Assassin's Creed: Unity preview: Stealth stabbing sneaks into the French Revolution

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This looks a lot like Assassin's Creed II . It's the only thought flitting through my brain as I watch this year's awkwardly-clad assassin—seriously, doesn't anyone think he stands out with his hood on?—leap down the wrought-iron-and-stone exterior of Notre Dame.

Substitute Notre Dame for any of a dozen Roman or Florentine cathedrals, though, and you might not notice a huge difference between Assassin's Creed: Unity and its earlier predecessors. After last year's little tangent into Caribbean piracy, Assassin's Creed has returned to its roots. This is the most "traditional" Assassin's Creed game since 2011's Revelations.

I can't decide whether I'm excited or not.

Getting crowded

Assassin's Creed Unity is most impressive in a behind-the-scenes technical manner that I'm not sure most players will appreciate. Last year's pirate-themed entry to the series, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, used the power of the new consoles for gorgeous water effects and better textures, but the presence of Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions belied the fact that Black Flag was a spruced-up version of an old game.

Assassin's Creed Unity is a next-gen title, full stop. I remember the first time I played the original Assassin's Creed, being amazed at how crowded the streets were in Altair's cities. Heck, I've been playing games long enough I remember when people touted insane features like "We've managed to get up to six enemies on-screen at the same time."

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AC Unity? I was told the scene at the beginning of my demo contained about 500 people, and the scene at the end of the demo featured approximately 2,000. And, if the Ubisoft rep I spoke to is to be believed, that's not even the maximum that could be onscreen. "5,000" was uttered at one point.

That's an absolutely baffling number of people to put onscreen at once. I talked briefly last week about The Witcher 3's vibrant cities, and they're similarly impressive but not at all on a scale like Unity. Assassin's Creed Unity is maybe the first game I've ever seen where civilian density approached real cities, without any fakery or smoke-and-mirrors.

And you can go inside buildings! Without loading screens! What a dumb feature to be excited about, and yet it's the first thing I noticed about Unity. It's only taken us thirteen years since the release of Grand Theft Auto III, but we're finally getting an open-world game where a large portion of the buildings feature fully-explorable interiors. I was told that all major landmarks can be entered, plus approximately a quarter to a third of all other buildings.

Whether Paris feels real when you're running around it for forty hours is a different question, and one I couldn't personally answer by watching the lengthy live demo Ubisoft previewed for me during E3 2014. Assassin's Creed's citizens have always been a bit awkward, spouting the same ten pieces of dialogue repeatedly as you do your best to ignore them. I hope the investment in visual splendor has come with a similar investment in audible splendor, with hours of civilian chatter.

Learning new tricks

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Ubisoft also (finally) revamped the animations for your assassin as he clambers about town in AC: Unity. There's now an even quicker free-run system you can initiate to quickly ascend and descend structures with a minimum of fuss, although sometimes this leaves your character looking like Spider-Man more than a real human being as he executes daring six-story jumps and inhuman feats of strength.

If you stand still on a high perch—say, a roof—the map icons will slowly fade into the real world. You'll be able to see "Oh, there's an assassination mission two blocks away and a co-op mission in that adjacent building." The feature is a bit disconcerting when it fades in, but the intentions are good—the developers hope they can cut down on people playing the game by running along and staring at the mini-map. I'm guilty of this behavior myself, so I'm curious to see whether the new feature induces a change.

I didn't see any of the planned co-op features. Presumably those will be shown off at PAX, closer to release, though Ubisoft showed off Unity's four-player co-op in action during Microsoft's E3 keynote.

Oh, and they changed combat. You can't chain together one-hit kills anymore while fighting. This looks like it'll make fighting both more tedious and more dangerous. Ubisoft hopes players will learn that combat is a last resort again, rather than feeling comfortable taking down entire platoons of troops.

Same old, same old

What's most worrying to me, however, is what Ubisoft is most excited about—that this marks a return to "classic" Assassin's Creed. During my demo I was repeatedly told that Unity returns to the "core" of Assassin's Creed. Ubisoft felt the series had strayed too far from its original intent, and was trying to reign it in.

That's fair. Black Flag was barely an Assassin's Creed game, what with all the sailing and the sea chanties and the lack of tall buildings and the main-character-who-doesn't-care-he's-an-assassin. You know what else Black Flag was, though? Fun. Definitely more fun than ACIII (though that's a low bar) and also more fun than Revelations.

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Assassin's Creed has grown stale. Many of its lazier mission types (such as the "walk behind someone and eavesdrop" missions) are industry punchlines. Telling me this is a return to Assassin's Creed II doesn't inspire me with hope—I've already played Assassin's Creed II. Three times over, in fact, since Assassin's Creed II, Brotherhood, and Revelations were all basically the same game.

If this is just Assassin's Creed II with denser crowds, I'm not sure that's worth getting excited over. Unfortunately, that's exactly what I've been shown so far. I'm hoping there's more to this particular entry—I've got fond memories of playing Assassin's Creed on Christmas mornings with my dad, and the series has always been a personal favorite through its highs and lows.

I just want something new. Black Flag gave it to me. Unity, it seems, may take it away.

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