The Disunity of Assassin’s Creed: Unity

I talked quite a bit on the topic of cohesive wholesome open-world experiences on examples of Assassin’s Creed, from the positive examples of Brotherhood and Black Flag, to a somewhat more incoherent example of Revelations. But today I want to talk about an example of cohesiveness lacking at all, which can’t be fixed by removing some elements or features or polishing it up.

There’s some Assassin’s Creed games that I could use as examples. There’s Rogue that’s indecisive about what it wants to be as it mixes the Assassin and Templar experiences in various degrees of success. There’s Assassin’s Creed III which was so ambitious that in the end quite a lot of different parts of the game ended up somewhat lacking. But the game that I want to focus on for this topic is Assassin’s Creed: Unity.

To be honest, I think Unity gets quite a lot of undeserved bad reputation as a game. Yes, it’s launch was a technical mess, but the game is enjoyable and has quite a few things going for it. Cohesive experience, though, is not one of those things.

In my post about why Brotherhood is such a wholesome open-world game, I’ve mentioned that if you look at its parts separately, it’s got quite a bit of flaws and wrinkles, but when put all together it creates something great. Unity is the opposite. When you analyze its different parts, they all make sense, but when everything is put together, it’s quite a mess. It still can be enjoyable, but it’s a mess.

The Disunity of Assassin's Creed: Unity

Let’s first take a look at some of the things that Unity does right:
– The core mechanics. So far out of the whole series, they’re the most polished and the most fitting. Combat is not overpowered, it’s strategic, requires crowd control, precision. Stealth makes sense and strikes the balance between AI’s fake stupidity and smartness (although they do have an issue with doors when you’re behind corners…) And the parkour system is the most enjoyable in the series (more than Syndicate because Syndicate disables unsafe jumps).
– Main missions are very well-designed, assassination missions even more so as they represent very detailed and thought out sandboxes which you can play a bunch of times and still figure out something new. The main story is overall fine for the amount of main missions there are and actually has quite a lot of subtleties in it.
– Side-missions are also generally speaking well-designed, especially co-op story missions and heists as they provide great experience to play both solo and with your friends.
– The customization system is detailed and allows you to define your playstyle.
– The economy is probably the only one from the Assassin’s Creed series that properly balances automatic income with manual income and where you don’t have an insane overflow of money by the end.
– Paris looks amazing, and the crowds… Honestly, it just doesn’t feel the same getting into other Assassin’s Creed games as they don’t have the massive crowds of Unity.

So, you look at the list, and it’s all very sensible. The mechanics, the missions, the systems. But let’s examine why, when put together, it doesn’t gel well.

The Disunity of Assassin's Creed: Unity

The main missions are about Arno’s personal journey, with the French Revolution being more of a backdrop. My guess is to address the criticisms of something like Assassin’s Creed III utilizing too much history in its main storyline. Perhaps Unity goes a bit too far though, as you still go through things like September Massacres but without absolutely any context why or what’s happening in the background.

But then we have the side-missions, most of which are called Paris Stories, and they’re all about the French Revolution. You meet one or two new historical characters every one or two missions. There’s SO many historical characters that at some point you stop caring who is who and why you’re doing what, and there’s no clear indication which mission happens at which point of the chronology because there were plenty of times when I’ve completed some assignments that apparently should’ve happened before some other ones. Almost no characters from the main story are utilized in side-missions, they’re not fleshed out additionally in any way. Though Napoleon gets the honor to participate in the most cringeworthy love triangle subplot ever.

Then we have the Murder Mysteries, which are cool and all, but Arno is essentially doing them just because. And then a bunch of random Social Club missions which are mostly assignments from the Council, but as you don’t talk to the Council at all beyond some instances in the main story it’s a bit irrelevant. The co-op heists seem to be more of an Animus simulation, there’s also the time anomalies which are cool but don’t have anything to do with Arno or French Revolution as well.

The Disunity of Assassin's Creed: Unity

But the biggest contradiction I feel comes from the second-biggest (in comparison to the main story) section in the game – co-op story missions. You see, and there will be spoilers for Unity here, in January 1793 Arno gets exiled from the Assassin Order, after which he goes to Versailles to get drunk. He comes back to Paris only June 1794. Yet 75% of the co-op missions, in which you play as Arno participating in them, take place between January 1793 and June 1794. In one of the missions a captured Assassin even mentions Arno by name.

And the presence of co-op players in general feels disconnected from the experience. Everybody sees themselves as Arno, which I think is the correct principle to go by in a narrative-driven open-world game, but everybody else in the team is some random Assassin from their perspective.

When I first saw the E3 trailer for Unity and learned that it would have seamless co-op mode in the open-world, I thought that the other players would be characters from the main story. So you communicate with those characters during single-player, and go on different Brotherhood assignments alongside them in the co-op story. So when you’re playing co-op missions with friends, both you and Arno are doing so. And this principle would already connect the main and side narrative more.

The Disunity of Assassin's Creed: Unity

But it’s very easy to say that since gameplay and systems are generally fine that it’s the narrative’s fault everything is not connected well together, and I think that’s a wrong way to look at this. Narrative and gameplay systems aren’t their own thing, they’re interconnected. They play and bounce off each other. They complete each other.

So, while in the post about Revelations I talked about how cutting features can improve the overall experience, here I want to talk about how it can be important to strike balance between cutting and adding something across the whole game – both narrative and gameplay parts.

Assassin’s Creed: Unity can’t be transformed into a wholesome game by changing the narrative, or cutting some of the features that don’t fit the narrative. It needs to be rebuilt from ground up, constantly asking questions like why and how does this fit the fantasy that we’re providing?

Maybe the Cafe Theatre, our personal home base, should be cut, but then Arno as a character should be a little bit more interested in what’s going around him in the main storyline. Maybe there should be less historical side characters in side missions and more narrative interconnectivity, but then there should be added gameplay systems that channel the side missions to the player in a structured way.

And I’m not talking just about global systems, but the little things as well. For example, take a look at this cutscene:

If you haven’t played the game, you might think that it’s the very first time Arno does a leap of faith in Unity. It says so in the video name even. Well, you’d be wrong. Not only leap of faith is unlocked from the very beginning of the game, which to me doesn’t make sense as it would be perfect to have the ability locked until that moment when escaping Bastille to add significance to the scene, but there’s a mandatory tutorial for it at the very beginning of the Versailles sequence. And it’s surprising too, because that would be the perfect moment to teach the controlled descent mechanic, and yet it was used for a leap of faith.

Yeah, for old-time hardcore fans leap of faith is nothing new, but Unity was supposed to act as a start-off point for newcomers. The first Leap of Faith needs to have gravitas, grandeur, importance. And that cutscene has it. But gameplay and mission design waste it. You get to that point, Arno says that ‘it’s impossible’, but you as a player already have done a bunch of leap of faiths. You know it’s possible. Allow Arno to parkour because that’s a core mechanic and it makes sense with his daredevil attitude, but lock the leap of faith until it adds significance. This would be gameplay and narrative playing off each other.

The Disunity of Assassin's Creed: Unity

And I would like to end this post with a little story about what happened to be my most memorable moment from the whole game. It was a little side mission, called ‘Marianne Returns Home’. It features a non-historical one-off character, I didn’t even remember her name until I googled how the mission is called, but the mission itself has stuck in my memory for almost two years now.

In it, we find Marianne training with a sword outside of a barn. Arno asks what she is doing, and she tells a story of how her parents were wrongly executed in the chaos of the Revolution and her family home was taken away, so she trains to get it back. So what we do as Arno is that we help her train, and then go together to her home to liberate it from the extremists. After that, the mission ends with Marianne reminiscing of all the memories she had of this place.

The reason why this mission stuck with me so much is because it’s not a side mission about historical trivia like some Royal Jewels or papers that would be famous later or a psychic who knows who will kill her (by the way, why did we believe her?). It’s just a simple mission about us stumbling upon and helping a simple person to find some peace amidst all the chaos that surrounds us. And that feels very human.

Thank you all for reading, hope you enjoyed it. Feel free to leave any comments below. If you’d like to keep an eye on my future blog posts, feel free to follow me on Twitter

Posted on August 10, 2016, in Game Design and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I disagree with you. Just individual components was made badly. When I played, I noticed, that combat system unpolished. To parry necessary to have a very good reaction, which many people simply do not have. But the smoke bombs and medkits can solve any problem. That is very boring and upsets the balance. Stealth is bad due to lack of functionality. Missions suffered from a lack of direction, as well as the abundance of over-easy ways. So I need to choose the obviously more complex ways to play was fun. A side quests fall apart because of a lack of dialogues. How can I remember someone and generally understand what happens if all submitted by a couple of simple sentences? But all that in combination gave a very large and interesting game. Rough, but with its own charm.

    • Hi.

      Thanks for the feedback.

      We’ll agree to disagree then, but here are some of my arguments regarding your points:

      – You don’t need a good reaction to block, you need a good reaction to counter a block with a stun, which is a perfectly fine.
      – Assassin’s Creed Unity, followed by Assassin’s Creed 1 (if not for the very dominant counter-attack move), is the only game in the series where combat is more of a ‘stealth fail-state’ where you need skill to succeed, rather than a very over-powered system where stealth doesn’t really matter because you can just kill everyone easily if you happen to fail.
      – Medkits are balanced in ACU. You don’t have a lot of slots for medkits, if you want more you need a particular gear (which means you need to grind and spend money). And if you get more health through skills, medkits get more expensive. This is reasonable and balanced.
      – Same with smoke bombs. The real problem with smoke bombs is the combo with the ‘heavy attack’ done with very high level weapon. That’s the closest ACU has to a dominant strategy (it is incredibly effective), but then again it’s something that you have to really grind for (or complete the game to get the Sword of Eden), so it’s more acceptable. And you can always opt out to a lower level gear if you want more challenge, unlike the dominant strategies of counter-attacks and kill streaks in games like Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood where gear doesn’t matter and the abilities are always overpowered.

      – I have found no lack of functionality in ACU for this. People complain about not being able to move bodies and no whistle functionality, but if you watch people play AC, people don’t ever use the move body function unless it’s required by a mission, and whistle is a pretty op distraction strategy. Cherry bombs having a limited number is more balanced.
      – What could be considered actual flaw is not being able to throw a cherry bomb from a haystack (though that also makes logical sense)

      Main missions:
      – Honestly, unless you argument the ‘lack of direction’ and abundance of ‘over-easy ways’, can’t really comment on it.

      – When I’ve mentioned side-missions, I talked regarding the mission design, not mission context. The little side-missions in ACU are well-designed for the little side-missions they are. I absolutely agree, and I’ve mentioned it in the article as well, that contextually most of them are lacking, having tons of characters you meet only once and don’t care about at all and don’t really have any context.

      Once again, thanks for the feedback 🙂

      • You’re welcome! 🙂

        So, I understood you, you have good arguments. But I found some gameplay mechanics a little bit… painful. Yes, from a mathematical point of view that parts of ACU is very solid. But in a fact is very difficult to play in the way the developers intended. They came up with many complex systems that are easy to break, if player will make a little step aside. I went through the whole game just using bombs, medkits and darts, just because it was easiest way. I don’t even need to parry enemy attacks or play in stealths. I tried and sometimes I even succeed, but the game always was pushing me to cheat. As well as ‘Dishonored’. That’s a problem, I think 🙂

    • And that is a valid point 🙂 (for some reason wordpress doesn’t allow to reply to your latest message, so replaying to the original one again).

      Player’s experiences can be very different indeed. However. I would like to point out that if you’ve managed to go through the whole game using only bombs, medkits, and darts – all being consumables that constantly have to be refilled, then you’ve also completed the game in a way that you managed to get enough money to keep those things refilled at a steady rate (and in ACU a constant influx of money to keep everything refilled is not as easy as in other AC games, the automatic money making system is the least game-breaking out of all series – you need to complete quite a bit of missions to have a steady automatic income, and all other income has to be manual). That’s actually kinda tricky, and I’m speaking as a person who has played AC games since forever and in ACU was using a variety of items and even then would find myself not being able sometimes to refill one consumable or another 🙂

      So one could argue that you didn’t as much ‘break the system’, more like found a way to utilize it in the playstyle of your choice. 🙂

      • Of course I used a sword to kill enemies blinded by bombs. Probably, that’s why I hadn’t any problems with bombs and medkits. I picked them off the bodies of enemies 🙂

        Also I had problems with money only at the beginning of the game. But after Cafe-Theatre missions I was able to refill bombs and medkits almost after every fight.

        But maybe you’re right. System of ACU gave me opportunity to play like that and maybe it’s a plus of the game 🙂

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