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A Fan’s Response to the Assassin’s Creed Series – Part II

Following on from part one, let’s move forward and take a look at some of the more recent releases in the Assassin’s Creed franchise.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a great game though despite it being a Creed game though, my least favourite parts of the game are actually the main story missions. The game took the one decent aspect of AC III, the naval combat and converted it into a full pirate game set in the Caribbean. The full Ubisoft open world template design was here and it was great to take over pirate ships, hunt for treasure and just have a not so serious time. That said in just a couple of years the series as a whole had almost completely lost its way. Now it was all about action and swashbuckling, being a true assassin was secondary.

This is where Assassin’s Creed Unity comes in as an attempt to rebirth the franchise as the first current-gen only game. Ubisoft has not had the greatest start on the new consoles generation with their new IP’s, Watch Dogs and The Crew, disappointing fans for a lot of reasons. The one key issue being that they are still using the same open world template so these new titles already feel old and worn out. Unity, however, takes things in a completely different direction to many of its predecessors.

This was the first game since Revelations to have one soul setting, one huge urban environment with a story set in Paris during the French Revolution. In its attempt to take the series back to its core roots, it feels more like a direct follow-up to the original game where it’s about being an assassin. Despite this though, a lot of the series’ regular features are nowhere to be seen. The mini-game which allowed you to upgrade a brotherhood of assassins is gone as has the ability to ride horses. Sadly there is also no boat riding segments, while this makes sense story-wise sure, in terms of gameplay to now be a man running around feels like a bit of a downgrade.

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The logic behind many of the decisions that the developers made comes from trying to nail the basics of the franchise that still weren’t quite on point. One of the main faults with the franchise was its lack of stealth options, the stealth mechanics have had significant improvement, allowing for more versatile assassinations. Open combat has also seen significant improvements, gone are the killstreaks and simple wins, back to basics combat requiring skill has returned, this game feels much more like the original game in that sense. The whole game is designed to focus on being an assassin again, with regular small sandbox missions with a varying ways to take down your target.

Coming up to the release I was incredibly eager to play this game as on paper it sounded great.

But if you’re reading this then you probably know it didn’t exactly go to plan. So, sticking with my Assassin’s Creed tradition, I first played this game on Christmas day after four major patches in order to fix the games poor technical performance. I was lucky, I never experienced the true lows of this game, I do feel that even after all the patches the game still feels clunky but it isn’t anywhere near as bad as I had heard. Of course I’m not letting Ubisoft off, this was, and still is, a huge issue which Ubisoft will hopefully learn from for the future and not release broken games. That said, for the sake of this article I really want to focus on the game and it’s design.

So the one thing I enjoyed about the game was the improvement to the movement system. One of the key issues with the series has been not having full control when free running about the place, particularly when trying to get to ground level. In previous games, if you happen to be in an area with no haystacks around, it quickly became a guessing game as to whether you survive the fall or not. But now with the parkour up and parkour down feature it’s suddenly a lot easier to aim where you want to go and getting to ground level is no stress.

Movement often felt unnatural in the past as you would get sucked towards objects unrealistically despite which direction you were aiming. This issue hasn’t completely gone away with the new improvements, but it’s definitely more manageable. The new movement style does animate very well and with being in such a large urban environment, I found myself for the first time in the series, reading the space I was in to find the simplest way to manoeuvre. It also seems as if every other building can be entered, this helps a lot when navigating your way through the environment and also adds another layer of depth to an already dense city.

The city of Paris is created impressively, with many of the familiar landmarks built to scale. In additional the city is populated by a large amount of NPCs, though this is less impressive given how the performance of the game is hindered considerably when there are a large number in view. The most annoying thing about the NPC’s though is that they feel like bad B-movie extras who as soon as you appear begin to overact, waving their arms about and such. I understand the reason behind the number of NPCs, given this is a major city after all, but a few less people of the streets and slightly better gaming performance would have served this game much better.

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So what about the mission structure?

The open mission design, in particular, through the main assassination missions, is definitely a step in the right direction but it still isn’t quite there for me, mostly down to the stealth still being pretty poor despite the new improvements. Yes you can crouch and take cover, but the actual system seems too clunky; you can’t snap around corners while in cover and you can’t move from cover to cover with ease. This is strange since Ubisoft have a great cover system in their Splinter Cell series and even Watch Dogs successfully adopted it. So once again wanting to be a sneaky assassin is a struggle, despite the fact the game actively encourages it.

While I do like the fact that assassinating targets is more open and a bit in line with a Hitman game, it now feels kind of old hat after Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor brought us its revolutionary Nemesis System. In that game, you form your own unique missions and stories with your own targets, failing to kill a target drastically changes how they act towards you and how you have to approach them. It’s a shame that Shadow of Mordor is being sarcastically hailed as the best Assassin’s Creed in ages because in many ways, it is. One thing Shadow of Mordor does exceptionally well is its combat system, why? It’s inspired by the best.

Two words, Arkham City.

Ubisoft, guys, you need to just suck it up, grit your teeth and just do the Batman combat system, the majority of gamers will agree that it’s one of the best. Unity on the other hand once again proves how far behind the combat in Assassin’s Creed is, it’s slow and, for the most part, has remained unchanged since the inception of the franchise. The standard Assassin’s Creed fight follows one basic template; wait for the guy to attack, then parry and attack. I never wanted to be doing combat because I wanted to be stealthy, but the game still puts you in must fight moments. One of the worst missions is when you are in the middle of the day at a fairground and have to sneak into a private tent to get some information. Except there are guard everywhere, the game wants me to fight, I knew I could, it would have been simple but in a public? I reloaded that checkpoint too many times until I finally got lucky.

Unity’s upgrade system has seen a decent amount of improvements following the previous two games each trying their own thing. Instead of crafting for upgrades, you simply spend upgrade points through completing certain missions, this allows you to unlock new abilities. You can also buy all sorts of weapons and clothing to help for a unique look directly from the menu, which comes in handy with the brand new Co-Op missions. The cooperative missions are okay but if I’m totally honest, they’re nothing special. A lot of the time it’s basically guys in hoods running around stabbing people, getting spotted and awkwardly fighting a group of enemies, it’s not well structured.

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The open world design is a little different to what we’ve come to expect form Ubisoft over the last year or two. The game has side missions called “Paris Stories” which can be pretty cool, nice little narratives along with “Murder Mysteries” which are essentially pressing a lot of icons and reading text and yet for some reason are enjoyable. It’s nice to see the developer do something a little different with the open world but oddly some elements from their original template would have been extremely useful this time around. One area that could have done with some bulk standard Ubisoft functionality is when you buy-out buildings in order to unlock assassination side missions. This is simply done by renovation them though there are no other real advantages to this. In my opinion, using a similar approach to Far Cry’s outposts where owning theses buildings meant random enemies encounters decrease would have been helpful.

Unity has many issues outside of the technical ones, none more so than in its story.

AC IV seemed self-aware of the stale nature of the storyline and even pointed out the inconsistencies a number of times with you playing as game developer in the modern day at the fictional Montreal-based Abstergo Industries. During these missions, the premise focused on you making the game and having to search through Edward Kenway’s pirate adventures, sometimes not always in the correct order. Kenway as a character didn’t care about the assassin’s and their way and just wanted to earn some money, he felt like a self-aware nod at the audience that the developers themselves were tired of this narrative. Being the game developer was cool, being able to hack around the office and figure out some interesting lore was also fun.

Unity, on the other hand, feels like a straight to DVD quality storyline. The meta-narrative is actually pointless where you play, as someone who is playing a game until the assassin’s hack in to your system to tell you that they want you to look for something with them in game and at the end you are told it didn’t really matter after all, no reward in this side-story whatsoever.

This might have been ok if the story set in the French Revolution was something worthwhile, but it’s sadly not. You play as Arno Dorian who, as an Assassin, wants revenge for his adoptive Templar father’s murder. Interesting setup but the game doesn’t go anywhere with asking the important questions such as, who exactly is the good guy in all this? Are the Templar’s all that bad? Instead, the game wants to focus on a love story between Arno and his Templar girlfriend Elise who is the daughter of the murdered Templar. It’s odd and the actual Revolution itself is simply a backdrop which Arno himself isn’t particularly interested in. I don’t know what Ubisoft are doing with their stories and worryingly I don’t think they do either.

Assassin’s Creed needs a break, but of course it can’t because it’s one of Ubisofts big money makers. With information on Assassin’s Creed Victory already leaked we know that in a few short months what to expect from the developers. The one ray of hope in all of this is that Victory is set in my home country of England, during the Victorian era in London so I can’t help but be a bit intrigued. It would be nice to say I look forward to hearing varied English accents in an Assassin’s Creed game, but we know Unity, a game set in France, beat them to it.

As an Assassin’s Creed fan, I still have hope that Ubisoft will find the magic formula and get it right. Seriously, how many wrong does it have to take?

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Steven, born in England and recently moved to Australia is studying Film and Media Studies at Uni. Always enjoying a good chat about video games writing for TPoW.

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