Post Script

Ubisoft’s endless quest to for­mu­late the per­fect open world

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Ubisoft gets a hard time from play­ers, and some­times it even de­serves it. Of­ten it’s a sim­ple mat­ter of qual­ity con­trol: NPCs fall­ing through the floor in As­sas­sin’s Creed Unity, for in­stance, or play­ers get­ting stuck in doors in The Di­vi­sion. Yet the most fre­quent source of flak for Ubisoft is the per­cep­tion that all of its games are es­sen­tially the same. Hun­dred-mil­lion-dol­lar to-do lists; big, beau­ti­ful open worlds splat­tered lib­er­ally with quest icons, each lead­ing to an ac­tiv­ity you’ve done a dozen times be­fore – if not in this Ubisoft game, then an­other one.

It has made its own bed, in fair­ness. When you’re putting out two or three games ev­ery year that are cut from much the same cloth, you can’t just rest on your lau­rels. Even in 2016, the first year in al­most a decade to not yield a new As­sas­sin’s Creed, Ubisoft has made four open worlds, al­beit across a va­ri­ety of gen­res. None of Watch Dogs 2 or its sta­ble­mates Far Cry Pri­mal, Tom Clancy’s The Di­vi­sion and Steep are per­fect, but they are the work of a com­pany that has a vested in­ter­est in think­ing about how the open-world game might be pushed for­ward.

And it is clear, look­ing back, that 2016 was the year Ubisoft de­cided that ev­ery avail­able ac­tiv­ity in a teem­ing open world should be mean­ing­ful. In The Di­vi­sion, that meant an end-of-mis­sion loot drop and a dol­lop of XP for your char­ac­ter. But in Pri­mal and Watch Dogs 2 we dis­cover Ubisoft’s prin­ci­pal con­tri­bu­tion to the genre for the year: ty­ing progress to a fol­lower count. In Watch Dogs 2 ev­ery taxi fare, quad­bike race and outer-space satel­lite hack raises your pub­lic pro­file and gives you more pro­cess­ing power with which to take on the ne­far­i­ous data com­pany at the cen­tre of the story.

It’s an un­der­stand­able con­cept from a pub­lisher with a 24/7, global de­vel­op­ment op­er­a­tion mak­ing some of the big­gest and most bustling worlds. If you’re in­vest­ing all those re­sources into mak­ing some­thing so com­plex – the car han­dling in New­cas­tle, the wa­ter physics in Sin­ga­pore, a DLC chap­ter in Ser­bia – you must do all you can to en­sure play­ers see ev­ery­thing. With ac­cess to reams of data show­ing which ac­tiv­i­ties play­ers are drawn to (re­mem­ber As­sas­sin’s Creed Unity’s five-star mis­sion-rat­ing sys­tem?), Ubisoft has seem­ingly sur­mised that more must be done to get play­ers off the beaten track, and de­cided that the so­lu­tion is to tan­gi­bly re­ward them for do­ing so.

Great stuff on pa­per, but does it work? Our time in Watch Dogs 2’ s San Fran­cisco has been spent much the same as in any other open­world game. Main story mis­sions keep our fo­cus, and we are drawn off the crit­i­cal path pri­mar­ily by our prox­im­ity to some­thing we deem in­ter­est­ing – a side-mis­sion we quite fancy, an up­grade we could use, or sim­ply an invit­ing piece of scenery. Know­ing that e-kart rac­ing, for in­stance, will push our fol­lower count to­wards the next mile­stone is no more or less likely to make us want to do it. If any­thing, it has the op­po­site ef­fect: rather than be­ing re­warded for do­ing some­thing, we feel we’re be­ing pun­ished for not do­ing it.

Do we re­ally need a re­ward to feel re­warded? The ap­peal of open-world games is as the name im­plies: you can go any­where and do what­ever you like, and ex­plo­ration and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion should surely be their own re­wards. Per­haps, 15 years af­ter Grand Theft Auto III, we have grown de­sen­si­tised to the magic of the open world; maybe pub­lish­ers, par­tic­u­larly Ubisoft, have milked dry a genre whose po­ten­tial once seemed bound­less, por­ing over the data to the point that data is all that re­mains. It has left the most pro­lific maker of open-world games on the planet work­ing to the the­sis that the only thing that gets us all re­ally, truly go­ing these days is the sight of a num­ber go­ing up. Watch Dogs 2 wants us to ques­tion the ben­e­fits of tech­nol­ogy’s re­lent­less march. Ubisoft may be tempted to con­sider these things, too.

Never has an ac­tion game’s pro­tag­o­nist spent so much time sit­ting still, but Hol­loway does his best work at a lap­top

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