Love it or loathe it, the Assassin’s Creed series is one of the biggest franchises in gaming and its popularity doesn’t seem to be waning. At the time of writing, Unity has sold 5.8 million units over three platforms. That puts the game at the top end of mid-table for multiplatform releases. Unlike Call of Duty or FIFA, Unity wasn’t released on last-gen. If you bundle in Rogue then, the number starts looking more like 10m, which makes AC one of the best-selling franchises of last year and it absolutely widdles all over Black Flag. After the controversy surrounding the game last year though, is the Assassin’s Creed franchise in trouble? Should we expect the famous Star Trek formula of good game one year, bad game the next? I’m certainly jaded with the series. I’ve reviewed the last four Assassin’s Creed games on this site and you can see through the years I’m feeling less and less invested. I’m not alone in this either, so what could stem this waxing enthusiasm?
What the Assassin’s Creed series has done right
I’m not going to claim Unity is a bad game. Assassin’s Creed Unity is just not a very good game. For starters, the assassinations are WAY better in Unity than in previous AC games. Taking your time, looking for unique opportunities and finding escape routes adds a level of detail that’s been missing since the first game. It’s not quite Hitman. The game in the Assassin’s Creed series have always been more a casual effort, but Unity rewards contemplation and execution very nicely. Elements of emergent gameplay have bled over from Far Cry, making the assassinations more engaging than ever before. Assassin is sort of 50% of the title, so it ought to be a decent component. One element I loved in previous games were the assassin tombs, which made a part-way comeback in Unity, so that was just lovely.
The co-op, from what I’ve seen, is good. It’s certainly underused; from what I was expecting, I thought the whole game would be drop-in, drop-out. Raff blasted the multiplayer before anything else and he was actually quite fulsome about it. Matchmaking problems, server issues and the usual pitfalls aside, he said it was decent entertainment. I watched him play it a couple of times and it looks good, provided you have a good team to play with. It’s definitely no fun by yourself, take it from me (foreveralone.gif). I don’t think it’s perfect, but it’s a solid launchpad to propel onward into this generation. I’m looking forward to seeing where co-op goes in the future. Maybe Ubisoft can port a bit more over from Far Cry in that respect.
Speaking of nicking elements from Far Cry, the stealth button and Far Cry-style sneaking dynamics worked really well in Unity. I love stealth games and could talk all day about engaging and rewarding stealth design. Assassin’s Creed has more of a cinematic quality, with a forgiving balance of skill and luck. The predictable AI and dependable tools makes one a master of their environment from very early on. Very few non-binary factors ensure the gameplay suffers very little chaos (in short, making it easy). Unlike other dedicated stealth experiences like Dishonoured and MGS, AC is telling a deep story with a shallow puddle for gameplay. In this instance, that works in its favour, that’s probably why Assassin’s Creed is so popular.
The story is consistently well-realised and well-integrated with actual history. The modern-day story has been left wanting in recent titles though, making Assassin’s Creed more of a historical series, with less and less context between each game. That’s both a blessing and a curse. The canon is rich and compels me to keep coming back. Each game is linked with the modern-day conflict between Abstergo and the modern Assassins. Recent revelations regarding the Sages (no spoilers) is a brilliant little story feature, one which I’d like to see more of. The drive to stop Abstergo is what keeps me in the Animus long after the main story. Without that point of contact, I’m just fulfilling empty fetch quests.
Where Assassin’s Creed could do better
Bugs be damned! They weren’t even that big of a deal. Raff and I both fell through a floor a few times or got stuck on the scenery, but a sandbox game of this size inevitably gets pushed out with a few wrinkles in the fabric. It’s not ideal, but it got patched and we all got a free DLC episode out of it so it would be unfair to still hold that one over Ubisoft’s heads. Besides, the problem’s with Assassin’s Creed run a lot deeper than a few glitches.
Most importantly, there’s just too much. The release of Assassin’s Creed Rogue ushered in the first instance of two main AC games in one year. Next-gen gamers also got the Dead Kings DLC for Unity and the stand-alone side-scroller, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China. Both Unity and Rogue are BIG games. That’s too much Assassin’s Creed for one year. It took me months to finish Unity, a fact that was at times disparaging. Knowing Rogue was still on the to-play pile was flat-out demotivating. An even bigger problem though, is that the games themselves are getting bigger with each iteration. Due to piss-poor decision-making somewhere in the development chain, Assassin’s Creed is just getting bigger and bigger with no obvious rationale save for the illusion of value. The series could push into any number of directions, making bigger maps with more chests is not good enough. Black Flag was big, but it was fun. Sailing about the archipelago and getting into impromptu ship battles was ace. Even if you’re not on a quest to find the Mayan armour, you could just muck about for hours with the tools at hand.
Unity suffers from too much of everything. There are far too many chests, collectables and side quests. Big numbers =/= a better game and Unity is the proof. My guess is that some awful middle-management type enforces this false model of year on year growth. After all, if the game has twice as many chests, it’s twice as good, right? Wrong. This rationale is transparent, insipid and present in more games than I care to mention. It probably took about an hour for some graduate level designer to arbitrarily scatter hundreds of chests and trinkets across the map and in doing so the game is not any better, it’s just longer.
Ages back I had a retro gaming debate with Raff. We do this a lot, and one of the supporting facts about modern games is that modern games have got so much more to them nowadays. Not like this though. Endless crowd events, exhaustive and repetitive side missions. We’re not talking about an engrossing world or a sweeping epic storyline here, it’s just five hundred chests to find. Look at blockbuster efforts like Uncharted, under-the-radar hit Darksiders or even my old favourite Soul Reaver. These games all have stuff to do aside from the main campaign, but there’s not an exhaustive amount of it. If you fancy spending an extra few hours in the world, there’s a handful of bits you can mop up. Lovely. AC Unity’s single-player story accounts for less than a quarter of the total synch, though. The rest is made up of all the other stuff the game wants you to do. But let’s look into that.
In order to collect everything and 100% synch the game, players are asked to sign up to and play the Unity companion app, the Initiates web game and the Dead Kings DLC – these are all “optional” extras, which are required to complete the game. I am not the only person who finds this approach assumptive, intrusive and unfair. Games are a big part of my life, but they’re not all of it. My time is divided between all my various interests. I have time for gaming and time for other stuff. I do not want any my other stuff time to be encroached upon by Assassin’s Creed. In the end I just couldn’t be arsed with jumping through these asinine little hoops. Judging by the 1 or 2% trophy claimants, few others did either.
Further, Assassin’s Creed Unity has dropped useful features from the toolset. This sounds trite to begin with, but bear with me. We’re given cherry bombs with one hand, and whistling is taken away with the other. Since MGS gave us the knock feature, distraction is a staple stealth technique. Features come and go, I understand that. After all, hookblades and DIY bombs never made a comeback, but chucking money on the floor has become a permanent arrow in the proverbial quiver. Whistling was a good feature and allowed the gamer to position their enemies, before either taking them out or avoiding them altogether. It may have been Easy Mode for some, but it should have been nerfed, not removed entirely. Furthermore, armour kits have now been displaced by the interchangeable gear. Now that player health is increased with RPG-style upgrades, the skins which I’ve earned don’t actually do anything. In previous games, earning an outfit came with a boon, not just looking nice. As a footnote it’s worth remembering that Ubisoft offer the option of “fast-forwarding” your progress with in-game purchases. I’m not one for the eye in the pyramid, but if progress was constructed to be steep on purpose, I’m sure more than a few gamers would part with some currency to get a game done.
My point is that we’ve lost the assassin’s “chemistry set” from Revelations and with it the sense of immersion in the game world. The tools at hand are a little awkward and I don’t feel like the master of my environment any more, unlike in Black Flag. Crowd control, a key feature in the Assassin’s Creed series games, sucks in Unity. Seeing the “living” city, I was expecting awesome water cooler moments. Instead I got a vapid sea of morons that don’t really do anything.
think what we’ve got here is the annual tick-tock of feature drift. Yearly franchises like FIFA find it hard to innovate year on year, especially now they’ve practically perfected the formula. One of the ways FIFA stays fresh is to switch off features one year, just to announce their return in the following installment. I think Assassin’s Creed is doing the same. Mark my words – whistling will be back in Victory. Most likely your avatar will be able to throw stones too, just like in Far Cry.
This is the major pitfall of multi-studio development at this scale. About a dozen teams worked on Unity and the whole experience starts to break down when cracks appear between the different aspects of the gameplay. Some of the tech is just too clever for other parts of the game. Running and climbing is often embarrassing. The middleware AI can’t be expected to actually guess where you want to go, so there’s a coin toss when you’re near dynamic pieces of geometry. Heads, you’re climbing a ladder, tails you’re jumping through that window. Sometimes it all comes together and the experience is excellent, sometimes it’s a lot worse.
Instead of being seamlessly integrated, multiplayer is tagged-on, available only for certain aspects of the story. The problem is that the various different development teams have limited communication with one another, so small problems are exacerbated to the point of silliness. There’s just too much going on, and it’s all trying to do too much.
Where the Assassin’s Creed series should go next
Focus. The Assassin’s Creed series has been pushed and pulled through every gameplay mechanic going. Base-building, tower defence, trading minigames, assassination minigames, ship-sailing – you name it. Throughout seven games, Ubisoft have dabbled in all sorts of tertiary gameplay dynamics but the core experience remains remarkably samey. Rather than continuing to throw new ideas into the games design hat, I would concentrate on drilling down into the core dynamics of Assassin’s Creed. Making a better social, stealthy, crowd-blending assassin game should be at the forefront. Strip away all that other rubbish, though. Keep the gameplay pure, wholly at the expense of gimmickry. There’s less to hide behind, but a clear gem should be set in a plain ring.
Pick your battles. The crowd tech seemed worse in parts of Unity than in AC1. The game’s level design is ace. Nothing is arbitrary; every piece of furniture has purpose. From a running start I can plan lines and routes through the city, and crucially the game doesn’t look like it’s made of token prefab rails. I have a genuine playground, I’m not funneled in any direction. But interacting with people sucks. There are close to zero pure gameplay opportunities, just static lumps of people milling about and a shallow pool of predetermined interactions. My actions don’t directly affect the city or its population, and that’s an avenue that’s begging to be investigated. Finding a mark or losing a tail in a crowd; searching for clues using social engineering; the ideas sparking off just the crowd alone is what the series should be about. Keep your murder mysteries, build the game around the crowd.
Simplify. If you don’t have time to animate the feathers on the outfits, don’t have feathers on the outfits. Seriously, I’d rather see five dynamics explored to the fullest, beautifully-realised and intelligently integrated than thirty odds-and-sods that don’t quite add up. Stop with so many collectables. The older games had animus relics, which actually rewarded the player for exploring, not forcing it for exploring’s sake. If I’m going to hunt collectables, I want to be able to collect them all without playing an iOS app or an awful web instance.
When Assassin’s Creed started nearly ten years ago, Jade Redmond said that Ubisoft wanted to explore time periods and places which other games hadn’t. Setting a game in the Middle-East from a native angle was a brave move, one which made for a memorable game. Renaissance Rome was also good, but colonial America felt a bit wasted. By the same token, Victorian London seems like a very easy move. The locations have become easy-wins by being very Euro-centric. There’s no challenge to them. I’d like to see a proper AC game set in ancient China. How about revolutionary Russia, ancient Egypt, Mughal India? Why not set a game during the fall of the First Civilisation?
As the Assassin’s Creed series moves further into the gunpowder age, I think it’s getting less interesting. shooting always felt like cheating in these games. Further to the lack of originality, guns are in 99.99% of all video games ever (probably), which helped the series stand out. I don’t really like shooting games and Assassin’s Creed represented fresh air at the top of the charts. Air which is now stale with the smell of gunsmoke. I’d like to think that originality and creativity still have sway at Ubisoft, that not every move is made to appease share prices and stock holders. If this is true, then the series can still redeem itself in my eyes. If not, then here’s one fan who will vote with his wallet.