The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a game that can barely hold itself together

(Courtesy of Ubisoft)
Placeholder while article actions load

Assassin’s Creed: Unity
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

Few games obsess about history as much as “Assassin’s Creed.” Originally released in 2007 with a storyline involving a conspiratorial fantasy about the Crusades, the series has played tourist through Renaissance Italy, Revolutionary America, Constantinople and the West Indies. The games rewrite the past of grand political figures and alter significant historical events to fit into a fictional war between the Templars and Assassins, who never seem to tire of their mutual hatred. It transforms figures as disparate as George Washington, Leonardo da Vinci, and Billy the Kid into secret participants in this conflict while erasing essential truths about their lives and times.

“Assassin’s Creed: Unity” is the seventh home console game in the series, and the first developed exclusively for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Set during the early years of the French Revolution, the game casts players as Arno Dorian, son of a nobleman at Versailles. After Arno’s father is murdered while visiting Louis XVI, Arno is raised by his best friend Elise’s family. Thirteen years later, Elise’s father is slain under similarly mysterious circumstances, and Arno swears to find out what’s happened, in part to clear his own name.

Arno’s quest leads him to discover how the Assassins and Templars have wormed their way into yet another great moment in history, reframing everyone from Marquis de Mirabeau and Robespierre to Madame Tussaud and the Marquis de Sade as pawns in the millennia-old conflict.

All of that is given a science-fiction wrapper. The story is told from the future by a test subject for Abstergo Industries, an entertainment company that reverse-engineers DNA to create digital simulations of historical figures. The company discovered that a Sage, some shadowy figure in the French Revolution, had DNA from the Precursors, a race of godlike creatures who predate humanity. Your job is to inhabit Arno’s computer simulation to track down this mysterious Sage figure and retrieve the precious DNA for Abstergo.

In the same way that history is used as a pretext for wild science fiction, “Unity” uses Arno’s quest as a bizarre pretext for a kind of racing game, with a gymnastically gifted human standing in for the sports car. You sprint through the crowded avenues of Le Marais or the ramshackle alleys of the Cour des Miracles in Paris, running toward an icon on the map designating one of the various mission types, then watch a short cut-scene, sprint to the other side of the map to find another icon, at which point you’re usually presented with a heavily guarded mansion that you’ll have to infiltrate. That usually entails spending 20 minutes scaling the sides of buildings and sneaking through open windows to track down some untrustworthy nobleman who is actually a Templar. If caught by one of the 50 or 60 guards who patrol these lush estates, the game makes an awkward transition into combat, the camera drifting overhead while you swing a sword, mace or halberd at the guards in a sluggish, color-coded version of rock, paper, scissors.

There is an incongruity between the painstaking visual detail and the simplistic controls, which lean toward dysfunctional. You’ll find yourself running at full speed one moment and the next Arno will come to a dead stop atop a fence post or café table against your will. Players are left to dumbly hold the sprint button down and hope the computer knows that when you’ve got a fleet of angry guards on your tail and that when you’re pressing straight up on the control stick you mean to run away rather than come to a screeching halt squatting on a railing to the left. But the computer gets things wrong almost as often as it gets it right. The game’s environments are richly colored and lovingly detailed, but as soon as you start moving they turn into a frustrating landscape of obstacles, compounded by a buggy game engine that feels more like a beta than a finished product.

The game’s newest feature is a series of cooperative missions that can be played online with up to four other players, which can lead to interesting group dynamics creating elaborate crowd distractions or planning ambushes for guards. But these concepts are mostly theoretical. In my week of playing on an Xbox One, the game’s servers mostly loaded me into these missions alone, left to fend for myself against the increased number of soldiers, producing more frustration and disappointment than discovery and intrigue. Worse still, “Unity” is filled with prompts to engage with the game’s business model as much as its fiction. You can pay a few extra dollars to buy temporary combat boosts or new weapons that would otherwise take hours of play to earn. The map is littered with specially marked treasure chests that can only be opened once you’ve downloaded the “companion” phone or tablet app, which is a constant reminder that the lavish historical recreation is a set dressing for a business strategy as much as it is a thoughtful arrangement of characters, goals, and gameplay.

This shift toward cross-marketing and micro-transactions is its own ironic historical marker, a sign of how much has changed in the video game world since 2007, when the first “Assassin’s Creed” was released. “Unity’s” game map is so riddled with collectibles, side missions, and other sundry icons that it’s almost impossible to see the Paris streets beneath it all. The exploitation of history as a pretext for disconnected daydreams in the present has found a poetic mirror in the exploitation of play for as much profit as can be gotten away with. In “Unity”, the arc of the “Assassin’s Creed” line has become ever clearer as a devolution myth, a lone runner chasing the thread of conspiracy which is unspooling across the centuries derailed by business experiments, untrustworthy technology, and the increasingly insupportable weight of its own storytelling. The result is a regal mirage, opulent and complex but ready to fall apart at the first sign of stress.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen

More game reviews:

Dragon Age: Inquisition, an engaging and contemporary-minded quest

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, where everyone wants to kill you

Bayonetta 2 is an unhinged masterpiece

“Alien: Isolation” involves more cowering than killing

Verdict on ‘Vanishing of Ethan Carter’: Thoughtful and unabashedly bookish

O ‘Destiny’–its beauty lies in the eye of the consoler