The Art of Assassin’s Creed: Unity – Review

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity or Death

The Art of Assassin’s Creed Unity

Author: Paul Davies

Published: November 2014

Available: Forbidden Planet/Amazon

From Paul Davies, released in November 2014 and published by Titan Books, The Art of Assassin’s Creed Unity is the next in the series of supporting art books for the Assassin’s Creed series of games from Ubisoft. Featuring over 300 individual images from sketches, concept art to character and environmental development, it is a showcase of the design process from concept to final realisation. The first exclusive release in the series on the current generation of consoles, the game transported you away from the American setting of the previous entries and into the heart of revolutionary France, the tall iconic structures of buildings such as Notre Dame a contrast to the idyllic open sea’s of Black Flag. In contrast to its predecessor, it was a return to the historic European settings of the earlier entries in the franchise and an opportunity to design and bring a city to life in the digital realm closer to contemporary modern day settings than its earlier entries. The supporting artbook works to showcase concept art and level development, particularly focusing on the architecture and design work in addition to character sketches and modelling over equipment and weaponry. Whether this is a concern is a subjective judgement, my preference is on a focus of the world you inhabit, as such, I was rewarded for my endeavours.

Presented mainly in their final forms, the images featured have an almost oil paint aesthetic in their presentation, in keeping with the historic style of art prominent of the time. Whilst designed through digital applications, there’s a joy to witness these areas contemporised and brought to life in this format, blending the familiar structures that exist today with the imagined world of the Assassins. My criticism would be, perhaps, the book in its entirety is lacking any development designs, the various layers of progression that led up to the final outcome. It’s a subjective viewpoint but an inconsistency in these types of art books where certain titles such as The Art of Alien Isolation we reviewed previously show the various stages of character design and explain briefly why certain choices were made over others. The presentation of this title is in keeping with others such as Mafia 3 of final rendered environments and levels, beautifully presented but not allowing you to see much more than the levels on the screen.

An interesting feature of this specific book I hadn’t seen included before was contributory comments and observations from the game’s art team, each photo from a specific level or area with an explanatory note for why that design or style was used. Selfishly, it would have been nice to have seen a little more of the design process, but it does serve as an insight which was a great addition to this particular release. As with this entry and indeed Syndicate set in Victorian London, the game’s narrative does alternate between historical periods in Parisian history, predominantly in the revolutionary era but moving to other points in time, notably the occupation by German and axis forces during the second world war. It allows the use of structures such as the Eiffel Tower to feature that would otherwise have been excluded due to the timeframe of the game’s setting. As such, there is an interesting look at this era and how it was created where historically there are few images of Paris at that time beyond the damage incurred in the war. Gaming provides entertainment and enjoyment whatever your particular predication, for me, the aspect of world creation and design and whatever the faults of Assassin’s Creed, their approach to crafting these open environments is remarkable, as witnessed with the companies approach following the fire at Notre Dame. The book, in its entirety is a great companion to an otherwise safe entry in the franchise.

World Design

The game is set in revolutionary France, the familiar tricolour flag notable and recognisable across the city in its entirety. It has the aesthetic and familiarity of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, capturing the atmosphere and appearance of a city at a transformative stage of its history. Following the fire in Notre Dame which saw the iconic cathedral at the heart of the Parisian skyline reduced to timbers, the company was reported to offer where it could use of its design work in the process of the title in addition to a sizable donation towards its restoration. In contrast to fantasy based world design, these recent history developments of real world cities, here Paris and Syndicate based in London created digital approximations of landmarks such as Notre Dame, it was a kind gesture that was well received by the audience and greater public as the game was made free to play following the incident to allow gamers to experience this iconic structure and have a sense of catharsis amongst the devastation in the real world. During the early stages of the game you find yourself standing amongst the crowds baying for change before the twin spires of the cathedral, for anyone that has ever visited the building it was a humbling experience, especially with the knowledge and images of what had happened. Though the studio could not have foreseen the incident five years previously, it was a nice gesture and an aspect of this genre as an artistic medium you can hold up to those who question what merits it brings to its fans.

The world of Paris in Unity is a tapestry of wealth and culture, the uniformity of previous generations has long gone, and whilst there is a certain level of textural repetition in the game, in contrast to other open world titles, most notably Dragon Age 2 and its infamous recycling of assets, here there is an attempt to design and create worlds that reflect the aspects of society they serve. From the grand ballrooms and rich textures and hues of Versailles to the rundown backstreets of Paris, by creating distinct individual environments the sense of repetition is banished somewhat as you appreciate the unique buildings and open world for what it is. Here, though limited in quantity there is some attempt to show the stages of the rooms in development from sketch to final image in addition to some alternate presentations in history. It was a technique showcased in The Last of Us and Horizon Zero Dawn, building these environments then aging them as appropriate to create an alternate perspective to suit the moment. It’s an impressive attention to detail and adds to the immersion of the moment.

The structure of the book follows to an extent the narrative of the game, as such each chapter is dedicated to a specific area of focus matching the events of the game, the opening chapters focusing on the capture and escape of the lead character before arriving before the cathedral in the centre of Paris. From there, each chapter coincides with the game’s narrative which creates some resonance between each media, alternating between a geographical location to the memory fragments that brings your character closer to the present day. As such, there is a nice focus on the baroque or gothic art style imagery used in environmental design, the use of shadows and shading to create an ominous sense of foreboding to the more subdued hues of greens and passive colouring in occupied Paris. In addition, the opulence of design of the belle epoque, a period of French history that saw enlightenment and prosperity with the construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 as one the cities architectural highlights. As noted, these jumps in the game are used to allow the user to experience the architectural highlights as we know them today and the book showcases this period of time to great effect with some beautiful design work in bring them to life.

As with any game in the series or indeed genre, there is a contrast between the internal and external structures. The uniformity does begin to creep in to a certain extent when you find yourself underground, not an especially interesting environment to design but a notable exception. Still, there is a clear acknowledgement and appreciation of the art style of the period and an attempt to bring that to life, through the study of paintings and imagery of that time to reflect the different areas. The rich golden and crimson hues of the palaces reflect to the streets and slums of the city to the south, it’s the closest I’ve experienced to walking through an art gallery and seeing these iconic images of revolutionary France brought to life. Does that reflect in the game’s engine? it’s arguable, and not something I would hold against it specifically but a reflection of both technology and I suppose application. The design team need to create an immersive experience, here a showcase of the direction of travel. Perhaps I would have prefered personally a more detailed breakdown of how they arrived at these final images, but as a collection of concept art this is certainly one of the book’s strengths.

Character Creation

There is a consistency in the approach between the world creation and character design that carries over, unfortunately whilst there is an enjoyment to found marvelling at the iconic structures of the French capital, the design team do appear to have played it safe, or perhaps sticking rigidly to period clothing and appearance. The clearest way to describe, if you were told the game was set in revolutionary France and asked to imagine the characters, you would probably be spot on, from the white wigs and powered faces to the poor wearing rags and ill fitting clothes, it doesn’t stray to far from preconceptions of the period and as such the characters as featured and showcased both in the game and in this book don’t stray to far from what you already knew. I can appreciate it from an historical perspective, and indeed it’s fitting with the methodology and approach of the studio, within the game you don’t have a sense of repetition as there is enough variation but from the elevated perspective used and the design of the central character in his Assassin’s robes, there is nothing really memorable about the citizens of Paris which is a shame. The game play’s as a largely solitary experience for a great deal of the time, by design and intention you kill by stealth, hiding in the shadows or amongst the large crowds, the opportunity for memorable distinct characters is fleeting.

It’s a point that seems to be supported in the images and sketches in the book. This is in keeping in part with that particular art style of baroque or gothic paintings creating bi-tonal or undefined characters and figures in contrast to detailed imagery. I appreciate the authenticity but throughout the book predominantly you see either silhouette’s or simplistic charactertures of individuals, far from giving insight into what the citizens or nobility were meant to look like when rendered digitally, you are left with questions. The main and secondary cast of villains and heroes are given greater context and design, this was interesting though conforming to certain expectations in their appearance but at least adding depth to their ingame appearance. As with the level design their appearance in the book has a linear approach to the narrative, individuals appearing in the order they are revealed onscreen from the earliest mid level villains to the final confrontation. It’s an approach used in other Western open world game based art books that use the structure of the games levels to reveal character and level design for that chapter, similar to Dead Space and Watch Dogs. As it follows the same narrative path as the game it creates that connection and makes it easier to follow a similar path you encountered them in as opposed to showing them out of context.

The book is front loaded with what character design is featured with some great sketches that reveal a great level of detail about the enemies and heroes featured. The design of Arno is similar to all the other Assassins featured to date, the appearance is comforting in the sense of familiarity but certainly lack originality. The main protagonists have the look of the nobility about them but no real distinguishing features. There is a uniformity about the character design, and the simple fact for the most part your intended action is to kill them in short order that really doesn’t necessitate a memorable or unique design. In terms of the civilian population, there really isn’t any design work of note, indeed at all beyond the environment sketches which is a shame, whilst I appreciate your objective in the game is to blend in and disappear, as an open world title it would have been interesting to learn the inspiration behind the clothing, the appearance, whether certain crowd types were located in set districts or programmed to move to other areas. It’s an aspect I’ve picked up in Eastern market Art Books such as the Art of Metal Gear which goes into fine detail on choices and design such as that, an area I would this series could go in the future.

Summary

By design and concept, the world of Assassin’s Creed, in both the digital gaming format and the wider supporting material should provide ample material to design and create these large open worlds. In Unity, and the setting of Revolutionary France, there is an abundance of source material to use in addition to the other historical settings. Here, the world design and presentation is beautiful to see and really reflects the art style at that point in time with create use of baroque and gothic techniques in showcasing the levels of the game. There is admittedly not a great deal of development sketches shown which felt like a missed opportunity as the game’s and indeed this books greatest strength is bringing Paris at that point in time to life. In the present day, given the damage to Notre Dame, there could be huge potential to a revision of the title that includes a separate chapter on its own detailing the design work behind the creation of this iconic cathedral. Indeed the team and methodology of the studio putting so much work into creating fully realised, localised content in using for instance the correct art style, painting positions, architecture design is commendable and would be fascinating to learn about. But beyond brief notes and observations from the design time, in themselves a welcome feature, there is not a great deal more than final sketches and images, a missed opportunity.

In summary, this does feel tonally very much like the game it’s based on, a safe prospect that doesn’t push or expand the art book concept to any new areas, and follows an approach of other Western open world games in using a linear narrative based chapter structure in what it reveals. I like that resonance to the gaming experience but equally, there is merit to having chapters on environment, character and equipment design for instance. That is almost entirely missing, which is notable given how important weaponry and equipment plays in the franchise, whether they had lost faith, opted for a different direction or instead realised nearly all of the equipment used was similar to that featured in other books from the series is open to debate. The main focus of this title is mainly around the environments and level design, as someone who enjoys that aspect of the series I can appreciate it for what it is, some of the sketches and images are of a high quality, but equally there is a great deal more that could have and perhaps should have been brought to the foreground. Whether that missing content is there you are left to wonder, I would hope it’s not a case of style over substance and more an editorial direction. These books serve for me to expand the world I’ve played in for hours on end, I enjoyed the level imagery but beyond that, it didn’t serve to add a great deal more.

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