It seems like every time you hear about Ubisoft these days, it’s some sort of minor controversy that has involved them picking some fairly ill-advised course of action. For example, Assassin’s Creed: Unity caught some flak for not featuring a female character among four-player models in the co-operative multiplayer mode. Then Nicolas Guarin, a developer for the same game, declared that their game would run at 30 frames per second (FPS), since it feels more cinematic than the smoother 60 FPS. Meanwhile, with another Ubisoft franchise Farcry 4, creative director Alex Hutchinson said that the 1080p resolution wasn’t all that big a deal, which was why the game would run at the resolution of 900p. The claims that people have stopped obsessing over graphical fidelity seems a little absurd, considering the original Farcry was a game that earned its spot in the hall of fame for three things — tremendous cat-and-mouse standoffs against mercenaries, lush outdoor visuals, and the tendency to bring gaming hardware to its knees. Watch Dogs had a relatively lukewarm reception after footage of the final game did not live up to the previews shown during E3, and that’s not even mentioning any of the numerous troubles with their suboptimal storefront UPlay, which is now a necessary evil if you want to legitimately play any Ubisoft title.
But it wasn’t always like this, of course. When the publishing company was formed in 1986 by five brothers in France, it was through astute choices that they worked out agreements with heavyweights such as Electronic Arts, Microprose, and Sierra Online for distribution of their games in France. Needless to say, they were extremely successful in their field and eventually, Ubi went on to develop their own games, which is where they have had the most lasting impact on gaming.
Some of their most fruitful work came from game designer Michel Ancel, responsible for the instantly recognisable platformer hero Rayman. The phantom-limbed adventurer became synonymous with tight platformer action and a lush visual aesthetic, and graced many games and platforms over the years, the most recent revival being Rayman Legends from last year. However, it’s one of Ancel’s less known games that resonates most with me — Beyond Good & Evil. An action adventure game at its heart, it was equal parts fantasy and sci-fi, but with a heart of gold behind it. The game told the tale of Jade, a photojournalist who took time off from breaking stories to take care of the motley group of orphans that she fostered in her lighthouse island in the idyllic world of Hillys. Of course, tranquillity in an action setting is always just the calm before the storm, and before you know it, Hillys is being invaded by the alien Domz race, and Jade has to get together with an underground resistance to discover the source of the threat. There’s been talk of a sequel in the works, but I’m happy enough with the joy that the original exuded.
Another key moment was when they acquired the IP to Prince of Persia. At the time, the Prince’s royal lineage was under scrutiny thanks to the resounding mishap that was POP3D, and it was going to take something special to get him back on the throne. Ubisoft delivered, using the original game creator Jordan Mechner in an advisory role, and gave us Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a 3D platformer that captured the adventure and romance of the original game. Of course, Ubisoft then proceeded to wring the life out of the series, with several sequels pumped out over the years. Which is in fact, a fairly common criticism of the company across the board.
Take Assassin’s Creed — the original had a unique setting, and a strong free running mechanic, but the evolution of the game into a franchise that demands an annual entry has diluted the impact, so that no matter how many new mechanics they add, it seems impossible for me to escape fatigue.
Likewise, which Splinter Cell fan can truly get behind the next game in the series after it has moved its feel from stealth to action? Who can trust The Division to back its lofty promises when Watch Dogs is a conspicuous example of failure on that front? Despite their standing as a publisher giant, one has to wonder if Ubisoft’s chickens will come home to roost some day.