I have a lot of time for Ubisoft, and I think their E3 presentation this year had by far the most stuff I’m interested in. I also like that they hire an actual media professional who can go on stage without seeming like a quivering PR robot to host their conference. That said presenter is Aisha Tyler, a woman of colour in a sea of white male techs and execs, makes the fact that the couple of niggles emerging relate to the presentation of women in their games all the more galling. But I think this is a case where success has led to the emergence of unexpected problems.
Reading a recent Edge article on Ubi’s editorial team, the squad of advisers who share best practise and approve or reject projects in the sprawling company and its sub-studios, it’s hard not to admire the administrative machinery they’ve put in place to ensure these massive AAA titles are laser targetted at what Ubisoft’s audience want to play. There’s a growing awareness, especially amongst critics, that this is blurring a lot of the company’s games into one Uber-ubi-game, with tropes like Parkour and side missions and taking control of certain locations to open up the map spreading from game to game.
Of course, the reason these open world game play elements are so pervasive is that they work, that they appeal to a broad audience and provide an addictive framework of progression and exploration with lots to do. Some critics may have been disappointed in Watch_Dogs (I haven’t played it yet) for its recycling of bits of Assassin’s Creed etc but it sold shitloads. Maybe not everyone who bought the game was pleased to have the chance to play Chess in the park or engage in optional car racing but the presence of those ticks on the packaging certainly didn’t put them off.
These things appeal to me. They appeal to a lot of people. If there’s a generic gamer brain, a point where the various circles in the big Venn diagram of genres and gameplay options available to Triple A developers overlap the most, Ubisoft are great at marking it out and occupying that territory with populist action potboilers.
And Ubisoft’s E3 presentation was full of that stuff, from Far Cry 4 to Les Assassins Miserables (apologies to whoever on Twitter’s joke that was) to the Division. Even outside that big blurry open world action space each project was the most amped up version of that experience you can imagine – Just Dance was relentlessly poppy and bouncy, the fitness game was the gamiest fitness game ever seen, Rainbox Six Siege finessed that squad shooter thing to it’s most intense and streamlined incarnation.
See marketing target, focus on marketing target, launch mini nuke at marketing target. Boom.
The problem with hitting the tastes of the generic gamer, of the person you get when you smudge all your audience research together and create an archetype of who you’re making games for, is that you end up excluding diversity. You know that X percentage of gamers are white men so that’s who your protagonists are, maybe throwing in black NPC character or secondary playable character because you don’t want to ignore those gamers altogether. And as for women… well, they become what women get stuck with being in a lot of action fiction in films or books or TV, inert sources of motivation for the player.
In aiming for the widest audience, in targeting the universal lizard brain part of the largest spread of gamers, you end up creating regressive nonsense. You have a Rainbow Six demo where two teams of men fight over a frightened woman, guiding or dragging her from room to room as the men shoot each other. You dabble in having female assassins in Assassin’s Creed Unity, then drop it because it requires more mo-cap or different takes of the dialogue for different pronouns and it’s not a budgetary priority because you’re aiming at the generic tastes of uberubigamer so you think it doesn’t matter beyond a scattering of negative headlines.
But it does matter, not just because such a mindset is regressive and exclusionary and blinkered but because variation and diversity is required to keep things interesting. That’s the danger of the editorial mandate, the focus on what already works – there’s no preparation for when the current tricks wear thin. It’s no use building all these detailed cities and jungle covered islands to explore if we’re doing it with the same old characters with the same old motivations about dead or kidnapped girlfriends and daughters. Diversity of characters as well as diversity of scenery, please.
Also, I still want to play an Assassin’s Creed game as Clauda Auditore. Get on that.
Wading through the pre-owned shelves in Gamestation this week (stock being cleared cheap, presumably to make space for a rush of post-Christmas trade-ins), I picked up a couple of older titles for the 360 in nice steelbook editions: John Woo presents Stranglehold and last year’s reboot of Prince of Persia.
They’re very different games. Stranglehold is a contemporary shooter and a sequel to Woo’s movie Hard Boiled, complete with Chow Yun Fat as the almost depressingly cool Tequila (pictured). PoP is as PoP does, but this time with a more fantastical revamp – it’s as if Ubisoft have channeled all the historical stuff into the Assassin’s Creed franchise (which, lest we forget, spun out of the early development process for a Prince title before mutating into a separate entity), allowing PoP to unshackle itself from even the vaguest hints of reality.
What the two have in common is a determination to help the gamer, to enable them to have fun. Both give you cool characters, and steadily introduce you to their various awesome abilities – Tequila has various slo-mo firing options and is so fluid in his movements he never walks when he can roll/slide/skid down a banister, while the Prince can do all the wall-running, jumping, and acrobatic sword play that we’ve come to expect from the post Sands of Time games. These characters are a pleasure to play, and often provide a stupid grin as you execute some daftly awesome move. If games are often about wish fulfillment, then these definitely deliver.
Also, these are games that actually seem to like the player and want you to enjoy the game. I’ve played plenty of perfectly good, professional games recently, like Assassin’s Creed and Dead Space that, while providing plenty to enjoy also feel that ‘difficulty curve’ means ‘let the player have it easy for a while, but then smack him doubly hard later on’. A rigid, narrative driven game like Dead Space can be knocked right off a cliff by a punishing set-piece, where you have no options to go elsewhere and massage your stats, or find an alternative route – I may find it in me to retry that battle in level 5 another dozen times in the hope of finishing that big regenerating bastard off, but at the moment I’m not inclined to.
Both Stranglehold and Prince of Persia provide challenge, but are also keen to help you enjoy yourself. After God knows how many attempts at one shoot-out in Stranglehold, the game asked me if I wanted to try again on an easier difficulty level – I did, and found myself making progress again, and having fun. As you can access any unlocked level later, at every difficulty level, I can always go back and try again to beat it at the higher level if I want to prove my hardcore credentials – for now, the important thing is that I haven’t thrown the controller aside and stuck the game back on the shelf, never to be returned to.
Prince of Persia has a more all-encompassing mechanism – a companion character who will rescue you if you fall, and give you a boost if you take a beating in fights. Contrary to some opinions on release, this doesn’t make the game unchallenging – you still miss jumps and have to do them again, the difference is that you don’t have a three-minute wait to fail-and-restart before you get to have another try. The platforming is still full of fiddly stuff, but the tedious bit of retrying is circumvented by the safety mechanism – you’re swept back into the tide of play rather than being kicked out with the option to give up and do something else.
No doubt this kind of thing makes the hardcore weep, but for me these helpful mechanisms are great. I’m not adverse to grinding through difficult bits, and punishing boss battles, and whatever, but as I get older I have a limited tolerance for wasting my time with constant rinse-and-repeat restarts. Little incentives to keep going, to keep me progressing, are more likely to keep me playing than the challenge of a brick wall of difficulty because, to be frank, after ten attempts I’ll often have a good idea that a particular task is beyond the reach of my reflexes, and I’ll just give up.
Games are supposed to be fun, and while challenge is fun, for me at least relentlessly bashing myself against a brick wall difficulty spike isn’t.
I’d like to say I’ve been busy with manner of significant artistic endeavors since my last post, but that would be a blatant lie. No, in between a number of social engagements (a wedding, the Bristol Comics Expo, visiting family) and the pesky day job, I’ve mainly been throwing my time into Assassin’s Creed on the XBox 360. (Yes, it’s not a recent game, with the sequel due out later this year, but I’m slow like that.)
Assassin’s Creed has proven to be a substantial timesink and sleep-preventer for the last few weeks, up until last night, at which point I very suddenly stopped. (I’ll get to the reasons for that halt in due course.)
For the majority of my time with it, AC has been a great experience. Spawned from the ribs of the last-gen Prince of Persia trilogy, Creed takes the free-running and jumping dynamic of the beloved Sands of Time and applies it to an ostensibly more realistic portrayal of the middle east. You can see how it started out as a possible PoP title, and evolved into something else – instead of slowing time and battling demons, protagonist Altair runs around the Holy Land in the 12th century fighting guards and stealth assassinating his prey. There’s a conspiracy thread to the plot, and an SF framing sequence that cleverly, but arguably unnecessarily, contextualizes the game mechanics within the fiction, but otherwise this is far removed from the fairytale mood of the best PoP titles.
Most of the time, it works very well. The mechanics and missions are samey – fight guards to rescue citizens, climb buildings to fill in the gaps on your map, eavesdrop on certain citizens and pickpocket evidence from others, then when you have investigated enough use what you know to go in and kill your target – but the execution (if you’ll pardon the pun) is so good that I could easily forgive the repetition. The central movement mechanic, which allows you to fluidly run, climb and jump around beautiful environments, is tremendous fun, and aside from the first person free-running of Mirror’s Edge has the greatest sense of joyous, athletic exploration I’ve played yet.
What AC has over Edge is its atmosphere, the sights and sounds of exotic cities. Climbing to the top of a church or temple, and ‘synchronizing’ to gain an overview of the city below you, is a stunning experience. Between the cities is an open world of rolling hills, little villages and military encampments that can be ridden across on horseback. It’s a game that, were it not for your grisly job and whole armies wanting to kill you, you’d quite like to live in. As it is, it’s a pleasure to run around seeing the sites, exploring for collectible hidden flags and the like.
So far, so good. Having got over an initial hump with one of the mission types I was away, assassinating targets, racking up various sub-missions and opening up all the districts of the game’s three main cities. Some of the main targets were difficult to kill, but there was always a way to manage it – when surrounded by enemies, there was always a way to get to relative safety, ways of disabling or thinning the herd so that you could pick them off one by one. Sometimes it took multiple attempts, but with stealth, evasion, and the odd well-placed throwing knife, even difficult missions could be conquered. I was having fun, I was unlocking achievements, I was near to the end. Stealth, evasion, strategy – these were my watchwords as an assassin.
And then all of that went right out of the fucking window. Having taken it upon yourself to stop the big bad guy and bring peace to the land, you rush to confront him. Along the way, you get a couple of tedious fights in boxed-in areas, but even then you have a bit of leeway to play clever. So not much fun, but largely bearable. However, when you confront said villain, before you can fight him directly you’re surrounded by nine or so of his men, three of whom are rock hard templar bastards who can take a mighty chunk out of you with one blow. Oh, and you’re confined to a tight area with no environmental features to help you.
Yes, after a couple of week’s mastering stealth kills and acrobatics, you get stuck in a fucking hell for leather arena battle. At which point, if you’ve not got the head-to-head combat mechanics mastered to twitch perfection, you’re fucked. I was fucked, because I hadn’t learned to take whole armies on head first, because that wasn’t the bloody game I’d been playing. The game had actively taught me to be clever, and then decided to kick me repeatedly in the ballsack for doing so. It’s a nasty bait and switch – take the mechanics you’ve been learning, strip them away and force you to do something completely different. I failed, and failed, and failed for about an hour.
Then I gave up. Nasty trick to play, Assassin’s Creed. After all that enjoyment, I’m not sure whether I’ll ever master the skills necessary to get through that fight, which is a bloody shame and a pain in the arse. By all accounts I’m not the only person pissed off with the descent into gruelling hack and slash in the game’s last hour (hour! I must have been so close to the end, yet so far), so hopefully this’ll be fixed in the sequel. I’m still looking forward to Assassin’s Creed 2, to getting back to the running, jumping, exploring action in the new setting of a sumptuous renaissance Italy, but the way my experience of the first game has suddenly ended has left me a little wary, and fairly pissed off.
Damn it, Ubisoft. Why’d you have to do that to me?