while his fingers are smashed at odd angles and one of his arms has grown an extra foot long but no thicker.
Stealth still works, though, except to the extent that the buggy parkour sometimes tears you out of it when you didn’t mean to. Air assassinations, ledge assassinations, cover assassinations, the gang’s all here, and the NPCs retain their thirty degree field of vision and inability to distinguish the official Assassin uniform from 18th century Parisians without a full five seconds of squinting.
In terms of exploring history, Assassin’s Creed: Unity represents massive missed opportunities. I’m not the first one to point out how weird it is that the Assassins favored the Ancien Regime, one of Europe’s most totalitarian regimes of the era, while the Templars backed the French Revolution. And it’s not just that the Assassins backed the Ancien Regime as an alternative to the Jacobins, since we see them aligned with the French as early as 1752 in Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, a game that Unity was developed alongside (to the degree that this game’s prologue is playable as an actually fun level in that game’s epilogue). If you wanted to portray the Assassins as villains, the French Revolution was the perfect place to do it: They overthrow the Ancien Regime to try and install a new order, and it results in a Reign of Terror. With the perspective of history we know that while the First Republic got taken over by Napoleon and the Second Republic burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp, the Third Republic stayed up and the modern people of France are much better off than if we decided to just keep the Ancien Regime around forever, but it’s easy to make a story about how the Assassins tried to murder their way into good governance, lost control of their revolution, and the Templars are backing Napoleon to come in and clean up the Assassins’ mess and push Enlightenment ideals with an iron-fisted dictatorship run by a gifted narcissist, which is, like, peak Templar.
Instead, national heroes like Napoleon are sided with the Assassins, national mistakes like the Reign of Terror are cast as the fault of the Templars, and our hero Arno has a paint-by-numbers personal stake in the plot. Arno’s personal plot arc is even that his crush from before everything went to Hell and he became an Assassin is herself a Templar, that he got taken in by her family after the Templars killed his Assassin father and the inciting incident of the plot is that the Assassins killed her Templar father, except I lied, her Templar father was killed by rival Templars who didn’t approve of a truce the Parisian Templars had with the Assassins. God forbid we use one of our four prologues to establish the cyclically destructive nature of the conflict and the human cost of the Assassin/Templar war. The tale of lovers on opposite sides of a war usually works better when one of the lovers doesn’t have a personal grievance against her own team.
The gameplay innovation – following the same trend as Black Flag’s sailing and ship combat or Revelations’ tower defense – is partly the mysteries, which are actually very good. You use your detective vision to gather a bunch of clues, and while the culprit is usually pretty straightforward, that’s good. That’s Unity focusing on what an Assassin’s Creed game should be good at, which is not challenge. The mysteries take you to a couple of locations around Revolutionary Paris, ask you to examine those locations carefully, and tell a little story of infidelity, business rivalry, and/or inheritance dispute.
But the main gameplay innovation is the PvE multiplayer, which could’ve been good, but isn’t. You might’ve heard that a bunch of Assassin’s Creed multiplayer bits are being shut down, but Unity has escaped that, at least for now. If you’re lucky, you might even occasionally get matched with another player. Unfortunately, I found the system for doing so to be pretty interminable. The way the mission badges on the map work makes it hard to distinguish which ones you’ve completed from which ones you haven’t, you have to totally stop doing singleplayer content while you wait for a multiplayer team to be gathered because the game can’t handle yanking you out of an ongoing singleplayer mission (not even a sidequest that takes place in the open world without bookending cut scenes or anything) and then dumping you back in where you left off when you’re done. This means that if you’re queuing for a multiplayer mission, you can’t do anything else but queue. This is fine when assembling a team only takes thirty seconds, but if the population is too thin to assemble a team quickly, you can’t leave the teamfinder running in the background while you do other things – which means you stop looking for a team, thus reducing the population of people searching.
The multiplayer missions themselves are okay, but given that they’re just regular old Assassin’s Creed missions but with more people, I don’t know why they bothered having dedicated multiplayer missions at all. Why not just make it possible to call on reinforcements in any of the non-story missions? Or even the story missions, the multiplayer missions the game has already come with cut scenes, so clearly asking people to wait unless everyone unanimously agrees to skip cut scenes isn’t a bridge too far. Obviously the missions designed for a party will be very hard to do alone, but you can already try it anyway if you like, and the missions designed for a single player will be very easy with a party, but this isn’t Dark Souls and even if it was bringing a friend to help is the kind of easy mode that even FromSoftware endorses. Just make sure to label the missions intended for a party as such, maybe with a pop up saying “hey, chief, this mission’s meant for 4 people, would you like us to find you a team?” when you accept the mission.
Instead, the multiplayer feels like an entirely separate game mode, just like the PvP multiplayer of every game since ACII, to the point where I totally ignore the multiplayer mission badges unless I specifically want to play multiplayer, in which case I trigger the missions from the menu rather than walking up to the quest ATMs in the game world. They may as well not be in the game world at all.
Plus, it turns out the game wasn’t even made in the Unity engine, so, false advertising.