The original Assassin’s Creed is still one of the greatest games of all time, and it is only in Assassin’s Creed: Unity that the series has managed to top that original title. Its direct sequel cut back on the social stealth, abstraction, and assassination sandboxes that made the first game so special in exchange for open-world sprawl. And as the series has progressed the games have become less and less focused on what made the original game so special. In some cases this worked in the game’s favor—just look at Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag—and in other cases, this has turned the series into something completely tired and rudderless: Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. But there is one outlier in this nearly 15-year-old series that, in many ways, does feel like the true sequel to Assassin’s Creed, and that game is 2014’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity. It is a wondrous piece of work. You should go back and play it—there are spoilers ahead—and it is such a shame that the collective memory of games media and gamers alike is so short and focused on The Next Big Thing. Yes, this game launched broken, but who cares? It was honestly just fine back then and it is nearly perfect now.
And just to be perfectly honest, this essay will be rather freewheeling. In order to fully articulate and put into words my love for this game, I will be taking a holistic approach in articulating why I appreciate it. So the central argument is that Assassin’s Creed: Unity absolutely rules and we will just go from there.
From childhood tragedy to constant betrayal as an adult, the story of Arno Dorian is somewhat unique to the series in that it actively subverts a lot of the tropes the Assassin’s Creed games have fallen into. That doesn’t mean the story is all that meaningful or full of depth, but it is doing something that genuinely compelled me. On the one hand, it is a breezy (and often violent) love story/grand mystery set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Everything about the game is opulent—richly detailed ornate interiors give way to packed and muddy streets. There is a dichotomy here that is central to the French Revolution and, as usual, this Ubisoft title does plenty of political bothsidesing to the point where the revolution itself is merely an aesthetic object. It never really means anything to the game beyond some sinister machinations and interesting setpieces. But the characters are what stood out to me. They aren’t necessarily original but they work. Arno is a quippy rogue in much the same way that the young Ezio of Assassin’s Creed II was, but Arno has to grow up and harden a lot faster. Tragedy befalls him time and time again. His Assassin father is murdered in broad daylight (if you played Assassin’s Creed: Rogue then you know who killed him) and a young Arno walks up to his lifeless body confused that someone who was just alive could now be so still. He is then taken in by another family and his surrogate father turns out to be a Templar Grandmaster. He is also murdered, Arno witnesses it, and he is then framed for it and sent to prison. It is here where he meets an Assassin who pulls him into the Order. Pierre Bellec is a Master Assassin who becomes Arno’s third father figure. It does not last. Time passes and the plot unfurls. Bellec is killing off other members of the Assassin Order that are trying to find a truce between them and the Templars. He cannot stand for that. Arno uncovers his plot. “Took you long enough,” says Bellec as Arno finds him atop a Paris cathedral. Their eyes meet and both gazes speak to a sense of heartbreak. Swords clash and Arno is the one left standing, his third father a betrayer who has been cut down by his own blade. He has no one left. His story is a story of revenge and the Assassin Order acts as a home for him, it grounds him and gives him purpose. Eventually, that purpose is muddied as Arno, with the help of his Templar love Elise, seeks to kill the current (and Very Evil) Templar Grandmaster. The Assassins are revolted that he’d work alongside a Templar. They see his every action as reckless and they always talk down to him—this is often literal. The high-ranking Assassins are perched atop a pulpit and Arno talks up to them and they look down at him, always in disdain. And he is excommunicated from the Order. Arno never attempts to join them again. Like everything else, they’ve failed him. They gave him a toolkit and a penchant for violence. Revenge is all he has left and Elise and Arno no longer have all that much in common beyond that shared bloodlust. Their love becomes secondary until it isn’t really seen at all. There is always a sense of warmth there but too much has happened. At one point Arno asks if they can ever go back to the way things were—Elise doesn’t even answer him. They both know that can never happen so why reassure a future that is impossible? The story reaches its inevitable conclusion.
Assassin’s Creed: Unity is also the best playing game in the series. And that is saying a lot because after the first game they’ve just gone on to play increasingly worse. Unity is the outlier. First, the parkour system that is central to the series (or was) was perfected in this game. Simplified, yes, but it is just so damn fluid and easy to get into its rhythm. Paris is also an incredibly dense and vertical city so you can nearly parkour fluidly from one side of the city to the other. Holding the right trigger engages forward parkour and holding the “A” button on the Xbox controller will propel Arno upward, and holding “B” fluidly scales him downward. Parkour up and down most buildings in a matter of seconds. It is so simple but it is in this simplicity that the possibility space and puzzle-like challenge of finding the perfect route open up. This sense of fluidity and natural rhythm extends further to the game’s combat and stealth. Swordfighting has never felt as good in the series as it does in Assassin’s Creed: Unity. It is genuinely challenging and makes you really feel like a duellist. Swords clang and parries are shared, and once you or your opponent finds one opening, the fight usually comes to end in a quick, bloody fashion. The attention to detail given to Arno while he parkours (there is genuinely an animation for every movement and there are some animations you might just never see if you don’t climb over random objects X, Y, or Z) is extended to the combat. Arno’s takedowns are varied and unlike other games in the series, his finisher animations are never overdone. They are swift, simple, and elegant. Elegance is paramount to the animations and playstyle of Arno. There is a sense of grace to the way he fights. And there are finishers you might never see either! Arno has unique takedowns for almost every item in the environment. Fighting near a table? Arno might kick-off of it to get leverage for a finishing blow. Sixty hours in and I am still seeing new animations. There is a horrible beauty to the violence of Assassin’s Creed: Unity. And the combat toolkit itself is the most versatile one in the series—various weapon and armor types that cater to various playstyles. Every player’s Arno is unique. Mine, from an armor and outfit (as for outfits, this game is a very fun fashion gaudy 1700s fashion sim) standpoint, was tailored for stealth but carried a guillotine gun—a blunderbuss mixed with an ax—for most combat encounters. How about yours?
As for stealth, it is never elegant or beautiful. It is rather matter of fact. Unity (finally) gives the series a crouch button. Arno can stalk interiors and exteriors with relative ease, and this is helped by the simple but useful cover system. Sneaking up on enemies or running away to break line of sight is simple, and the game’s missions (from main quests to side missions) play into this in an effective way. The core assassination missions are a wonder to behold. They are the closest this series has ever come to feeling like a Hitman game. Large, unique sandboxes with seemingly endless opportunities to dispatch of your target. Want to stalk through a massive crowd in broad daylight before killing your target amidst the noise of the Revolution, do that. Want to sneak into an elegant party in a massive manor and walk right up to your target and kill them in the parlor hall, do that. Be blunt or never seen. For the first time in the series, it is genuinely and fully up to you. There is one anecdote that comes to mind that I feel fully encapsulates the fun and beauty of the gameplay flow in Assassin’s Creed: Unity and it went as such: I accepted a simple side mission—here is a target, now go kill them. This target’s location was marked as a red blip on my screen and was about seventy meters away. My Arno took to the rooves of Paris. I parkoured parallel to my target’s walking path below. It was all going smoothly until it wasn’t. A guard on a roof saw me and opened fire. He scared my target below and they started running away. Arno then barreled towards the marksman who was on an opposite roof—the downwards parkour button helped me break his line of sight while my Arno then parkoured back up to him. He then swiftly drew his blade and parried once before finding an opening and simply raking his blade across the guard’s neck. The target was now about thirty meters away. Arno parkoured back down to the street in a matter of moments and took off after the target. The target turned right on a main street ahead of Arno and my Arno cut into an alley parallel to that right turn. As if perfectly timed, the target crossed the alleyway from the main road and Arno met him with his blade. Mission over. No one saw. Arno slipped into a nearby market and that was that.
One of the biggest reasons (literally) that I’ve fallen in love with Assassin’s Creed: Unity is the city of Paris itself. This, for my money, is the best city I’ve ever engaged with in a video game. It is brimming with life, feels lived in in an intimate way, and the boundless detail of every interior and exterior has story after story to tell. While the French Revolution is never fully felt in the game’s narrative beyond some “oh look this person from history was actually a Templar or an Assassin”, it comes alive in how Paris is rendered. Hundreds of citizens revolt against the rich in the streets. Most thoroughfares are strewn about with the detritus of an uprising. The city genuinely feels as if it is on the cusp of some great, unstoppable change. Unrest is seen in every brick and in every piece of granite. It is felt in the flicker of every candle and in the cries of every in-game revolutionary. The game basques the city in a serious, History is Happening tone but there is joy to be found. Arno’s home base is a lively club that you can renovate to its fullest potential. Folks drink and laugh and dance. This happens in taverns across the city. The warm glow of candlelight reveals the happy faces of tavern-goers as Arno runs by these buildings’ windows in the dead of night with no time to relax. Beyond these places where folks gather for respite, the warmth of human joy and boring normalcy can be seen almost anywhere if you just look hard enough. Craftsmen and shopkeepers go about their daily lives, folks sell food and newspapers on street corners and markets bustle with people selling wares of all varieties. But even in the most dangerous places, people are just people. My Arno was sneaking through an enemy camp when I overheard two enemy guards having a conversation while they walked the camp’s ramparts. It went like this.
Guard #1: “Did it storm last night?”
Guard #2: “No, why?”
Guard #1: “I was on watch duty in the tower and kept hearing things. Figured it was a storm.”
Guard #2: “Haunted, more like.”
Just a simple conversation that flirts with mundane comedy. How many other men who had died by my blade had just led normal lives? Did they also believe in ghosts? There was another time where my Arno was cutting through some alleyways as the early morning sun was easing just over the lowest hanging rooves in the Versailles District. He ran up on two young adults kissing behind a shop, and they yelped and laughed as they ran away from Arno. Life goes on. There is a deep beauty to Assassin’s Creed Unity’s Paris and a lot of that is due to just how good it looks, but it is the NPCs and small, easy-to-miss details that really give it its character.
Assassin’s Creed: Unity, quite simply put, is far and away the best game in the series. I think that it offers something different to every player depending on how they approach it and what they are looking to get out of it. It is full of heart and will likely win you over. If not, that is okay. But it deserves a sort of critical reevaluation, especially in the wake of how this series has steered so far off course. The way we talk about AAA games did this game so dirty because it was not broken at launch—see Cyberpunk 2077 for broken—but it was rough around the edges. It isn’t anymore. There is endless beauty, fun, and possibility to be found in it and I hope you will seek it out.