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Assassins Creed Unity preview: Is Ubisoft's par excellence better with friends?

By Nick Cowen on Monday 30th Jun 2014 at 11:40 AM UTC

As obvious as it seems to say, the French Revolution was a particularly violent passage of time.

Crack open a history book and you'll see that the streets of Paris ran red from about 1789 for the next ten years. Heads rolled, blood sprayed and the noggins of popinjays were pinned up on spikes.

(My mum is something of an authority on this. In the few instances I've been in Paris with her she's imparted the bodycount stats outside nearly every landmark in the city of love. True story.)

The Assassin's Creed franchise has never shied away from bloodletting - hey, the clue is in the title - but Revolutionary France is a particularly bold step even for this series. Not only does it put the action firmly on Ubisoft's home turf, it explores wounds in a piece of French history that still resonate to this day.

If this sounds quite dramatic, keep in mind the fact that Assassin's Creed III put a lot of noses out of joint when it was revealed in London. I remember one hack leaving the event saying, "not being funny, but all I saw was someone killing Brits for twenty minutes".

History is the Assassin's Creed franchise's playground and one of the aspects Ubisoft seldom gets any credit for is how tactile and respectful it is in its approach to its historical backdrops. Aided by the underlying narrative of the secret war between the Templars and the Assassins, the developer is able to coat each story and each historical aspect in shades of grey.

But political affiliations and historical events does not dictate the gameplay in the world of Assassin's Creed - Ubisoft even makes room for the odd philosopher, Machiavelli, to be portrayed as a free-running badass.

The E3 demo of Assassin's Creed: Unity doesn't really reveal much about which side of the revolution the Templars and Assassin's sit on. Set at the eve of the carnage, the Paris streets in Unity buzz with anticipation.

Citizens are splitting into factions of extremists. Fights break out occasionally on street corners, and while they provide helpful cover to the player's clandestine activities, they can also get in their way.

Running on the PS4, Assassin's Creed: Unity looks swoon-worthy - as many of the titles in this franchise do - and according to the developer on hand, thousands of NPCs can populate the screen at any given time and cause no lag.

The big addition to Unity is the introduction of co-op missions. Up to four players can take part in these and the difficulty for each mission increases in line with the number of players taking part. According to the developers, each player will control the game's protagonist - Arno Victor Dorian - but his appearance can be customised to help players differentiate from one another.

Ubisoft says that stealth is going to play a much bigger role in Unity than in previous titles in this franchise, and the E3 demo went to great lengths to show this off. The mission on show involved sneaking into the mansion of some powdered Fauntleroy, taking down guards along the way, slitting the throats of the local militia and eventually leaving the target gagging on their own cut windpipe.

As the demo unfurled, the developers pointed out how easily up to three other players could drop in and out of one another's games. There's also a 'dedicated stealth button' that slips players into a crouching position and reduces the sound of their tread.

"Running on the PS4, Assassin's Creed: Unity looks swoon-worthy... and thousands of NPCs can populate the screen at any given time and cause no lag"

It's by no means a cakewalk. Players will find that they're a bit more vulnerable in Unity when it comes to combat. The local militia is quite a tough set and, naturally, there are a lot of new combat animations to learn.

The combat in Assassin's Creed has always been about timed cuts and thrusts, but Unity adds a bit of an edge to the overall proceedings. To wit, the AI monitors the attacks players come to rely on and then changes its tack accordingly.

Unlike previous Assassin's Creed games, Unity doesn't allow players to spam one defensive attack. They'll need to mix things up considerably if they hope to survive.

The demo didn't reveal whether the game's new protagonist has an array of weapons beyond his sword (and, of course, the series' signature blade that slides out from under the wrist).

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At this juncture it's difficult to glean was what else players can expect. There was no evidence of, say, a flintlock, or explosive devices or thrown weapons on display. There was a brief glimpse of a new mechanic called Eagle Pulse, which allows the player to mark and monitor threats through walls, but little else.

There's a lot in Assassin's Creed: Unity that fans of the series will find familiar. Late 18th Century Paris is just like any other Assassin's Creed environment, in that it has ample boxes, climbing frames, flagposts and convenient ledges that aid in the new protagonist's progression through the urban sprawl.

Once they get to the rooftops, they'll also notice that items and locations of interest appear on the HUD; there's no need to head back into the menu screen or the map to find collectibles or quests.

So Assassin's Creed: Unity is the Assassin's Creed experience pulled widescreen and then streamlined. While this series is no stranger to co-op play, this marks the first time story missions will allow more than one player to take part.

In a way it feels like Unity is being pulled more in line with the two biggest IPs that Ubisoft has on the horizon - The Crew and Tom Clancy's: The Division. If it pays off, could this pave the way for further connectivity in future installments? Will Assassin's Creed eventually evolve into a persistent world online game? Much of this depends on how well Unity resonates.

Assassin's Creed Unity is due for release from October 27 in the US, and will ship on PS4, Xbox One and PC.