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March 17, 2016

So How Good is Ubisoft, Really?


I hope that title doesn’t imply that Ubisoft is a developer/publisher solely capable of evil -- as if we can only count on it for acts of avarice, trickery, and the closest thing to evil a company could ever know.  It can do a lot more than that, right?

Right?

Uh…right?

Well, let’s go ahead and move on, and not think about that implication any longer than we have to.


Ubisoft made news semi-recently with a major announcement: 2016 wouldn’t see another major installment in the Assassin’s Creed franchise.  It came as a bit of a shock, but it’s a welcome change of pace; presumably, taking a year off means that the devs can take their time, recharge their batteries, and come back strong with some fresh ideas.  Granted that news came out almost simultaneously with some smaller/spinoff titles -- to say nothing of DLC for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate -- but it’s something.  There’s a problem Ubisoft needs to fix with its flagship franchise, and now they’re at least in a position to do something about it.

But let’s not pretend like that’s the only problem Ubisoft has.  As one of the major companies in the game industry, it’s codified a lot of the vices of AAA development.  It’s not the only one fighting “the good fight” -- Activision, WB Games, Capcom, Square-Enix, and the ever-beloved EA have all done their part -- but as Jim Sterling has argued repeatedly, Ubisoft’s in a prime position to abuse its power.  Microtransactions, buggy releases, an onslaught of DLC, homogenized games, franchise-milking, and more; the company’s often making headlines, but rarely do they offer good news.  This is the company that’s not only kept pre-order culture well-fed, but also decided it’d be cool to offer up pre-order bonuses for movie tickets -- which gives buyers a chance to own replica crossbows for a cool $1200.  Yep.  That’s our world now.


In case it wasn’t obvious already, I don’t hold Ubisoft in the highest esteem.  To this day, I still consider Watch Dogs to not only be one of the worst (western-developed) games I’ve ever played, but also a complete insult to the quality and potential of the medium.  Make no mistake, Assassin’s Creed is right up there; I’ve tried to get into the franchise, but I’ve given up on them again and again out of sheer boredom.  To be fair, I actually think Far Cry 3 is all right -- it had a main character that could actually experience emotion, which I can appreciate -- but I’ve had no incentive to go back to it or jump into Far Cry 4.  Not to be hasty, but something tells me I didn’t miss much.

So as you can guess, I’m skipping out on The Division (well, Tom Clancy’s The Division, if we’re being precise).  I have my doubts about the game, though plenty of others have jumped headfirst into it.  And I mean plenty; Ubisoft leapt at the chance to report that The Division is their new top-selling IP.  Once upon a time, that honor belonged to Watch Dogs -- and while official numbers haven’t been posted, it’s at least a safe bet to think that The Division beat Watch Dogs’ 4 million in sales.  (That’s assuming that Ubisoft hasn’t fudged the numbers in their favor for either game.)  So unless it was a black hole of an investment, The Division will probably be a financial success.  But that’s overlooking the big issue here.

Of those sales, how many players are actually satisfied with The Division?  Moreover, how many players are satisfied enough with the game to keep playing long after release?


I’m not saying that it’s impossible to enjoy Ubisoft games, or that people are wrong or stupid for buying in (though I question the sensibility of buying in with a company and game type that’s notorious for issues in the early days of its lifespan).  Still, I think it’s important to keep customer satisfaction in mind.  Big-budget productions “win” as long as they get buyers to plop down cash, regardless of their product’s content/quality -- but as AC Unity showed, there’s a limit to the amount customers are willing to suck down for the sake of a good time. 

Ubisoft as a whole has likely strained that limit.  Setting aside its less-than-friendly business practices, we’ve all had a laugh at Ubisoft Game: The Review...and then cried ourselves to sleep knowing how depressingly accurate it could get.  Is The Division just as capable of slotting into the mold?  I wouldn’t know, and the dearth of reviews on release day -- partly because the nature of the game makes that difficult -- means that there’s not as much critical analysis as there would usually be by now.  So I guess the bigger question is whether or not it’s better than Destiny -- or if it’s the same general game with a different look and different parents.  Given the stigma that’s floated around Destiny (and probably still floats around it to this day), I’d say sharing blood with Activision and Bungie’s “magnum opus” isn’t ideal.

Unless you’re looking solely at the money brought in, of course.  In which case, go full ham.


I don’t know.  I guess I would’ve figured that people have learned by now -- that almost two years after Destiny’s release and a library’s worth of documented grievances, trying to chase after that “success” or supporting it in full would be a bad idea.  But here we are again, with a brand new MMO-lite shooter that’s an instant monetary hit.  I’m trying to be fair here -- especially since I haven’t played or cared about the game and likely never will -- but speaking personally?  It’s hard for me to look at anything related to The Division and not get a little salty.  Just a little.  Like, 14% salty.

That’s biased and unfair, I know.  But the earlier paragraphs of this post alone help paint a picture of the company we’ve dealt with for years -- and it doesn’t exactly scream “Yeah, this is a company that needs our support and trust!”  I didn’t even go into full detail on everything Ubisoft has to “offer”; insert your favorite uPlay joke here.  With that said, I prefer to look past industries, companies, practices, and even individuals to judge a work itself, untainted (as much as possible) by outside factors.  And having recently watched some videos for Far Cry Primal, there’s a question that’s been on my mind.

Is it just me, or are a lot of modern Ubisoft games really ugly?


I don’t mean that they look visually unattractive -- even with the common complaint of graphical downgrades.  If nothing else, I think we can all count on Ubisoft at this stage to deliver sprawling, aesthetically-pleasing worlds that reach across the horizon and into the sky.  But it’s the content, the stuff that happens in those worlds that turn me off on a regular basis.  So much of it is predicated on murder, violence, and miscellaneous crimes.  Motivations regularly boil down to “revenge” or “save your friends/family…via murder”.  The world might as well be populated with targets and enemies, a fair percentage of which are far from friendly.

I’m not saying that Ubisoft games are bad for not being colorful romps through worlds of gumdrops and rainbows.  But the problem is that for all the ugliness on display -- for the weight and tone regularly assigned to their plots -- it tends to come off as fluff.  I’m not playing as a character that matters, I’m not doing something that matters, I’m not meeting people that matter, and I’m not in a world that matters.  It’s all just a bunch of smoke and mirrors.  And yeah, you could say that about every game ever, but the illusion’s even more transparent in a Ubisoft game.


When I played AC3, I felt less like a participant in events and more like someone watching AI run through subroutines (some of which broke on my first session with the game).  Flash forward to Unity, and it still feels the same: unless it’s someone you can fight or kill, you’re basically an observer -- and sometimes not even that -- impassively watching non-entities non-bring history to non-life.  Splinter Cell: Blacklist turns into gibberish in a hurry on your world murder tour, en route to stop terrorists or whatever.  I’m still trying to figure out what the point of Watch Dogs’ factoids for NPCs was for, to say nothing of the fact that there are probably episodes of Power Rangers with more sensible hacking.

Game after game is a checklist of people to kill, meters to fill up, map points to reach, and experience points to dump.  It all blurs into this pink slurry of nothingness.  I would say gray slurry, but the blood spilled kind of gives it a healthy color.  These are games full of murder, kidnapping, betrayal, piracy, human trafficking, grand larceny, conspiracies, brutality, criminal underworlds, corruption, abuses of power, organizational conflicts, hatred, war, and more -- and none of it matters in the long run because of hackneyed gameplay design.  No weight, no tension, no verisimilitude, nothing.

Is The Division different?  I’ll go ahead and assume yes (in terms of both short-term and long-term play).  But the premise alone -- urban warfare in a post-apocalyptic setting -- doesn’t make me want to give it a fair shake.


Maybe it’s just emblematic of what happens when a company has more power and money than they can handle.  I mean, Ubisoft’s put money behind some smaller projects to great effect.  Valiant Hearts is a supremely-interesting game that actually adds a human touch as well as an exploration of life’s grizzlier aspects.  Child of Light has enough charm for ten games, while offering up a twist on classic RPG mechanics. 

Notably, this is the company that put out two separate Rayman platformers with top-notch visuals behind them.  Granted said company would end up crippling both of them by making one contend with a packed holiday season, and the other had its dedicated Wii U release rushed and then pointlessly delayed, but whatever.  They came out, and that’s what matters.  And that’s what I want to see more of out of Ubisoft.  I would’ve guessed that -- unless the AAA treadmill forces them to pump out annual “blockbusters” or face the death penalty -- the company is big enough to have the time and resources to create the artistic titles they’ve clearly had a hand in before.  Or, alternatively?  Stop holding Beyond Good and Evil 2 hostage and put it out already.  Or just let Nintendo do it, I guess.  That works, too.


Maybe I’m being naïve here, but I would hope that those with power and prestige use it wisely -- noblesse oblige, or something like that.  In the years since AC became a thing, it seems like Ubisoft only bothers to be a good guy (or even remembers that it can be good) once every thousand years.  I know that they say “nice guys finish last”, but that shouldn’t preclude a company that’s already won from being more than just a slurry factory or devoting huge amounts of effort to being a scumbag. 

The company can do better.  It should be doing better at this point, but customers routinely lining up for their next bowl of gruel hasn’t given them much of an incentive.  I hope that changes at some point, especially since gamers -- the lifeblood of the industry, and the ones predisposed to see the medium as an art form -- deserve more.  They demand more.  And if they haven’t?  They should, and I’d wager that they will soon.

I don’t like what you’ve become, Ubisoft.  But you can change your ways at any time.  And when you do, I’ll be right there to cheer you on.


And that’s my opinion on Ubisoft.  What’s yours?  An old friend?  A bitter enemy?  A lost soul in need of redemption, or a grinning demon in a spiffy suit?  And what about the new kid on the block, The Division?  How do you feel about that?  Interested, or locking it in a shark cage and tossing it into the ocean depths?  If you’ve got something to say, then weigh in at your leisure.  And remember: if you believe hard enough, maybe Ubisoft will tuck Beyond Good and Evil 2 under your pillow.

Because that’s how it works.  Just ask The Rock.

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