In almost every way, Ubisoft's French heritage shines through in Assassin’s Creed Unity, a stealth adventure set in Paris over the course of the desperately bloody French Revolution. In every way but one: everyone in the game speaks with slightly stuffy English accents. No doubt Ubisoft was very keen to avoid demeaning ‘Pepé Le Pew’ stereotypes and ensure all the dialogue could be understood.
But this is a game set in France’s beating cultural heart at a moment in history when French patriotism was at its zenith. To hear everyone sounding like les rosbifs from the north is seriously jarring. Besides, if Looney Toons is confident that five-year-olds can understand an amorous skunk with a French accent, Ubisoft should demonstrate greater faith in the abilities of its own more mature audience.
In every other way, Unity’s Paris is truly remarkable. The Assassin’s Creed games have always excelled at creating a sense of time and place that it’s a joy to simply inhabit and explore, but the new-gen exclusive Unity is a real cut above.
Simply walking down Paris’ broad avenues, navigating its narrow alleys and side streets, crossing its plazas, and cutting through its public houses is an activity you could lose hours to.
It’s also a far more energetic setting than the series has ever seen before. In the game’s early chapters, Paris is a city teetering on the cusp of revolution, and its citizens are out on the streets in their thousands, listening to impassioned speeches in every public square, throwing furniture onto bonfires, begging for a crust.
Down on the uneven cobbles it’s filth, puddles, and detritus. Look up, and it’s the uniform beauty that still defines Paris today.
Unity is also eager to explore much darker themes than the series has in the past. Horrible outrages were committed during the French Revolution, and Ubisoft has mined these greedily to great effect.
One particularly gruesome scene sees able-bodied men being mutilated to make them more sympathetic beggars. Apparently France – or at least Ubisoft – doesn’t feel the need to sanitise and mythologise its own popular history the way so much American media does.
However, Ubisoft has been unusually quiet on what narrative hooks the game has to dangle. Arno was raised among Templars, but eventually fell out with the order and joined up with their old enemies, the Assassins. To complicate things a little, his childhood sweetheart, Elise, continues to be a cross-carrying member of the Knights.
Much has already been made of the improved stealth mechanics in Assassin’s Creed Unity. The update was long overdue. Unlike his predecessor, Arno, our Assassin player-character, can crouch and move from one piece of cover to the next. In turn, Ubisoft has created more elaborate and multifaceted assassination missions.
These missions usually have multiple paths to success, and players will need to formulate a plan if they hope to succeed. There are also related tasks that can be completed in order to improve Arno’s odds. For example, successfully identifying the pickpocket who had stolen a guard’s key to some upper-story windows can create new avenues of approach, while blocking some chimneys might smoke out the catacombs, allowing for a more stealthy escape.
But arguably the most significant change Ubisoft has made to the benefit of stealth is an overhaul of the series’ fighting mechanics. In the past, a sprung assassin could simply parry and counter his way through 20 encircling guards. Parrying is still an option, but it’s not the sure kill it always was, and enemies are much better at capitalising on mistakes. In short, it’s better not to get discovered, and really, that’s how it always should’ve been.
Indeed, after playing Assassin’s Creed Unity for several hours, the enduring impression is of a series dusting off its original design brief and trying to rediscover what made the game so conceptually appealing in the first place. There are no ships or other grand distractions here, and only one location to explore, but it looks set to be a richer, denser, and more complex world than anything that has come before in the series.
Assassin’s Creed Unity is coming to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on November 13.