“A good name is more desirable than great riches;
to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”
– Proverbs 22:1 – the Bible – Jesus, probably
So Assassin’s Creed Unity is finally out, and it would seem the game runs like a snail; sluggish, but with a pretty shell. But when any game’s review embargo lasts until after launch, what is to be expected? Alongside the dismal performance, the PC port has especially suffered from a myriad of bugs including a multitude of AI issues, falling through the floor, and my personal favourite, disappearing faces. Oh dear. But performance and graphical issues aside, I’m interested in what has actually changed in this year’s time travels. It would seems Ubiquitous software’s software is more ubiquitous than ever.
Full disclosure: I haven’t yet played the game, because my rig cannot run it (along with the rest of the world it would seem.) So take this all with a pinch of salt. I only have an internet’s worth of information to go by.
Last year we saw a great departure from the Assassin’s Creed formula with AC4: Black flag, a fantastic game and a possible new IP for Ubisoft if they’re smart enough to use it. The game made use of a vibrant setting, improved the ship mechanics made popular by AC3, and captained those ships with a player character who, this time around, miraculously has more personality than a codfish. Yes, this time we had the fortune of playing as Coddor Kenway’s Grandaddy, Edward Kenway! A swashbuckling scallywag, breaking as many bones as he does hearts. As weak as this argument is, I think Edward as a character actually justifies the overpowered, easy kill combat system now inherent to the series. For years we’ve assumed the roles of mass murderers hiding under the veil (or hoods) of silent, shadowy assassins. At least this time you were a mass murder happily mass murdering fools because that’s kind of what pirates do. Who needs a poxy hood? You have 2 cutlasses and 4 fucking flintlocks, son! (Though you somehow have all the parkour skills of the assassinsSSSHHH!). Anyway, Black flag was a long awaited change of pace to break the mould, even if only slightly, and even if only to justify the sorry departure of any real stealth elements from the series.
But alas, Unity has launched and it seems we’re back in the city, playing a lead character who’s basically a knock-off Ezio with manic fashion awareness, murderously fuelled by all his vengeance and stuff. Get in line Arno, mate, the queue’s about 20 years long. Sadly, it would seem the “return to the series’ roots” that all gamers should be sick of hearing by now, was a little heavily buttered, and is little more than an excuse to take a few steps backwards, right back into the comfort zone. Here’s a rough list of the ‘important’ changes made to the series with Unity.
• A co-op campaign,
• A ‘parkour down’ mechanic
• The removal of ship combat
• Traversable building interiors
• ‘New’ types of side missions
• An increase in difficulty
• And finally, a dedicated stealth mode
Doesn’t this seem a little sad? Apart from an upgrade in graphical fidelity, only a handful of new features have been added to this year’s instalment, most of which are flaky as fuck. The co-op campaign seems fun, but it comes with the price of no multiplayer, and no women apparently. (They weren’t invented until the 19th century, you see.) The new types of side missions pretty much boil down to murder investigations and ‘dynamic street events’. The increase in difficulty is achieved through removing the overpowered counter kill and slowing combat to a crawl and to be honest, as interested as I am in the parkour down and stealth mode mechanics, they’re about 6 Assassin’s Creed games late in my opinion. And there’s one thing in particular that struck a nerve in the way these features were marketed.
I remember watching an interview with a Ubisoft employee (sorry, couldn’t find the original source. I tried real hard, promise) explaining the company’s approach to game design, specifically the ‘innovation’ of the series with the inclusion of the ‘last known position’ mechanic made popular by Splinter Cell: Conviction. For those unaware, when the player is detected, a ghostly silhouette of yourself sticks around, indicating where the enemy thinks your last known position was. What grinded at me was this guy’s advertisement of Ubisoft’s habit of recycling content. Positively detailing how each of the company’s development teams work together to add multiple gameplay features to multiple ongoing projects. This is bullshit. Recycling a mechanic from another of your own IP’s is not innovation by the very definition. And don’t get me wrong; iteration is fine. Stand on the shoulders of giants and all that. But when the only significantly fresh aspects to your sequel are either long overdue or ripped from another of your own games entirely, a 4 YEAR OLD game might I add, then I think there’s a problem. But then this is hardly something new. If you’ve played any of Ubisoft’s open world games, you know how to play them all. Unlock a new area of the map, climb the tower to make the map less blurry, travel to the newly revealed objectives, probably via the fast travel system. Rinse, repeat. End credits. But then, hey, if it aint broke, don’t fix it, right?
Now I know I’m picking on one mechanic and acting like some sort of victim of the marketing machine. I actually think ‘last known position’ would work well for Assassin’s Creed. But that’s not the point. Lest we forget Watch_Dogs, a much more extreme example of a Ubisoft title that pandered to its console-centric demographic so grotesquely, that the majority of its marketing material was footage from a far better looking game, one incapable of running on the next gen machines. Then Ubi earned double conspiracy points when one avid gamer discovered an XML file already in the games directory that, once edited, restored the game to near E3 demo graphical quality and ran fine on most high end machines, contrary to Ubisoft’s claims. This wasn’t even a mod. The settings were still in the game, just removed from the in-game options. At its best, the whole situation was an incredibly shady business practice. At its worse, it was false advertisement, plain and simple.
I suppose the real issue I have is with the heavy condescension publishers like Ubisoft bestow towards their buyers, covering up the incompetence of the next gen consoles, and double dipping game mechanics and labelling it as ‘innovation’, because they can get away with it. But then I suppose that’s the point. They get away with it. Marketing issues aside, I feel the precedent for AAA game design is set. Even critical darlings like Shadow of Mordor, a game acclaimed for its genuinely innovative ‘Orc hierarchy system’ but is still founded on a bland recycled revenge plot, Arkham style combat and Assassin’s Creed style parkour. The bigger the budget of the game, the less risks a publisher is willing to let the developer take. It’s safe, which means it’s safe for investors.
Speaking of which, Ubisoft’s stock price fell 9% over the course of launch, caused undoubtedly by the abhorrent critical backlash against the games myriad of bugs and performance issues, as well as the shady review embargo. The company is taking the dip seriously it would seem, as they are now re-evaluating their approach to their relationship with reviewers and customers, a rare decision only losing money could encourage. But I’m going to go ahead and assume the chances of this changing Ubi’s marketing or design practises is probably unlikely; just more PR fluff.
So the moral of the story; stop buying into the hype, stop pre-ordering games for exclusive day one DLC, and stop gushing over marketing material. Anyone who bought Unity is now in possession of a half broken game, with only a handful of new features to make up for it. Publishers are not on your side, and this is still a buyer’s market. Ubisoft won’t listen to you, but they will listen to your money! Vote with your wallet! Unite and revolt my friends! For Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité!