Thursday, November 20, 2014
Assassin's Creed Unity, and the Difficulty of Modern Franchises
Video games have evolved as the art form has demanded. From one off games came franchises that rose and fell. For a franchise to succeed, it has to constantly keep up with current technology, add new features, but still stay true to what makes the franchise work. Some games like Super Mario, Mass Effect, Grand Theft Auto, and Legend of Zelda constantly put out high quality games that tend to receive rave reviews. This is rare and difficult to maintain; Bioware has had its struggles with Dragon Age, Activision and its various Call of Duty developers have had troubles of their own, and now it seems that Ubisoft is having trouble with its flagship title Assassin’s Creed.
The Good: It Looks Beautiful
What Ubisoft managed to carry over from all of its previous game is an excellent choice in geography and a beautiful rendering of iconic cities. The artists at Ubisoft did an amazing job at bringing late eighteenth century Paris back to life. From architecture, to clothing, to foot traffic the player is transported back to the revolution. Wandering around the streets, one can easily become lost in the side streets and old Paris. Furthermore, the level designers designed numerous ways to cross the city over the roof tops or via the streets. The free running animations and mechanics are better and smoother than Assassin’s Creed Black Flag. Players can transition from climbing a building to entering a window, traversing a gap across a roof, or dropping from a roof for a surprise assassination. Unity runs at at 1080p and 60fps, bringing out all the sharp details of old Paris and the destruction wrought by the fall of the aristocracy. However, the greatest feat performed by Ubisoft artists was the scale of the buildings. Assassin’s Creed has always been about climbing. You have to climb to reach vantage points to survey map regions. However, in previous versions, players have never quite felt that the buildings are to true scale. With Unity, the scale is perfect. As I climbed Notre Dame for the first time I was treated to chills. When I reached the highest point and synchronized, I could see all of Paris. I felt I was there. Not even when I played as Ezio and climbed my way through San Gimignano did I feel that I was in Italy. Yet while standing atop Notre Dame, taking in the sprawl of a massive city, I truly believed that I was living the Revolution.
As a historian, (I have a BA & MA in History) and someone who studied the revolution, I find the setting to be rich and in pretty accurate details. While the story of Arno is a fiction, Ubisoft went out of their way to get all the little historical details right. Even their concepts for the revolving barrel pistols are plausible, as over under barrel pistols existed, as did “pepper pot” designs. This game also features rifles as a primary ranged weapons. Invented by German gunsmiths and used to great effect as skirmishing weapons by American militia forces, rifles would eventually become the primary skirmishing weapons of the Napoleonic War for Great Britain. As Arno you can equip yourself with a variety of long guns (muskets, rifles, blunderbusses) as opposed to a pistol. In previous iterations (AC III & IV) long guns were only weapons carried by guards. The fact that Ubisoft did its research, as it usually does, saves this game from being a total wash. If you appreciate historical detail, playing through this game will give the thrill of living the French Revolution nearly first hand.
The key aspect that Ubisoft brought to Unity is a compelling and engaging story. Prior to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the player played from the perspective of Desmond Miles. attempting to stop the Templars recovering the Apple of Eden. In Black Flag, Ubisoft changed the dynamic to the player acting as a software developer for Abstergo (the corporate front of the Templar order) developing a new immersive adventure game. The Assassins make an appearance in Black Flag as voices over a tablet, and co-opted the player to assist them in stopping Abstergo. The story for Unity follows in the same vein as Black Flag, except the player is now a civilian. The first mission the player is involved in is the true and historic arrest of the Templars in 1312 on the order of Pope Clement V. When an Assassin agent contacts the player at the end of the first mission of the game, the player learns that they are being used as a tool for a purpose. The purpose is an extension of the Black Flag plot, harnessing human brains as super computers to search for precursor artifacts and technology. From there the player is introduced to Arno as boy, prior to the start of the French Revolution. Starting the story, by introducing the player to main character as a child, especially at a point of tragedy, the player is invested in the continuation of the story. The particular success of the Assassin’s Creed franchise is that they continually come up with compelling characters that players want to see succeed. Despite the inclusion of all these important ingredients that maintained a successful franchise, there are many issues that cause the game to drag.
The Bad: Bugs, Glitches, and Visible Seams
While this game is aesthetically pleasing, there are a variety of glitches and other snags that detract from the experience. First, there are graphic and mechanics glitches that are highly noticeable. There are times where interactions with npc’s are marred by their faces or bodies disappearing, leaving partial images behind. Other times the player could be running, climbing or standing still and fall through the floor or get stuck in a wall. These glitches are at times annoying at the least, if not infuriating at most. The worst is when it occurs while running during a mission and having to restart from the previous checkpoint. It becomes very annoying when, during a cut scene, one of the master assassins or a contact in Paris disappears partially, causing a rift in the suspension of disbelief. These visual interruptions ruin the effect of living history first hand as part of an epic struggle in the shadows of society. However, since the game released, Ubisoft has supposedly been attempting to fix these glitches with software patches to be downloaded via the console on game start-up.
While new games have bugs or physics issues, one hopes that developers would catch the vast majority of them before a game is released. In this case, Ubisoft shipped a game with a variety of glitches and bugs that hurt its day one reviews. Since the release of Unity, Ubisoft has been working on patches to fix the existing launch day issues. This was not the first graphics patch that Ubisoft had to deal with. Prior to launch Assassin’s Creed Unity, the game was running at 900p at 30 fps, not the current “next gen” console standard of 1080p 60 fps. By the launch of the game, the PS4 version of Unity would run naturally at industry standard, while the Xbox One version would require a software update upon installation. As previously stated the game looks beautiful running at the industry standard, and I’m glad that Ubisoft eventually made the upgrade.
Another issue that this game suffers from is a severe case of schizophrenia. As I began to play deeper into the game, I began to feel a modicum of incoherence in the direction of certain aspects of gameplay. For example, there are chests on the map that require the player to use a companion app to access. When Arno becomes an initiate in the Order of Assassins, players become acquainted with the gear load out screen. Here players can use in game currency to purchase any weapon or clothing item at any time or use “helix points” to hack (unlock) more powerful items. Players earn these points in the game, or they can be purchased from Ubisoft. Yet, there seems to be some semblance of an economy. When the player kills an enemy, their body can be looted. The loot consists of money and other items like ammunition for your pistol or smoke bombs. On the other hand players might find canvas, silk, or soap. These items can be sold for money at shops located throughout Paris. However these shops do not serve their previous functions. In previous games weapons, armor, and ammunition were sold from general stores, or specific vendors depending on the environment. In Unity, these shops just sever as places to refill one’s medicine, bomb supply, and ammunition and lack the same purpose that they had in previous games.
Along with the confusing economic functions, the game feels like it was put together by many teams without a lot of discussion between the groups. The sheer amount of data on the map makes it impossible to read without zooming in. The need to use a companion app to access certain chests is annoying. Furthermore to get the full use of the app one has to purchase the “elite” edition. The apps data only unlocks as the player progresses through the story of the main game. The cooperative play is not easily found, players have to speak to Assassins agents to gain access and matchmaking is slow. The map system is difficult to read and the toggles that control data shown on the map are difficult to understand let alone control. There is always a lot to do in an Assassin’s Creed game but playing this game causes me to wonder whether or not the right hand knew what the left hand was doing.
The Ugly: Controversy
For the past few years, the place of women in the technical world has been discussed at length. BioWare and Crystal Dynamics have released games that feature strong female characters. BioWare has also embraced the options for characters to be homosexuals. While these progressive moves are encouraging, there has also been a fair amount of negative press. The most recent controversy is that of #GamerGate, which will not be discussed here. Ubisoft also came under controversy during the development of Assassin’s Creed Unity. Of all the games in the Assassin’s Creed stable, only ACIII: Liberation had a playable female character. There have usually been strong female non playable characters in the story mode of the games, with the option to play as a woman existed in the multiplayer portions. In all three aspects of Unity, there are only male playable characters. Polygon.com published an article on June 10th, 2014 stating that plans for female co-op characters were abandoned due to production issues. Creative director Alex Amancio estimated that it would take more than 8,000 new animations to recreate all the movements and customizations on a female skeleton. Due to this, the decision was made to scrap the female avatar and focus on Arno as the common denominator. After this article was published, it stirred up a fair amount of backlash directed at Ubisoft. Ubisoft responded with a short but specific statement that addressed the previous statement. According to Kotaku.com Ubisoft stated that:
"We recognize the valid concern around diversity in video game narrative. Assassin's Creed is developed by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs and we hope this attention to diversity is reflected in the settings of our games and our characters.Assassin's Creed Unity is focused on the story of the lead character, Arno. Whether playing by yourself or with the co-op Shared Experiences, you the gamer will always be playing as Arno, complete with his broad range of gear and skill sets that will make you feel unique.With regard to diversity in our playable Assassins, we've featured Aveline, Connor, Adewale and Altair in Assassin's Creed games and we continue to look at showcasing diverse characters. We look forward to introducing you to some of the strong female characters in Assassin's Creed Unity. "
This seemed to dim the controversy at the time, but it is still a concern that they only introduce stong female characters as non-playable characters. Honestly, I would have preferred the game be delayed by a few extra weeks, similar to how BioWare delayed the release of Dragon Age Inquisition, so that the game could have been more complete and polished.
More recently, the magazine The Atlantic, has published an article on their website about how the game is raising controversy in France. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former leftist French presidential candidate, told the website Le Figaro that Assassin’s Creed Unity was “propaganda against the people, the people who are [portrayed as] barbarians, bloodthirsty savages,” while the “cretin” that is Marie-Antoinette and the “treacherous” Louis XVI are portrayed as noble victims. “The denigration of the great Revolution is a dirty job to instill more self-loathing and déclinisme in the French.” Funnily enough Ubisoft is a French company and in response stated that Assassin’s Creed Unity is a “consumer video game, not a history lesson”. I honestly disagree with Mr. Mélenchon’s opinion. First, this is a game based in a historical setting with grains of fact to make the game realistic. Secondly, if one were to read Alexis de Tocqueville’s L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution (The Old Regime and the Revolution) published in 1856, one would find evidence that Louis XIV was not necessarily responsible for the problems France was suffering from before the revolution. Rather it was a combination of factors that brought about the French Revolution. Ultimately this fracas over historical perspective will do nothing more than draw more people to play the game than drive them away.
Let them Play it
I have been a fan of Assassin’s Creed since the game came out. I eagerly awaited the release of each game, including this one. Controversy over graphics and performance as well as the removal of playable female characters for the sake of removing extra work bothered me, and yet I still bought the game. From what I have played, I have had a good time. It has everything you want from an Assassin’s Creed title and for me the incentive of getting to live in history. While the graphics issues bother me, I am encouraged by the fact that Ubisoft has been working on several patches since the launch to address the problems. In all I would say that this is a game worth playing. Ubisoft always does an excellent job with their content development and this game will be packed with excitement to eat away dull hours. If anything, I would wait till the price drops and the bugs are fixed.
David Losey is a writer, historian, actor and stagehand living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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