Etched on a cave wall in prehistoric Europe is the next chapter of Ubisoft’s design document
The past few months have suggested that Ubisoft is changing its ways. Confirmation that there won’t be a new Assassin’s Creed game on shelves in 2016 came as long-overdue recognition that a series which is in almost constant production across Ubisoft’s remarkable network of global studios was never going to change unless the publisher let up the pace a little. Meanwhile, a similarly long-awaited hands-on with The Division yielded what seemed like a conscious move away from Ubisoft’s increasingly wellworn template for open-world games.
However, Far Cry Primal suggests otherwise – that rather than representing a break from Ubisoft’s house style, these games are simply the first signals of its evolution. Primal’s opening hours see you travel to farflung lands to rescue a series of Winja specialists – a renowned hunter, a fearsome warrior, a weapons expert, and so on – and bring them back to your village. Once set up in their new digs they provide more missions and a new skill tree; their huts are upgraded with materials found out in the world, which rewards more missions, skills and tools.
This is almost identical to the beginning of The Division, where you head out into a virus-stricken New York to rescue three specialists in medical, tech and security, to serve as heads of department in your base of operations, doling out missions and unlocking skills in exchange for progress. It’s a fine idea: it pushes the player far across the map from the off, and gives them more control over what they do and the order in which they do it. And at the moment it feels novel, but Ubisoft’s greatest organisational trick – the way its global studio network collaborates and shares knowledge – means that we’ll likely be sick to the back teeth of it in a few years.
So is Assassin’s Creed taking a gap year and heading off to Egypt to find itself? Or is the break simply to ensure that it can get in lock step with the latest draft of Ubisoft’s company-wide design document? The rumour mill leans towards the former – certainly, Ubisoft’s most successful series should be defining the company’s style guide rather than following it. But Ubisoft’s recent history – of graphical downgrades and broken promises, of buggy launches and wearying re-use of gameplay systems – means that it’s a difficult company to trust at the moment.
Yet the investor call on which Ubisoft confirmed the absence from store shelves of Assassin’s Creed also yielded an intriguing hint that more substantial change is happening behind the scenes. It seems the company increasingly sees its future in multiplayer games rather than colossal singleplayer action-adventures. Perhaps that’s just corporate bluster, sweetening the pill of a slightly lacklustre fiscal performance while smartly building excitement for the imminent launch of The Division. But if it’s true, then the company must surely realise that its existing style guide for open-world games has an urgent appointment with the shredder.
But that forward-looking announcement also puts the old, fraying template into a kinder context. All Ubisoft wants is for players to keep on playing, to keep the disc in their machines and out of the preowned section, and it has long been accepted that an endless multiplayer game is the most effective way of achieving that aim. But it also explains why it builds its singleplayer games the way it does: plaster the map with icons, tell the player they’re only at 20 per cent completion despite the fact that they just polished off the campaign, ensure that they are never far from a sign that they still have unfinished business to attend to, and maybe you can keep the game off their trade-in pile for a little while longer. In this light, Far Cry Primal feels oddly like a farewell: one final outing for a gameplay formula on the brink of extinction, a trip back in time to bury something whose time has been and gone.
Bonfires dot the landscape and offer fast travel and access to your stash once you’ve cleared out the surrounding threat and claimed the flame for the Winja. It’s yet another implementation of Ubisoft’s long-running viewpoint/radio