At first, I didn’t like Assassin’s Creed Unity much. As a longtime fan of the franchise, the early hours chafed against my sense of what an Assassin’s Creed game should be. Unity is a dramatic departure from what came before in controls, combat, navigation, progression, and difficulty. However, the more I let go of the idea of what it should be, the more I could enjoy it for what it is. Unity is a fresh start, and while many new features lack polish, the game is massive, the story is sophisticated, and the missions are open-ended. It doesn’t get everything right, but Unity is the first step toward revamping a franchise in increasing need of new ideas.

Unity abandons the sailing and wilderness exploration of recent installments, putting the focus on a huge urban recreation of 18th century Paris and Versailles. The great churches and palaces are rendered with painstaking care, and the many lush interiors exhibit extraordinary detail. The streets thrum with activity and life, thanks to the most robust crowd system ever crafted for a video game. The barbaric violence of the French Revolution unfolds in the background, and it’s fascinating and horrifying to watch a whole society fall into anarchy.

The exploits of Arno Dorian run parallel to Paris’ descent into madness, but our new Assassin crosses paths with the Revolution mostly in passing. Instead, the story is a more personal tale, charting Arno’s path into the Brotherhood, and a star-crossed relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Élise. The romance showcases a genuine rapport and chemistry, a dynamic that provides weight and emotion to a second half of the story that would have otherwise fell flat.

The present-day metastory thankfully moves away from the most recent excursions into working for Abstergo, and it feels good to once again be uncovering secret historical data for the Assassins. However, the new angle on modern-day interactions is almost entirely voiceover driven. It’s a shame that nothing meaningful happens to move forward this once-essential branch of the fiction.

If the sci-fi elements are underwhelming, Arno’s adventures try to pick up the slack. An overwhelming amount of mission content awaits discovery. Story missions are smartly paced and varied, and the assassinations recall the roots of the franchise, with open-ended mission objectives that allow players to craft their own path to victory. Paris stories and social club missions offer a wealth of additional tasks with real characters and interesting objectives. Slower paced activities, like the murder mysteries and devilishly challenging Nostradamus riddles, ensure a complete change of scene. The most surprising gameplay comes through the not-to-be-spoiled rift missions. These brief arcade-style experiences are fast and fun, and a feature I hope we see more of in the future.

The missions have little hand-holding, and you’re often expected to think creatively and solve problems on the fly. It makes this the most challenging Assassin’s Creed title by a wide margin, and it’s easy to get frustrated. The higher difficulty is pervasive, including in the newly revamped approach to stealth. Guards are far more aware than in previous games, and even new stealth options are rarely enough to keep anyone fooled for long. The combat system values punishment over communicating a sense of power; I like the increased need for observation in fights, and the expectation that I use all the tools at my disposal. However, the absence of reliable counters to devastating ranged shots is infuriating, and sometimes there are just too many enemies to understand what’s happening on screen.

The new traversal system is a mixed bag. I adore the new ascent and descent options, which finally make my Assassin move off buildings without any insane leaps. With practice, Arno’s parkour abilities outstrip his predecessors, but it takes some getting used to. Unfortunately, all these new moves and animations struggle to connect correctly with the environment, and I regularly found myself getting hung up on ledges or unable to enter windows.

Every mission and activity is geared toward progression. New skills and equipment unlock all the time, and skill points from mission completions along with earned currency are used to upgrade, customize, and define your version of Arno. The upgrade system is addictive, with both cosmetic and game-changing improvements on the line, but it’s easy to feel underpowered early in the game when several of the fundamental skills that you’ve taken for granted in previous games must be purchased. That’s especially true with the all-important locksmith ability, which now involves an ill-conceived minigame.

The option to play cooperative adventures with up to four players is a cool addition, but these missions lack the tuning of the single-player content. With more people comes more chances to get seen, and encounters often devolve into all-out melee brawls. Moreover, bugs run rampant through the cooperative missions, from minor issues with animations to game-breaking inabilities for players to draw and use weapons. Between heists and story-based co-op missions, there’s a lot to engage with here, but you and your friends should enter with an expectation of some problems.

Inordinately long load times, repeated onscreen notifications, and a couple of hard freezes prove that Unity is a complex game that hasn’t yet had all of its bugs smashed. However, Unity’s frequent missteps are balanced against an astonishing array of engaging content set in a stunning world. Even as I tallied problems, I marveled at the game’s breadth of gameplay and richly realized world. I encourage fans to give Unity a try, and leave your expectations at the door. For both better and worse, Assassin’s Creed is moving in a new direction.

Linking Up
Unity is accompanied by several distinct applications outside of the game, and each offers rewards in the main game, but all are optional. A mobile companion app adds some new mini-games, an online Initiates program provides additional tasks to complete, and an e-store allows for microtransactions to speed progression.