Last year’s Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag was a return to form for the series. Hell, we even said those exact words in the final paragraph of our review in November. Ultimately, however, that’s all it really was, even on the next-gen PlayStation 4 — a Caribbean coat of paint on a familiar series whose core mechanics have remained largely unchanged since its introduction in 2007.
Going into E3 2014, I was cautiously optimistic about the future of Assassin’s Creed. Black Flag was fun, but it also felt like a half-step that didn’t go far enough into pushing the new consoles. Assassin’s Creed Unity, though, is slated for release exclusively on current-gen hardware such as the PS4, and the result is a game that simply would not be possible on last-gen tech.
We opened our demo with Assassin’s Creed Unity protagonist Arno Dorian perched atop the famous Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Unity’s story starts at the cusp of the French Revolution, which is incidentally as good a setting as any to showcase the power of the new hardware. The developer driving the demo hasn’t moved Arno an inch and I’m already in awe of the density of the crowd in revolt below. Where previous Assassin’s Creed titles generated 100 on-screen characters or less — including Black Flag on PS4 — the dev points out that there are 1,300 below us, each with their own AI. She then gleefully mentions that the number can swell upwards of 5,000 at a time.
After gawking at the crowd, it’s time to climb down. In past Assassin’s Creed games, quickly getting down to street level from this high up meant looking for an arbitrarily placed pile of hay somewhere. Ubisoft has made scaling buildings much easier with what they’re calling “Parkour 2.0,” which in turn introduces “parkour up” and “parkour down” buttons. By pressing the appropriate button while holding the right trigger as usual, Arno swiftly and acrobatically makes his way up or down the side of a structure, and you’re no longer at the mercy of the level designers if you want to get down quickly.
Now at the foot of the cathedral, we get to see how 1,300 different AIs interact with each other. As this is the period known as the “Reign of Terror” in France, the crowd is incensed towards the monarchy and taking their frustrations out on the royal guards patrolling the city. Starved citizens yell at patrolmen or other citizens that offer any sympathy to the crown, and it feels like a riot can break out at any moment.
As we continue to make our way through the crowd — which, again, is very dense — side missions passively pop up along the way. It can be something we’ve seen before, such as a man stealing a rich woman’s purse, but more interesting things happen when you read the crowd. The developer pointed out how a small crowd had formed outside of another building, so she went in to investigate. There we were greeted by the scene of a woman grieving over her murdered husband, and she added the murder mystery to her mission log.