At the time, it felt foolish. Asking if I wanted to download 8.6GB of patches to play Assassin’s Creed Unity seemed like the most effective way to make anyone turn the other way. Unfortunately, curiosity got the better of me.
Its myriad of frame rate issues and crashes and bugs were enough to stop me and many others from playing more than five minutes upon release. Now the question is whether the patches worked. Unity actually fell into two camps of terrible practices from 2014 including shipping prohibitively broken or unfinished games and Ubisoft’s seemingly nefarious dissemination of open world game design.
Luckily (I guess?), one of those two things could be fixed post-release. (The damage, however, had mostly been done at that point in terms of player trust. Not even a free Dead Kings DLC could help the situation.) Right out of the gate, yes, those problems are fixed. Somewhere in all those gigabytes, there was a solid combination of solutions that turned a burning heap of hard locks and falling through the floor into a real game.
Now that simply navigating the world isn’t a chore (a task which is at least 99% of all video games, let alone Assassin’s Creed ones), it is truly hard to deny that this is one of the most beautifully realized virtual environments ever seen. It feels often far less like a video game and more like a real tour of Paris during the French Revolution.
The streets are overflowing with people. It’s coming up on Dead Rising numbers, to be honest, and it’s spectacular, especially because Arno seems to have overcome his ancestors’ inability to run into people without falling over. But these people are also living their fully Revolutionary lives.
They are rioting, soapboxing, and amassing all over the place. It gives the worldly historical context more meat than ever before. This is in addition to the fact that most of the buildings you’re clambering over have fully realized interiors with hidden artifacts, treasure chests, and folk. Actually, it’s not most of them, but it certainly feels like that, which is just as important.
This seems to have the biggest consequence on the gameplay (right after violently shoving you into one of the most violent parts of modern history). For the first time in the series’ history, there is genuine stealth. Black Flag tried its hardest with systemic bits of hiding in bramble and bush, but holy moly, Unity has a crouch button, y’all.
More than that, Arno has the ability to take cover behind objects and walls. Being able to stick to a flat surface no longer gives you the lingering question of “can they see me” while you uncomfortably shift about under a doorframe. And now missions are designed around those two improvements, offering you the ability to finagle around guards on rooftops and shifting inside to come up behind and shiv them in the most satisfying ways.
It’s also worth noting that imbuing the world with an early modernism is that fact that your opponents are far more deadly. Instead of throwing rocks or firing arrows, they will straight-up gun you down from a few dozen yards away and you will die. It—and the random in-world events—offers a glimpse into the lethality of this and the coming age.
But for all the self-awareness of the time and place, this is still in escapably an Assassin’s Creed game. Whenever you do anything, you just wish it was easier, and not in terms of difficulty but rather in terms of implementation. Some things have been improved from past games and it’s still not enough.
It’s easier to avoid accidentally jumping to your death, but you still wish it was faster—or at least more fun than just holding a button down. And even when I could just eagle-dive down, most of the time I just wanted to stop halfway and stay on the rooftops.
And when you just want to run straight ahead, there is invariably a chair to stop you. Or a wall that Arno simply can’t figure out what he wants to do with. I found most of my time not just holding the freerun button but also the freerun up or freerun down button as well, though the down one has height limitations while the up one takes longer to get past basic structures.
It’s really just a staple of the series. Since its inception, the games have been just as much about fighting yourself as it has been about fighting the Templars. Every step is rife with opportunity to screw yourself over simply by playing the game as it was designed because for all the chances for joy it carries in its mechanics, they are also the sole source of its greatest frustrations.
I guess it really comes down to one singular sensation that defines Unity: a total and abject lack of surprise. From its story to its new mechanics laid on top of old ones—hell, even the degree to which it was totally busted to hell—there was nothing surprising about the game. Reactions span from “about god damn time” to “oh come on” to even a rock solid “meh.”
Even after coming back to the game half a year later, it’s hard to suss out any answer to any amount of why.