Assassin’s Creed Unity: satisfying ?

We're half an hour in, being chased through Versailles by a West Country blacksmith, when we head, sighing, to the audio settings. Assassin’s Creed  has long evoked a stronger sense of place when heard in its mother tongue, but never before has it felt like the only option. Our hero, Arno Dorian, should not sound like he has arrived fresh from a stint on Mr Selfridge; a Versailles blacksmith shouldn't seem like he’s fresh off the boat from Taunton. French it is.

A few things are lost in translation, admittedly. Cutscenes have been built for English audio, so to play Unity in French is to undermine its current-gen-only visuals with PS1-era lip sync. And only principal dialogue is subtitled, so you’ll miss out on a lot of incidental chatter. This has been part of the package ever since ACII, but it’s never been so pronounced Unity’s Revolutionary Paris is enormous, sure, but it’s the density that hits you rather than the sprawl, with thronging crowds and tightly nestled buildings as far as the eye can see. There are modelled interiors, too, from the explorable townhouses in posh quarters to stacked apartments elsewhere. And it all looks delightful: remarkably lit, lovingly textured, impossibly detailed and teeming with life. Unity’s Paris is incredible, and sets a new standard for open worlds, if only in scope.

Execution, however, is another matter. At launch, discussion about the game centred mostly on performance issues, although we’ve witnessed only a handful of truly bizarre pieces of behaviour among the countless thousands of Parisians whose paths we’ve crossed. Naturally, experiences vary, but to many fellow players we’ve talked with, the game isn’t as crippled by glitches as its memes suggest. Which is just as well, because there are plenty of problems elsewhere.

Dorian is the biggest of the lot. In a series that needs graceful heroes, he stands apart as a bumbling buffoon, a new traversal system making him the most unwieldy assassin to date. It’s a decent concept hold the right trigger to navigate horizontal space, press one button to make him go up, another to descend that falters in practice, with too much overlap between the three systems. Try to escape a sword fight and Dorian may hop onto a gravestone; turn and scarper from a group of pursuers on the street and he could well clamber up a lamppost. He is confounded by windows, never entirely sure if you want him to go through them, above them, or simply to hop incessantly between the corners of Paris’s many small balconies. A prompt that claims you can enter windows with L2 seems misleading at first and, later, like an outright lie. L2 also triggers stealth mode, a crouched stance in which Dorian retains his habit of hopping onto nearby furniture, while a one-button cover system somehow manages to be basic and botched at the same time. Dorian, like his forebears, has no problem staying out of sight outdoors, but when you do finally get him to go through a window, you might as well simply unsheathe your sword and get on with it.
There are some noble intentions here, almost all of them undermined by Ubisoft asking that you wrestle with a fool
Sadly, combat has never been weaker. Built around an Arkham style counterattack system, there’s an awkward pause between a parry and a follow-up, as if Dorian is surprised at his success. It’s unresponsive, woolly, and lacking in finesse. It’s also where  Unity ’s most calamitous problem is most often exposed. Framerates fluctuate from uncomfortable to unbearable, sometimes even dropping to single figures. Busy combat scenes are the most regular culprit especially in the co-op missions, where the enemy count scales up but even away from battle and without thousands of NPCs onscreen, you can expect frequent slideshows.

It becomes depressingly clear that Unity needed a few more months in the oven, yet there was somehow enough time for Ubisoft to make its standard morass of open-world busy work, and for the business development teams to work their dark magic. Certain chests are locked until you’ve played the companion app and others until you've levelled up in Initiates, which supposedly tracks progress across the AC oeuvre but has refused to recognise the presence of almost the entire series in our Uplay account, even Unity itself. Meanwhile, a premium currency speeds up progress through the new customisable loadout system, and you can buy melee or stealth boosts with microtransactions.

Assassin’s Creed games have always been exercises in forgiveness. To enjoy them is to overlook their foibles: their combat and menial tasks, their lacklustre stories and mission designs, their modern-day guff. What is most frustrating is the obvious effort that has been made to address some of those long-standing flaws, and the extent to which that effort has been undermined by the loss of a critical few months of polish. Dorian, for all his blundering, is likeable; no Ezio Auditore, perhaps, but no Connor Kenway either. The story, while an unimaginative revenge tale, uses the Revolutionary period sparingly and well. Lose a target in a tailing mission and you can just track them down again, rather than reset to a checkpoint. There are some noble intentions here, almost all of them undermined by Ubisoft’s refusal to put you in control of a hero, instead asking that you wrestle with a fool.

It was not so long ago that we praised Ubisoft for its willingness to delay big releases for the sake of quality. Clearly the buck stops at Assassin’s Creed, which has become too important to the balance sheet to slip beyond Thanksgiving. The patching process has begun in earnest, and in the unlikely event that everything is fixed, this might rival the best this series has to offer. At release, it offers a staggeringly beautiful world filled with unfinished systems, ugly cash grabs, and a string of missed opportunities.

Last year’s Assassin’s Creed companion app synced to a console running  Black Flag  and presented its map onscreen. It was a bit of player-focused thinking that runs entirely counter to  Unity’s app, which retains that feature but also offers a game that pulls every trick in the mobile monetisation book. These span from Candy Crush-style invitations to buy extra turns after failing a puzzle to wait timers and health bars in the Nomad missions, which are based on the Brotherhood system from Ezio Auditore’s  like-titled outing. It’s not even free some features and upgrades are walled off unless you’re prepared to pony up £1.49 while the constant scanning for a console running Unity means it’ll empty your battery as well your wallet.

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