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.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor review – Master of Puppets

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PC/ PS3/PS4 (reviewed)/Xbox 360/Xbox One

Death is an interesting prospect in Shadow of Mordor. The game begins with its protagonist, a ranger named Talion, watching as his family are murdered by the lieutenants of the evil Lord Sauron and then he dies. Sort of. Talion’s fate has been entwined with that of a mysterious wraith and he’s cursed to walk the world of Middle-earth until he can visit revenge upon his killers and learn more about the enigmatic phantom to whom he is bound.

This is how the game begins and, while it serves its purpose, the narrative isn’t particularly noteworthy. It’s a fairly typical revenge story that exists primarily as a hook to hang a game on.  Fortunately, that game is very, very good.

The core mechanics will be instantly familiar to any fans of the Assassin’s Creed or Batman: Arkham franchises. Talion can scale walls and towers with ease and the environment is a joy to explore; especially when sneaking up on an enemy.  The combat is fast and fluid; building up a huge and varied combination of moves is immensely satisfying and unleashing a killer finisher at the perfect moment feels fantastic. Even better, environmental hazards – like exploding kegs of grog and vicious caged beasts – can be used to create chaos in orc strongholds.

It's not you're day really, is it mate?

It’s not you’re day really, is it mate?

Eventually, Talion gains the ability to ‘brand’ enemies and make them fight for him. This allows the player to orchestrate Machiavellian assassination plots on powerful orc leaders by exploiting the Nemesis system; the game’s most compelling mechanic.

Each new game generates a plethora of enemies with names, hates, fears, ambitions, strengths, and weaknesses all trying to climb their way up the blood-spattered ladder from grunt to captain to warchief. These enemies roam the open-world map competing with each other through various types of power struggles. They hold feasts, execute rivals, and participate in deadly duels to build their strength and prestige amongst their fellow orcs. Those that emerge victorious gain new strengths and lose weaknesses making them considerably more formidable in battle. What’s more, they remember their encounters with the player and learn from them.

Orc power struggles allow the player to pull the strings from behind the scenes.

Orc power struggles allow the player to pull the strings from behind the scenes.

In Shadow of Mordor, death doesn’t always stick and, much like the player, many of the game’s enemies will keep coming back for more. Talion might be able to creep up on Lamlug Skull Bow once, but next time that strategy probably won’t work. He’ll have learned his lesson from their first encounter and will be on the lookout for sneaky rangers. Eventually, the physical scars of your battles will start to show too. If Lamlug gets run through with a sword, he’ll have scars, if he’s set on fire, he’ll have burns. In my game, poor old Lamlug took so much punishment that he eventually turned up with a bag on his head.

It isn't all barren wasteland; some parts of Mordor are strikingly verdant.

It isn’t all barren wasteland; some parts of Mordor are strikingly verdant.

While the plot isn’t particularly exciting, Shadow of Mordor is an exceptional open-world game that gives the player a vast set of tools for murdering a slew of unique enemies and gives them the freedom to deal with them in any way they see fit; manipulating power politics from the shadows and pulling the strings on a hit from behind the scenes is especially satisfying. With so many ways to go about it, it’s never been so much fun to hunt some orc.