Ubisoft’s endless quest to formulate the perfect open world
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