When Assassins Creed first entered the gaming landscape, everyone was impressed. It was so new, so fresh, so different! For the first time in that 7th generation of consoles, it was a game that delivered a truly next-gen experience and allowed you to live the life of an assassin. Sure, at times it felt a bit repetitive, what with all that flag collecting, but over all it was glorious. Thankfully Assassins Creed II arrived swiftly after and worked hard to make a great game, an amazing game. A 2.5 style sequel followed on, in the shape of AC: Brotherhood, for the first time allowing you the chance to build your own covenant of Assassins and train them to be just as skilled as you, a blade in the night.
For me, this is where the AC story ends, or at least had ended until now.
You see, I was never a fan of Assassins Creed 3, the whole game felt over hyped and over blown. The new games lead character Conor, was a bore and a chore to control. He lacked as much passion as his poor voice acting conveyed and the overall experience reflected this. Mountains, while beautiful to stare at, offered no interesting gameplay opportunities, unless you enjoy falling down a lot.
Buildings were dotted about, free of you to explore, but contained nothing inside of worth, if anything at all, which ironically reflected how the game faired overall. Nice on the outside but nothing to write home about when you get to the core of it.
Ive heard from many that Assassins Creed Black Flag was a rejuvenation of the series, ditching Conor where he was found and moving on to Edward Kennway, a devious pirate with a crazy lust for life and love of the sea. You could finally sing “I’m on a Boat” and mean every syllable, as you carved your way through the seas and hopped from island to island. But while this was a semi return to past glories, it just wasn't enough to wash the taste of AC3 out of my mouth.
Thankfully, I’m here to tell you that Assassins Creed Unity has fixed this problem for me! Yes, this is my Assassins Creed Listerine!
Throwing you into the heart of Paris during the infamous revolution, Unity will tell you, in just a few short moments, both exactly what Ubisoft wanted to achieve and that they've succeeded. With flying colours I might add.
For starters, the city itself is absolutely massive. It’ll take you a long time to walk from one end to the other and thankfully theres reason to do so. Hidden collectables and treasures aside, just walking the streets to soak up the atmosphere is pure joy. I found myself spending a good hour of my time wandering about and listening to the conversations going on around me. You’ll stumble upon some strange things too, I discovered an unexplained corpse lying on a boat, filled with cats. Literally filled with cats, just staring at him! Why? who knows, but that head scratcher was just testament to what you could discover.
Free running has been vastly improved, simply by changing RT to run and RT+A into climb, which again adds to the joy of wandering the streets, something which previous entries into the series had seemed to have forgotten, its the little things that make such a big difference after all. No longer will you bump into walls and begin climbing the wrong lampost, or fly off a ledge you hadn't quite anticipated coming up that fast, leading ultimately to a messy pool of ex-assassin on the ground. You’ll also find yourself free to climb down too, a mall bugbear finally dealt with.
In the spirit of this repairing of old mechanics, Ubisoft have also seemingly taken hints from its Splinter Cell series and beefed up the games stealth mechanics. As well as showing you ‘last known position’ silhouettes, so you can better plan your escape, the addition of smoke bombs let you tulry live life like a ninja! On more than one occasion i intentionally started a fight just so I could drop a smoke bomb and sprint off into the mist. Leaving my enemies bewildered and open to an air attack, providing I didn't get distracted by tom, dick and harrys conversation down the way.
Thanks in part to next gen technology, crowds in AC Unity finally live up to their description, a typical busy street in paris, is now wholly filled with people, forcing you to nudge your way through like a day on the tube. This also provides ample opportunity to be that blade in the crowd and give someone a killing blow before casually strolling out of the hustle and bustle, as if you're on your way to starbucks.
Much like crowds, structures in AC Unity have received a lot of attention, with so much detail put both on the outside and inside of major landmarks, you can wander Notre Damme safe in the knowledge that, not only is it huge and filled with perfect assignation spots, its also a completely accurate representation! Yay! Learning and stuff!
I know what you're thinking though, I know because I thought it too. Yes, all these tweaks are great, but who cares if the missions are just your standard, walk to edge of map. stab man on map. run to other edge of map.
Well, with the introduction of something that Ubisoft are calling ‘Black Box’ each assaniation feels much more like something out of the hit man series. After a short introduction to your target, you’ll be given hints to the multiple avenues you could take to complete your task. From stealing keys, to unlocking secret passages or even bluntly running into the crowd and fighting hordes of enemies before killing your target.
On the missions I played, this black box system really forced me to read my surroundings and explore my options. Not only did this allow me to craft my own personal style of play but it often gave me the push I needed to try different things. I’d replay missions to better understand how the game could work, which I have to admit is a fantastic achievement as not many games can activate that completionist inside me.
Co-op is a big deal in AC Unity too, something which, again, I wasn't personally sold on until I actually got hands on with it. Split into two models, you can choose to go through your normal missions with a full brotherhood of pals or instead opt for the specially crafted, Heist mode.
In your team of assassins, each of you will be given a specific special move (think of it like your class) ranging from group heal, which does exactly as it says on the tin. Stockpile, for those times when you all run out of ammo. Communal Vision, which marks enemies and key items for all players and Disguise, which allows you to temporarily disguise your team as any one of your enemies, for a short time.
Surprisingly, co-op plays really well, providing you can communicate effectively with your team, then you’ll find yourself swiftly rolling through windows and flying across rooftops before descending onto a courtyard full of soldiers and taking them out in the purest of silence.
During my time with it, I personally connected more with the Heist mode, tasking my the team to invade all manner of different areas from huge palaces to underground mazes, and working your way to a series of vaults. This mode perfectly balanced a blend of team work and competition, as while you needed to help each other in order to succeed, you each had a personal bonus prize pot that would deplete each time you had an open fight with your enemies. Sadly, I was always bottom of the pile in that challenge, as I couldn't help but have a loud fist fight from time to time, but the concept was a huge amount of fun and something that I can see will really breathe life into the series!
Overall, AC Unity has truly reinvigorated both the series and my faith in it! All the little bug bears that have built up over the years and dragged previous instalments down, have been fixed and with a world that is much vaster than ever before. AC Unity is a more focused package it seems, reining in the games core mechanics and doing away with all the extra sub-games and menu management that made AC3 feel so lifeless!
Viva La’ Revolution indeed!
Q- Were you always eager to create an AC game set during the french revolution or was that something that developed later on?
A- So we started writing after Brotherhood, most of the team came from AC1, AC2 and Brotherhood, so we said lets do a co-op game during french revolutionary paris and it has to be next gen. Bear in mind next gen in 2010 was really abstract. We were all really enthusiastic but it also became a bit of a headache because we didn't know what to expect, but we knew we wanted to do all that.
Doing also co-op missions as a main focus meant we had to do everything all over, synchronise all the gameplay pillars so navigation, stealth and fight so we said ‘hey, if were doing everything again, lets make it better’ so we really wanted to change stuff.
Navigation we really wanted to make sure you had more freedom so now you’re climbing up and down more fluidly and the same goes for stealth and fight.
Stealth and fight are two faces of the same medal, if you don't have a solid fight and a challenging fight then the stealth amounts to nothing. In AC2, Ezio is a killing machine so why would you hide from anything instead of just killing them all.
So we wanted to make sure it worked and once we had that, we wanted to change the way in which we build cities.
We wanted a much more in dept city so thats why we have indoor details, we've changed the scale and lots of other details .
Q- Did wanting to bring all these changes on board, influence the decision for this to be a next gen title?
A- Its hard to say if we make the choice we make because of capacity of the new system or if we just work on it and really pray hard that the new system will be capable of running what we want creatively. Its a bit of both I guess, but we knew it had to be only one city but it had to be a massive one. Paris is twice the size of new york which is the biggest city we had built before, its not just the space of the city its also the depth of it, because you have so many indoor places, indoor landmarks. You also have underground networks, catacombs, sewer system, so the depth of it is really high meaning the players space is basically tripled by these additions.
Q- I noticed during my play through, that transiting from indoors and out that theres no loading times or black screen, its all seamless transition. Did you find it a challenge to make that work?
A- It was yes, its one of those features that if you don't take it into consideration right at the beginning and make it the focus of the game then you wont be able to pull it off, so basically we changed almost everything with how we would build a city. We changed the scale of the city meaning that each building is much, much bigger than before. AC 3 came pretty close as at the time it was the biggest wed done before but every other game used 6 meter by meter which is tiny, you know doll houses. You don't really see it in the game but when you compare it to the real thing you know somethings off.
So for Unity, just to allow you to play inside we had to make them much bigger, some are even a bit bigger than a 1:1 scale.
The city is really large which again, no matter how much effort went in, we knew that if we didn't change the way we built it, it just wouldn't work so we had to create tools to make it happen.
We made a tool called city block generator, which is basically a new way to draw city blocks within a city. S o first it was really trying to understand, what are the challenges of adding these new features and then trying to overcome them by using technology or creating new tools to be able to do it,
Q- I imagine you wouldn't have got your hands on the next gen consoles until quite some time into development of Unity? Did this mean you had trouble pushing any features or ideas through?
A- There was lots of back and forth with the specs at one time, back in 2012 there were some specs real eased which changed again over time. One month we had one spec, then another month a different spec. Eventually a completely different spec was leaked into the media and in the end thought it was nuts to chase the details. So in the end we didn't take too much interest, we built it as if the consoles would be very high performance PCs and we’ll go with that and we weren't that far off really. The game were going to ship is really close to the specs we had in mind, almost 3 years ago.
Q- Now you’ve had time to work with both machines, have you found one to be more difficult to work with over the other?
A- Well, naturally they're quite similar and we know that what we wanted to make sure that the quality is perfectly similar from one person to another. You know, we don't want to tell half of our audience ‘sorry guys, its better over there’ so we wanted to make sure its as good and it didn't mean that we had to take one version back, thats not the case at all. We just pushed as hard as we could and I think its come out great. I mean obviously we didn't restrict ourselves to make things work on one console over another, plus again the specs were all moving and shifting so again we wanted to make sure everyone had the same experience in the final product.
Q- Considering work on Unity began four years ago, did work on AC3 and Black Flag affect how Unity was developed?
A- I joined the project after AC Revelations, so 3 years ago, the team had started 9 months before that. So back then. AC3 hadn't shipped yet, Black Flag wasn't even in existence yet, so we didn't know much apart from what we wanted to do was french revolution, co-op and next gen. That was about it. Then of course, with the other games being shaped up and shipping, of course we took some lessons from that. We all know each other, were all the same time and have worked with each other at least once in our lives so we all gave advice to each other and had very cool positive feedback from those teams. Both AC3 and Black Flag had ideas we could use, Black Flag had the awesome ship upgrades but you cant sail in Paris, that'd be really lame so we knew that building up something and using that meta gameplay loop was really cool and it was one of the reasons why we added in character customisation at a deeper level and now upgrade your skills.
The character is basically like your ship, you can customise him how you want to.
AC3 taught us a lot too, the biggest thing we learnt is that while history is important, we don't want to fall into the forrest jump effect, where the character is actually at every major historical event through time, right there in the room. Behind george washington and all that. So Arno, is of course part of the french revolution, but its much more of a backdrop, he's not that big a character in the french revolution. He does have interactions with key people such as Napoleon and the Marquee De Sade, but its not thanks to Arno that the french revolution happens or anything.
Q- This time around the story, or at least what I’ve seen, does seem much more believable and that bit more grounded than AC3. You've also changed the over bearing and somewhat confusing menus and side games from AC3.
A- Well, that was really me, that was my side. The first thing we wanted to do was to tell the story of Arno because its a gneiss story so you can't not tell it, you have to but that being said, to make really cool world games, an open world game, you have to make sure that the world is exposed enough and you have people, paris stories, that basically tell the story of people within Paris. For example, for you guys from England, we have Madame Tusaaude from the famous wax museum in london and that woman started her craft in paris with her husband and then she was expelled from Paris and went to London but the first thing the revolutionaries asked her was ‘hey, all the decapitated heads, can you make wax masks out of them?’ So thats what she did for a year afterwards and she was even in prison at some point.
Meeting all these characters is really cool because you get to see the real innards of Paris, the real lives of all those awesome people and what they did, we also have some gruesome stories, with murder mysteries, some of them are really horrible.
Theres a story I always tell, that really fascinates me, one of the most notorious revolutionaries was Saint Just, in France he was really a player, that guy was using every woman around and he was one of the most influential politicians of that time. What he did, one time of the many woman he chased refused to go to bed with him, so he had her killed but he didn't stop there, he asked a tanner from the bievres district to remove her skin and make pants out of her.
So, you’ll play a mission that tells that story [laughs]
Q- So are you and the team proud of the fact you're taking little snippets of history and brining them to the foreground?
A-Yeah! It’s all part of it, theres a lot of history within the AC series that we always want to promote, its not just dumb killing. I mean you’ll do some dumb killing, you're an assassin after all so you’ll stab people in the neck, but while doing so you’ll discover cool stories of history and other cool stuff and Paris is so ripe with stories, its one of those places that you know is just full of stories. Making a game in London would be the same, you'd have so much history, so much cool stuff happening that its hard to select the stories!
When we started, we had 1200 stories, this huge, huge list of stories and we ended up with just 100 which is still a lot but in terms of choosing the best of the list is really tough.
So it's not just collectables, although there are some collectables, and its not just endless grinding with the same assassination attempt over and over, its more about character discovery and interaction.
Q- We know that you've got a season pass coming, will any of that DLC come from the list of stories you had to abandon or have you got something else entirely planned?
A- [laughs] We could have made a game of more than 1000 hours of gameplay, Im not sure if we kept some of it, but I think we do have some of it, its just, once you've done your research, which for us is almost a year of research, then all that is there. Everyone, all on the same project, continuing the legacy of the project and choosing the best stuff to pick from.
To be honest, with Etzio, and I'm not saying we’re going to do Arno forever, you cant say that, but for Etzio when we started doing research on the renaissance of Italy, we had so much material that we ended up having Etzio going to Constantinople in 1512, and all that came from the same year of research about that character and that historical moment.
Q- Is there anything in Unity that you think fans or players new to the series really should check out and tick off their bucket list? Tourist attractions of the game maybe?
A- So they should definitely go to the places in Paris that have disappeared today, so the bier district is a good example. On the left bank, if you go back east you have the Pantheon and at the foot of the hill you have a river flowing called the bievres river and thats a place where tanners were working. It was really an industrial district, it was really acrid and people were dying by their early 20’s, it was really miserable but its an awesome place to visit in the game as its gone from Paris.
Same goes for the Grand Châtelet, which was a prison where people were imprisoned in really horrible conditions.
So thats what I’d do first, visit all the places that have disappeared, then I would just look at the city and its people. I mean we've got hundreds of people all doing different jobs, different types of jobs. Theres beheadings and more than 10,0000 people which is huge and just soak up paris. Theres loads of people, they’ll swear a lot because of course it paris and you’ll get that really angry revolution feeling.
So, I say just go to paris and enjoy it all, were quite proud of what we've achieved!
Q-Finally, If you could have worked on any title, past or present, apart from the AC series, what would you choose?
A- It's really hard to say, there are so many cool games around. I would probably say a Metal Gear game. Im not so sure I'm even that fond of it now, because im getting old [laughs] but when I was a teenager it was really my favourite, the extent of the world building is great.
Kojima manages to build all this stuff which is totally crazy yet weirdly logical and make it feel like it belongs in the world its in and somehow its all, eerily realistic. Its like he's drawn a story from the real world, transferred it and added the japanese crazy, mixing stuff and I think they're taking the right direction with The Phantom Pain, taking the open world systemic game and I'm really curious to see what he can do with that, but Im really interested in the franchise over all!