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'Assassin's Creed Unity: Dead Kings' review -- Down among the dead men

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Dead Kings

The first thing Dead Kings gets right is its title—because it actually has one. Assassin’s Creed Unity is barely a title; an abstract noun hitched to the back of a franchise name (or “brand”), one that has only the slightest of connections to its subject matter. It’s a clumsy slant rhyme in a pop song, something that reads like it came out of a focus group. Dead Kings, then, is a huge improvement. It is evocative and accurate: there are kings in this game, and they are dead.

Don’t get your hopes up, though. There aren’t a whole lot of other ways that Dead Kings improves upon Unity.

 Although Dead Kings was released for free for all Unity owners past, present, and future, it wasn’t always planned as such. Like most “downloadable content,” Dead Kings would have been a paid expansion, to be bought a la carte or as a part of a “season pass” prix fixe meal of post-release levels and gear. However, Unity had some problems. Because of those problems, Ubisoft decided that Dead Kings would be their apology—and it was a pretty hefty one! Dead Kings promised a brand new creepy-looing villa to explore, with lantern-lit dungeon plundering and puzzle solving and also a really weird 19th-Century bazooka that no one told me about in history class.

Is it worth playing? That depends. How do you feel about Unity?

Assassin’s Creed Unity was, by most accounts, a buggy, beautiful mess—and while bugs can be somewhat subjective, popping up for some more than others; there were definitely other concerns. Unity gets off to an extremely slow start, with a mission design and story that felt extremely uninspired—and the fact that it had to follow Assassin’s Creed IV: Pirates Are So Much Cooler Guys, For Real, certainly didn’t help. But the fact remains: Unity is a lovely game, and getting lost in Revolution-era Paris isn’t a bad way to kill a few hours (seriously, play the game with all the dialogue in French. The French voice cast is wonderful). Dead Kings is, essentially, more Assassin’s Creed Unity. It could have been more, though.

“Downloadable content” is a tricky thing to nail—the best ones, like The Last of Us: Left Behind, take the raw materials of the base game and remix them into something focused, different and unexpected (See: this week’s Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell). Dead Kings really looked like it might spin the “climb here, jump there, stab him” gameplay of Assassin’s Creed into an entirely different experience: a creepy Tomb Raider, full of fun puzzles and weird supernatural mysteries, but with more Napoleon. It doesn’t, really—it just turns out to be an assortment of Unity missions with some catacombs and possibly the most underwhelming ghost in video games. It does have Napoleon, though.

The story is an improvement in that it’s short—it’s undeniably set after Unity‘s main story, but like Unity, it’s quite easy to forget or care about why you’re doing anything. There’s one bright spot in Dead Kings’ story—the cheeky orphan Leòn, who is charming in a mildly irritating kid brother sort of way (Note: Remember, I played this in French with subtitles, which I highly recommend. It’s quite possible that English Leòn is annoying as hell).

Otherwise, there really isn’t a terrible amount to write home about. There are puzzles in Dead Kings, but they’re extremely underwhelming and usually fall under the “find the glowing object” sort. Fans of Assassin’s Creed’s increasingly convoluted backstory will find a few interesting tidbits about the grand Assassin/Templar shadow war. The guillotine gun is goofy and fun, but also feels like it’s from another game entirely, and is rarely worth the trouble.

I wasn’t as actively frustrated by Dead Kings the way I was by Unity at first, but both the base game and its expansion still pales in comparison to the breath of fresh air that was last year’s Black Flag—a game I went back and played for a bit just before Dead Kings became available. It’s strange how much more urgent and immediate Black Flag is, propelling you through its opening and onto the high seas, into adventure. Dead Kings, like Unity, just expects you to play, flooding your screen with things to do and just assuming you’ll do some of them. Therein lies Unity’s biggest offense—not that it isn’t fun or enjoyable, because it can be once you finally stop fighting the notoriously bad control scheme—but its belief that a list of features is all that it takes to get people to play a game.

Dead Kings biggest offense is that, had things gone differently, Ubisoft would have made you pay money for it.