The ships and woodlands of Assassin's Creed III and Black Flag can now step aside, as Assassin's Creed: Unity returns the eternal struggle between the Assassins and the Templars, and back to the familiar themes of Assassin's Creed II. Our new hero, Arno Dorian, is a handsome rapscallion, who has lost his family and now yearns for revenge, much in the way of one Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Instead of old Italy though, the new stage is set in revolutionary France.
The user interface has been tweaked somewhat, and for example, parkour is now managed with two buttons, which tell Arno if he should be heading up or down. This cuts down on some of the frantic fumbling that AC games are notorious for, but it hasn't eliminated it altogether. Stealth has its very own button now as well, but once again, the action is not quite as smooth as the developers had hoped for.
On the other hand, the combat system has experienced a more successful renovation. Mashing the attack button will no longer guarantee victory, and the smarter enemies really demand the player to pay attention. The health bars above the enemies flash when they are about to attack, but due to the tight camera angles, only one or two of them will actually be visible during a scuffle, which leads to a lot of attacks being launched and subsequently landed unseen.
The new parkour playground of Paris is indeed vast. The devs have modelled a wide selection of popular sights such as Notre Dame, but even the more everyday architecture is a joy to explore. The spirit of Paris is really present in this one, and it is one of the game's greatest strengths, perhaps even the greatest. There is also an opportunity to experience the city in some surprising contexts and time periods.
The in-game map with all the missions and collectibles looks like someone had taken a shotgun to it. There are more things to do and collect than anyone would ever even want, which somewhat makes us wonder if there isn't just a bit too much clutter here.
The actual plot of Assassin's Creed: Unity isn't really the handy new stepping on point that Ubisoft wanted. The player is supposed to learn of the Assassin's Creed universe alongside Arno, but his story, which shuttles between the two secret societies, doesn't really offer any kind of clear picture of why they are at each other's throats.
Even though the grand plans are left obscure, and there are some serious pacing issues with the plot, the dialog is mostly entertaining and Arno is, for the most part, a likeable character. He may even have potential to be a hero to the same extent as Ezio himself.
The central side-character in Unity is Élise de la Serre, the daughter of Arno's adoptive father, whom Arno considers a bit more than just a sister. The Romeo and Juliet story of the twosome serves as the more understandable plot line in the game, but even while Élise does at times shine as an interesting and powerful character in her own right, she is finally relegated to the role of window dressing, and a generator for convenient plot twists for Arno.
Unity is up-to-date graphically, and the new console architecture has really helped the facial animations. This new architecture has not cleansed the world of all the familiar bugs though. Arno fell through the bottom of the world several times during testing, and once got literally stuck in a horse's arse. Unity is still in better shape than its predecessors though, and will no doubt become more stable with future updates.
Along with the single-player campaign, there is of course a multiplayer element to Unity, though it appears in a radical new form. The beloved competitive multiplayer has been replaced with (fairly) seamless co-op and multiplayer missions.
This new take can be spectacular fun. Sometimes things just click and everyone is right where they should be at just the right time. Of course there will also be a lot of massive goofs, but there's a certain comedy value to those moments as well. You will want to invest in a good microphone though, as it is crucial for coordination.
Although we find this new form of multiplayer a fine, even a valuable addition to the AC formula, we'd have also like the inclusion of the traditional, competitive multiplayer. While it's normal to focus on the single-player experience, Assassin's Creed has always been an exception to this rule.
On the whole, Assassin's Creed: Unity is 'yet another Assassin's Creed game'. It's a mixed bag that is just bursting with a variety of activities, to the point where it somewhat loses its own focus along the way. There are some improvements, but they do not really set it apart enough from its predecessors.
At times it's glorious, but at the same time frustrating. It can be summed up in those moments when you are trying to craftily slip in through a window to stab a guard in the back of the neck, but instead end up leaping into a courtyard full of soldiers like a clumsy idiot. You will scream, swear and pound your head against the coffee table, and then you'll reload the game, because when it works, it really works.