Jaded Since Jade; Has Ubi Gone Soft?

There was a time when I looked up to Ubisoft as a beacon of light in what I saw as an otherwise dark and misguided industry. 2003 was a year in which I had the time to play a lot of video games, and managed to play most of the year's major releases. I was, at the time something of a Nintendo fanboy, though I did own a PS2 and Xbox as well. Nintendo were for me, a company that refused to comply with the industry's growing stagnation, yet the GameCube was struggling to economically perform.

Cast your minds back to 2003: EA ruled the roost, with the Need For Speed and sports franchises dominating the charts. The Sims had spawned countless amounts of uninspired expansion packs, the woeful Medal of Honor: Rising Sun and Enter The Matrix were selling well and copycat behavior was abound with lackluster games being marketed into success, such as Tony Hawk's Underground, True Crime: Streets of LA, Burnout 2 and Angel of Darkness. Even Nintendo's new Gameboy Advance SP model reeked of a "cash-in" and all signs of innovation were crumbling commercially, from Nokia's ill-fated N-Gage to the apparent collapse of the much-hyped Capcom Five, following the poor reception of P.N.03 and the cancellation of Dead Phoenix. Aside from a couple of notable exceptions in the shape of Soul Calibur II and Knights of the Old Republic, 2003 represented an industry heading in the direction of Hollywood, a realm where innovation and artistic quality is considered commercially unviable and low-risk, high yield strategies are abundant and substance is sacrificed for style.

Ubisoft were almost alone in their quest for a fresh approach. They published the excellent Morrowind and the fantastic Far Cry and pushed the boundaries of EA's stagnate hegemony with unique and innovative titles like Beyond Good and Evil, XIII and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, all games that I rank among the best of the generation. I looked up to and marveled Ubisoft's tenacity to produce such perceptively risky games, when they could have simply slapped advertising all over sub-par products and achieved greater monetary success.

Fast forward to this generation, and the gaming landscape has transformed. My loyalty to Nintendo had substantially waned, and the industry is once again heavily focused on quality and innovation, with outlets for and evidence of gaming experimentation omnipresent; even EA have got in on the act.

Ubisoft however, have begun to lose sight of what once made them so great. Their "ideas" and "art" teams have succeeded extremely well, with the creative vision of Assassin's Creed, the beautiful vistas of Far Cry 2 and the immaculate presentation of Prince of Persia all testament to this. Nevertheless, something somewhere has gone wrong at the French studio. All three of these games suffer from mindless repetition and crippling flaws. What is the point of all the constant traveling in all three games? Why is every mission so dull and subsequently repeated? Why are the stories so poorly implemented? Allowing the player to arbitrarily move in moments of exposition only detracts from the content. Why is everyone in Africa out to kill you? Why is the combat in the fighting games so terrible? Prince of Persia in particular is maimed by its adherence to the growing industry focus on accessibility, an issue I recently discussed here on Kombo, with the complex act of acrobatics and fee running confined to contrived hammering of the A button. And sweet Jesus is that control mechanic unresponsive and delayed. I don't even think I need to dissect any unique element of Haze or Red Steel here.

I don't think Ubisoft have become entirely obsessed with profit like the industry was in 2003, perhaps they have become misguided. I cannot argue that the aforementioned games are anything other than attempts at innovation and quality, but all too often the gimmick or USP is trifling or over-used. A recent IGN UK article shows how Ubisoft is gearing up to maximize profits this year and I cannot help but feel that the heavy focus on profit is interfering with the management of the games themselves. I am not so naive as to fail to recognize that all companies have and always will be ultimately aiming for profit, but I believe that the "milking" of Ubisoft's IP is at detriment to the quality of their games. Though Rabbids is fun, it is a clear marker of Ubisoft attempting to appeal to as wide a market as possible, and it is certainly no Rayman proper. The low-risk strategy they currently employ and the failure to fully develop their admittedly awesome original concepts into triple-A titles has meant that I no longer look forward to anything Ubisoft release. Sure, I Am Alive, Red Steel 2, Splinter Cell: Conviction, Avatar and Assassin's Creed 2 look like they will be great, but if recent history is anything to go by then these games will fall at the final hurdle. I'm calling bullshit on Ubisoft.

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