During the tail end of the PlayStation 2/original Xbox era Ubisoft were seen as one of the shining lights of modern videogame development. They were, like their contemporaries EA and Activision, already a major player within the industry, yet unlike them, they hadn’t yet began to generate that same animosity or dislike within the videogames community. Although they were a publisher, they felt more like Rockstar, just with more irons in the fire, and perhaps a little less polish. These days however, that’s all changed, and it appears as if they’ve fallen in line with the big two. And so I can’t help but ask; just how and when did this happen?
If you look at how things stand today, just like EA and Activision, Ubisoft are in that top tier of faceless publishers, one of the biggest names in the industry that, year on year, rakes in massive profits from their triple-A games despite being constantly criticised. But once upon a time they were a bit different, they were perhaps the single best example of how a third party publisher should operate. In-part it was down to the fact that they released outstanding games like Prince of Persia, Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell, every one of which felt unique and different whilst still maintaining a consistently high standard and variety the likes of EA and Activision were never able to match.
But perhaps it also had something to do with our perception of them. Unlike their American counterparts, Ubisoft were a French Canadian company and, whether consciously or not, that meant most people tended to have some degree of implicit stereotype regarding them, after all they say Toronto is New York run by the Swiss. Now I am aware they’re based in Montreal, but it’s that sort of positive stereotype that appeared to fit our perception of Ubisoft rather well. Whilst EA and Activision were the U.S. based typical capitalist corporations, Ubisoft were perhaps seen as a bit more liberal, where financial concerns still existed, but were never the driving force behind their games. In short quality came first, or at least that was how we perceived them.
It was a preconception that was maintained for quite some time, through the entire Sands of Time trilogy, the creation of Sam Fischer and the re-emergence of Rainbow. Even when we transitioned to Xbox 360s and PS3s the quality didn’t falter, not initially anyway. Double Agent was the last of the ‘purist’ Splinter Cells, Vegas was the pinnacle of Rainbow Six, and with the improved hardware, series’ like Ghost Recon came into their own. Things were going great for Ubisoft, no one had a bad word to say about them and everyone eagerly anticipated their new games. That was however until 2007, that year saw what I’d define as the death knell for Ubisoft’s reputation for quality, and their shift towards mass market appeal that’s now sucked any individuality out of the games they publish. The year Assassin’s Creed was released.
But it’s not Assassin’s Creed itself that was the problem, more specifically it was its success, and an allegedly tumultuous development cycle, that served as the first step into reducing Ubisoft from the industry’s gold standard - as far as consumers were concerned - into what it is today. Before its release Assassin’s Creed had been touted as a medieval sandbox game with punishingly realistic combat, and more importantly, none of the techno-future, DNA memory nonsense that became the rickety framework, designed to bring continuity to the series. What it meant was that what people expected and what they got were two very different things. Assassin’s Creed was praised for its scope and ambition, but criticised for its flabby extras and contrived restrictions like being dragged out of the world and plonked into a 21st century laboratory, or being unable to access areas because you hadn’t unlocked the appropriate memory segment. All in all these circumstances resulted in a game that received a mixed critical reception and impressive sales figures, but more importantly it was enough to warrant a sequel.
With said sequel Ubisoft were doggedly determined to maintain their present day side-story, but elsewhere they had taken on-board much of the criticism the original game received. The end result was that after several tweaks to the formula Assassin’s Creed II would eventually be considered an outstanding game. While that may have been true, its critical and commercial reception had the unfortunate effect of impacting every major Ubisoft game from then onward. Ubisoft aware they now had a series that could compete - financially speaking - with the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield were determined to try and replicate that success with every other major I.P they owned.
First to feel the impact was Splinter Cell: Conviction, its original concept was scrapped late into its development cycle and replaced by more action orientated gameplay similar to Assassins Creed’s. After Conviction’s success Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter was replaced by Future Soldier, a game bearing more than a few similarities to Conviction. And as for Rainbow Six, it was canned for almost a decade because Ubisoft couldn’t find a way to fit its world into their emerging template.
Unfortunately things didn’t stop there, Far Cry, and subsequent new I.Ps Watch Dogs and the Crew all arrived pre-built around the same basic template as the one that had catapulted Assassin’s Creed into top tier status. Ubisoft’s had diluted its games by swapping out assets and storylines, whilst ensuring their core mechanics stayed firmly in place. And if you don’t agree then I urge you to stop and take a look for yourself; Far Cry, Watch Dogs, and even racing game The Crew, have all incorporated sandbox environments, excessive cinematic action, target-marking, and most blatantly of all map revealing vantage points. It’s not for no reason that The Crew’s now commonly referred to as ‘Assassin’s Car’. Features such as these, as well as the overly cluttered maps and HUDs are now stalwarts of virtually every Ubisoft game, features that Ubisoft seems to feel are essential in every one of their games. Why, in order to maximise they’re mass appeal as much as they possibly can, as if they’re trying to ensure success via - an idiotically simple - formula.
This template adherence no doubt negatively impacted the quality of their games, but the icing on the cake was Ubisoft’s adoption of another strategy in order to maximise the potential success rate of their games. Namely incorporating an annual release schedule in regards to their biggest I.P and further supplementing it with spin-offs. In the eight years since Assassin’s Creed’s release we’ve seen no fewer than eight major console games and twelve spin-offs! All the worse when you consider the two year gap between AC and AC II.
It’s this homogenisation of virtually every single major I.P in their catalogue, and the barefaced cashing in and overuse of their most popular franchises that’s robbed Ubisoft of its once sterling reputation. That and the manner in which they’ve embraced and abused modern practices such DLC content, DRM, and pre-order incentives is how Ubisoft has managed to transform itself into one of the most unpopular names within the industry, now just as liable to criticism as its two biggest competitors. Ubisoft have created a template that they’re now so invested in, that it appears almost impossible for them to part ways with it, it’s brought them too much success. Perhaps that perception we held that Ubisoft wasn’t as cold and soulless as its counterparts was just a pleasing fantasy brought about by convenient circumstances, or perhaps it was true but has since been abandoned. Either way, after vague details on the mechanics behind upcoming I.P. The Division surfaced, said template looks as if it’s going nowhere for the foreseeable future.