Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is?
I’m thinking of a Ubisoft game where the player must climb a structure to uncover portions of the map. Quick, which game am I thinking of? Assassin’s Creed? Far Cry? The Crew? Watch Dogs? Shadow of Mordor? inFamous: Second Son? Wait, those last 2 aren’t even Ubisoft titles.. I guess what I’m saying is open-world games are becoming scarily similar.
With the announcement of the newest Assassin’s Creed, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate; I’m starting to see gamers finally grow tired of Ubisoft’s ever-ongoing assembly line of Assassin’s Creed games and it’s easy to see why; they’ve become formulaic. They’re boring, they’re repetitive, they’re buggy, they’re expensive and worst of all, they’re not stopping.
Hands up if the initial reveal trailer and gameplay demo for Watch Dogs had you pretty interested. Okay, now hands up if you were disappointed by the final product and felt like you’d fallen prey to the old bait and switch. I don’t blame you, Watch Dogs was a prime example of the dangers of deceptive marketing and failure to deliver on promises. And after having to follow the rather impressive act that was Grand Theft Auto V, it really did pale in comparison. But despite that, it was still the biggest selling new IP in the UK last year and has shipped over 10 million copies to date. Ubisoft’s marketing team know how to sell a game, even when that game is average at best.
Ubisoft ships numerous Assassin’s Creed titles every year, they’ve adopted an annual release strategy that seems to be working for them, at least financially. But when it comes to games I’m a firm believer in the ‘when it’s done’ mentality. Just like preparing a meal or painting a picture, making a game takes time. You wouldn’t serve somebody a meal that wasn’t fully cooked and you wouldn’t sell somebody a portrait without finishing the portrait’s face. So why would you sell somebody a game that wasn’t done? Well last year Ubisoft did just that with the release of Assassin’s Creed: Unity and boy was it messy. Unity was certainly the most controversial Assassin’s Creed release, launching with a wealth of bugs, a shitty tacked-on freemium mobile app that held part of the game’s content hostage unless the player unlocked it through said app, and criticism from some sites claiming sexism due to the lack of a female assassin option in the game’s multiplayer component. While I found the accusation of sexism debatable, it certainly felt lazy on Ubisoft’s part, who claimed adding a female character option would require too much effort.
Annual releases only seem to hurt the overall quality of a franchise, shorter development cycles and tight deadlines can stifle a game’s ability to innovate and grow. Look at EA’s line-up of annual sports games like FIFA and Madden, neither introduce any new features of significance each year, relying instead on things such as roster updates and other minor additions that don’t really warrant a whole new release. The marketing for these games seems to boil down to a whole lot of buzzwords and fluff phrases such as ‘giving power back to the player’, ‘putting the player back in the game’ and ‘making the game feel more alive than ever’, meaningless rhetoric cooked up by an unimaginative marketing department to sell the same game again and again just with a newer date on the box. Hell, even Call of Duty has started producing some new and interesting ideas as of late.
Sadly these types of games still sell, there’s little incentive to innovate when players are willing to fork out the money for it each year regardless. When a publisher is breathing down your neck reminding you of the strict deadlines you’re forced to meet each year, often there’s little to no time for proper bug testing and polish leading to bug-riddled games that only come back to bite developers in the arse. Just look at Halo: The Master Chief Collection, a game that should have been a total home run for Microsoft and 343 Industries, but resulted in a clusterfuck and abomination just to meet a holiday deadline, ultimately tainting the Halo image forever, a ‘black eye‘ that will haunt 343i forever. A tournament for the new Halo title even had to be cancelled recently after technical issues still plaguing the game could not be resolved.
Ubisoft games suffer from a lack of innovation, opting instead for trivial gimmicks that come and go with each release. Rather than build upon the gameplay of each game, Ubisoft slaps down the same old tired formula and dresses it up with a few silly gimmicks that are always hit-or-miss and unlikely to ever make a return. Although some have been implemented better than others; sailing in Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag for example. There’s nothing wrong with delivering a comfortable level of familiarity with each release in a series, but there’s a certain line that should not be crossed, one where it becomes quite obvious a game’s assets and gameplay are simply being carried over and reused to save time and money. As is the case with Far Cry 4; not a bad game by any means, but hardly deserving of being called a true sequel when it’s more like a expansion to its predecessor, Far Cry 3.
One of the better trends catching-on among open-world games is multiple protagonists that the player can switch between freely, creating a more dynamic gameplay experience and opening the door to new ways of story telling. Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate adopts this mechanic too with the player being able to play as a brother and sister. But in true Ubisoft fashion, this idea feels like more of an afterthought that will hardly change the core gameplay. It’s something that feels more like a ‘look we can do that too!’ attempt, with the brother character getting roughly 75% of the game’s missions leaving the sister with only 25%, why?
Climbing structures within the world in order to unlock parts of the map (seriously, they even worked this into a racing game of all things), diving from high places into conveniently placed stacks of hay, tediously gathering numerous collectables scattered throughout the world, liberating the same camps from swarms of enemies and repeating the same types of unimaginative ‘tailing’ missions with little variety. You step into the shoes of a macho male character with short dark hair and maybe a bit of stubble, devoid of any real personality so any player can emphasise with them, capable of going on superhuman rampages fighting numerous enemies at once with an array of weapons. This is the type of gameplay you can come to expect when jumping into any recent Ubisoft title. They’ve managed to find a rather bland formula that they can copy, paste and slightly rework into any open-world game they produce and it’s sadly creeping into other franchises too. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, an otherwise great title with the revolutionary nemesis system was bogged down by this same gameplay. Infamous: Second Son, another title I quite otherwise enjoyed also seemed to fall victim to these same mechanics. Frankly, I’m tired of it. Some people love this formula and that’s great for them, but for me open-world games are probably my favourite genre if you can call them one. It hurts to see them be influenced by these annoying design choices. Ubisoft has polluted the drinking water and other developers are drinking it up. God help us if The Witcher 3 or Fallout 4 adopt these uninspired mechanics too.
The problem is these gimmicks and disposable gameplay are being marketed as something new and revolutionary when rarely they ever are. We love buying into the hype and consuming these marketed fables. We’re keen to experience something that is fresh and new, only to be disappointed when we’re given the same old thing dressed up as something different, like a new Malibu Stacy doll.
Having said that, I have to give credit where credit is due. Ubisoft have a lot of talent locked away within their sweatshops. They’ve delivered some of the best trailers I’ve ever seen that I must admit have made a few of their titles look rather appealing. And the art direction behind the majority of their games is absolutely stellar, Unity being a prime example with its incredible views of 18th century Paris. Sadly these exquisitely-crafted worlds are often undermined by the repetitively stale gameplay and emptiness devoid of life we’ve now come to expect along with them. I guess in a way Ubisoft is like a popular fast food chain; the food is good but not great and you always know what you’re getting. They’ll add new things to the menu every now and then but often they’re only temporary items. It keeps some people satisfied but for others it’s just not something they can live off for too long.
My advice to Ubisoft? Slow down. We don’t need new iterations of every one of your IPs each year. Take the time to create something significant, something noteworthy and of value. Good things take time. Realise that each of your franchises should be different, not homogeneous. Child of Light was a fantastic game that truly stood out as something unique, not everything has to be open-world and filled with more collectables than a Banjo-Kazooie game. Assassin’s Creed can be good again, just try a new recipe and see what happens.