Assassin's Creed Unity Hands-On Preview

Assassin's Creed Unity Hands-On Preview

Written by Randy Kalista on 10/6/2014 for PC   PS4   XBO  
More On: Assassin's Creed Unity

[For a look at our pre-existing knowledge of what Unity will be, read Assassin's Creed Unity: What We Know So Far. The following info is gathered from a hands-on preview event held in late September in Las Vegas.]

Alex Amancio, Creative Director of Assassin's Creed Unity, wholeheartedly agrees with you. He agrees that combat in Assassin's Creed has gotten too easy. He agrees that the series has partially abandoned its emphasis on stealth. And, for the sake of the series--or at least for the sake of Unity--Amancio is taking the historical stealth-action series back to its roots while simultaneously expanding the player’s toolbox.

"We made combat more challenging because humans are pattern-recognition machines," Amancio said at a recent Assassin's Creed Unity hands-on event in Las Vegas. "We see patterns, and once we discover those patterns, we exploit them. That what makes our species so strong."

Amancio is great at flattering human DNA. But his approach makes sense for the series. "The problem with the path of least resistance is combat," Amancio said. "Everything degenerates into combat. The fail state of stealth is discovery. Discovery then degenerates into combat. So, because we made combat more challenging, stealth is more meaningful."

Here is where I would agree with Amancio. Contrary to common sense, combat in video games is the path of least resistance. Eliminating your enemy is the fastest, easiest way to get from point A to point B. Harder is observing your enemy’s movements, waiting for your moment to strike, downing your target without alerting others, then proceeding to point B.

In 2007, looking back at the original Assassin’s Creed, stealth--not combat--was paramount. Fighting was a perilous endeavor. Guards, and especially Templars, were worth avoiding, and sword fighting was outright puzzling to execute.

Gradual iterations in combat eventually drew comparisons to the Batman video games. Batman and the stars of each Assassin’s Creed share a lot in common. Each have fantastic gadgets at their disposal. Each strikes most effectively when unseen. But each can clear a room with little or no difficulty by resorting to melee combat. By the time we’re playing Edward Kenway in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, we’re wiping out dozens of buccaneers at a time, swabbing the deck with their pea coats. And therein lies Amancio’s problem with the series. He wants to reemphasize the stealth component of stealth-action gaming.

Stealth Button

“We now have a stealth button,” Amancio said. “You can be more agile, more silent. You can exploit guards because "last known position" was integrated. We rewrote the way guards spot you and the way you see guards spotting you. All of this is to give you more power, because stealth is about power, and when you don’t have power, you can’t have stealth: it means discovery, and you lose control.”

This is Amancio’s redressing philosophy. It's to make silent weapons more powerful. To make striking from the shadows and taking cover more natural. In other words, he wants to alleviate the combat reliance that’s inched its way into Assassin’s Creed, and to turn Assassins into Assassins once again.

During the hands-on event, however, a dozen of Unity’s developers coursed through the room, reiterating the idea that kicking in the door is still an option. While Amancio’s mission was to reinvigorate stealth, he had charged his employees with reassuring us players that, yes, we can walk through the front door and take on the guards head-to-head if we truly wanted.

Which brings one of Unity’s major points to the forefront. Amancio isn’t suddenly making stealth your only option. That’s not emphasis, that’s railroading. He’s emphasizing stealth by providing players with multiple options, differing approaches, and various routes. He calls this “black box” level design.

Narrative Progression vs. Player Progression

Amancio admits that this next concept is hard to boil down into one neat, tidy bullet point, but it’s one he feels is a game changer for the series. It’s narrative progression versus character progression.

In open-world games like Assassin’s Creed, the narrative typically pulls a player one way, while open-world activities pull a player the other way. It’s the nature of the beast. This tug of war doesn’t make much sense to Amancio. So, Unity shifts from the series' story-driven emphasis to a player-progression emphasis. This time around, it’s less about interrupting main storylines with endless side quests, and more about building up your character in a world gone mad.

What this means for Unity’s story isn’t 100-percent clear. We know that the main character, Arno Dorian, has a love interest in a Templar named Elise De LaSerre. They’ll be looking into the movers and shakers behind the French Revolution. Arno Dorian is also investigating his father’s murder. Plus he’ll piece together something called the “Nostradamus Enigma.”

Ubisoft wouldn’t answer any of my questions regarding Unity’s modern-day component, the portion of the game that has changed shape and form in nearly every iteration. Whether it'll be in third-person or first-person perspective, whether it’ll feature another Desmond-like protagonist or, essentially, the player as a video game developer again, or if it’s something entirely different, remains to be seen. I doubt, however, that Unity will skip out on the opportunity to let players climb the Eiffel Tower, so I certainly expect a modern-day component. Otherwise that would throw away the series' science-fiction core, and would discard the entire need for the "animus" (the fictive device allowing the series' modern-day characters to experience the past via parsing through their ancestral DNA). (I know.)

So, storyline speculation aside, Amancio affirms that everything you do in Paris will advance and customize Arno Dorian in some way. There are entirely too many ways to build up your version of Dorian, at least costuming and equipment-wise, though every customization feeds into one of these four pillars of character development: melee, ranged, stealth, and health.

You can inject points into different weapons fighting styles in the melee category. There are one-handed weapons, heavy weapons, long weapons (such as polearms), as well as staggering strikes (an offensive shoulder strike), and ground executions.

Ranged weapons include stun, smoke, and poison gas grenades, the money pouch (to create a distracting swarm of commoners), plus ranged-weapon improvements to the Assassins' wrist-mounted phantom blade.

Stealth customizations borrow a couple ideas from Assassin’s Creed’s multiplayer component, while a couple others make you earn some move sets that use to come automatically to an Assassin. From the multiplayer side, Arno can don disguises to simply shake pursuers, or blend in by putting on specific outfits--to imitate the city guard, for example. Otherwise, stealth abilities covers double assassinations, double air assassinations, a new lockpicking mini-game, and even doing a tuck-and-roll maneuver when you jump off too high of a ledge. Like I said, they’re going to make you earn a few moves that were pretty much handed to you in previous games.

Health gives you thick, thicker, thickest, and iron skin, naturally, but also extends to group healing--a power that you can activate when in close proximity to your fellow Assassins.

So, along with customizable abilities comes customizable gear loadouts. Every Assassin packs a wristblade, of course, but you can go deep into one-handed weapons (such as cavalry sabers or even a non-lethal warhammer), long weapons (from guisarmes and pike hammers), heavy weapons (to include pickaxes and heavy falchion blades), pistols (from the common pistol to the five shot duck foot), and rifles (ranging from flint muskets to officers blunderbusses).

I haven’t even gotten into the color schemes yet.

There are two forms of in-game currency. Anyone that’s familiar with free-to-play games may recognize this concept. One form of currency, the Franc, is earned in game. These are earned through the usual activities, such as finding treasure chests, looting bodies, completing missions, and the like. “Helix” credits, the second currency, appear as “hacking” options. Buying a pistol, for example, may cost 5,000 francs, but only 50 helix credits. Helix credits are obtained through real-world money transactions. That’s right. If you have no intention of saving up your lunch money to buy that next juicy piece of gear, you can fork over some actual dollars for helix credits, and then you can “hack” that piece of gear.

This concept builds upon the "timesaver" downloadable pieces of content introduced earlier in the series. I know that in Black Flag, there were timesaver options that let you download locations of map-specific items, such as treasure chest locations and those glowy collectible things you went after. I never bought into the system, and I know they’re rated very lowly on Xbox Live. So. Good luck with that Ubisoft. Either way, it’s an option. Not a requirement. There’s obviously no need to spend anymore than the initial purchase price to get an entire game of Assassin’s Creed Unity. But, again, if things are starting to feel grindy, there you go. A few more dollars of disposable income might save you hours of padded gameplay.

And, yes, you can even hack Assassin outfit colors. Not only are there dozens of upgrades for each pair of pants, boots, coats, and hoods, you can choose between 27 different color schemes with names like “Shiny Firefly” (orange, yellow, and dark orange), "Peaceful Times"(white, red, and dark brown), and, my personal favorite, if in name only, "Fancy Man" (made up of bright orange and dark orange accents).

Two-Player Co-Op

I sat down with a developer for a taste of two-player co-op. You can drop in and drop out whenever you want. You either host the game and you see your Arno Dorian. Or you join a game and bring your Arno Dorian with you. You keep all your skills, abilities, and gear. You simply look like another random-faced Assassin from the other player’s perspective.

Immediately the developer explained to me the benefits of being "tethered" together, or staying with arm's reach. The character I jumped into had the ability to group heal. All the developer had to do was get within range. He had the ability, I believe, to share targets and extend his eagle-vision range to me. I’m not certain we made good use of it. At least I didn't. I had the developer slow his roll a time or two, however, to give him some healing before we moved on. He was thankful.

Immediately I made the mistake of stirring up the pot in our mission area. Amidst a crowded square (several thousand A.I. characters can fill up a scene), I decided to stab one of the (red) troublesome extremists. Unfortunately, a (blue) city guard saw me do it. I’d upset both sides. So now, while red and blue guys usually find ways to harass each other, they were now both after me and my co-op buddy. We ran and hid, then came back in among the crowds, but the A.I. has a long memory. They kept chasing me back out of the scene. Several attempts and smoke bombs later, we made it to our target destination.

We were to save a man named Paton. We took to the underground where combat scenarios tightened up. The dev and I took turns throwing smoke and stabbing guards, and even managed a simul-kill or two. We found Paton, the guy we were entrusted to save, shirtless, down in a dank dungeon. The dev then set down the controller once we reached Paton, and our session was over.

I later learned a trick from another developer. Say, for instance, I killed somebody. Their body is on the ground. There's no longer any way to pick up and move that body to an inconspicuous location. But if a city guard (a blue guy) comes along and finds the body, that guard will look at his immediate surroundings. If the guard doesn't spot me acting high profile or suspiciously, the guard will likely identify an extremist (a red guy) as the culprit, and go after the extremist. It's a testament to the social upheaval taking place in French Revolution-era Paris.

Another element that makes negotiating the crowd more difficult is the elimination of hiring prostitutes and strongmen to distract guards. It's just you, the crowd, and a general area-of-effect crowd blending. Blending into the crowd didn't happen as organically as in previous games, and I couldn't get Arno Dorian to actually take a seat on a bench between two other civilians, but there are still things that the Ubisoft Montreal team is patching up. In fact, there’s a day-one patch due at launch, November 11. This is in addition to a small delay from Unity’s original launch date of October 28. It’s a very small delay, but the team must be hitting some serious crunch time, buffing in some polish, for such an enormous game--as all Assassin’s Creeds are.

In addition to the disappearance of call girls and brigands, there’s also no gently shoving your way through crowds. Which isn’t a problem, because no one is walking around with delicate crates and pots on their heads for the breaking.

After barely pulling off the two-player co-op mission, which was still story enriched, I moved onto a four-player co-op heist.

Four-Player Co-Op

Four-player co-op is meant to be fast and furious. Unlike two-player co-op, four-player missions embrace a simpler objective, and are meant to be completed in 10 or 15-minute bites. They’re called heists, since "heist" is certainly a gaming buzzword that’s gained currency in the past year or two. Me, another journalist, and two developers sat down to four TV screens. Our objective: infiltrate a rich home and locate a particular painting. The robotic narrator chatted in our ear, informing us that the first two paintings we found were forgeries and would not suit our purposes. We kept looking.

Household guards were posted everywhere. Tons of them. It’s entirely possible to go solo into a four-player heist, but it’s not recommended, since the game doesn’t scale down in difficulty if you’re running with less than a full crew.

The heist tracked various leaderboard-like statistics, eventually informing us at the end of the heist that I'd received 48,000 out of a possible 50,000 points (thank you, thank you). The developers and the other journalist came in a bit lower, but we all pulled it off.

Four-player missions are much more chaotic, as you can imagine. It's difficult to keep track of the other players' movements, and especially during combat, who knows who's stabbing whom? Once we nailed our objective, however, we simply had to flee the area. We spotted an open window at the end of an opulent sitting room, popped out onto the balcony, ran across a few more rooftops, and then it was mission accomplished.

The newly introduced "parkour up" and "parkour down" mechanic doesn't come into play much in building interiors, but it certainly does out of doors.

Parkour Up, Parkour Down

This is kind of a big deal for series veterans. In the past, climbing up buildings and parkouring has mainly been mapped to pulling the right trigger button. It was like hitting the gas pedal. But in urban areas, getting down from buildings (or trees, etc.) has always been painful. Either you looked for a row of pigeon poop on a roofline and then jumped into a pile of hay, or--and this was the painful part--you cherry-picked your way down, leaping for this ledge or that windowsill, hopefully landing on that fence line or managing to pull off a somersault if you utterly missed your target. It was a bit of a crapshoot.

Now, however, parkour is a two-button process. More complicated? Yes. More versatile? Yes. Pull the right trigger and press A (on an Xbox controller) to parkour up. This looks like parkouring as you know it in Assassin’s Creed. But pull the right trigger and press B, and you’re pulling off a slick set of moves that de-escalate you from your currently elevated location. The learning curve is quick. It’s easy to pick up for people that have already played at least one Assassin’s Creed before.

So, the right trigger is still like hitting the gas. You go into high profile. You start pushing the crowd out of the way and sauntering up buildings. The left trigger, something that’s never gotten much use in Assassin's Creed, is now the stealth button. It puts you into a crouch. It gets you into cover. It pumps your brakes and gets you more into the mode and style that Alex Amancio is hoping you’ll get into. Whether running over rooftops or diving into living rooms, you now have that many more options in how to negotiate your environment.

The City of Love

Armed with these new but natural concepts, I took to the city in single-player mode. For the purposes of our hands-on session, the developers put us into "Sequence 3, Memory 1," a fancy Assassin’s Creed way of saying, like, chapter 3.

I’m standing in front of a brick-and-mortar building called the Place Dauphine. The crowd is shouting in very angry French. Soon there’s a random gunshot amidst the people burning books and burning effigies. The crowd circles around a dead Frenchman--apparently the guy that was randomly shot. Eventually, the crowd walks over and past him, continuing on with the dirty business of being in a revolution.

There's a banner hung on a statue of a man riding a horse. The banner reads, "Mort aux tyrans." My high school French is rusty, but I’m pretty sure that means something to the effect of "Death to tyrants." I can tell there's no reasoning with these starving, oppressed, repressed people. I walk the streets.

As usual, the environment is wonderful. Assassin's Creed never ceases to amaze. Whether it was Crusade-era Jerusalem, or the crowded Caribbean Sea, Ubisoft knows how to assemble a convincing backdrop. It's almost expected to view any city in Assassin’s Creed as an additional character, and that viewpoint is still valid here. Paris is rich with detail, teeming with life, swarming with crowds, and almost palpable in touch and feel. The only thing missing is the smell of coffee and baked bread out in the sun-dappled or rain-swept streets.

It would be cynical to admit knowing that these hundreds--thousands, actually--of onscreen characters are simply going through A.I. routines. They have basic reactions to you and to each other, however, which has always gone a long ways towards selling the rest of the illusion.

Down by the Seine River, which flows through Paris, I was accosted by roughnecks shouting fighting words at me. Up in an alcove I saw a man and woman nearly embracing one another in a romantic clutch. A trio of musicians populated a busy town square. Extremists pointed and gestured threateningly, always on the verge of causing some ruckus, no doubt, while the boys in blue policed the area.

And the crowds were dense in some areas, sparse in others. They were practically dogpiled on top of each other if there was some speaker of interest on a soapbox, or nowhere to be seen in some of the shadiest parts of Paris that I’d run across.

Concluding My Hands-On Time

It speaks volumes that, even after five hours of hands-on time with Unity, I hardly scratched the surface, let alone leave a dent in the gameplay. The customizations look great. It’s impossible to create an ugly Arno Dorian (unless you’re vehemently against coloring your attire to look like something called "Fancy Man"), and there’s truly some variety introduced to the swordplay that goes beyond "this pistol does +1 damage" or "that sword has -1 range."

Combat itself, however, has intentionally been sapped of fluidity. It’s not as jarring as the original Assassin’s Creed where you could feel it in your teeth when a Templar parried your blade. But, as I overheard one developer state, "There no more 'Press X to Win.'" It’s certainly curbed its Batman-combat appeal. Now, fighting three or four guys at once is a losing proposition.

Stealth indeed has greater importance. It can be hard to tell in four-player co-op, where it's difficult to keep track of your own movements, let alone your compatriots. Plus, if you've been playing Assassin's Creed games for years, then you've been conditioned to maybe wait a few moments to pounce, but to put the pedal to the metal the rest of the time. That is, unless you’re someone that likes to wait in the bushes and whistle guards over, one at a time.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, there's no more whistling. The developers felt that was another exploit.

While Unity is wholly familiar, get ready to learn how to play Assassin's Creed for the first time, again.

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, or open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982, and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.

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