Sunday, 16 November 2014

Review: The Art of Assassin's Creed - Unity

Author: Paul Davies
Published by Titan Books

Review by Richard Williams

*WARNING: Contains spoilers for the game*

Assassin's Creed Unity has come under a lot of flack for a number of reasons. Thankfully I have the pleasure of reviewing not the game but this outstanding collection of concept art. Those who have bought previous books in this series will be pleased to find that Titan Books have kept to their tried, tested and outstanding format and have produced yet other concept art book where the emphasis is on art, rather than design. I feel that this is an important point to make. Concept art is experiencing something of a heyday and is now a thing worth collecting in its own right. However, due to the reason for its existence, concept art, however artistic it may be, is functional and intended to be useful to developers later on. As such it is typically a collection of usable things, people out of context and places for the sake of testing the lighting. The art books of Assassin's Creed are a bold exception to this rule and you will be hard pressed to find concept art where so much is done in a painterly style and where page after page of work wouldn't look out of place framed on a gallery wall.

However that does not mean that this is all you'll find here. Of course there is plenty of design work but I did notice there was strangely nothing of the gear, weapons and equipment. This will displease quite a few people, I'm sure, although it took me several goes looking through this book before it dawned on me that it was under-represented.

Firstly there is an impressive amount of character design, almost fifty pages of it, with each drawing as pleasing to look at as the next. The outfits are rich in detail and the faces tell the life story of the characters who wear them. I would complain that there is hardly any exploration of the design process (early stages through to production pieces) but with so much on show it would frankly just sound ungrateful. A completionist (to borrow a word from gaming) would mind the missing work but a fan of art would merely enjoy the really nice work on show, much of it full page. Character design has always been one of Assassin's Creed's strongest elements in the art books and I can honestly say that I think Unity showcases their best work.

Other than character design the rest is almost entirely locations. This might not please everyone such as the people who want a catalogue of everything that had to be designed for the game (much as the artbook for Thief provided) and considering this is a book of concept art it isn't an unfair gripe. Had the artwork in this book been less to shout about I might have felt myself cheated too. But there are few games where the location design work is so majestic. The colours are rich and vibrant and the detail is stunning. Just as the artists capture the luxury, elegance and grandeur of Parisian high society they are no less inspired in their depiction of the poverty and desperation of the poorer districts with gritty, overcrowded streets and a dour and darker colour palette.

Due to the new capabilities of the next-gen consoles AC: Unity features a lot more game time indoors exploring the great buildings of Paris such as Notre Dame, the Louvre and the Tuileries Palace. Subsequently we are treated to the designs for those interiors and it's the kind of artwork that leaves you feeling a little worse off about your own house. Not since I was a little boy have I found myself looking through a book saying 'want' quite so much.

An interesting surprise (and the forewarned spoiler) is the art showing Paris in different time periods. The game does not stay settled in revolutionary Paris but also takes place across 'memories' of the French capital during the second world war, the medieval period as well as what is known as 'La Belle Epoch'. These sections are small, given that they are only a smaller part of the game, but provide some of the best art in the book. Fans of the games have often said 'they should set the game in ...... period' and it is nice to see such things through the prism of Assassin's Creed. Who hasn't thought of setting the Assassins against the Nazis. Seems the creators finally gave in to what the fans wanted, even if only a little bit.

There is not much writing accompanying the art but what there is is interesting and to the point. It also credits the artists and lets them explain in their own words what they were trying to convey and I think that this is an area that Titan Books does really well. There is so much that the designers have to take into account when they make these games that I think we, as gamers and art lovers, take for granted and reading about the many little points of consideration that needs to be taken into account gives me a much better appreciation for the work they do.

The book itself is very nice to look at and will fit nicely with other books in the series. I suppose one day there will be no more Assassin's Creed books and when that day comes there will be a special collectors edition bringing all the books together in one boxed set priced at a princely sum. Canny art lovers will spare themselves some pennies and buy the books now.

So to sum up; This is a big beautiful book which brings revolutionary Paris to life, filled with incredible art work (much of which is shown off to best effect across a two page spread), with succinct and interesting commentary from the artists. Yes, there are some things missing from this book, most noticeably the weapons and equipment, and I hope that in future this will be included as I know a lot of people really like to see it. However I don't see how anyone can claim to be a collector of concept art and not own this book.

- Richard Williams