Saturday, December 13, 2014

#78: Assassin's Creed: Unity: Giving Players Freedom

Last week, I talked a lot about Assassin's Creed: Unity. Specifically, I went over the myriad of poor decisions that, while not affecting the main game too heavily, brought down the entire package. The inclusion of social media, companion apps, and microtransactions all contributed to the impression that Ubisoft was nickel-and-diming franchise fans for all they were worth. Still, the package as a whole was not bad. There were many positive improvements made to the usual Assassin's Creed formula. It is these that are the subject of this week's piece. I feel that they are worth talking about as much as the negative qualities. Positive criticism is just as much, if not more important than negative criticism, as they say.

The most notable addition to the game is the increased focus on character customization. There are two ways in which this is done: First, through the use of a character progression system. At the beginning of the game, the protagonist is relatively unskilled. He only knows basic parkour and combat abilities. As the player completes missions, the gain skill points. These skill points can be spent unlocking extra health, combat finishers, ranged techniques, and even classic moves like the Double Assassination and the Air Assassination. At first, it seems strange to be locked from many of the franchise's iconic moves. However, there is a clear sense of choice and progression granted to the player as a result. Skills fall into one of four different specialties: Close Combat, Ranged Combat, Health, and Stealth. It is up to the player to invest their points either in one of these specializations, or some combination of them. Whatever they decide on will ultimately determine how they play the game, as there is a notable difference between each choice.
The other way is through equipment. As in previous Assassin's Creed titles, primarily the Ezio trilogy, players can purchase new weapons and armor throughout their playthrough. Back then, those armors were straight upgrades. One armor was objectively better or worse than another piece of armor, and the same could nearly be said of the weapons. In Unity, this is not the case. Every piece of armor has passive abilities that are conferred to the protagonist when worn. Like as was the case with skills, these effects fall into the four categories of Close Combat, Ranged Combat, Health, and Stealth.
Weapons, on the other hand, come in several flavors of their own. The player can have only one melee and one ranged weapon at a time. For melee weapons, players can use a sword for balanced damage and speed, spears for longer range and comparable speed in exchange for less damage, or heavy weapons for extra damage at sword range, but with slower speed. In terms of distance weaponry, the choices are pistols, which come in accurate single or close-range multi-barrelled varieties, and rifles for extra long-range combat. No one piece of equipment is important by itself. When the whole package, including armor and weapons, is combined with the skills as outlined above, it produces a player avatar that is almost wholly unique for that of every other player's. As a result, though the general control scheme is the same for all, each player will be able to craft a protagonist and playstyle that is wholly their own.

This feeds into one of the biggest improvements made in Unity's design, the new take on Assassination Missions. Rather than the more linear, semi-scripted sequences seen in Assassin's Creed 3, Black Flag, and even the recently-released Rogue, the developers took a different approach. Referred to a “Black Box-style”, these segments strongly resemble what one would get from either the original Assassin's Creed. What can best be described as a rudimentary version of Hitman-style “choose your approach” gameplay, Unity's Assassination Missions are more free-form in the way they play out. Instead of following a linear script, with minor deviations, players are just given a zone of operation and the objective “Kill [Target Name]”, along with the number of possible routes, secret routes, and guards on location. Players only fail the mission if die or if the target escapes the area. Though the player is shown a couple of “opportunities”, side missions which they can completely to make the assassination easier, they are given no further direction than that. The game asks them to think for themselves and figure which method they would prefer to take out a target.
This is a fantastic change to the way these missions usually play out. Being able to decide for oneself how to approach a situation is empowering to a significant degree. I personally appreciated the autonomy, as it made me feel like I was an assassin in a way I have not since playing either the original Assassin's Creed or Hitman: Blood Money. Scouting the area to plan the approach, getting close without being detected, and striking at the right moment are all parts of that feeling. Though it is indeed possible to charge in, sword in hand, the player also needs to be careful when making this choice. While it is technically possible to charge in and shiv a target, that is only advisable to someone who has invested heavily in Close Combat and Health. Other characters will lack the damage output and survivability, as combat has taken a turn for the tougher and guards will easily dispatch the careless. Most characters will require more subtlety and thinking in order to accomplish their objective, using a playstyle better suited to their skillset. There are multiple possible methods and approaches, but the game will not judge the player for whatever one they take. Whatever works is a valid option, no matter how silly.

That is the best thing that Unity has done for the formula. Players now have much more freedom to think for themselves and plan out their own approaches to missions and general gameplay. Despite the many, many flaws present in the game, there is a lot of potential here to expand upon these ideas. Still, I fear that after Unity's poor reception, Ubisoft will learn the wrong lesson from this. Rather than expand upon the good of this game, they will simply retreat from it in fear after their technical blunders and unnecessary additions brought the whole thing to its knees. Perhaps another year would have polished off some of the glitches, but the fundamental design decisions talked about last week would not have changed. This seems to be what Ubisoft wants. Until they realize how bad a decision that is, they are going to suffer for it.

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