Assassin's Creed Unity is a game with a ton of problems, some hilarious, some of great concern. So in a lot of ways, I agree with Stephen's review of the game. I can understand why people are down on the game. But I also don't care. In spite of everything, I just can't stop loving it.
Why? Because of Paris. It is the city of love, after all.
Assassin's Creed is a series that is a lot of things to a lot of people. Some fans are mostly into it for the stealth. Others the story. Others still the open-world sandbox nature of the games.
Me, I'm mostly in it for the history. The sense of place, of feeling like you're actually walking down the streets of a city that hasn't been that way for centuries. I guess I'm the literal embodiment of the fictional Assassin's Creed protagonist, a Helix user, the end-level consumer who just wants to sit down and walk a mile in someone else's long-gone shoes for a night.
So when I think back to what I loved best about older games in the series, I don't remember Revelations for its climbing hook or tower defence. I remember it for its sunset-draped depiction of Constantinople. I don't remember Black Flag for its tie-in apps or fortresses, I remember it for its blue skies and sea shanties. Ditto for II's ruined Roman Forum, or III's snow-capped frontier.
Unity, then, isn't something I'm inclined to assess solely in terms of its "video game" elements. Which is lucky for Unity, since so many of them suck. It really is a massive step backwards for the series, and a sign that its "sticky" control system needs a complete overhaul.
Yet I'm finding so much of my time with the game doesn't fall foul of these issues, because I'm not really playing the game. I've spent an unhealthy number of hours just...walking around the city.
Here's what I'm doing: I fire up Unity, it loads, I long-press the right thumbstick (which removes the game's HUD) and go for long, casual strolls. Which to many of you probably makes me sound like a crazy person.
But there's just so much detail in Unity's Paris that I keep getting dragged into long spells of just soaking it up. I'll walk into buildings just to see what's happening. I'll explore alleys and dead-ends not in search of a treasure chest, but just to see what's lying around . I walk past stores and cafes admiring the cracked paint on their windows and the frayed printing. I'll stand in a crowd and just listen.
It's a history lover's dream come true. OK, maybe not the game's direct interpretation of history - Napoleon wasn't such a badass - but the way Unity has captured the sights and sounds of a time period and lets you walk amongst them is something I can't get enough of.
I've seen people do similar things in the new first-person mode in Grand Theft Auto V, and also games like Skyrim. I guess there's a point we're hitting where video game worlds can show enough variety, scale and local flavour that they're finally becoming compelling enough to distract you from the game part.
Unity's masses of people set its Paris apart from Los Santos (and similar titles), though. I think more than the fidelity on its floorboards and the stunning lighting pouring in through first-floor windows, its just the number of people filling the streets that makes it feel like more than just a glorified parkour arena.
Assassin's Creed games have always had pedestrians, but their limited attire and number meant they always felt more like clockwork obstacles than actual residents. Unity hasn't solved the clockwork part yet, but by showing a massive variety of people in large numbers, and having your speakers filled with their idle chatter, Paris feels alive. Especially if you do the smart thing and play the whole game in French with the subtitles on.
Of course, none of this excuses the game's failings. For every wonderful walk I take along the Seine, there's a moment of frustration when I get stuck on a wall or killed by someone I couldn't even see on the screen. There's no way of saying, hey, it's OK guys, forget all the busted stuff and terrible design decisions in this game because it's gorgeous and a lot of artists spent a lot of time making sure Paris looked perfect.
And yet, it feels unfair to dismiss that immersion because of the problems. I know this game has issues, but I can't stop playing it, and I can't stop admiring and appreciating all the research, art, animation and recording work that went into it. It's almost as though all this expensive next-gen tech is allowing Ubisoft to create more than just a game, and that Assassin's Creed's worlds are now going to be so detailed and complex that the missions and mechanics are just garnish, something to be sprinkled over the top.
Which might be where a lot of Unity's problems come from, actually. They got the world right, and that was the big, expensive part. Now all they need to do is get the game bits working better...