My Beef With Ubisoft – A Tale of Devolution

Ubisoft have been a staple of the gaming world almost since their creation in the 80s. With humble beginnings in mail-order tech, they quickly saw the potential in video games. Although most well known for a few franchises, their portfolio is vast and spans multiple subsidiaries. They now have 14,000 employees working at over 40 studios. Awards have been plentiful, highs and lows have been experienced in their multitudes. Safe to say, gaming would be very different without them.

I first played Assassin’s Creed when my older sister wanted to sleep in late and I – an annoying kid – was bugging her. I remember sitting at her huge computer and being blown away by what I saw. I’d already played (badly) Dragon Age Origins by this point, so thought I knew what to expect. But here was a game that wouldn’t let me hack and slash my way through a city. It required a level of sometimes infuriating finesse. From then on, I always made sure to drop in on Ubisoft‘s releases and would say my experience had been mostly positive.

However, if that were still the case, my article would perhaps be titled something like ‘I LOVE UBISOFT’. Instead, I’ve begun to notice a decline in my view of their games and ethos. Perhaps it’s my own growing cynicism, perhaps it’s the ever-increasing need for profit to survive that gaming companies face. Either way, Ubisoft will need to really pull the stoppers out in the future to get me to fork out on a game at release, and not a couple of years later in a Steam Bundle sale.

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Backward Mechanics

So, the first thing to talk about is how, even as Ubisoft games get bigger and better, they also seem to get worse. In an attempt to add more and more stuff, they end up skimping on some of the more important, immersive game mechanics. Take a look at the video below which uses 2013’s AC: Black Flag and last year’s Watch Dog Legion.

Now I want to quickly dispel the illusion that we British folk are somehow water repellent. Instead, this is just bad game structuring from the devs who were probably under immense pressure to get this game out before the end of the year. Legion made a big show and dance of a unique game mechanic – that just about any NPC is playable – but the small details have kind of been glossed over. It’s not a great look to have your games devolving before our eyes…

I also mentioned this in my review of Scott Pilgrim vs The World: The Game which was re-released earlier this month. Ubisoft didn’t actually make any updates except optimising it for current consoles, when there was so much they could have done to make it a perfect game.

Beta or Broke

Maybe I’m being a little harsh but you have to admit, Watch Dogs: Legion was bug-ridden for a game that had already pushed back its launch date. You can read my colleague’s Ballad of Disappointment for more on this but in rhyme. You always know you’re in for a ride when the devs have to release a patch almost instantaneously.

But then they fell into the trap that many games do where they begin using their players as basically QAs. They wait to see what people are most annoyed about before they actually start fixing the game. It’s been a hard 12 months for the industry on that front as Covid has made QA work difficult, but if I’ve paid top dollar for a game, I kind of expect it to work.

How Poor Are You?

Which leads me on to my next bugbear with Ubisoft: the pricing. Now, this is an industry-wide issue but also they take it to the next level. The problem is in part due to the stagnation of game prices. Even in the 90s, games were sold for $60 but the production costs are now so much more. This means, rather than risk the fall out of hiking the prices, companies are looking for different ways to make further profits. Some resort to paid-for DLCs, others do price tiering. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla had five options for purchase starting with the base game at $59.99, all the way up to $199 for the Collectors Edition.

Online versions are also tiered so if you want the Season Pass or any DLCs you’re going to have to fork out extra. Part of me gets a little annoyed at the fact that they’re releasing DLCs at the same time as the main game rather than as additions in the months after launch. Its basically a locked part of the main game that they want to entice you to spend more money on.

Now, this is fine, no one is forcing you to buy the more expensive version. But these aren’t the only things you pay for. Want to customise your character? Want interesting weapons or horses? Ubisoft is more than happy to take your money. Monetised in-game transactions are nothing new in the Assassin’s Creed games. They featured heavily in Odyssey and Origins but they weren’t the be-and-end-all back then. In Valhalla, there are as many armour sets to buy as there are to be found in the game. The latter take a ridiculous amount of work to claim and upgrade, whereas purchasing them takes barely half a dozen button clicks. Again, no one is making you buy these but it kind of sucks that only those who can afford to throw money at the game can actually get the best experience.

Just Keep Grinding

But I was basically happy to keep playing Assassin’s Creed Valhalla with all of these issues because it was gorgeous to look at and I love that historical period. I’d long ago wrapped up playing Watch Dogs: Legion but that was more my own game preferences than anything else. Sadly, after 30 hours of swinging an axe at any passer-by, I put down my controller. And here’s why:

It took me almost 20 hours to even get to Britain because I wanted to 100% complete the first section. I had to lower my expectations after spending over an hour getting massacred by the first Ragnar Warrior, but I digress. I stuck out the grind and was slowly levelling up. But even after all this, I couldn’t take on any Templar tasks or most of the raiding opportunities because my stats were still too low.

Again, that’s fine, I don’t mind a long-haul game. Except that leveling up mostly involved wandering up to a person, having a quick conversation, maybe walking somewhere else and having a fight, then getting the points. It’s not long before this becomes pretty monotonous because there’s basically no plot to any of them. Think about the side quests in The Witcher III, how much effort had gone into side-stories like the Bloody Baron. Now turn back to side missions in Valhalla which tended to be more like: “You there! Carry this box of Apples for me for the next 200 meters!” or “I am an excellent fighter! Would you care to partake in a 15-second fight with me and then level up?”

Aaaand I’m Done.

And then there was the killing blow. Pay to win. The phrase I have loathed since I became a gamer. A sign that a company doesn’t actually want you to play their game, but give them more money. Ubisoft faced quite a big backlash when they implemented paid XP boosts in Odyssey but they clearly didn’t learn from the experience. Instead they quietly introduced the same option in Valhalla a month after launch.

But of course, they’re only doing it for our benefit. In an interview, Ubisoft claimed “Utilities [the item category in the Valhalla store] allow players who lack the time to fully explore the world of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla to be able to acquire the game’s best gear, as well as other items, by accelerating their progress”.

Yeah… That’s so charitable of you, Ubisoft. Not only are we paying for the privilege of playing your game, we can also pay to basically not play it either…

Going to have to raid my own monastery just to play the game… Image Source

So basically, I would love Ubisoft‘s games if it wasn’t for a massive flaw. They over-produce with underwhelming results and then charge as much as possible for the experience. Which is a massive shame because all the elements are there and they have a fan base that would buy their games even if they chose to slow down. Who knows what the future holds, but I’m not hopeful for a change of heart any time soon. Particularly as Ubisoft had their most profitable quarter ever at the end of last year.

That’s all from me for today

What do you think about Ubisoft and its conduct? Do you still enjoy their games? Let us know in the comments. 

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