Assassin’s Creed: Unity review – Vive la révolution?

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PC/PS4 (reviewed)/Xbox One

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Revolutionary Paris provides the perfect backdrop for the parkour-packed action of Assassin’s Creed but, unfortunately, the franchise’s first full leap into next-gen gaming fails to deliver in some key areas.

Unity sees French developer Ubisoft return the series to its roots. The naval exploration and combat of last year’s offering, Black Flag, is gone and so too are many of the convoluted mechanics that the series has picked up in its various incarnations. In their place is an effort to refine the core mechanics of Assassin’s Creed and, in some ways, this is a welcome change in direction.

Fans of the series will find Unity’s mechanics instantly familiar. Inhabiting the cowl of the roguish Arno Dorian, you run, jump, and climb your way around the rooftops and back alleys of Paris evading guards while trying to locate and assassinate your enemies. In some respects, these core mechanics have been tweaked for the better.

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If you’ve played an Assassin’s Creed game before, you know what to expect.

The parkour is significantly slicker due to improved animations and the addition of a controlled descent button that allows you to smoothly go from the rooftops to the streets in a satisfying series of hurdles. It still isn’t as fluid as it should be however and Arno has a frustrating tendency to get stuck on bits of scenery, stubbornly refusing to vault over them.

The stealth mechanics have also been refined a little through the inclusion of a crouch button and wider, more open, assassination missions in which you can approach your target from multiple directions and in different ways. Arno can, occasionally, manipulate his surroundings to draw out his mark or to create a new point of entry for infiltration.

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Revolutionary Paris can be a dangerous place; especially with Arno on the prowl.

These help to freshen things up a little but they still prove to be somewhat linear and the frustrating missions where you have to tail a target without being spotted are still present. Unity also features an impressive number of side missions ranging from small-scale assassinations to murder mysteries that require you to gather evidence and interview suspects before making an accusation.

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For fuck’s sake…

The biggest gameplay innovation is the new co-op mode which allows up to four players to experience Paris together in free roam or take on assassination and heist missions as a team. These are generally pretty fun and, when you and a friend work together to stealthily take down a room full of enemies, it feels great.

The game has, like its predecessors, an obscene amount of collectibles and, for obsessive completionists like me, this is welcome but, for others, it’s mostly empty padding. Ubisoft have also bogged the game down in content locked behind companion apps and microtransactions which is, frankly, despicable given the cost of the game at purchase.

Unity’s saving grace is its setting. Paris feels like a living, breathing city and it’s absolutely gorgeous. The streets are packed with citizens who shop, argue, and steal amongst themselves and the art design can be breathtaking. Climbing around Notre Dame Cathedral, it’s hard not to be impressed. The ability to enter so many of the cities buildings also helps to make Paris feel dense as well as detailed.

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Gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.

Enormous crowds take to the streets and, while these do provide a certain level of spectacle, they cause the game to run terribly. Unity is riddled with bugs and glitches that cause serious problems. The frame rate frequently drops, NPCs clip through each other, and Arno can fall through the ground causing the game to crash.

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Massive crowds of NPCs provide spectacle at the cost of performance.

Unity is a flawed, but beautiful, game. There are poor design decisions, questionable business practices, and technical issues here and yet there are also sumptuous visuals, a remarkable setting, and exciting co-op missions. It was the best of Assassin’s Creed, it was the worst of Assassin’s Creed.

The Representation of War in Videogames

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Many games use war as a backdrop but few treat the subject with much sensitivity. It’s understandable really. War provides the perfect setting for action-oriented shooters or strategy games because it offers a straightforward conflict and goal that you can build a game around: kill the enemy. Besides, nobody wants to dwell on the realities of war when they’re having fun shooting people in the head, right?

WWII-based shooters were ubiquitous for a time before making way for those that were built around more modern conflicts, often set in the Middle East, and these quasi-historical action games have always left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Call of Duty: World at War, released in 2008, was a great game. It was fast, it was exciting, it was visceral; it was everything a first-person shooter should be. It was also brutally violent. As gaming hardware has developed, becoming more powerful, graphical fidelity has increased and so too has the ability of developers to depict the horrors of war on the battlefield.

Generally speaking, I’m not troubled by violent videogames. I grew up with them and, besides, I can hardly complain about the level of violence in games here and then go back to stabbing guards in the face in Assassin’s Creed, can I? Nevertheless, there’s something about shooters based so closely on real conflicts that leaves me cold.

While they do depict the brutality of war, they tend to do so for the purpose of cheap thrills. Usually, war is used as a plot device to push the action along, little more than window dressing, and most games that feature it focus on the influence the player character exerts on the war rather than on the impact of the war on the game’s characters.

Accurately depicting the way that war devastates communities and tears apart families is difficult in any medium, but some games are attempting to do just that. Ubisoft Montpellier’s puzzle adventure game Valiant Hearts is a good example.

The game tells the story of World War I through the eyes of four people and one dog. It’s about a group of ordinary people struggling through extraordinarily bleak circumstances and how one family is torn asunder by events completely out of their control. It has a truly stunning aesthetic and, while it stays light on the gore, the hand-drawn 2D artwork does a better job than most of depicting the horrors of industrialised warfare.

This War of Mine, from 11 Bit Studios, comes out on Friday and looks set to tackle the realities of war from a different angle. The game focuses on civilians caught in the crossfire of a large-scale conflict and trying to survive as best they can. It’s another example of a game in which you play not as a gun-toting super-soldier but as a group of ordinary people fighting for survival in dire conditions.

This War of Mine looks bleak...really bleak

This War of Mine looks bleak…really bleak

It’s about the desperate choices that ordinary people have to make when forced into situations like this to survive. Will you try to protect everyone in the shelter or will you sacrifice some of them to conserve supplies? Will you steal from other survivors to endure the hardships or will your conscience get the better of you?

I hope that I haven’t been too disparaging towards high-octane shooters like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played countless historical shooters and will continue to do so but it’s great to see videogames representing war in more nuanced and interesting ways and, as the medium continues to mature, hopefully this is just the beginning.

Silent Hill 2 and the Future of Psychological Horror

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Having apparently forgotten the recurrent nightmares it gave me the first time around, I recently decided to fire up my battered old laptop and play through Silent Hill 2 again. Turns out, it’s still scary.

Silent Hill 2 was first released in 2001 (I try not to dwell on the fact that it was almost fourteen years ago that I played this on the PlayStation 2) and while it is certainly dated in many respects – the unwieldy ‘tank’ controls that won’t let you turn and move at the same time stick out as does the combat which feels clumsy and stilted – it remains terrifying.

As you travel through the fog-shrouded town of Silent Hill, it starts to get under your skin. Slowly – but surely – a sense of creeping unease and disquiet will start to play on your mind and it sticks with you long after you’ve turned it off.

This is largely due to the design of the game’s enemies: horrific Jungian archetypes that are directly connected to the psychological workings of the protagonist James Sunderland and, by extension, the player. The hideous, twitching ‘Bubble Head Nurses’ and the screaming ‘Mannequins’ (creatures consisting of only two pairs of female legs) were designed to be sexually suggestive and representative of James’ subconscious sexual desires during his wife’s hospitalisation while the iconic ‘Pyramid Head’ reflects his guilt and desire to be punished.

The town itself feels as if it’s out to get you. The thick fog, low lighting, and narrow corridors make Silent Hill feel heavy and claustrophobic. With such a limited field of vision, it’s easy to lose direction and get lost in the mist; it’s a confusing place when you’re calm, when you panic it becomes almost labyrinthine.

Everything in Silent Hill 2 has a somewhat dreamlike quality and it’s never explicitly clear what – or who – is and isn’t real. The dialogue – and its delivery – can be toe-curlingly cheesy but this, somehow, feeds into the surreal, otherworldly ambiance and makes the whole thing even more unsettling.

These are some of the features that make Silent Hill 2 stand out as the pinnacle of psychological horror in gaming and, unfortunately, the horror genre has fallen out of favour in the last ten years.

With the notable exception of Dead Space in 2007, very few noteworthy big-budget horror games have been produced in the last decade. After Resident Evil 4, most entries in that series have been fairly lacklustre and tend to be more action-oriented while more recent – Western-made – entries in the Silent Hill series have retained the setting and the Cronenberg-esque body horror of Silent Hill 2 but they lack the subtle touches that truly get under your skin.

While there have been some excellent indie horror titles (Amnesia: The Dark Descent being a prominent example) and even some substantial AAA releases in recent weeks (Alien: Isolation for one), there haven’t been many satisfyingly scary games and certainly none with the subtlety and overall weirdness of Silent Hill 2. It looks like that might be about to change however.

P.T. (or ‘Playable Teaser’) has players – in the first-person – walking through a fairly innocuous hallway in a family home but, after walking through the door at the end of the corridor, you realise that you’re back at the start of that same corridor. Although, this time, something’s wrong.

With each pass of the hallway, things start to get unhinged. The radio will turn itself on to tell you a story about a deranged father who killed his family, a baby will start crying unrelentingly, and you’ll start to hear footsteps behind you but turning around could prove fatal as it soon becomes apparent that a ghostly visage of the lady of the house is following you; and she’s never too far away.

At the end of the demo – if you have the nerves to make it that far – it is revealed to be a playable announcement for the next entry in the Silent Hill series with auteur developer Hideo Kojima (of Metal Gear Solid fame) at the helm. P.T. certainly captures some of what made Silent Hill 2 great and, as far as I’m concerned, it looks like the series might, finally, be getting back on track.