(Pocket-lint) - With Ubisoft being a French company it's almost surprising it's taken many iterations of one of its best-known series, Assassin's Creed, to pull influence from its home country. Albeit, in Assassin's Creed 5: Unity, that's 18th Century Paris deep in the throes of the French Revolution.
Cue wobbly-chinned chaps donning fancy cravats, political unrest, book burnings, hordes of homeless underworld "rats" and a world busier and more advanced than any Assassin's Creed before it. After all, Unity is the first title to show off the new generation of consoles and leave the PS3s and Xbox 360s of this world out of the equation.
It also caused a bit of a storm at the E3 expo this year when it was accused of leaving women out of the equation too given the female protagonist absence in the new multiplayer mode. Hardly the "Unity" its title proclaims. But all major storms garner attention, and whether male, female or otherwise, the multi-player is Unity's big new sell. No longer do you need to be the lone assassin on a solo path of murderous doings, you can bring your mates to help in the slaughter too.
We played five hours of pre-release Assassin's Creed 5: Unity on Xbox One to see if the in-game revolution echoes as a real-world gameplay revolution for the series, or whether it's simply the logical evolution that will leave fans contemplating what's new.
The city of hate
Paris, the city of love. Or not in 1789 if Unity's world is anything to go by. But despite its moments of grim - leg getting sawn off, anyone? - the setting is an utterly beautiful one, complete with architectural flourishes based on their real-world counterparts.
Watch any Assassin's Creed 5: Unity trailer and you'll immediately be wowed by how so many characters appear on screen at once. Simply because you won't have ever seen anything quite like it - there are often hundreds of people in angry crowds that not only looks incredible, but can makes for a tactical advantage when busying yourself in among them.
So many characters being drawn on screen is the aspect that single-handedly shows off why this is a new generation game, and often does so with great success. But not flawlessly: there are some frame-rate drops and pop-up isn't entirely out view either.
But that didn't stop us clambering up high and soaking up the city's view, where clever graphical cover-ups ensure everything looks pristine. It's pretty as a picture.
Whether in the daytime sun, evening dusk, or the dark of night, the shifting time of day and beautiful lighting effects make this undeniably the best-looking Assassin's Creed title to date. And not a splash of sea water to be seen anywhere, showing a push away from the pirates and pillage theme of the previous Black Flag title.
Gameplay: new, yet old
But to get overwhelmed by the Parisian setting is the miss the point of the game. You're an assassin. Your goal is to kill people and get paid for doing so. Or sometimes just do it for fun, you evil so-and-sos.
In that regard Assassin's Creed 5: Unity is essentially the same game as its predecessors. A mixture of stealth tactics, calculated take-downs and rapid escapes, intermingled with often impossible swordplay and inevitable death.
And, but of course, it's all capped off with that free-running style that makes the whole environment your playground. Jump, climb, slide, roll; you obviously devour climbing walls for breakfast in the gym given how easy it is to near-bunny-hop giant buildings in just seconds. But this deft flow is exactly what Assassin's Creed is all about.
Ubisoft was keen to point out how the control system has been built from the ground up in Unity. But the end result, we first thought, was much the same as earlier titles. Not that we wanted a totally different feel to the game, just a slightly more fluid sensation during play when it comes to dropping from ledges or avoiding running up walls where there's nothing more to climb.
In part that has been answered. For example it's now possible to free-run down buildings in addition to up them (although we couldn't get a decent descent path down after hours of play), while running doesn't automatically mean you'll begin clambering up objects all around you - which is a definite good move.
Convinced that Unity's controls felt one and the same as Black Flag, we went back and duly played the earlier title the very next day. And it was a clunkier experience with less fine-tuned control, so Unity certainly smoothes out some rough edges - but doesn't quite form it into an always silken experience.
Close-combat, for example, is the same rigid nonsense, and the upward d-pad to restore energy using a potion is poorly placed for when you need it (on the Xbox One controller anyway). You'll want to avoid groups of enemies and stick to the stealth tactics and silent dagger-in-the-neck take-downs to keep things far more fun. Then lob a smoke bomb to escape like a magician and you'll be laughing.
There's also a new "last position seen" mechanic, where a transparent blue shadow of your assassin appears on screen when spied by an enemy. You don't need to be fully engaged in combat for this to happen, merely rouse suspicion - which can be used to your advantage to ambush potential assailants. It can also be a pain, appearing when you front-on dash towards an enemy and take them out, only to think that another possibly unspied enemy has seen when that's not the case. A mix of good and bad on that front.
Explore every corner
Not that the story is a rigid as that swordplay, it's more of an open book than before. There's a large map to dig deep into, with side streets often unveiling side-missions, so a little exploring can go a long way to reveal new threads of gameplay.
For example, we bailed on the main storyline after a couple of hours to go hunting treasure chests (but not in the depths of the sea, Black Flag fans). We stole some expensive-looking items from various house walls after breaking in through open windows, found a few cockades (a series of 12 exist per area), helped out some beaten-down members of the public, and then stumbled upon a cafe-theatre by coincidence. Well, we say cafe, in our minds we were trying to work out if it was a beer house or a brothel.
It's that last element that opens up a new mechanic: the ability to purchase some property, renovate it, and use it as a source of income. After we had earned enough to open a second cafe - shown as a red house on the map - we were raking in cash to make those pricier items and level-up abilities more accessible.
As with earlier titles there some deeper RPG-style elements to the game too, where you can buy into new armour, weapons and abilities. Take more of a bruising, be more light-footed and therefore more stealth in your approach and so forth. In means you can align your character with a specific path to suit your gameplay style. Be more brainy, be more brawn, it's up to you to think it through.
Stick to the main missions and the overall gameplay has a fairly repetitive theme to it, just like in Black Flag. There are no ships to sail in Unity either, which removes one of those love/hate characteristics of the game's predecessor. We prefer that, though, as we found the sailing got stale.
The main storyline in Unity - which we won't go into great detail about - begins to bed-in utilising your character's apparent clairvoyance to weave together snippets from the past in cut-scene form. But you'll need to meet and interact with the relevant characters to trigger this reaction. How that makes sense, we don't know, but it keeps things moving along. Which is necessary, because after about three hours of fairly repetitive play - the usual "kill this person, now this person, now this one" theme kicks in - the various characters become more key, personalities come out and your abilities develop too.
If you do find going it alone loses its charm then, but of course, Unity is now all about its multi-player options. We tested out two- and four-player co-operative modes, the former detailing a side-line story relative to the French Revolution - not the main storyline, so another thread to thicken the overall story and setting - while the latter was a more intense experience that shifted the feel and mechanics of the game.
In our two-player experience the storytelling did feel somewhat rushed though. We had to find a spy, and once located the overly mechanic voiceover declared success but lacked the same depth as the single player story. "He joined, the end, well done" being the long and short of it.
But this is multiplayer, so let's shun the storyline out of the window. If Destiny can, then Assassin's Creed can. And we did have a lot of fun knowing there was someone else to watch our back. Whether less stealthy, or just the ability to help assist in clever distractions or take-downs, there's a certain joy in that. Unity, as its name suggests, does have this aspect right.
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In the four player mode we had a slightly different experience. One of our assassin comrades died, leading to a mission reset for the whole group. But the second play revealed that enemy positions, access points and so forth are randomly generated and therefore avoids the same play experience time and again. It keeps it varies and fresh.
Ultimately the multi-player felt like a fun escape from the main event, one that we can see people getting on board with to dip in and out of. But the goal is ultimately the same: stealth, kill, repeat. Only now there's help on your side.
Assassin's Creed 5: Unity may be based in the Revolution, but as a game it's more evolution.
That's not to take away from its positives though: in its new-generation-only format it looks better than ever, the world is more invested and detailed, there's far more to do, while online multi-player action is an obvious plus point. That's the fruit of four years of development right there.
Unity does things previous Assassin's Creed games haven't been able to achieve. But this is still an Assassin's Creed title at its core that hasn't lost sight of its roots. Some of you will read that as "it's more of the same minus the sailing" which, in a sense, is exactly true. But if you're a fan of the series already then what's not to like? There are few games that do what Assassin's Creed does so well, now in its most refined - but not perfect - package yet.
Vive le roi, the revolution will soon be upon us. Assassin's Creed 5: Unity is out on 13 November, available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.