The Ubisoft Formula
Initially, I wrote this on a piece of paper without lines in red pen. I initially thought about putting it on Youtube as a video but back then I could not be bothered with all that so this essay sat in a Mediafire account, unloved, untouched… Until I saw the new Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. This should serve as a warning to people who are hyped up for this game… Including myself… who already dropped £180 on the thing. Don’t judge me.
Anyway – “Ubisoft-itus”. In the Scientific community, this is known as the Formulaic procedure in how many things are created but all leading to the almost indistinguishable results.
Judging just by the name I gather some people may have a rough idea as to what is meant by the term “Ubisoft-itus” but for those who don’t know what I mean, I hope to give some backstory as well as break down this formulaic approach to video games Ubisoft has. As far as I am aware this term was coined by YouTuber GMANLIVES on his video “Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands PC game review”. Thing is, he speaks about the game design and how almost every game is almost the same. What he does not mention (that we will touch on) is how these games are even more similar than what appears on the surface.
Now as an avid fan of Ubisoft and their IP’s, many people assume I will jump to defend Ubi at any given time however I don’t. Being such a fan of Ubisoft games I take it upon myself to find any possible thing wrong with games produced by them. Though it in no way hinders my enjoyment of the games and their respective series I still feel I have to know this so as not to be seen as a “fanboy”. Understanding and accepting that which is bad with a game helps you understand the criticism and allows for more mature discussions to take place.
I grew up mainly with Ubisoft titles: Rainbow Six, Rogue Spear, Driver and Driver 2, XIII (13) & Prince of Persia to name a few. As a kid, I didn’t come from a middle or upper-class family – in actuality if I did I’d probably hang myself. When I got my first PSX I had 3 games – DOOM, Driver 2 and Tomb Raider.
I loved Driver 2 more than any other game my parents got me and later on, I got a game called Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. Now, at the time neither my parents nor I knew of the ESRB or PEGI rating system. We loosely knew of the BBFC but that’s because games and movies share the same BBFC logotype, and since I never bought the games, I had any game I wanted (after a time). Driver 2 and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six were my games – finished multiple times, multiple saves and endless fun with friends.
When I got my PS2 I had a metric tonne of games including every Prince of Persia, but I always picked publishers and known franchises over newer games as… I never had the luxury of not liking a game – £30 of money my parents sank into something for me? Can’t waste that. Of course, once the console was modded or “chipped” as we knew it, well DVDs and DVD burners were cheap, and Blockbuster was but a short walk up the road.
For the past 10 or so years, Ubisoft has published and developed mostly Open World games. In 2006 we had Dark Messiah of Might and Magic – Oblivion if Ubisoft made Oblivion. This was followed by Far Cry. It was the start of the flu season for Ubisoft. Farcry got its spin-offs and we got a 3rd entry into the Prince of Persia Sands of Time series but at this point, we can accurately pinpoint the start of this pandemic.
NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT?
In 2007 we got Assassin’s Creed and in 2008 we got the Prince of Persia reboot that did not reboot the series – A fun game with a compelling storyline, some hidden moments and an open world, you can already see a trend here. Later that year we were also treated to Far Cry 2 a dull open-world first-person shooter with all the known stuffing of any other Ubisoft game to date with little replay value past collectables and achievements. Granted it had good technology, I just found it rather… lacking.
True story here, I played it on Xbox360 and PS3. I never completed it, the multiplayer was fun but the story dragged on. It dragged so much that I checked my progress and found I had 31 out of 32 missions completed. I also found I had no desire to sit through that 1 mission. Think about that.
In 2009 Assassin’s Creed 2 burst onto our systems and to this day it is still a fan favourite (next to Black Flag). Running with the partial success of Prince of Persia this game had all the platforming of the previous game but with a bit more challenge, many more collectables and a new time killer in the town – Build it up to its former glory and collect all the things everywhere for reasons. This game was set in an open world renaissance Italy with all of the usual Ubisoft padding but with a very likeable main protagonist and an interesting story that had its links to the story of the first game released 2 years prior.
Like I said previously – this is only to the knowledge of games I played. Coming from my background I was always banking on series names, developers and games I played at friends. Assassin’s Creed came with my Xbox 360 and I got a loan of Assassin’s Creed 2 from a friend. Assassin’s Creed was nothing to write home about but I was told that the second instalment was better. They didn’t lie when they said it was better. I’m still engrossed and 11 years have passed since that day.
For just under a year Ubisoft published liner story-based or party-based games until November of 2010 when they released Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood – the continuation of Assassin’s Creed 2, naturally, it continued the storyline of the protagonists’ Desmond and Ezio… and every gameplay mechanic from Assassin’s Creed 2 with some slight improvements to combat. In 2011 we were also given Assassin’s Creed Revelations, the final chapter in the story of Ezio. The vast open-world of Constantinople – Istanbul as it is now known – is the new playground and nothing has changed, bar the Hook Blade, just what the series needed: an addition to the uniform that is only used in that one game. It was still everything I wanted.
Now, this is where things get interesting, in 2012 both Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed III launch. Previous mechanics are brought into these games and new mechanics are added, but gameplay and story take a huge shift. Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed III are however similar in some aspects. Vast open worlds a myriad of side objects and collectables, huge structures to climb to reveal the map, a hunting system used to craft upgrades and even revenge motivated protagonists.
From 2010 until Current date Ubisoft has released over 20 Open World games. Though that may not seem like much, what we essentially have multiple games that are almost identical in many ways. When you look at all the similarities of these games, it’s alarming.
|Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood||Assassin’s Creed Revelations|
|Driver: San Francisco||Assassin’s Creed III|
|Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation||Far Cry 3|
|Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag||Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry|
|Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon||Assassin’s Creed Rogue|
|Assassin’s Creed Unity||Far Cry 4|
That’s just in 4 years. The math is worse, 3 and a half games, all open-world games with nothing to do. If we omit Watch_Dogs, The Crew & Driver: San Francisco… We have 11 games where you climb tall towers to see the map, loot everything to craft upgrades and have open-worlds that have nothing going for them.
I sent that previous paragraph to a friend. He didn’t think it was that bad that the selection of games I put there were very similar. He then reminded me of something that I had forgotten. Though this article is not about laziness I do think Ubisoft have some audacity between 2014 and 2016. Ladies and Gentlemen of the court, I present to you, Exhibit A.
2014 saw the release of Far Cry 4 – Riding high off the tailcoats of the previous instalment in the series, Ubisoft thought that what was needed for this new game was another eccentric antagonist at odds with the fish out of water protagonist. Pagan Min was no Vaas Montenegro and in my opinion, the game was OK.
2016 saw the release of Far Cry Primal. Set in Mesolithic Europe (This part is important), you are Takkar, a hunter for your tribe. You do some caveman stuff like kill other tribes for killing your tribe and try to stop a much larger tribe from eating yours. Regardless, here is the funny part. Far Cry 4 is set in Kyrat. This is a fictional country but seems to be set somewhere in Asia (somewhere around India)
So why do these games have the same map? Now it’s not exact, there’s enough difference between them to pass it off but there are far too many similarities: shape, size, landmarks, water bodies and even the removal of some blockages. Yet the undeniable truth is: These maps are the same.
The bit that gave it away for me was finding the Assassin’s Creed logo in the game. When I looked at it on the map and went to google to confirm it, a nice Reddit post gave it away.
I will give Ubisoft the benefit of the doubt here though, it now seems to be a trend. Now, this may seem crazy but hear me out, Far Cry 3 and it’s subsequent spin-off Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon – Same map. Granted, it made sense. They’re both called Far Cry 3. They do have their differences though.
One of these games is extremely serious with a deep narrative, interesting characters with deep backgrounds and a remote paradise island overrun by pirates, the other tells you to ‘Distract unsurprising enemies with your d20… Nerd’. It’s a call back to all that was great about the 80s. It starts like Robocop you look like The Terminator and the game plays like Rambo.
Far Cry 5 is a game about the US Military in 2025 getting in involved to stop a cult of religious fanatics deep in Montana. In this game, you learn about the cult family and all of their exploits whilst trying to put an end to their regime.
Far Cry New Dawn takes place 17 years after the events of Far Cry 5 and I have not played it. What I do know is that it’s post-apocalyptic, got a similar story to Far Cry 5 and is set in the same map.
What I am trying to say here is, Far Cry Primal is a spin-off from Far Cry 4 and as such, liberties like reusing the map can be forgiven. It’s not a numbered sequel but a case can be made that it’s also not a Parallel Timeline as it’s not set in the future or an alternative present that shakes up the canon of the numbered series.
WHAT ABOUT THE TOWERS?
I have seen posts referring to the mechanic of climbing towers to reveal the map as Ubisoft Towers. There are many games out there that utilise this mechanic but it is associated with Ubisoft games.
Every game that implements this mechanic (that I have played) has done nothing new or groundbreaking with it. They all use it to reveal the area and everything that can be done in it as well as acting as a checkpoint to restart from in the event of death.
Though some games do reward the player for climbing the tower-like Far Cry 3. When you used the tower you were able to buy more powerful guns from the shops or in Assassin’s Creed Origins, where synchronising with the points (as they are known) will increase Senu’s Perception allowing you to scout areas more effectively.
So the question that comes to mind throughout all of this is: Can we make the tower mechanic better? Well… no. The idea of climbing these towers to see the map, points of interest and unlock weapons is about all that can be done with them.
You can lock alternative outfits behind barriers of completion but in the end, you climb the tower, watch a 5-second scripted event and then go back down but in the end, you still have to climb up and watch that script. So what’s the alternative?
Remove the towers. Seems great at first but now you have to manually find things in the map. Is Assassin’s Creed still Assassin’s Creed without the synchronisation points? Yes, you have the actual assassins, but you’ve just removed part of the game’s identity. To be fair though, Ubisoft been doing a good job of that themselves.
In the list of active Ubisoft series, 8 are currently releasing games: 5 are Stand Alone series, 2 are party/casual games and 1 Games as a service. Of the Stand alone games, 2 contain towers as a gameplay mechanic.
The problem is that there is no way to make the towers fun. I feel that Ubisoft know this themselves as in later Assassin’s Creed games you can just avoid them. They stopped being important, you can still see the map and it’s roads, but not the contents.
SO WHAT’S THE EQUATION?
The way most Ubisoft games seem to be made now is rather formulaic. If you happen to be a game in the main franchises you are guaranteed to have:
A huge sprawling map with over 20 items on the map legend. Huge towers that allow you to see parts of the map or unlock new items (or both). Literally nothing of note elsewhere outside the story. RPG elements because we want you to play the game your way and tonnes of busywork for you to do between major story beats.
This is the Ubisoft equation for a fun game. The problem is – it works. It works damn well. Most games in the main series hold a 7.5+ out of 10. There are some definite out layers but here are the overall numbers in some nice graphs, all review scores are courtesy of IGN.
Statistically – Far Cry is the better of the series and Ghost Recon is the worst. Now there are some obvious factors to run through here that will ultimately help you understand these numbers:
Far Cry (the first in the series) was actually developed by Crytek (developers of the Crysis series) but was published by Ubisoft before they bought the rights to the series. This series has 8 games and has maintained its identity since 2004.
The same cannot be said for the worst performer, Ghost Recon. Initially, a more grounded series, earlier instalments were littered with expansion packs (not included in the calculations) before the series identity changed to a more narrative-driven experience in the future before grounding itself back in realism. The constant turmoil of the series identity, as well as the poor reception of the most recent instalment (Breakpoint), brings this series average down.
Out of the 3 series named, Assassin’s Creed holds the longest history. With 11 games in the mainline series to date, though one of the more popular series this, in turn, leaves it open to having some bad games as well as a small period of stagnation. With scores ranging from 6.8 to 9.2 and 3 back to back 8.5’s, Assassin’s Creed was not going to be the highest-rated series (statistically).
What this leads me to believe is that the towers do not seem to impact the score overall. The reason these games get scored is due to their content ensemble. Great story and innovation in gameplay help shape the game as well as better looking graphics to bring out every little detail in the world.
Elements of the gameplay are the same throughout both Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, but when so much is different, familiarity is comforting. In breaking new technologies and pushing older tech to craft a better end-user experience, having 1 or 2 things not change, can help with the transition.
To wrap this up, Ubisoft games may be formulaic in nearly every way but it works for them. It has given way to other games copying some aspects of these games.
Games like The Legends of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch), Marvel’s Spider-Man (PS4) and State of Decay 2 (Xbox One) implementing similar mechanics.
That’s not to say that they are cheap imitations of Ubisoft games, these things just work well in gameplay, in some aspects, they work better. Spider-man is sent in New York, there is no shortage of landmarks and tall buildings to use as navigation points.
That’s not to say that Marvel’s Spider-Man suffers from Ubisoft-Itus, it has symptoms, but it wasn’t developed or published by Ubisoft. Ubisoft titles are similar enough to almost blend into each other. Though one game favours swords and shields over guns and bombs, and one favours military-style gameplay with large scopes over the small scope local guerilla tactics of the other, a case can be made that these games are (at their core) almost the same game.
That’s not to say the upcoming release of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla won’t shake up the formula. We could see a drastic change in gameplay that does away with towers, forts and encampments. But then again it is about Vikings raiding England during or any time after 793AD. Nothing but castles and forts.
Anyway – that wraps up this discussion. To put it bluntly: Ubisoft games are formulaic with major similarities between franchises that happen to be slowly bleeding into games by other developers. Who’s to say in 10 years time we won’t be looking at every other game following this same formula? At least we will know who to thank.