The first feature any player is likely to notice in Assassin's Creed: Unity is how smooth everything feels.
Ubisoft's historical stabfest has always had a slightly eccentric control structure since its inception and numerous tweaks and tucks over the years have thrown the fanbase the odd curveball.
The free-running and climbing mechanics have always been easy to get to grips with, but their intricacies - scaling down buildings, picking the right spot on surfaces to begin clambering to the rooftops - have been in need of some streamlining for at least a couple of games. In Unity, players can kick off or scale pretty much any surface they guide the game's protagonist into; pull in the right trigger and hold A, and he crawls up a wall like a cat. Hit B while still holding the trigger and he scales downwards. The transition in direction is smooth, quick and there's no danger of accidentally letting go of the wall and falling to one's death.
In fact, Assassin's Creed: Unity is arguably the smoothest ride players have had in the boots of a cowled killer for ages and this is good news because the pre-Revolution Paris that Unity is set in is immense. While it's not set in a persistent-world environment - and I'm willing to bet cold hard cash, that's the direction Ubisoft will take the series in next - Unity's Paris is a sprawling, multi-tiered environment. Players still roam through streets, across rooftops and into outlying areas, but they'll also skim through buildings, break into cathedrals and investigate the catacombs beneath the cobbles of the City Of Love.
In both the hands-off campaign and hands-on co-op demos at Gamescom in Cologne, Arno Dorian - Unity's new protagonist - clambered through the windows of houses, bars and, at one point, Notre Dame, and nary a loading screen was witnessed. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that, according to the developers, the scale of Paris in the game is 1:1 with its real world equivalent.
Furthermore, Unity's scope and ambition aren't just represented by its size. The developers say they've made a conscious effort to allow players to carve their own unique paths through this densely populated city.
Assassination and new Heist Missions are presented as open-ended kill boxes. Players start them on the fringe of an environment patrolled by enemy AI and it's all down to them how they tackle their objectives. There's no one route to success; progression is down to each player's preferred approach, the weapons and equipment they have at their disposal and the skills they've unlocked.
The developers also talked up a new feature they've added called AMM (Adapted Mission Mechanic). What this means is that missions can play out differently depending on when the player swoops in for the kill. In previous games, if the player lost their target the mission would de-synch. In Unity, they're able to re-acquire their target, and depending on when they take them out, they may learn a few new tidbits concerning the game's plot that they wouldn't have otherwise.
"Ubisoft has made a conscious effort to let players carve their own unique paths through this densely populated city"
In the Assassination Mission I witnessed, in which Arno tracked and killed a fat, corrupt aristocrat through Norte Dame, his progression was hampered by the fact that he had yet to acquire a lock-picking skill. This dictated that the player controlling him had to find a pack of ne'er-do-wells who'd stolen the master keys to the cathedral off a priest. To gain access to the church, Arno tracked them to a bar and picked the pocket of the thief carrying them.
The demo also showcased how several of the series traditional skills had also been streamlined. Eagle Vision is now mapped to the Y button and a quick tap of this reveals enemies and NPC's of interest - assassins offering missions, for example - in Arno's immediate vicinity. Usefully, it also reveals these NPCs whether or not Arno has a clear line of sight to them.
The reason for this is due in part to the fact that stealth is a bigger factor in Unity than in previous Assassin's Creed games. Stealth is mapped to the left trigger; pull it and Arno crouches down and moves silently. The player can also snap to cover and move along it at the touch of a button. The stealth mechanics have also taken a leaf out of Splinter Cell's playbook; if Arno is spotted by enemies and the player manages to break their line of sight, a white outline of Arno's last position appears and the AI will move towards it.
Stealth is probably so prevalent in the game because the combat system has been completely re-jigged. In previous games, players were able to just spam one defence-and-counter move and cut through swathes of enemies. Now, the enemy AI takes note of the sorts of attacks the player uses and adapts accordingly. This means fighting two or three enemies is a more challenging affair than before and if the player is hopelessly outnumbered, they're best option is to run for it.
Stealth also dovetails with the dark atmosphere of Unity. The game's Paris environment is awash with gloomy atmosphere. Rain hammers down on the Gothic spires that rise like claws into the night sky. In the co-op Heist mission I took part in, I was tasked with creeping through a stretch of dimly-lit sewers where flickering torches burned against filth-covered brickwork and threw shadows against the walls.
Co-op, incidentally, isn't mandatory; players can still complete the game solo but it's worth noting that some missions will apparently be rather more difficult for lone wolves - mainly, because they've been designed with more than one player in mind. Each mission will warn players if this is the case ahead of them synching with it.
Assassin's Creed: Unity, then, looks like Ubisoft laying the ground work to take this series widescreen. It's also throwing its net as wide as possible; since the game boasts a brand new story, a new protagonist and controls that allow players to navigate its massive environment easily, Unity may easily be one of the best entries into the franchise. Roll on October. Vive La Revolution!