Assassin's Creed Unity is a game as big as it is broken, as divisive as it is lavish. So our three biggest Assassin's Creed fans figured they'd sit down and get to the bottom of this conundrum.
Luke Plunkett: So, we're in a weird place here. Kirk, I know you're down on Assassin's Creed Unity. Stephen, you went so far as to give the game a "no" in your review, which is pretty damning. And yet...I really, really enjoyed the game.
Stephen Totilo: I was nervous about that "No," because I really like the series and there I was telling people not to bother playing this one. I've enjoyed going back to each AC game weeks or months after finishing the games' main campaigns to play more of the side stuff—and each time I've enjoyed the games even more. I was concerned that I'd eventually return to Unity and like it more, that I'd eventually discover that its strangeness had bothered me but that it was ultimately a good game. For better or worse, however, I've gone back to the game a few times and still not enjoyed it very much.
Stephen Totilo: I think Ubi built a great city for this game, but I just don't think they filled it with many interesting things to do. A lot of the sidequests feel like user-generated content. And the main quest has its moments, but is far less interesting than the adventures of Ezio, Edward, Shay, Aveline and Altair.
"I think Assassin's Creed has blown out into a series that is so big even Ubisoft isn't quite sure what it's doing with it."
Kirk Hamilton: I, on the other hand, was not nervous about that "No." I played along with Stephen when he was reviewing the game, and dislike so many different things about it that it's hard to know where to begin. It just feels like such a hot mess, a comprehensive step back from ACIV, and more annoying and disappointing for me than ACIII was, which I thought was a pretty annoying, disappointing game. It's also well below the standards set by some of Ubisoft's other games, which is odd. I should say I haven't played THAT much—probably played 10 or so hours at this point, I'd have to check steam. But every time I decide to play, I get to a section that's so frustrating and half-assed that I quit and go play something else.
Kirk Hamilton: I do love, however, that the three of us—The Assassin's Creed Brotherhood Of Kotaku—are in a similar situation to the one we found ourselves in with ACIII. That time, Stephen liked the game and Luke and I disliked it. This time, Luke's the non-hater. Luke, I read your article about why you like the game, but all the same... why did you enjoy it so much? How were you able to overlook so many glaring problems?
Luke Plunkett: I guess it's the same reason we were divided over that game. I think Assassin's Creed has blown out into a series that is so big even Ubisoft isn't quite sure what it's doing with it. Outside of some core objectives and systems, there doesn't appear to a single voice or direction guiding the series between games, which results in a game every year that can be radically different from the one that came before it. And not always in a good way.
Stephen Totilo: Yeah, and part of me is delighted to have gotten an AC this year that I disliked. To be charitable, it's a sign of them trying something really different.
Kirk Hamilton: I don't know that I agree - there are so many things in this game that are the same as past games. Problems the series has had, mostly. What do you think is really different?
Stephen Totilo: I preferred what they did with Rogue in terms of story and gameplay experimentation, but I'm thrilled that they are building new-gen graphics tech that looks as good as Unity's. They tried to make a more loot-centric game that went deeper into speccing a character's stats. And they tried to do co-op—though only went halfway, sadly.
Luke Plunkett: That's great for Rogue, but it's also what worries me about the series, and ties back to what I said about them not knowing what the hell they're doing. Constantly throwing mechanics and ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks. And even when something does stick, and is fun, there's no guarantee it carries over into future games.
Kirk Hamilton: We've talked about that before, Luke - the idea that there doesn't appear to be some guiding hand behind Assassin's Creed saying, confidently, "this is what an AC game should be, this is what the series is all about." Not in the same way as at somewhere like, say, Blizzard. So it kind of just spirals out in random directions, and each game feels like a crapshoot.
Stephen Totilo: I disagree. Assassin's Creed is about historical tourism, stealth and stabbing. The arguable part is whether it's ALSO about a centuries-spanning conspiracy that reaches into a playable modern day.
Kirk Hamilton: Right, but is it also about piracy and high-seas adventure? Or was that a one-off?
Luke Plunkett: But is it? Assassin's Creed IV was about sailing and sea shanties. III was about trudging through snow.
Kirk Hamilton: Right. IV and III were partly about living off of the wilderness. Is that what AC is about?
"...it feels like they're throwing ideas at the wall in a way that other series from other developers don't always."
Stephen Totilo: Does it matter? I assume Ubi picks a cool era and sends its players there, giving them the period-appropriate means to get around. It always gives you some sneaky killing to do, which up until now has involved stabbing with a dash of shooting. That's why, on paper, Unity seemed pretty cool! It's just the execution that felt lackluster. Beautiful, boring city (Luke disagrees). Boring missions.
Luke Plunkett: It's only boring if you're looking at it like a playground. Like a video game level.
Kirk Hamilton: I guess it matters because it reflects how these games don't always feel confident in their new ideas. Of course, there's an underlying concept to Assassin's Creed, like you said. But it feels like they're throwing ideas at the wall in a way that other series from other developers don't always.
Luke Plunkett: I looked at it - and I imagine Ubisoft looked at it the same way - as a living, breathing city. Something beyond just dropping some buildings in certain spots for the sole purpose of you running over them. Then again, that was also the problem, because while the expanse and variety of Paris was beautiful and "real", it impacted on why the game felt so empty.
Kirk Hamilton: See, Paris was disappointing for me even then. Glitchy crowds, weird repetitive faces, those stupid street events constantly happening and grabbing my attention...
Stephen Totilo: I tackled a lot of bad people!
Kirk Hamilton: Take that, thief!
Kirk Hamilton: I actually remember tackling my first dude, it was this super disappointing moment
Stephen Totilo: I actually liked that. I liked being able to do a sort of side-task while on the run to a main mission, not unlike grabbing toilet paper by spinning around a lamp post in Sunset Overdrive en route to shooting a monster with a flaming shotgun.
Kirk Hamilton: I'd played the intro, which was astonishing looking, and the first thing that happened when I got to paris was a thief I could tackle. And it was so janky, and the animations were weird, and I clipped through him and knocked him down, and it basically looked like the first AC game. I was like oh, okay.
Luke Plunkett: But whatever. Those missions are obviously one of the few things that ARE tied into a coherent and consistent system, in a broader Ubisoft kind of way. They're just Unity's version of Far Cry 4's karma events, etc. "Oh hey, let's give players the option to do something little to break up the monotony of travel". I didn't mind them. I thought the "stab a criminal in the back" ones were more enjoyable, if only for the resulting chaos
"It feels like one Ubi team made the city and another had to figure out how to populate it with stuff to do—and it feels like the two didn't coordinate."
Kirk Hamilton: Right but a key difference is that in Far Cry 4 karma events are fun and they work, and aren't tied to lousy mechanics and bad combat. So they're actually a fun little exciting thing rather than a weird, stilted sideshow.
Stephen Totilo: Of all things to slam, I think they actually are pretty smoothly done. Now the Nostradamus missions on the other hand, they are my ACU sadness.
Kirk Hamilton: I'm going to make you sad... I still haven't done one.
Stephen Totilo: In previous AC games, we got to go through elaborate side missions to gradually earn the right to wear the games' ultimate armor. But in this game?
Luke Plunkett: Hahaha, I didn't do one either. I looked at them on paper and just went "nope, not for me"
Stephen Totilo: In this game, we have to read poetry and figure out which locations in the city the poems refer to, then scan glyphs at those points. There's almost no actual video game design to it. It might as well be an augmented reality game set in real Paris. It feels like it was tossed in at the end and that, like many of the game's mission,s was developed independent of the city itself. So few of the missions—Nostradamus, Paris Stories, etc—actually feel like the game's playing field has been sculpted for them, which is why I said the missions often feel like user-generated content. It feels like one Ubi team made the city and another had to figure out how to populate it with stuff to do—and it feels like the two didn't coordinate.
Nostradamus deserved better.
Kirk Hamilton: Right. Every mission feels bolted onto the game after the fact. Compare that to, say, GTA V's "Chase the plane while on the dirt bike" mission, which was tied to the world in such an organic, interesting way - I agree with Luke, Unity's design seems like it reflects a fragmented development. It's also how some parts of the game can be so good (the art! the visuals!) and some can be so lousy (the stealth! the controls! most of the mission design!) Which is all too bad, because the city itself seems like it could support some really cool, sprawling mission design, especially with the comparatively vast memory resources of new consoles.
Stephen Totilo: To be fair, Unity's chase-the-balloon mission is pretty close to GTA V's chase-the-plane mission in terms of design. That was one of the few main missions I really dug.
Kirk Hamilton: Ah, well, I haven't done that mission. But I'm guessing it doesn't match the way that GTA V combined everything about their game and world—driving to the vantage point, shooting the plane, swapping to trevor, off-roading after the plane, fighting to the briefcase—into a single level.
Unless it does! In which case, high five to the person who designed that level.
Stephen Totilo: Uh, no.
Kirk Hamilton: haha
Stephen Totilo: But that means you probably haven't done the Arno-is-drunk missions, which are the game's nadir. Luke knows.
Luke Plunkett: Nadir indeed
Kirk Hamilton: You guys are actually making me want to play more, perversely
Luke Plunkett: You should, Kirk, because this is a good video game, with good times
Stephen Totilo: Sell it, Luke. Sell us on how we should go back and play.
Kirk Hamilton: Yeah! I'm stuck on a pre-assassination story mission that's so annoying that I keep quitting. Why should I power through?
Luke Plunkett: I feel like you guys have just approached the game too....directly. Mechanically. Stephen, you said above that one of the key tenets of the series is historical tourism. Well, no Assassin's Creed game has ever felt quite as grounded or "real" as Unity does.
I said this in my post defending the game, but there's enjoyment to be had ignoring the game completely. No missions, no HUD, nothing. Just...walking around Paris, listening to the sounds, navigating crowds, seeing the neighbourhoods blend into one another.
Every corner of the map has a little story to tell, a little secret in art or design to be found
Stephen Totilo: And an Initiates treasure chest!
Kirk Hamilton: I do like your idea of turning off the HUD and just walking around. I guess I just... as much as I like HUD-free, immersive games, I still want the game part to be fun, if that's what there is to do in the world. I like wandering in Far Cry 4 because fun stuff happens AND it's really pretty. If I wander in AC Unity I wind up just getting spotted and killed by random jerks. But... I will try it. I just wish that the game itself were more fun and worked better, then I'd be much more prone to wandering and taking it all in.
Luke Plunkett: There is fun to be had. I really enjoyed some of the staged, major assassination missions, in spite of the game's stealth problems. The digsuise mode/item was a real highlight, and completely changed the way you could approach many missions. I just wish it hadn't been so weirdly implemented
Kirk Hamilton: That's what I'm stuck on. The first one seemed so promising, but the execution was so lousy... I mean it fell way short of Hitman: Blood Money, and that came out fifty years ago.
Stephen Totilo: I'll try that HUDless wandering, too, Luke, because I'd like to enjoy Unity the way you enjoy it. But I didn't have to do that to enjoy running through trees in the forest of ACIII or to enjoy sailing through ACIV: Wind Waker.
Kirk Hamilton: And the disguises are a great idea! But then the first time I tried it I was spotted anyway and died. Then I tried it in another story mission and was told there wasn't a target in range. And I can't tell when it's cooled down and ready to use. It feels so tacked-on, it's a good idea but half-assed in implementation.
Luke Plunkett: Yeah, its problem was in its communication to the player, not in its actual usefulness. I hope they sort that out for Victory, because they'll need it given how terrible so much of Unity's other stealth options were. How you can make a game with a cover mechanic, but not let you move around corners behind that cover, escapes me.
"Ubisoft, unless you're going to make co-op that feels special—that feels like something other than singleplayer with three times the enemies—don't bother."
Stephen Totilo: Should they tweak/polish the parkour up and down button thing? Where you press one button while free-running to move up, and a different one for free-running down a building? Or should they ditch it?
Kirk Hamilton: Honestly, at this point I think they should overhaul the entire control setup.
Luke Plunkett: I really enjoyed it, once I got the hang of it. But it still felt patchy in places even then.
But what Kirk said, I think games like Shadow of Mordor have come along and shown Assassin's Creed how stale it is in many regards. And player control is definitely one of them.
Stephen Totilo: The new Eagle Vision system wasn't bad. The old version only worked when you moved slowly; this one was based on a timer and cooldown. It enabled more aggressive use of it, which I liked.
Kirk Hamilton: Yeah, I agree—and your tags don't linger forever, which makes it more challenging. Then again, a more challenging stealth system is only a good thing if the controls and awareness aren't garbage. I mean.. you can't even whistle in this game. You're so disempowered at all times, it constantly feels like the game is screwing you over. In ACIV, the overpowered eagle vision was a bit of a patch on the fact that the stealth itself, while improved, was still weird. This feels like a step back, as much as the individual idea is good.
Luke Plunkett: Here's the thing about the "steps back" this game has taken. Assassin's Creed IV included a feedback system. You could directly tell the developers what you thought about each mission. At the time I thought this was incredible, and would lead to a lot of big improvements in the series, but now I'm not so sure.
I mean, even allowing for the fact a lot of the feedback from IV probably couldn't be included in Unity because of the tight schedule, it's such a narrow-minded way of soliciting player's opinions. We can tell them whether we enjoyed or didn't enjoy a particular piece of design, but what about the larger issues? Where's the feedback system for "Arno's window-climbing sucked", or "the pacing is messed up", or "these characters are boring"?
I worry that Ubisoft are going to be poring over the feedback scores from both IV and Unity - and to their credit, doing things like ditching those awful tailing missions - and missing the bigger picture.
Stephen Totilo: Let's talk about co-op. Kirk and I tried it. We tried to like it. And we just weren't feeling it. Luke, did you try? My feedback on that would be: Ubisoft, unless you're going to make co-op that feels special—that feels like something other than singleplayer with three times the enemies—don't bother.
Kirk Hamilton: Luke, we kept wishing you were there with us as we suffered through that egregious "collect the flags!" co-op thing. Good lord, that was bad!
Luke Plunkett: Yeah, I looked at co-op and it just didn't appeal to me. The way it was implemented felt...intrusive? When I settle in with an Assassin's Creed game, I'm settling in on this grand singleplayer adventure, it felt jarring to have these real-world invasions popping up
Stephen Totilo: So even the concept of AC co-op doesn't do it for you? You wouldn't want to be in a haystack waiting to stab a guy that I'm chasing? Not even in theory?
Luke Plunkett: In theory, yeah! I guess it was the, ahem, execution that put me off.
Stephen Totilo: Well, speaking of executions—oh, I kill me—what'd you think of the vaunted "black box" assassination missions? I liked them in theory. The idea was that key assassination missions in single-player would feel open-ended or sandboxy, that there'd be multiple ways to complete them. But they didn't feel that rich with possibility to me. While I don't really want them to try again with co-op, I'd love for them to try to get the black box stuff right.
A la Hitman, I guess? As Kirk was alluding to before?
Luke Plunkett: It felt very Hitman. And also felt like some of the only instances in the game where, as we discussed earlier, it felt like the level had been designed specifically for the mission.
Kirk Hamilton: Yeah. It really struck me that those missions were the thing that IO already did so well back in 2006, or even earlier. Unity lifts a lot of ideas from Blood Money, but the execution is so poor, and the disguise system pales in comparison to Hitman's. So once again: Good idea, lousy implementation.
Stephen Totilo: As I said in my Unity review, I felt like other AC's—Black Flag, for instance—afforded me nearly as many ways to approach an assassination target. I didn't feel like I had all that many more options.
Luke Plunkett: Yeah, you probably didn't have many more at all. They were just sticking the numbers in your face. Which felt...weird.
Kirk Hamilton: One specific example Did you guys feel like the specific "signature" assassinations were optional? The first one felt like more or less the only way to pull the assassination off.
The one where you kill the guy in the confessional.
Stephen Totilo: There are 50 doorways in this black box mission. 50!!
Stephen Totilo: Kirk, I think I could've just dropped down on that guy from the rafters of Notre Dame. But I also think there aren't that many signature assassinations in the entire game. I think that's the only one I did.
"Not only is the English voice-acting weird and out of place, but it changes the characters. Arno in particular has more charm, and is a bit more dashing, than he is in the English dub."
Luke Plunkett: My biggest issue with the large-scale executions was that they forced you into some of the game's worst problems, namely indoor stealth
The assassination missions in more open areas - the church graveyard, the massive crowd sequences - did what they were supposed to, and provided a nice little stealth sandbox.
But there were some, particularly the penultimate one, where you were forced into large palaces or mansions, and then it all just fell apart. I'm amazed people tested those missions and said, yes, these are fun and they work, let's put them in the game.
Kirk Hamilton: I honestly wonder if they did, or if it was just "good enough." It's such a bummer about the indoor stuff, since the ability to walk into so many buildings is often so lovely.
Luke Plunkett: The lack of being able to move around cover, and the busted disguise system, made them infuriating. Not because of any fault in the player's approach, but because your systems felt crippled, and your feedback as to what was happening around you was so inconsistent and limited.
Stephen Totilo: I don't know if "this mission is fun" is a prerequisite for AC mission design, sadly. Every game in the series seems to have had some stinkers.
Kirk Hamilton: Which, you'd think they'd listen to those upvotes and downvotes! haha
Luke Plunkett: Yeah, this game got a lot of one-stars from me
Stephen Totilo: Same.
Luke Plunkett: So, important question: did either of you play in French?
Stephen Totilo: Nope. I know that's part of your How-to-play tips.
Kirk Hamilton: I haven't yet. I figured the lip synching would weird me out. Maybe when I come back to it (likely in the midst of this conversation!) I'll try it in french, too. Walk around, turn off the HUD, and play in french. I'll do it Plunkett-style.
Luke Plunkett: It makes a big difference! Not only is the English voice-acting weird and out of place, but it changes the characters. Arno in particular has more charm, and is a bit more dashing, than he is in the English dub. And the Marquis de Sade is just the best.
But yeah, the fact the lip syncing is off is a little weird. Thankfully, you don't notice it that much, since you're focusing on the subtitles and not their lips.
Kirk Hamilton: True, that makes sense.
Stephen Totilo: It does get me, though, that so much of the post-release chatter about the game has been about Unity's technical performance. Luke, when you talk about what Ubisoft is going to take from the feedback they've gotten to this game, I worry that they're really only going to hear the loud and valid complaints that the game should have run better at launch. Same deal as ACIII. But the problems that really matter to me with Unity are design issues. It's what we've been talking about here, and it's what I really hope sinks in at Ubi. I think people would have forgiven more of Unity's technical shortcomings if the game was more fun.
Luke Plunkett: Exactly. Truth be told I didn't really have any technical issues whatsoever on PS4. I got a "stuck on the rope" bug once, and a few framerate slowdowns, but the first big patch hit while I was still early in the game and that fixed just about everything.
The PC version by all accounts is just the worst, but hey, it's Ubisoft.
Stephen Totilo: Yeah, same as me. My copy on the Xbox One ran pretty much fine with the day one patch. Some framerate problems in one mission that I experienced pre-patch, but otherwise the game itself was solid. The companion app and Initiates were technical disasters, but otherwise, the game ran fine. The design is what failed in a variety of ways.
Kirk Hamilton: I dunno. It's tricky, right? Because when people first get the game, the thing that immediately strikes them is the technical stuff. That's what you see first, what you experience first. So that's usually what people comment on first, which can also seem loudest. For me, I couldn't get past how choppy the game ran on Xbox One. I can see why other people would talk about that to the point where they drown out other discussion. Though I definitely agree that the game's design flaws are ultimately very interesting and shouldn't be overlooked. Since they can't exactly be patched out, and may well replicate in future games.
Luke Plunkett: Yeah, and that goes back to what we were talking about before. If only there were more feedback buttons in the game outside of "what did you think of this mission"? Like, "How bad is this crowd AI?", or "Just how much does it piss you off that Arno still can't run in a straight line without getting stuck jumping on a fence?"
Kirk Hamilton: That's true, but also, do you really want to fill out a survey to help Ubisoft understand why their missions are bad?
Stephen Totilo: "Do you think Nostradamus could have predicted the quality of this mission, and, if so, how do you think he'd have felt about it?"
Kirk Hamilton: haha
Luke Plunkett: I would love to. I would spend hours in them. I would finish surveys longer than I'd actually play the game.
Stephen Totilo: I filled out the ACU survey this year. But it's full of scary language swearing I can't publish anything about it, so I can't tell you. Hint: it's pretty much what I've said here. It was a consumer survey, mind you.
Luke Plunkett: Because, I mean, how many Assassin's Creed games is this? And Ubisoft clearly still has no idea what they're doing.
We may as well point them in the right direction.
Stephen Totilo: You guys really need to play Rogue. It'd make you happier!
Kirk Hamilton: I'm psyched to do that. Next year, when it comes to PC.
Luke Plunkett: I promise! But I want to play it on PC. I can't go back to PS3 after Unity
Stephen Totilo: Just imagine ACIV naval combat, but the enemies can board your ship! Just imagine having assassins chase you! Just imagine no missions involving you being drunk and having to kill for wine!
Kirk Hamilton: The inversion stuff sounds so good. Far Cry 4 did some of that too, with those bow-carrying hunters who'd chase you down.
Stephen Totilo: Anyway, you guys were down on III and then we got the lovely IV a year later. I'm optimistic that they'll learn from their errors and do better.
Luke Plunkett: Oh yeah, I am so excited for Victory. Not just for the setting, either, but because as you said, this series has started to make the same dips as Call of Duty used to in the Infinity Ward vs Treyarch days
Stephen Totilo: I'd like to think that somewhere, right now, a Ubisoft executive is signing a memo that states: "In 2015 we won't do that companion app stuff."
Luke Plunkett: Ever the optimist
Kirk Hamilton: dare to dream
Stephen Totilo: To: all@ubisoft From: ACBosses Subject: Stealth controls. Body: We're gonna get that shit right next time. Completely right.
Stephen Totilo: Oh, and I'm sure you'll join me in this one: Bring back the modern era gameplay! Right, guys? With me?
Kirk Hamilton: It's so funny how I missed that. I've complained about it plenty of times, but the minute they took it away, I was sad. I think maybe IV had the right balance—not too serious, not too convoluted.
Stephen Totilo: Yes! Luke? Come on, Luke! Make it unanimous!
Luke Plunkett: Death to modern era gameplay
Kirk Hamilton: Well, it was probably too much to think we'd all actually agree on something.
Luke Plunkett: If I wanted to play a badly-written sci-fi game with a convoluted story I don't care about, I could play...any other video game
Stephen Totilo: Luke, just play the modern era in French. Then you'll love it.