Assassin's Creed Unity Is Bringing Back The Series' Greatest Experiment

Here we go again. Another Assassin's Creed that I'm excited about. Why this one? Well, oddly enough, because the game seems like a successor to the under-appreciated Assassin's Creed Revelations.

Do you want your Assassin's Creed to feel like a giant chemistry set again? A big, historical opportunity to tinker with vast crowds and see what they do? A way to stir up an urban population as an assassin? I do. And that's what's coming back.

Now, full disclosure, I like this series very much. And I'm a glass half-full guy. I get excited about every AC game and I find things to like a lot in all of them. Thus this and this.

Perhaps you won't agree with me all the time. Perhaps you see a stagnating annual series where I see one that changes things up a good amount by switching locales and, occasionally, gameplay focus.

Maybe we can at least agree that last year's Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag was pretty refreshing? All that piracy stuff was good! And the game was beautiful.

Now we've got AC Unity, which for some reason isn't called Assassin's Creed V even though we're in a new setting (Paris) in a new era (French Revolution) with a new character (Arno Dorian). See? Even in the title they're breaking the old rules. Bold.

This one's for PC, PS4 and Xbox One. It comes out on October 28.

I have played Unity a couple of weeks ago—for a hilariously brief time, maybe 90 seconds or so... not really long enough to tell you that it's great or bad, but long enough to tell you that I ran my assassin toward a wall diagonally and, lo, he climbed up said wall diagonally. To non AC players, this is a big old "who cares?". To those of us who've played in the Assassin's Creed worlds of right-angled navigation, this is next-gen advancement. Seriously, it's cool, and it's thanks to an adjustment in the series' parkour and climbing that the game's creative director Alex Amancio says should make running and climbing through Unity more freeform.

During a half-hour interview in Los Angeles, Amancio told me that players of the older games in the series tended to run the same small number of lanes up, down and through the cities of those games. It was the game creators' fault for designing their cities to encourage that. "We relied a lot on ingredients," he said, using the developers' term for haystacks and poles and other hand-placed climbable objects.

The new approach to character movement should allow climbing to be more systemic, to simply allow more to be climbed and to let players climb and parkour up and down. Hold the right trigger and press one button to run toward a building facade and climb up it. Hold right trigger and a different button to climb down. That's what was happening in the game's E3 demo here:

Assassin's Creed Unity Is Bringing Back The Series' Greatest Experiment

You can still leap off a building and land in a haystack. That's iconic and still going to be the thing to do after you reach one of Unity's high surveillance points. But now you can more easily simply climb down. And, as I noted, you can climb up, diagonally.

None of that character navigation stuff has much to do with Assassin's Creed Revelations, though, and it's not what most excites me about Unity. Nor are the following facts, promising as they might be:

  • The addition of a crouch button that activates Unity's series-first stealth mode. While in stealth mode, Arno will crouch and be harder to detect.
  • The fact that when you climb to the top of a roof, you'll suddenly see all sorts of icons appear among the buildings below. "What we're revealing is not missions or side stories," Amancio said. "[We're revealing] opportunities—the hide spots, the alarm bells, all of the stuff you need to create strategy. The idea, he said, is to emphasize that the assassin is strongest when he's on the roof. "To me assassin on rooftop is akin to the eagle circling its prey."
  • The idea that combat will be tougher thanks in part to the removal of unblockable assassin combos. "What we wanted to do in ACU is to make a game where you're playing like an assassin," Amancio said. "How we did that is, first, we made combat much more challenging. If the path of least resistance is to fight, that's what you're going to do." The difficulty of combat will encourage players to sneak and it will force them to learn how to more effectively fight different foes. Some enemies will be too fast for dodging to be effective, others too strong for you to parry. And if there are a lot of enemies? They will shoot and kill you. "More than five, you're going to get killed."
  • The promise to cut down on, in Amancio's words, "Benny Hill moments" in which your assassin is being chased across rooftops by hordes of guards. They'd do this by allowing Arno to throw a smoke bomb and more effectively slip away when the going gets tough.
  • The change to the threat detection system which will emulate Far Cry 3 and put the awareness meter around Arno's body instead of on each enemy. Players should have an improved understanding of who is spotting them and from which side. "We're all about making stealth better," Amancio said, "making it easier to read."
  • The peppering of Unity's Paris with tons of side content. Amancio calls it "1,000 stories of Paris," the idea that the game's vast city (and many explorable interiors) will be full of treasure hunts, contracts, and even stuff that's, well, "not even a mission: go into a house, there's a dead body, use eagle sense, see blood, see traces… follow it and find something secret, or find a letter that tells you about things in the person's life."
  • The removal of the automatic day-night system, in favor of locking the time of day in the game at various times. The idea is to keep players from feeling rushed and from having some of their in-game progress reset by the quick passing of sunrise and sunset. (I wonder, but didn't ask, if it's also because of changes to how the game world will be illuminated and animated.)
  • The assurance that, yes, the four-player co-op might be cool but that all missions can be solo'd if you've leveled up your Arno enough.

All that's nice, but it's not what has most strongly held my attention about Unity. What has captivated me is its connection to Revelations. The 2011 Revelations was Amancio's last Assassin's Creed game and it's the one that, more than any AC before it or after, felt to me like a cutting-edge chemistry set. From a gameplay perspective, that game was largely about how its assassin, Ezio, interacted with the crowds in Constantinople. A lot of this was enabled by the game's odd bomb system. I wrote about this in my review of Revelations:

The bombs are one of the most "next-gen" ideas this generation. They are, essentially, tools for manipulating the artificial intelligence of a crowd. They are the ultimate tool in an arsenal of tools that the Assassin's Creed series has given the player through the iteration of the franchise.

Consider the options the Assassin's Creed: Revelations player has when standing, as Ezio, on a crowded Constantinople street. Imagine that the road is full of civilians milling about, some walking, some selling their wares. At the far end is a trio of guards. Let's say Ezio wants to get to the treasure chest behind them. This is not a storyline mission. It's just an opportunity in a city dense with them.

  • He could walk up to the first two guards, stab them both at once and then fight the other one and the reinforcements that third guard calls. With this approach, the player can decide whether Ezio will use his sword or disarm his enemy and use their weapon. Or Ezio can run away, lose his enemies in the chase and then return to raid the chest. But Ezio doesn't have to attack directly.
  • The player can make him shoot one guard with a poison dart and then watch that guard, deranged, possibly kill his comrades before dying.
  • Or Ezio can call in his assassins and just stand there as they either do the killing or succumb in the fight.
  • Or he can summon his assassin brotherhood to rain down arrows and immediately kill all the guards, though that act can only be done infrequently.
  • He may find some mercenaries and pay them to attack the guards or find some woman to flirt with the guards.
  • He can take to the rooftops, run around behind and climb to the treasure chest without any conflict at all.
  • Add to all this the bomb option. He could use a blood-splatter bomb to stun the guards into thinking they're hurt, then walk over and kill them. He could set off a noise bomb in an alley and hope they investigate the sound. He can do all these things in that street. He can do all of those things at just about any time in the game, in a mission or not. The range of possible expression given the player is extraordinary. The range of ways the player can role-play Ezio is without peer in the medium

Essentially, Revelations was a game of systems, a game of relatively complex crowd behaviors and the player's ability to manipulate them.

That appears to be what Unity is about, too.

Amancio estimates that Ubisoft's developers are rendering about 5,000 Parisians on-screen at once.

Those Parisians are divided into three factions: 1) Cops/guards — "they will simply try to get order to be maintained." 2) "Aggressors are sort of the faction the political extremist faction. They will try to provoke people and try to start fights, they will be reprimanded by the cops and if they keep at it they will be attacked." 3) "The third faction is the crowd itself. These are the revolutionaries. Some of them are armed themselves. They can react to a situation."

Watch a demo of the new game and you'll hear Amancio himself discussing in passing how the player, as Arno, can choose to nudge any of these factions to action and how these factions will also mingle and interact with each other.

Repeatedly, Amancio kept talking about systems. He kept talking about making Unity's gameplay more systemic, whether he was talking about character navigation or about this crowd stuff. All those 5,000 characters can have brains. They can do things. They can mix things up, he said. "Somebody from the crowd flow can meet somebody else from the crowd flow and say, 'Hey, I know you.' And then they can decide to stop and shop or something. [The fact] that we've done that...how can we do some gameplay on top of that?"

What I enjoyed most about Revelations was how I, as Ezio, could tinker with the crowds' behavior, how I could use them to help be a great virtual assassin. And that sounds like what Unity will offer, too.

The approach Unity's creators have taken with crowds seems to extend to what they've done with mission design. It, too, is more of a system.

"We changed the way we make missions," Amancio said. "There's like two major categories of missions, AMMs—adaptive mission mechanics—and blackboxes."

The AMMs are Unity's way of getting away from designing missions that can only work as tailing missions or only work as eavesdrop missions. An example of an AMM: "You need to get here, that dude has the key—or you need to know where he's going. You start as a tail. He spots you, he bolts. No desync. [Translation: The mission doesn't fail.] It turns into a chase. You lose him. It becomes a locate. Let's say he goes into a riot and he gets killed. You loot the body, and you might find a letter that tells you where it is. Now the dude's missing so there's going to be twice as many guards on the other side."

See? Systemic!

As for blackbox missions, all of the co-op missions are blackboxes. They are limited by geography and can be exteriors or interiors. You're shown a playbook of available moments/actions in the area, listing maybe two secret entrances, two mob missions, one special assassination... stuff like that. Leaving the area is not a desync, Amancio said. I didn't quite get it, but it sounds like a mission that plays as an activity-filled sandbox. I'm intrigued.

There's also something called mod missions, missions that might change part of the game world and make the next mission easier. Amancio shared an example in which you might lock some grates in one mission that would allow you to fill the area with smoke in the next and use eagle vision to hunt your target.

If you've played Revelations, you, like me, might see the potential that I see in Unity taking the chemistry set idea further. Amancio, though, seems to prefer comparing the game to the first Assassin's Creed, promising a game that feels revelatory for the new hardware it's on and transformative to its genre.

Every spring and summer may bring new Assassin's Creed promises. Every fall delivers the results. We're in the season of enthusiasm and I see some very good reasons to be hopeful about Unity. Let's see how it develops. I'd enjoy experiencing an interactive French Revolution that plays like an open-world chemistry set.

To contact the author of this post, write to stephentotilo@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter @stephentotilo.