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Wednesday
Jan072015

Assassin's Creed Unity - The Ultimate Fan Fiction

Assassin’s Creed Unity is the biggest heaping glorious pile of gratuitous fanservice I’ve ever played. It disregards plot, sense, and even game play for the sake of giving fans every little cameo, knowing nod, and special shout-out it can cram in there, even if it doesn’t make sense when you cram it all together. It’s glorious if you’re a fan! I smiled ear to ear with delight throughout.

To love Unity like I do, you just have to be a super-fan of the French Revolution. I am definitely such a fan. I’ve read dozens of books about the era and plan to read scores more. Just today I was working on translating a first-person account of the Storming of the Bastille from French into English (thanks Google-Translate!). Assassin’s Creed Unity was made for fans like me.

Ubisoft’s problem is, there just don’t seem to be many fans like me. I liked most of the other Assassin’s Creed games, with AC3 being the big exception. I thought that one dealt with The American Revolution terribly, and had a dull protagonist as well. I didn’t finish it. Then Ubisoft bounced back with Black Flag, and I loved those pirates and that game. But I love Unity even more. The central story-line is a mess of nonsense, most of which left no impression on me. But I love it for all the many, many little moments of fan service and for the enormous, glorious visual scope and presentation.

Before I move on, I must emphasize the other reason this game was clearly made just for me. I did not have any real technical problems playing Unity on the Xbox One. There was the occasional person standing on a table and a few times where people walking up hill clipped through the ground. But I saw none of the terrible errors that’ve made games-press headlines about what a disaster Unity is. No missing skin on faces or anything like that. The frame rate was decent if not spectacular the whole time. I think I might have avoided some problems because I never touched any of the online or co-op functions. I dunno. The game worked fine for me, and all my problems are ones with its design, not its implementation.

And I probably have a lot of problems. If I were to make a list of things that I didn’t like, it would have a lot of entries. They’d all either be faults every Assassin’s Creed game has shared (the annoying way you cling to walls and climb things you don’t want to, the convoluted plot), or stuff I don’t like about a ton of games (crappy final boss fight, characters taking actions in cutscenes they’d never do if I was still controlling them). But those problems are minor in my book, and I really enjoyed Unity. I loved Unity. I’ll probably play Unity again at some point. Because Unity was made just for me.

Here are four of many things I loved about Unity that, I’m assuming, 95% or more of the players didn’t care about:

  • Murder mystery missions doled out by a young Vidocq. Vidocq! Did you know he was the father of modern criminal science? I did!

  • Double fan service of Scarlet Pimpernel-alike missions given out by Chevalier d'Éon, a famous diplomat and spy who was born a man but lived as a woman for over thirty years.

  • Watching David pain the murder of Marat while you investigate the crime using actual clues from his actual murder.

  • Stealing Jacques Necker’s money that he loaned to the French government in the early days of the revolution and which his daughter Madame de Stael spent decades trying to recover.

The developers definitely put in a ton of time into research, as you can read about here, but none of these are accurate to history of course. And some of them aren’t even very fun missions to play. But I get that special knowing feeling when I see them, and sometimes that’s all I need.

The Napoleon missions are a perfect example of how this game services fans and not history. I know a lot about Napoleon. Like, a lot. And so I appreciate that they mostly fit his appearances into times when he could’ve been in Paris and even give you moments explaining why he’s here doing this game thing instead of the somewhere else history books say he was.

There’s a series of missions involving Napoleon, his early love-interest Desiree Clary, and his future arch frenemy Bernadotte. The timing of all these is nonsense. Desiree wasn’t in Paris at the time as far as I know, but certainly she and Napoleon had broken things off by then. Nevertheless, you get to participate in a series of Eighth-Grade Romantic Shenanigans (spiced up with sword fights) that basically add up to helping Bernadotte woo Desiree even while Napoleon secretly wants to break up with her so he can get with Josephine.

It’s not even trying to make sense. It’s just funny. To me. Funny if you know and care about these people. Extra funny if you know what a pain in the ass Bernadotte’s going to be to Napoleon. Super extra funny when you know that, weirdly enough, Bernadotte and Desiree end up King and Queen of Sweden. I’m assuming most players don’t know that.

There’s also stuff I hated as a fan, or at least found annoying. There are so many of these Paris Story moments, plus the main plot, that they don’t really seem to work together. The French Revolution is all about factions taking very serious sides and then scheming against and sometimes guillotining the jerks on the other side. Even in the main plot, there’s no real sense of being on any side. Your motivations on any given quest seldom make political sense. Sometimes it’s those damned lefty Jacobins you need to fight. Now go fight some sneaky royalist Chouans. It feels like they designers looked long and hard at the complexities of Revolutionary politics and threw up their hands and said,  “No one’s going to know the difference!”

They’re probably right. Even knowing the difference, I didn’t mind. Some people did, including some left wing politicians who were mad that Robespierre is made out to be a big huge villain. Nothing new there, and there’s lots of good evidence in the “Robespierre was super villainous there at the end” school of history. In the end, none of that bothered me.

So yeah, from a certain point of view, this game is like that Chris Farley character from Saturday Night Live. It’s the excited fanboy interviewer saying, “Remember that time the Marquis de Sade was in the French Revolution? That was so cool.” I felt just that way four or five dozen times playing Assassin’s Creed Unity. If you don’t know the difference between a Chouan and a Cordelier, you probably won’t.