While Assassin’s Creed Unity is a bit of a mixed bag, some of the core design elements have improved markedly with the switch to the new console generation. Specifically, the urban navigation is better than it’s ever been, largely thanks to the increased number of interiors. Unity’s Paris is the first Assassin’s Creed city that has just as much life within its shops and taverns as it does on the rooftops and in the streets. The scale is roughly one-to-one for the first time in franchise history, and it has a tremendous impact on the way players experience Paris.
“It’s pretty typical of video games to build a little bit smaller than real life. But now that we’ve gone one-to-one, we can have these fully realized interiors since we have the space,” said Nitai Bessette, the Level Design Director at Ubisoft Toronto. “The houses on the streets are full size. You can walk inside. It’s given us the freedom to make a lot more interiors available to the player.”
Though you could cut through some buildings in prior Assassin’s Creeds, such opportunities were too infrequent to significantly affect the gameplay. If you wanted to get somewhere quickly – or escape from guards – you were better off climbing to the top of the nearest building rather than sprinting through the streets hoping for a window.
In Paris, all of the major landmarks and one-quarter of the houses have been hollowed out. When you get into a scrape, you can stay at ground level and be confident that there will be plenty of open doors to help you shake pursuers. It makes chases more dynamic and opens up countless pathways that make navigation feel more organic and less contrived.
“They’re designed to go through interiors, up to the roof, back down to the ground, through a ground floor, back up to the roof, and people will find these navigation lines naturally as they play the game,” said Bessette of the trails that his team placed throughout the city.
“If you run up that ramp, you’ll find a path that gets to the roof. That’s the Assassins’ domain. That’s where you can get your vantage and plan your next move. It was important that the Assassins felt like that was their space.”
That’s Unity’s other major point of distinction. Outside of a few high-priority landmarks, there are hardly any guards patrolling the rooftops of Paris so you’ll have the place to yourself if you’re at altitude. Gone are the snipers waiting to accost you for standing on random balconies. No more will you be left to wonder how common infantrymen are able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
The result is that Arno’s relationship to the city is better defined than for any previous Assassin. His skill set and training is unique, which allows him to go places that would be out of reach for regular soldiers and civilians, and Unity does not break that illusion.
“They’re not Assassins,” said Bessette of the guards. “They haven’t been training to master parkour. For them to get up onto the rooftop, they’re going to have to find a ladder.”
To compensate, combat has become less forgiving, which further encourages stealth and exploration. The interiors and rooftops are both excellent places to hide. It’s therefore much easier to disappear, a trick that feels more Assassin-y than the open conflict that often dominated prior titles.
It also helps Ubisoft control the game’s difficulty curve. In the past, enemies would come to you, so they had to be disposable. In Unity, you have to put yourself in danger to advance the story. Your targets will be in famous buildings surrounded by people. If you’ve done your job properly, only the dead will know you were there.
“You still have to get to your target and assassinate your target,” said Bessette when asked if clearing the rooftops made the game too easy. “We use interiors a lot because then you get the challenge of figuring out how to get in and how to get out. You have choke points on the way in through the doors and windows.”
The system is not perfect. The architectural style of France emphasizes steep, awkwardly shaped roofs. And while there aren’t many guards standing on those roofs, they are a bit overzealous about loitering. Guards will investigate you for the heinous teenage crime of hanging around doing nothing, which gets tedious when you’re only trying to explore. It’s reminiscent of the wildly unpopular speed limit in the original Assassin’s Creed, making the reappearance here all the more baffling.
However, credit must be given where credit is due. Ubisoft’s Paris is a vibrant creation that colors the gameplay and acts as a character in its own right. The level design subtly guides Arno towards certain behaviors and styles of play, and that truly makes the player feel like an Assassin.