X

Assassin's Creed: Unity (Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC) review: Two steps back

Assassin's Creed Unity likely won't have the impact of last year's fantastic Black Flag, but it's ambitious attempt to revitalize the series should suffice loyalists. However, for those not indoctrinated, Unity might fall short of grander expectations.

JeffHSurban2012.jpg
Jeff Bakalar
JeffHSurban2012.jpg

Jeff Bakalar

Editor at Large

Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.

See full bio
4 min read

Assassin's Creed is a series that endures a volatile existence, an ebb and flow if you will. Its games tend to alternate between universal critical acclaim and mediocrity, though its fanbase never seems to lessen.

assassinscreedunitycatacombritual1415412377.jpg

Assassin's Creed: Unity (Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC)

The Good

Assassin's Creed Unity features breathtaking environments and occasional scenes of great heightened action. Its story is compelling and features memorable characters throughout.

The Bad

The game suffers from clunky free-running movement. Climbing and descending aren't as seamless as they are intended to be. Unity suffers from terrible frame rate dips and other graphical weirdness. Compared to Black Flag, Unity feels uninspired and trite.

The Bottom Line

While it will likely suffice for Assassin's Creed core fans, Unity stumbles throughout and never really finds its footing. Where last year's Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag saw the franchise reach new heights, Unity is somewhat of a sidestep that only shines sporadically.

The franchise's legacy mechanics of stealth, viewpoint unlocks and freerunning have been emulated numerous times in other titles and Assassin's Creed Unity attempts to refresh a lot of these systems and introduce new ideas simultaneously.

Assassin's Creed Unity likely won't have the impact of last year's fantastic Black Flag , but it's ambitious attempt to revitalize the series should suffice loyalists. However, for those not indoctrinated, Unity might fall short of grander expectations.

assassinscreedunitycoopstealth1415412404.jpg
Ubisoft Montreal

Where Black Flag was such a wonderfully accessible version of Assassin's Creed, Unity doesn't appear to be as welcoming. I found its story to be the most compelling element of the game -- it's filled with powerful imagery and memorable characters, all while incorporating the franchise's classic historical fiction along with a self-aware narrative. Assassin's Creed has always been about tracing ancestral memories through DNA, but Unity's plot evokes a sense of chase through a Matrix-esque type of adventure.

You'll play as Arno Dorian, an assassin who must sneak through Paris during the French Revolution to expose a hidden network of corruption. New to the game this year are a collection of free-running animations, the ability to descend through freerunning, and a crouching and cover system, among others. Unity also introduces the Phantom Blade to the series, a projectile weapon that can eliminate a target from a distance.

assassinscreedunityparisenvironment1415412381.jpg
Ubisoft Montreal

A major focus of Unity is co-op, where Arno can seamlessly enter a mission with other players. These missions will pop up in-game and you can either choose to play them or ignore them. Completing these will reward with you money and upgrade points that Arno can cash in to unlock new abilities, the same kind of rewards you'll get from playing through single-player missions. Once you accept a co-op mission, the game will find other players for you to team up with.

While Assassin's Creed has always been about stealth, it seems Unity aggressively punishes players that wish to face their foes head-on. Unlike previous games you can't take on a horde of enemies at once. No longer will your adversaries take turns attacking you. Trying to fight four or more will likely end in your quick demise. Not only does this force you to become much more stealth-aware, but it'll also result in a heavy amount of trial and error.

Overall, free running in Assassin's Creed Unity feels clunky and awkward. Picking a line across the Parisian rooftops isn't as easy as it has been in previous games. The controls didn't feel as precise as I wanted them to be. I found Arno getting stuck far too often when trying to make an escape, which is among the more frustrating things you can experience in an Assassin's Creed game. Gaps that seem easily maneuverable are occasionally maddeningly difficult to cross.

assassinscreedunityrooftopnavigation1415412408.jpg
Ubisoft Montreal

From time to time you'll pull off a slick combination of obstacle circumvention, whether it's sliding across a tabletop or making your way through a window and out the other end in just a few steps. Ultimately these highlights are damped by a parkour system that is very rough around the edges.

Assassin's Creed Unity features some impressive visuals throughout. French landmarks and banquet halls are recreated with a stunningly detailed palette. Climbing a church will give you the best exposure to the photorealistic architecture and masonry while you ascend above gorgeous sculpture work to what feel like unreachable viewpoints.

However, a lot of what's pretty in Unity is quickly tainted by a bevy of performance hiccups. The frame rate drops in the game are unlike anything I've seen on PS4 or Xbox One so far. It's really noticeable and jarring to the whole experience. While Unity is capable of displaying a dizzying amount of characters onscreen, you're likely to witness some wonky pop-ins and overall weirdness, especially when running through city streets. Nonplayable characters act very strangely at times -- they'll warp on top of structures and clip through some of the scenery.

Since the game is locked to 30 frames per second on consoles, PC gamers may want to take note. It's possible to get better performance out of the game on a PC, but you better have the right hardware to get improved results. I played Unity a fair amount on an EON17-SLX from Origin PC (we reviewed a similar machine last year ) and was very impressed with its performance. Even with this high-end gaming laptop, Unity ran into a few hiccups during scenes crowded with NPCs, but far more often than not the SLX was giving me framerates well north of 30.

assassinscreedunityballoonride1415412392.jpg
Ubisoft Montreal

There are moments of great action to experience in Assassin's Creed Unity, but the game never really finds its footing. Some of the missions feel uninspired, and the game's new randomized crowd events feel more like a distraction than an intriguing addition.

Black Flag seemed to indicate that the future of the Assassin's Creed series was destined for great things, but Unity quickly snatches those high hopes and smashes them down to reality. If you've ever felt burnt out on the franchise, Unity won't be the one to bring you back.

assassinscreedunitycoopleapoffaith1415412379.jpg
Ubisoft Montreal

CNET verdict: Reserved for core Assassin's Creed loyalists

Assassin's Creed Unity likely won't have the impact of last year's fantastic Black Flag , but its ambitious attempt to revitalize the series should suffice loyalists. However, for those not indoctrinated, Unity might fall short of grander expectations.