Saturday, December 6, 2014

#77: Assassin's Creed: Unity: The Broken Shell

There are many different types of games out there. Some of them are astounding bad in all categories. Others do one or two things well, but are brought down by mediocrity in other areas. Still more are games that are excellent, despite minor issues. And then, there are special games. Games with certain aspects done incredibly well and others miserably bad. Assassin's Creed: Unity is one such game. This is a title where the fundamental core of the game is solid, but the systems surrounding it, the shell, if you will allow this analogy, is irreparably terrible. In other words, it is broken. This week, I will tell describe this “broken shell”, and why it is the fundamental reason why Unity has become a laughing stock among gamers in recent history.

The most noticeable section of the broken shell is the Companion App. When the game proper came out, Ubisoft also saw fit to release a companion app for the game, available on both Android and iOS. This is not the first time Ubisoft has done something like this. Watch_Dogs had a companion app as well. C_TOS, as it was called, allowed players to enter the game of, and attack, other players. They could send police and trigger traps to defeat their friends, from anywhere in the world with a solid internet connection. Overall, this was a neat little diversion that was not necessary, but gave players a way of interacting with the game when they were unable to play it.
The Official Assassin's Creed: Unity Companion App works differently. Chief among these differences is the fact that it can only be played while Assassin's Creed: Unity is running on a PS4, Xbox One, or PC. It has several features, including a map of the title's rendering of Paris. Furthermore, a “Nomad” minigame, similar to the Brotherhood mechanic found in previous titles in the franchise. Players can recruit characters to develop their skills and undertake missions to earn resources. These nomads can even be used to open treasure chests scattered through Paris, like those in previous Assassin's Creed games. In fact, and this is perhaps the most egregious part of the whole thing, there are several chests and unlockables that can only be obtained through the use of this companion app. As a result, if one does not want to use it, or (like me) is unable to do so due to technical reasons (my phone will not run it), it is impossible to complete everything in the game. In this way, the app has gone from an interesting way to continuously interact with the game to a necessary component of it.

Another component of this broken shell is the integration with Assassin's Creed: Initiates social network. Not many people are aware of this, but Ubisoft has been pushing this little social network ever since the release of Assassin's Creed 3. Franchise fans can sign up for an account, separate from their Uplay account (though the two need to be synced to make best use of the feature). As they play Assassin's Creed games that have Uplay integration, they gain experience and level up on this profile. This unlocks series lore and information on the website. Furthermore, they may even receive in-game bonuses resources on certain titles.
Assassin's Creed: Unity makes more use of this feature. By syncing their Initiates profile to the game, they can gain Initiates experience by completing challenges in the game. Through tracking both these accomplishments and what players do during the assassination missions in the main story, Initiates will also determine the player's style. By itself, that would be fine. The issue comes from the fact that there are many unlockable outfits, and again treasure chests, that will only open if the player has a sufficient Initiates level. Just like before, this leaves it impossible to completely finish the game without first having such an account. Further, these unlockables are likely out of reach unless said player also goes back to all the older Assassin's Creed games and syncs their progress to Initiates. Unless the player has been a long-time fan of the series, they are unlikely to progress far enough to get much of anything.

The last section of this broken shell is the newly added microtransactions. In Unity, the player can purchase new equipment, which affects their character's abilities, and upgrade it as well. They can, and likely will, spend in-game resources on these items. However, they can also spend Helix Credits, which can be purchased using real-world money. These Helix Credits can also be used, along with UPlay credits (which are acquired in the same way they are in every Ubisoft game), to purchase temporary boosts like “Extra Attack Power for 5 Minutes”. Given that the game already costs $60, it feels a bit like Ubisoft is nickel-and-diming players when they do not have to. It is worth noting that none of these are necessary to complete the game. Most players will never even consider purchasing them. However, the mere existence of this offering is indicative of what I hope is not going to be a trend going forward for the franchise.

I bring all of this up because it feels like many of the critics talking about Assassin's Creed: Unity are mentioning these grips only in passing. Rather, I am hearing many comment on the more obvious technical issues, like the face glitches. Though the technical problems are certainly worth mentioning, too much time is focused on them. They can be easily fixed and do not represent the vision laid out for the game. However, the design issues discussed in this article are representative of Ubisoft's vision. Unfortunately, this part of their vision is ugly. It represents a forced integration of social apps and social networking and a willingness to try and get players to make microtransactions in full retail-priced games. None of this really enters into the structure of the main part of the game, but it brings down all the same. This outer layer, what I call the “broken shell”, is what keeps players from appreciating the core of game. And there is a lot of like about Unity, despite these elements. Next week, I plan to discuss the good parts in more detail.

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