Assassin's Creed Unity: Three Colours Dead, Preview

After almost four years in the making, Assassin’s Creed finally has its first new-gen-only adventure. Louise Blain heads to 18th century Paris to join the Revolution…
The streets of Revolution era Paris are bustling and hazily beautiful. Crowds of people jostle on the cobbles. Carriages lie overturned and abandoned.  There are barrels stacked high. I hear snippets of angry French as I push through crowds of NPCs. It’s perhaps a  good thing that all I understand is, “Merde!” Assassin’s Creed has never felt this busy and I’ve only been in Arno’s leather boots for a matter of seconds. It’s almost overwhelming and it only takes a moment before I send Arno scaling a wall effortlessly with a squeeze of R2  and a tap of the all-new ‘parkour-up’ option, escaping the noisy streets. It’s time to view my surroundings and let the atmosphere… sync in.
 IT ONLY TAKES A MOMENT BEFORE I SEND ARNO SCALING A WALL EFFORTLESSLY.
The future of the Assassin’s Creed franchise rests on a guillotine blade. Since its announcement in March we've been hungrily awaiting tantalising blood drops of information on exclusively new-gen French Assassin Arno Dorian and his gory Revolutionary adventures. We’ve heard much of upgrades to the series; improvements in stealth with a crouch button, upgraded combat and new navigation techniques in an endlessly rich Paris, but it’s now time to put all that to the test. Has Ubisoft done enough to push the franchise properly into the new generation?


My demo starts at the very beginning of Sequence Two. Following in Black Flag’s drunken footsteps, Unity makes sure you’ve got plenty to do from the get go, and after my first sync point my map is already busy with intriguing icons. Oooh, what are those stairs? Catacombs you say ? Paris instantly feels like a theme park with no queues. There is no wilderness here, only mysterious alleys leading from bright avenues, and inviting open windows promising access to previously inaccessible interiors. Want to ignore the main mission and head off into the side streets? By all means, ignore the exclamation mark, be Ubi’s guest but maybe don’t try the grey stuff, we hear it’s not that delicious.
PARIS FEELS LIKE A THEME PARK ONLY WITHOUT ALL THE QUEUES.
 “We’ve changed the way that you interact with the world,” explains creative director Alex Amancio. “Before you had maybe a 90% part of the game that was the single-player, and maybe 10% side project. We’ve made that 30% or 40% to 60% or 70%. I’m not saying that the main path of the story is shorter, it’s just everything else is much larger. Traditionally our main motivation was narrative. We figured out that this was actually playing against the concept of the open-world because the
main narrative’s goal is to push you forward with urgency. The goal of the sandbox in the world is to have you relax and explore. It’s very difficult to keep doing that when the world is ending.”

Yet before I’ve had a chance to even look at my map and decide what to be distracted by first, I'm reminded I've got some ‘Sync Points’ to spend. Yes, you’re in charge of your first customisable Assassin, and that means saving up to buy your usual abilities instead of walking around like
an overpowered hooded Terminator.

In the character loadout screen I’m met with an overwhelming number of skills that I didn't even realise I was missing. Blending is in there for one Sync Point (*ping*) and I also invest in a Staggering Strike melee move to improve my attacks before I get to grips with the new, harsher combat system. There are endless skills on offer to purchase.

A speedy roll for ease of landing from those rooftop plummets, an upgradeable QTE lock pick skill, ranged weapon attacks; ‘thick skin’ defence layers and a ton of customisable clothing options…

More than just a way to dress up like the next cover star of Assassin's Vogue, every part of your outfit hood, gauntlets and all the rest affects health, stealth, and defence. No more donning Assassin White because it reminds you of ol’ Ezio.

While the customisation options are ideal for your inevitable co-op adventures, this is a monumental change for the series and initially feels like a daunting experiment. Unity makes you earn your Assassin stripes. “All of the elements that you perform in the game world will contribute to progression,” explains Amancio. “If you play the single-player, every couple of sequences we unlock skill sets. Then you need to play missions to get skill points so that you can purchase skills. Every single mission even if it’s a heist, a murder mystery, a treasure hunt, a contract it gives you money,
weapons and gear. Everything has an impact on Arno and the way you play.”

The full test of this approach must wait for our review as, just like in real life, I'm instantly restricted by both time and money. But I feel cheated from the off like I’m not playing with a full deck of (killer) cards.

COUNTER SKILL
In anti-Hunger Games style, combat has been tweaked so that the odds will certainly not be ever in your favour. This much is obvious when I take on my first set of guards. Arno’s on his way to his first mission when I’m distracted by some dastardly criminals running away from the law. Ever the fighter for justice, I awkwardly parkour-down from my rooftop vantage point to take on the enemies. Despite expertly taking the two villains down with a blade to the throat and a recently purchased war hammer to the skull, I’m immediately set upon by seven members of local law enforcement.

It doesn't go well. Where Black Flag celebrated the joys of the counter attack button by swinging you onto ships packed with enemies purely to allow you to indulge in dual-wield combat and gory counter kills, Unity gives you the option to attack, parry, roll out of the way or flee. After being skewered by rapiers twice and tripped up by some Beta-code animation lags, my novice Assassin retreats to the rooftops like a kicked puppy.

I do not appear to be Batman. Or even Connor Kenway. Not only is this a shock to the system you mean I can’t kill seven men on my own without any skills? but the discovery that I need to replenish my health with a potion is a striking and slightly depressing reminder that Unity has been in production since Brotherhood, and has missed a few of the crucial upgrades to the series.

BLADE RUNNER
Arno’s first small mission is a far slicker experience. I'm tasked by a fellow Assassin with taking down some patrolling guards and deactivating their pesky bell. Sneaking into the soon to be not-so-peaceful courtyard, I get to grips with the new crouch button (mapped to L2 and discover it's a satisfying silent addition to Arno’s move set. I take the opportunity to test out his smoke bombs and send guards choking before sneaking up on them with a slick, swift slice of signature blade.

Joining my comrade so we can get the hell out of dodge, a slew of guards decide to give chase and it’s here I experience the new freeze-framed ghost of Arno that appears to show where you were last spotted by guards taken straight out of Splinter Cell. It’s almost useless here under fire, but I can already see where I’ll be able to take advantage of the tool in future. An indicator also appears on Arno’s back if he’s spotted from behind, so you can quickly hide instead of being executed by someone you might never see in the first place.
 UNITY’S STORY IS A GORY RASPBERRY SWIRL WITH PLENTY OF REDEMPTION.
I continue down the story path, returning to the base of the Assassins in ornate caverns deep underground beside the Seine. A seller on the way into the lair offers to refill my health and various consumables. Again, I’m taken back to Ezio's many shopping adventures. We don’t craft here in Paris, y’know, there are shops for that.

Concerns about the mix of old and new are short-lived. Returning to the story feels instantly rewarding. Cutscenes are beautiful and richly atmospheric and the narrative’s an intriguing mix of plotting and the colourful chaos of the Revolution; a gory raspberry swirl as Arno quests for redemption. Paris might be a playground of side activities, but a story this interesting should keep you coming back for more regardless of the extra modes and missions (even if the English accents are suitably distracting when the NPCs speak fluent French).

TEMPLAR TRAP
It’s not long before I’m hurtling back across the rooftops to my first full assassination mission. It’s set in none other than Notre Dame. Arno's free running controls are flowing and effortless when they work, but I am concerned by intermittent lapses in the parkour-down ability. The promised seamlessness I'm looking for feels just out of Arno’s reaching grasp, but the console engine is still being tweaked so this could be fully flowing again on release. With the city so architecturally varied and with so many tempting handholds, Paris should become a parkour paradise provided the bugs are eliminated.

Missions are now based around what the devs fondly call Black Boxes, full 360° worlds you can explore and experiment inside to discover unique slaughtering combos. Your contract fills half the screen during the mission introduction, while a handy guide displays the number of entrances and secret passages you can utilise, the unique kills to be taken advantage of, and the alarm bells that await. It’s a dramatic and bold step for the series, and this twist in presentation turns every quest into a cinematic challenge with a narrative kick as you can fully appreciate who you’re dealing with.

“There was something that we did very right in Assassin’s Creed 1 that we really wanted to reproduce. We introduced the target,” says Amancio. “You get to meet your assassination target and know what he has done and know who the hell that character actually is before you assassinate them. In Unity, each sequence revolves around the target.” After increasingly convoluted plots, the simpler focus on targets is welcome. As is the death of the tired ‘white room/dead guy’ scene.

Another AC1 throwback means completing optional objectives opens up shortcuts in missions. An optional ‘confessional kill’ in Notre Dame leads me directly to my target, while sabotaging chimneys triggers a quieter approach as I take to smokey sewers. All the while, the challenging combat means there are fewer chances to escape should I botch the wrong quest.

EAGLE-EYED
By the time I’m equipped with Arno’s projectile Phantom Blade, I’m taking advantage of the much improved Eagle Vision to scope out situations before gradually picking off guards with painfully crunchy bolts to skulls. Eagle Vision now holds your target and reaches further into the distance than ever, highlighting blood through walls and doors, along with secret entrances. It finally feels like more of a functional tool for the job, and even a revamped tailing mission doesn't feel quite so laborious with a clear target forever visible.
EAGLE VISION NOW HIGHLIGHTS BLOODSTAINS AND SECRET ENTRANCES.
Yet this is just a glimpse of Paris. There is the Café de’Theatre, the villa replacement that you can renovate and run missions for. There are treasure hunts set by Nostradamus himself. Great heists to perform and perfect. Letters to read. History to learn. Chaos to build. Murders to solve. Ubisoft has poured layer upon layer of content into its one, bustling city.

Yet despite the imminent release, I feel a lot more development time is needed. Bugs plague my demo, and I’d hate for Ubi to have Eagle Vision so firmly set on a release date that the first new-gen-only Creed isn’t given sufficient time to bake. With nothing to explore outside the city walls, the core pillars of the Parisian gameplay must hold steady. Getting stuck on statues is not the revolution anyone was looking for. This is a rich world and a narrative deserving of your attention, with transformative ideas for the series should it all come together in time. A blunt guillotine at this stage would be criminal.

Portable Revolution
Slot Paris into your pocket with Unity’s companion app

An upgrade to last year’s Black Flag companion, Unity’s second screen app is an excellent reason never to have to go anywhere near that pesky map button. With the same impressive 3D map of Paris as the one on your TV, the Companion App shows enemies, missions, and even has extra content that can only be accessed via your tablet. Plus, your Brotherhood is always ready to be called upon to earn you much needed cash. “This is without a doubt the best companion app we’ve ever done,”
says creative director Alex Amancio. “Maybe you don’t want to be standing there in front of your console and reading the database? When you’re on the bus you can read about different monuments. You can also manage your Assassin, your loadout and your gear so that when you get home your Assassin is updated.” There’s also a unique heat map feature that shows the activity hotspots of the wider gaming community in completed sequences and your next mission, too. It’s the first time that
Ubisoft has lifted the lid of the sneaky analytics data it’s been hording of our playtime, and it’s certainly welcome.

Building the Revolution
Constructing a full-size Paris for a new generation

imb to the top of Notre Dame excuse me, Quasi and the view is endless. Paris goes on forever. Well, a really long way. Assassin’s Creed is well and truly back in Europe, and with no secondary locations to attract your hooded attention, Ubi has to make sure you fall in love with the City Of Romance even when the streets run red with Revolutionary blood. “The challenge this time was the fact that we wanted to go to the size of Black Flag or the size of Assassin’s Creed III, but within one city,” explains series historian Maxime Durand. “So where the wildlife and size of Black Flag meant a very vast land, this time it’s going to be very dense. We changed the way we make our buildings. Now we can go higher and you can go inside as well. It’s the biggest city we’ve built.” The research that’s gone into Paris is staggering and, at a 1:1 scale, we’re guessing it didn’t just take a few caffeinated nights on Wikipedia to decide what made it. “The funny thing with Paris is that there’s too much to cover, so the challenge was to decide on what’s important. We revealed 35 landmarks, but there are thousands of landmarks we could have chosen from,” says Durand. “It wasn’t the same kind of challenge as for the American Revolution as most of  those buildings were destroyed. Most of the buildings that we had for Unity are still there today, although in a different state.”

GARGOYLE PAINTING
One building that stands proudly in Paris today is easily the game’s most impressive achievement. Grandly looming over a jostling revolutionary square, Unity’s Notre Dame is an intimidating sight. What’s even more intimidating is the work that went into recreating the Gothic masterpiece. “One person, Caroline, worked on it for 5,000 hours,” says Durand a little too casually. “[For research] …we looked into a lot of detailed archives from the time period, but we also introduced some of the aspects of a more modern Notre Dame. The Revolutionaries were very angry. Bits of it were destroyed back then so, for instance, there was no spire at the time of the Revolution. We still decided to build one because we felt it would add to the style of gameplay, so you can climb up Notre Dame.” Not only is it astonishing to admire from the outside and a true classic climbing puzzle to unpick but the Cathedral has a full interior for you to contend with. A setting for an early assassination mission,
it’s hard not to be distracted by the sound of the choir that swells as you sneak inside, or the way the light filters beautifully through the round windows. “If you go inside Notre Dame you’ll find there are a lot of paintings,” enthuses Durand. “The ones we have put inside are the real paintings that were there at the time of the French Revolution. A lot of them were destroyed so we don’t know of them today, but those are the kind of details we could find. It’s an example of what we did overall for the game; it’s going into these details that makes it exciting.” Visually, Paris has a uniquely dreamy atmosphere; a design choice made by art director Mohamed Gambouz: “The idea that we started from was that we wanted something really immersive, like real Paris but at the same time we wanted to add some personality,” he explains. “The analogy I gave the team is that I don’t want something as realistic as a generic tourist photo. Those kinds of photos are obviously very realistic. They’re real life, but don’t necessarily have personality. The realism I pushed for is something in between paintings and professional photography.” So put Paris through Instagram and  you’re there…

Run DLC
Chronicles: China
Exploring a 2.5D platformer with Ezio’s prodigy
Trained by Master Auditore himself, 16th century Assassin Shao Jun first appeared in the short film Embers alongside our favourite Renaissance hidden-blade wielder. The Assassin’s Creed: Chronicles China DLC is a standalone story set in Beijing as Shao Jun returns to wreak a stabby vengeance on those who destroyed her own Brotherhood. Swivelling the camera out to show an interesting two-and-a-half dimensions, Chronicles is a beautifully stylized side-scroller inspired by traditional Chinese brush paintings, and an intriguing direction for Unity’s DLC. Blood is a glorious, vicious red as Shao Jun cuts through her enemies with deadly martial arts skills and the new and painful sounding Foot Blade. It looks like this could have worked well on mobile devices, but it makes an intriguing addition to Season Pass content that could easily have been some new costume packs or co-op abilities instead.  

Dead Kings
We're going deeper underground…
Set to be the darkest story the franchise has ever seen cue much moonlight and mysterious fog the Dead Kings half of Unity’s Season Pass DLC leads Arno to the small Paris suburb of Saint-Denis after the events of the main game. The royal bloodlines of France are buried beneath the legendary Basilica and ancient priceless artefacts were plundered here during the French Revolution. With a very different tone from Unity, Dead Kings introduces a nasty new enemy type in the shape of a faction known as Raiders, and Arno journeys into an underground necropolis with only a lantern to light  the way. Puzzles and enemies wait in  the darkness and footage so far looks beautifully atmospheric. From a dedicated team at Ubisoft Montpellier, Dead Kings also updates Arno’s arsenal with the fiendish-looking Guillotine Gun. Not only has this shiny delight got explosive ammunition to send your enemies flying in multiple directions at once, but it also makes stupidly short work of victims at close range. It’s good to see that despite the new focus on stealth and not just mindless hitting of the counter button, Ubi’s giving us a balance of play styles and a choice about our approach. The catacombs should be a suitably tense affair, even if we are armed to the teeth with gunpowder.

Brotherhood at arms
Getting hands on with Unity’s co-op
While every single mission can be tackled solo and is entirely possible if you’d rather maintain lone
wolf Assassin status  more social types will be pleased to know that two and four-player missions are seamlessly integrated into the world. I take on both a two-player Brotherhood mission and a four-player Heist  in my session: the two-player quest is a full three-tiered narrative adventure and not just a matter of ‘go to point A and stab person B’. Full stories have been written around each session, and as my partner and I battle our way through a Parisian graveyard, back to back, to rescue someone from the catacombs below, Ubisoft Toronto’s Nitai Bessette explains the thinking behind the adversarial multiplayer replacement.

“It’s a very different experience playing co-op,” he says. “We noticed that people want to go and do their own things so we gave abilities that encourage them to come back together. The more they’ll stay together the more fun they’ll have.” I’m reminded of this as the health of my partner plummets and I heal us both with a quick press of  2. Each player has a special ability to help the other. My
partner’s stylish secret knack of transforming us into gentility however, is slightly useless as we brawl amongst the tombstones. “Pardon me, my good crypt!”

HEAL YOUR FRIENDS
In four-player, things get significantly more exciting as we arrive at a Parisian museum to steal a priceless painting. Once we’ve sneaked through a top floor window and used Eagle Vision to scope out the guards swarming each floor, it’s clear that this isn’t going to be a free-run in the park. There are paintings scattered through the floors but we need to find the right one. To further up the stakes, if one of us dies, we all do. “Single-player customisation means every Assassin is different and will be better suited to individual parts of the mission,” reminds Bessette. “We try to encourage players to upgrade their characters based on their playstyle. You can have someone who has upgraded all their parkour abilities so that they’re really fast at crossing rooftops. If that player wants they can get a co-op sense called Communal Sense, and what that does is that it enhances your Eagle Vision so you’d get larger range. It automatically marks enemies for all of your friends. So that’s a player that could scout and just stick to the rooftops and just be giving intel to everybody.” It’s unquestionably an exciting new addition, enabling you to finally build a truly unique band of killers.

Murder most foul
Solving the crimes of the Revolution, Assassin’s style
A monk lies dead on the floor, strangled by his own rosary beads. A ripped note beside him holds a confession for the poisoning of other monks in the monastery. Who is to blame for this heinous act? A case for a certain Mr Holmes or even a French Revolution Grissom? Nope. Welcome to one of Unity’s many murder mysteries. Signified by an inquisitive magnifying glass on  the map, these missions see Arno bring criminal justice to the streets of Paris. I switch to Detecti… Wait, no… Eagle Vision and Arno suddenly sees clues around the room that he adds to his case file. He can study the bodies of other monks, there are random clues lurking around the room, and I find a diary suspiciously half-burned outside in the garden.

There’s a handy clue counter to keep tally, and you can speak to witnesses to further the plot. It’s a refreshing break from a world of sneaky stabbing and an entertaining extra layer  to Paris as you explore environments, discover clues and ultimately decide who’s being honest and who’s telling porkies. “It’s all linked with a famous historical character called Vidocq who’s sort of the father of French criminology,” explains creative director Alex Amancio.

“This guy was actually a criminal and he grew up to become, potentially, the inventor of modern criminology.”Once you’ve gone all Cluedo on proceedings take your time though as accusing the wrong man will significantly lower your reward you can return to the French Chief Of Police. He might be Charles Cochon de Lapparent, but has an accent more befitting a Holmes mystery and will reward you with cash in hand, proving that crime does, in fact, pay.

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