The notional universe of the “Assassins Creed” video game series is incredibly complex. For returning players, that’s part of the appeal. But for newcomers, it requires some explaining.
The premise of “Assassins Creed” qualifies as both historical fiction and science fiction. Historically, the series details the centuries-old rivalry between two ancient secret societies – the Templars and the Assassins. These two have been going at one another throughout history, and each individual title in the series is set in a specific era – the Crusades, the Renaissance, the American Revolution.
There’s an even larger framing story, however, concerning the near-future and nefarious Abstergo corporation, which has figured out a way to generate immersive virtual realities by mining the cellular data in human DNA. The conceit is that, as you’re adventuring in 16th century Italy or Boston in 1776, you’re actually experiencing ancestral memories via computer AI.
It’s one of richest and most detailed back stories in all of gaming, although some will argue the premise has been stretched far past its breaking point. Not me, though; I love all the tangled storytelling weirdness.
Which brings us to “Assassins Creed: Unity” ($59.99, rated M) the seventh major installment in the long-running series and the first designed for the next-generation consoles of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. This time around, players find themselves (for the most part) in 18th-century Paris on the eve of the French Revolution.
Our hero is Arno Dorian, a loveable rogue from the Assassin lineage who is unfortunately in love with the beautiful Elise, daughter of the Templar grandmaster. It’s complicated. Intrigues of the heart and the state follow, and “Unity” has elements of love story, murder mystery and political revolution.
Meanwhile, on the gameplay end of things, “Unity” takes advantage of the new consoles’ horsepower by introducing a virtual Paris that is truly awesome in its scope and detail. Whereas previous Assassins Creed games presented crowd scenes with dozens or maybe a hundred people in the frame, “Unity” has sequences in which you’ll move through environments with literally thousands of citizens – each a potential enemy, ally or innocent bystander.
In terms of pure real estate, the city is impossibly vast and the game’s open-world, sandbox-style structure means you can explore pretty much every alley, rooftop and sewer. Individual chapters and missions transport you to the ballrooms of Versailles, or the bloody gallows of the public square. A new “time anomaly” wrinkle might even flip you into different eras of the city’s history.
Another new game mechanic impacts the stealth aspects of exploration and combat. When you’re sneaking around and spotted by an enemy, a translucent silhouette indicates your last known line-of-sight position, in regard to pursuers. This actually puts into play a whole other level of tactical thinking, for those that prefer a stealthy style of play.
Avoid chase missions
Otherwise, combat works much the same as in previous games, with the addition of a new system of armor and weaponry that allows for much greater customization. You’ve got your sabers, foils, maces and halberds plus an expanded range of firearms and the lethal new Phantom Blade.
The game’s other signature system is its parkour-style movement setup in which young Arno – as with previous protagonists – can leap, vault and climb like a superpowered Olympic gymnast. This is the one area that I found conspicuously frustrating in “Unity,” especially in the crowded street scenes. The designers have created environments so packed with people and obstacles that chase missions become giant, recurring headaches. In one sequence, I wound up sliding into a street vendor’s fish display and got glitched into place for digital eternity. An ignoble fate for a legendary assassin.
“Unity” also adds a cooperative multiplayer mode for the first time, which is integrated into the main storyline so that selected missions can be accomplished either solo or with up to three fellow assassins. The new equipment and skill-tree system allow for a greater degree of RPG-style customization.
It all adds up to a gaming experience that is impressively complex in both concept and (heh) execution. As with the most recent main series installments, “Assassin’s Creed III” (Redcoats!) and “Black Flag” (Pirates!), “Unity” brings historical action-adventure to new heights. It’s a killer good time.
“Assassins Creed: Unity” ($59.99, rated M) is now available for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
New this week: The action-adventure FPS “Far Cry 4” moves to the mountains of the Himalayas, while “Grand Theft Auto 5” moves to PS4 and Xbox One.