What started out as being part of the E3 thoughts collaborative piece (check part 1, part 2 and part 3 here, beat the rush) ended up snowballing pretty insanely. This was especially noteworthy as I chose to study Ubisoft’s conference in particular, one that had its sky-highs and subterranean-lows. I ended up somehow getting a solo-article of my considerations of the titles announced, so let’s dig in!
To start with what was undoubtedly the most talked about revelation, Beyond Good & Evil 2‘s reveal is perhaps more interesting than I think a lot of commentators have observed. The classic reaction has been that it is a prequel that is distant enough in the past that it may as well be a standalone title, as well as being tonally different (i.e. from general family-friendly cartoon-aesthetic to realistic-appearance with sweary “adult” style). Personally I dig the style, as it still is within the realms of plausibility while offering something fresh, but hey-ho.
What might end up making-or-breaking the game in two is its Space Monkey Program. The website describes it as “our way of inviting passionate members of the community to be the first to play, to share ideas and inspirations, and to crash test all of the creative and gameplay elements that make up our game world: as early and as often as possible!”.
It isn’t as though this is an unheard of concept, even beyond the whole “crowd-funding backer’s forum/polls & alpha/beta testing.” Amplitude Studios does Games2Gether, which often does polls on its website that can have mechanical or narrative effects. Managed well, Beyond Good & Evil 2 could deliver what fans want by closely communicating with their audience. Although I believe it would need to be carefully managed to allow for audiences to feel like they’re helping build the game without developers putting in bad ideas because “the audience said so.” The line would need to be walked, and has been before as Games2Gether is a pretty extraordinary achievement, but it all depends on Ubisoft.
The second noticeable announcement was that of Assassin’s Creed: Origins. Usually the series is met to a barrage of weary sighs, but Ubisoft Montreal seems to be wanting to reinvent it. I tend to take such an announcement with a bag of salt as some developers/publishers interpret a minor/moderate singular mechanical change as “reinvention,” but it seems they really did reinvent it.
The main change is the inclusion of RPG systems. You level up into a skill tree that branches off into Fighty/Sneaky/Puppetry (yep, best I’ve got to describe manipulating NPCs, animals, and the environment). You get new gear that is more powerful and has attributes, and fights with enemies are now about actively slapping your numbers against their numbers until someone falls down. It does personally feel a bit… Casual? Arcadey? It definitely erodes the atmosphere of being the expert able to put a dagger through the heart quietly, cautiously, and with great skill when someone just stands up after having their jugular torn out because they’re a few levels higher than you. There is also the problem of difficulty, as Ubisoft games do tend to veer towards a lower difficulty with not much for those who need to be pushed, and with Origins, chances are those who want to experience the wealth of content they are boasting will quickly be over-leveled.
The third and final noteworthy reveal was Skull & Bones. It is a lovely idea really, PvP ship combat using the beloved mechanics from Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (made more safer by Skull & Bones being developed by the same team who put the ship combat into Black Flag). Except it seems they might have stumbled upon a woe: Teamwork. In a perfect world, people would co-operate. Unfortunately, our world is imperfect, and people enjoy going the whole lone-wolf thing a bit too much. This might lead to some ship designs that heavily favour team-work being underutilized and ships that can storm the beaches on their own being the main favourites. Unless the fan base will be willing to spread out and co-operate, Skull & Bones might end up tedious on arrival. A bit of a cynical conclusion and one rooted in the player base, but random multiplayer is often rife with a lack of co-operation.
Other games have smaller awkward situations. Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle will unfortunately be weighed up against Mario Odyssey due to both being Mario games that are coming soon (despite having very different mechanics) and sadly will lose for the same reason the original band will usually outshine a tribute band. Also, I suspect the combo gameplay may lead to less careful methodical strategies and more just mad combos which may turn off XCOM: Enemy Unknown audiences who could have been curious due to the gameplay similarities. Starlink is going to depend heavily on its gameplay, but even then I think its peripheral “attach your ship and change load-outs as you play” is going to not do well. That said, I would not have thought Skylanders was going to do well and that got a good few sales.
Far Cry 5 is going to have a narrative problem, as it will take suspension of disbelief to breaking point, because somehow a cult is taking over a county without the national guard being called in. Besides that, same-old for the series.
Overall, Ubisoft’s conference fortunately avoided the issue of just presenting the same old but with a new number stuck on it. That said, if I had to say there was a theme of the main cast, I would be tempted to say “tribute.” Skull & Bones is a tribute band of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Assassin’s Creed: Origins is a tribute to the action RPG genre, splicing mechanics of games like Fable into its own gameplay. Beyond Good & Evil 2 is a tribute to its own predecessor. Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a tribute to both Mario and XCOM.
That isn’t to say the idea of a tribute is necessarily a bad thing though. Stephen King’s Crouch End is a tribute of Lovecraft and one of the decreasingly few stories I can enjoy of King. Similarly, I enjoy Beyond Good & Evil 2‘s direction, which looks fantastic, feels fresh (even if it comes at the cost of disrobing itself of the prior game’s story seemingly) and will be working with its community to do cool things. Where it becomes a problem is there are hints of not acknowledging the pitfalls of their tributes. Assassin’s Creed: Origins will likely be grossly easy and have the over-leveling problem that served as the sole black mark against Witcher 3, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle will likely focus too much on combos and not enough on tactical plays to impress the fertile XCOM fan base (something achieved with a difficulty option that’ll make players work for their victories, with lower ones allowing the Mario/Rabbids fan base to tap in) and Skull & Bones overlooks co-operation, which in the online land tends to be treated as, “It’d be nice, but any meaningful co-ordination rarely happens.”
While Tenacious D would be proud of such an E3 presentation, I think Ubisoft only has Beyond Good & Evil 2 as their Wonderboy. The other major games? They’re just a Tribute.