Ubisoft has developed a number of franchises throughout its history that share dynamic, action-heavy, and social qualities. The design changes Ubisoft has made have taken steps toward giving gamers more control over how gaming experiences are defined within each universe. This is showcased from its first major free-roaming game, Assassin’s Creed, to the heavily-criticized Watch Dogs, and to next year’s The Division. With enough games in the Assassin’s Creed series and a games library sharing several similarities, it’s time Ubisoft completely follows through with the level of immersion and social integration in its universes.
With Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Ubisoft is developing specifically for the new consoles for the first time to construct a game that 1) significantly integrates a social component for the franchise and 2) pushes its level of detail and visual immersion closer to the newest consoles' limits than predecessor Black Flag could do. Not surprisingly, Ubisoft is also adding a four-player cooperative online component that could make the campaign missions more replayable.
The next chapter in the Assassin’s Creed franchise takes a step forward about 100 years, following Black Flag into the French Revolution in 1789. No -- this isn't an Assassin’s Creed: Broadway show in the making -- but that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of gruesome drama. Guillotines, rapiers, and street brawls painted the streets red 200+ years ago, and now Ubisoft adds to the historical grit with its depiction of the Parisian metropolis.
Unity marks the first time in three years (since Assassin’s Creed’s: Revelations) that Ubisoft has placed its assassin in a sprawling city, but it does not come across entirely as a re-tread. Ubisoft aims to put more interactivity and mechanical detail into all of its structures so that the player naturally encounters new opportunities, both in the missions and free-roaming gameplay. It’s an ambitious promise – one that I did not experience in my playthrough of Watch Dogs – but a promise that Ubisoft has been working toward in other titles as well, like Far Cry 4 and The Division. Developing exclusively for PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One (Wii U yet to be confirmed) with no inclusion of past-gen systems makes this level of immersion more likely.
Few outside of Ubisoft have played Unity to confirm a consistently high level of detail.
The most obvious immersive improvement between Unity and Black Flag is the number of NPCs on screen and the level of detail in their animations and movements. Ubisoft’s “Making of Assassin’s Creed Unity” short even mentioned that up to five thousand NPCs could be drawn on screen at once. Even with a framerate drop, that number is still formidable for games of the same genre. The demos showed as many as a couple hundred NPCs on-screen at once. Gamers out there probably wonder how well that number of detailed, moving objects can hold up on existing PCs and consoles unless they run off of the best available GPU technology & other hardware. Ubisoft’s E3 demo ran much more smoothly than, say, Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed III on the Xbox 360, but we don’t know the demo system’s specs.
Assassin’s Creed Unity also takes a new leap for the franchise by introducing 4-player online co-op missions. An initial trailer at the Xbox conference showed four assassins leaping and bounding through the town rooftops and traversing government buildings, pulling off stealthy executions along the way. Few details have been given through the demos, but the cooperative combat looks dynamic from the perspective of the player.
For example, one player was detected by a guard among a massive crowd; the guard’s “alert” icon appeared over his head. A second player reacted to his detected comrade by assassinating the guard from above, allowing the first player to continue down his path.
Much of a mission’s success will depend on the collaboration and communication between players. I’m hoping Ubisoft develops some on-screen social mechanics that encourage players to work together in a way that is intuitive and not cumbersome. As a simple example, a player could press a button for his assassin to wave his hand, signaling to other players “the coast is clear.”
What will also be interesting to see is how Ubisoft executes its “drop-in” play. It has already proven successful in prompting players of available PVP experiences through Watch Dogs’ campaign. How it will handle friends (and perhaps strangers) finding and agreeing on missions has yet to be revealed.
A couple of now-glaring issues may still remain for the series. From these E3 demos, we only see marginal improvements to the combat engine. There looked to be enough gameplay footage to judge and liken Unity’s animations and mechanics to previous assassin games. Even the modest number of Twitter folks that I follow – many of them in the games press – had similar reactions.
Another issue has been the series’ free-running mechanics, as players have been frustrated by the game engine's miscalculation of their maneuvers from time-to-time. Ubisoft has already addressed part of the issue by improving the player’s downward movement. There is already a much more fluid presentation to the assassin’s ( Arno) descent from a building.
Assassin’s Creed Unity does not look revolutionary in its core gameplay since it’s an established franchise, but Ubisoft has given the series a good push into the new generation. The bottom line is that Ubisoft can only deliver so many new gameplay features to its Assassin’s Creed series, and has to be careful not to over-extend on something that's already guaranteed a profit. In light of its issues throughout the year and the recent response of not supporting its franchise with a female lead character (outside of the Vita’s Assassin’s Creed: Liberation), it seems that even the severity of community feedback has not prompted Ubisoft to build a new vision for the series.
Assassin’s Creed: Unity's release date on PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One is set to October 28, 2014.
We’ll likely catch up with Ubisoft at this year’s PAX Prime in Seattle, so take a look at Unity’s gameplay demo and let us know what about Unity makes you hopeful.
- Nick "stuBEEF" Pinkerton.