It has been a few years since Ubisoft first unleashed Assassin’s Creed onto the gaming landscape, and since that time, the company has built up a slate of open-world titles that have helped define a genre. It is also why the original game is one of my favorite games on the seventh console generation. From the streets of Renaissance Rome to the tech-covered walls of fictional Chicago, Ubisoft has ushered players into a breed of gaming that rewards side quests and countless hours of exploration. But with Watch Dogs: Legion and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla hitting gaming systems everywhere this fall, the kinks in the Ubisoft open-world formula are starting to show even as they release new award-winning Triple-A games.
I was fortunate enough to get some time with both Watch Dogs: Legion and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla at a Ubisoft virtual preview event a few weeks ago. Having around two hours with both titles gave me a quick overview of what they each bring to the table and why they are regarded as exciting. Both games look fantastic, bring forth the best the studios have to offer and improve on the formulas in almost every way. Yet, after my sessions with both games, I still walked away feeling a bit empty.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with the concepts, and the sheer breadth of options players have at their fingertips when they first insert the game into their system of choice is staggering, it never feels urgent. While Ubisoft has some game industry-leading writers, designers and creative people working behind the scenes to build the story and worlds that both these games live in, they often will get overshadowed by interesting technical ideas, or simply the tonnage of optional things you can do in both titles.
“The kinks in the Ubisoft open-world formula are starting to show.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love exploring and experimenting as much as the next guy, but when the story is set aside for hours at a time to focus on busy work or mindless padding, the immediate impact of the narrative can get lost, and much of what makes me care about the characters and their journey is muddled in the process. Approaches to game design can evolve over time, but the long list of amazing weapons, massive worlds, with a bombastic central story seems to be what Ubisoft thinks will make anticipated games that the average gamer craves to play.
Jumping into Watch Dogs: Legion, it is immediately obvious that the team behind the game put blood, sweat and tears into building the game’s world, systems and the depth of what makes the title so interesting. From the massive City of London, the driving, the individual characters, and the countless story missions that are waiting to be revealed. It is a rich experiences for players that has never looked better, taking advantage of the late generation power the PS4 and Xbox One have to offer.
But with the systems, missions and countless options at your disposal, the urgency never felt present during my playtime. Giving direction while still offering the player agency is akin to dancing on the edge of a knife, and when a tertiary glance at the mission list strikes a wave of anxiety, there is something wrong with the way the game is presenting its world.
The thing is, there are so many brilliant ideas at play within Legion, with the concept of a city brimming with potential recruits standing out. But when the game takes you away from the narrative, the joy of discovery can be crushed under endless quest objectives. The natural exploration of an open world gives the potential for emergent gameplay, for the ability of accidentally saving someone and having them join your cause even when you are just enjoying the landscape. When you want a regimented system, but also want countless hours of gameplay meandering in the weeds, something has got to give, and often it is fun in exchange for the back of the box features.
Moving onto Assassins Creed, one of the progenitors of the formula takes players to England as the Saxons and the Normans fight for control of the little island. The formula that Ubisoft first set into motion back in 2007 has been refined and slowly buffed to a glossy finish. It takes the concept of a history assassination action game, and blends it with true history in a way that is unique and often exciting. But as with Watch Dogs: Legion, while new ideas are added, and the scope balloons, the enjoyment of the “fun” and narrative can be lost along the way.
Now don’t get me wrong, the thought of cutting down swaths of angry Vikings using a hidden blade is something that I never needed more in my life. But having to take that alongside countless systems, combat that can feel clunky at times, and a slew of legacy features that honestly could be cut without changing anything about the overall experience is a tough pill to swallow.
Assassins Creed Vallhalla in an attempt to drag the series forward, but it feels like the team at Ubisoft can’t seem to leave the past behind to build something new. There are some truly brilliant ideas at play, including a new siege gameplay mechanic that is stressful as all hell, but rewarding and exhilarating when you see it all play out. But as with Watch Dogs, there is simply too much to do, and the scope never finds it’s footing to draw me in without it feeling like work.
Now, there may be some that argue games like Grand Theft Auto, and Red Dead Redemption also falls to these issues, and I would agree. But while RockStar does try and pack as much as humanly possible within its game world, the act of riding your horse, or exploring the world manages to be rewarding in their own right. The emergent feeling as you are taking down a mountain lion can often be as interesting as the main story. It is this blend of exploration and direction that makes an open-world game something special. It is something few other genres allow, and it can be magical when found and part of the reason they have so many successful games.
And don’t get me wrong, Ubisoft manage that balance at times in both Watch Dogs: Legion, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. They both offer countless hours of exploration and experimentation, with the act of toying with the game’s systems often being a full-time job in’s own right. But with so many of the side quests feeling like paint by the numbers points to check off of a tedious list, that sense of wonder quickly fades
Ubisoft and its teams of creative people working together to craft these experiences have a tall order to take forward after this year. While both Watch Dogs: Legion, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla look to deliver exactly what players have been asking for in the next instalments of both franchises, these formulas are getting long in the tooth and are due for an overhaul.
With the PS5 and Xbox Series X now on the horizon, it is time to pick up this mantle and define a genrem and change the game industry once again. While it is easy to keep pushing forward, with such potential sitting just under the surface, they do themselves and the countless players a disservice to not try and reinvent themselves. The Ubisoft open-world formula is getting stale, and in an industry always looking for an upset, not seizing an opportunity can leave you in the dust of someone willing to take that risk.