Revisiting Assassin’s Creed Unity: A Polarizing, Turning Point For The Series

Just in time for its free run, thanks to Ubisoft.
For better or for worse, Assassin's Creed Unity signals the start of the end of an era for the series.
For better or for worse, Assassin's Creed Unity signals the start of the end of an era for the series. Ubisoft

Unity, for better and for worse, was the turning point for the whole Assassin’s Creed series.

When it was first released back in November 2014, Assassin's Creed Unity generated a lot of hype as it featured new innovations to what was being seen as a stagnating series. A new system for combat was featured, and though not entirely different to games before it, Unity was significant enough to be called ‘rebuilt’. For the first time in the series, Unity also included what would be the foundation for the RPG mechanics now prevalent in both Origins and Odyssey. Unity featured a skill system, where all the main quests reward you with points to spend towards new and upgraded abilities.

There is also a wider range of equipment to choose from, all of which add stats to your character, instead of single pieces of armor upgraded throughout the game. It also slowly, yet surely, introduced ‘time savers’, which are one of Ubisoft’s implementations of microtransactions. The game contains a multiplayer component via cooperative play and a social club.

When I first played through Unity years ago, I thought to myself that the changes introduced were good for the series. I consider myself to be a pretty big Assassin’s Creed fan, and I have played through them religiously, while still understanding what a flawed series it is. I finished the first one, even though I found it tedious, and managed to find some enjoyment in Ezio and Desmond’s stories in II, Brotherhood and Revelations. I also liked what Black Flag brought to the table, but I always find myself wondering if that truly was a mainline Assassin’s Creed game or just a spinoff. Rogue was my favorite when it comes to narrative, and I wished that Ubisoft made more Assassin’s Creed games that focused on the Templar Order; in spite of the paper-thin writing, ‘meh’ dialog, and more-often-than-not boring characters, I honestly believe that the Assassin’s Creed games shine the best when it comes to their Templars.

What inspired my hope that Unity would be good for the series’ health was mostly borne from the fact that after so many games, Assassin’s Creed became predictable. I firmly believe that before Unity, the series before peaked with Revelations, which introduced new mechanics and gameplay elements while still staying true to what Assassin’s Creed was. It was therefore fitting that after what I considered the series’ lowest point at III, Ubisoft would begin implementing changes into the game design.

Fast forward a few years later, and I got the chance to play Unity again, which was given away for free by Ubisoft to all PC players on Uplay to honor the recent Notre Dame fire. I thought that this would be a good time to revisit where all these changes to make the series into an RPG began, and suddenly I found myself disagreeing with what I opined in the past as a solid move on Ubisoft’s part.

The prettiest Assassin’s Creed

Yes it’s subjective, but for my money, Unity has to be the most attractive Assassin’s Creed game. If there’s one thing I can rely on with Ubisoft, its their world artists and how much effort they gave into making Paris come alive on my computer screen. It’s silly now when I think about it, but when I was younger, I absolutely had no way to play Unity; consoles where I live cost a ton, and when I was living in a dormitory, I only had access to a very modest laptop and very limited spending money. This means I had to find less-than-ideal means to play certain games. The real kicker was that while I could play all of the Assassin’s Creed games until Rogue – albeit the higher hardware requirements means that settings had to be turned to low – my laptop could not handle Unity.

Long story short, when I finally got a job, the first thing I did on a more powerful computer was to buy Unity and enjoy how pretty it is. It has now become somewhat of a benchmark for me, even though I am aware that it is starting to show its age compared to more modern releases. Something about Unity just screams soul, which is more than I can say for other visually-appealing games.

After playing it again last week, I can still mostly stick to my past assessment when it comes to visuals, but the level design is different. For how pretty Assassin's Creed Unity's take on Paris is, it can also be quite shallow. While you can still marvel in amazement at some of the sights, especially Notre Dame, you get tired of everything else after a while. The constant repetition of what you see in every corner, every rooftop, every street – the level may be big, but repetition in such a big place means that it will stick out like a sore thumb.

This has also started a trend that I never though I would disagree with: making the maps bigger. Every year after the release of Unity, a selling point has always been that the map is bigger. But just how big is too big, really? How much more of a map can you explore before you realize that most of it is just empty filler for a really small payoff? Isn’t it better to reach a point where you say ‘yeah, this is the perfect map size’ and just continually add more details to that map until you can go bigger again?

Characterization and appeal

As much as Ubisoft tried to change the series to meet new demands and keep Assassin's Creed from stagnating, none of its titles’ characters can compare to the two major protagonists Ezio and Desmond. It may be for this very reason that we got three titles with them both together; Ezio’s whole life spanned what was arguably the three best Assassin’s Creed games: II, Brotherhood and Revelations. Ezio was the quintessential assassin, and Desmond tied the world of the past and present together in ways we haven't seen since.

Playing through Unity again, I found myself skipping the cutscenes because I just couldn’t be bothered to watch them. While I do think that Arno is a somewhat serviceable character, especially in the course of his journey towards understanding the Creed, he lacks charisma to be taken as seriously as his Italian brother-in-arms. There are some great motivations, like his search for familial figures in both Elise and her father, as well as Bellec, but ultimately all those fall flat due to some off-putting trait that I can’t quite put my finger on; to be as blunt as possible, I think he’s kind of pathetic.

This hardly mattered though, since after Ezio, no Assassin’s Creed main character ever came back for two games. Black Flag, for instance, completely did away with a modern-day character, instead featuring an unnamed Abstergo employee that Ubisoft thought we could identify with, in an almost meta kind of way. I, for one, could not give a flying f-word about the modern-day storyline ever since Desmond’s death; putting you in the shoes of a modern-day assassin interacting with arguably the worst characters in the series was the final nail in the coffin.

With all of these missteps in characterization, it’s therefore not surprising to see the series take a huge turn towards RPG elements. These elements are now cemented in Odyssey’s dialog choices, all of which allow you to characterize what kind of person your misthios will be.

Move into RPG territory

Unity’s inclusion of RPG elements such as skill trees and customizable equipment was its idea of trying to refresh the stagnating series. I do wonder, as I play through Unity, how much of its identity was lost while trying to do this?

It certainly worked for its time. If there are things to be praise Assassin’s Creed Unity for, it’s the new features Ubisoft introduced. The skill trees, cooperative gameplay, the bigger world, the customizable equipment – it was all very well-received. For a time, I was of the same mind as well, seeing as how a little bit of new elements can’t hurt a game. There is always the need to reinvent in order to keep things fresh.

However, Unity is most certainly responsible for what Assassin’s Creed is today. While I don’t hate Origins, or even Odyssey, I do find them different from the Assassin’s Creed I played through all those years ago. With the direction the series is going, I can only see future games going after goals that are present in almost every other genre except Assassin’s Creed: bigger maps rather than smaller ones that are more detailed, blank slate RPG characters rather than well-written ones, hack-and-slash combat elements rather than refining the existing combat – while none of the former are inherently bad, it could’ve been much better if they refocused on what made the early games so good, at least for me.

I guess that what I’m trying to say is that the later Assassin’s Creed games aren’t bad at all. On the contrary, they are excellent hack-and-slash action titles. But I feel like in the grand scheme of things, these aren’t Assassin’s Creed games. They are only thematical successors to a franchise that I think should’ve ended with Rogue. I do hope that in the future, Assassin's Creed finds its identity again, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have one more game focusing on the Templar Order before the series finally reaches its natural end.

You can experience Assassin’s Creed Unity for free on PC through Uplay, as part of Ubisoft’s commitment to the restoration of the Notre-Dame cathedral. The offer lasts until Thursday April 25, so there’s still some time to download and play through what is very much the series’ end-of-an-era title.

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