OPINION: Nick Cowen asks whether the recent Assassin's Creed Unity problems will affect the way the industry review games in the future.
Ubisoft came in for something of a kicking this month. Pundits and players alike laid into the French publisher over its handling of the release of Assassin’s Creed: Unity, a game birthed into this world with apparently more bugs than an airplane hangar filled with ant-farms. It was enough to take the GamerGate collective attention off the media for at least a day.
Assassin’s Creed: Unity was already under something of a cloud before it rattled off Ubisoft’s assembly line. At E3 developers had irked players by stating that it was too much work to put female avatars into the game, and the news that Unity was to be locked at 900p and 30fps across all platforms prompted the PlayStation faithful to hurl abuse at Ubisoft via social media. Things only got worse on release…
First, the news emerged that reviews of Unity were embargoed until a full twelve hours after the game’s launch. When it finally did see release, it was plagued with mechanical failures, framerate issues and the fact that it contained in-game content that could only be accessed via U-Play or the game’s companion app put more than a few noses out of joint. The fact that it also contained micro-transactions was almost an afterthought.
To be fair to those who complained, Assassin’s Creed: Unity had an incredibly troubled launch – a fact that Ubisoft has acknowledged and has since offered players the DLC for free by way of an apology. That hasn’t stopped the media and players complaining, however; in the past month they’ve dredged up the fact that Watch Dogs failed to live up to its hype as yet another example of why Ubisoft as a publisher has blotted its copybook.
But to mark out Ubisoft as everything that’s wrong with the gaming industry – as some pundits have started doing – seems not only a little harsh, but quite unfair to boot. Yes, it’s true the publisher’s embargo on Assassin’s Creed: Unity reviews looks like a ploy to lessen the impact of any negativity on sales, but then, Activision withheld finished copies of Destiny from most of the media until the day the game launched. For most outlets, there was simply no way to review Bungie’s persistent world shooter until well after it had landed in retail racks.
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And should Ubisoft be flayed alive for the bugs in Unity? When GTA Online, the multiplayer portion of GTA 5, launched it had a ton of problems – players losing content and progression among them – and while people complained, no one went as far as to label Rockstar Games the new EA of the gaming industry.
This could have something to do with the fact that Rockstar and Activision took something of a new approach to how they handled the review code. Normally, publishers toss critics a copy of the finished game in a timely fashion ahead of release and then embargo the review date so no one gaming outlet can get the jump on another – unless an exclusive has been agreed to. This didn’t happen with either GTA 5 or Destiny. In the case of the latter, Activision ran a ton of preview events, allowing journalists hands-on with Bungie’s new shooter, and then issued reviewers with early access to Destiny’s alpha and beta. This made sense for a game the size and scope of Destiny. There was no way to put a finished copy of the entire game into the hands of the media before the servers were switched on, after all.
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In the case of Grand Theft Auto 5, Rockstar simply delayed the launch of the game’s online mode until after the game had launched. Once again, this was copasetic. Grand Theft Auto made its name as a single player experience – albeit a gargantuan one – well before Rockstar attempted to bring its open world shenanigans to an online audience. It’s possible the developer expected some teething problems ahead of its online launch and most players were signing up for the single-player campaign at purchase point anyway.
Since developers seem to be of a mind to use the new processing power of the new gen consoles and the server farms built to support them to push online experiences to the bleeding edge, critics may be entering a new phase of how we review games. If persistent world games are the gaming industry’s new big thing, reviewers aren’t going to be able to take a traditional tack in judging them. How does one assess the merits of a game that relies on a permanent connection to servers that haven’t been turned on ahead of launch? How can one evaluate a game that’s been rushed out the door before all of its working parts have been tried and tested and all of its bugs patched?
If Ubisoft can take one lesson away from the debacle of the launch of Assassin’s Creed: Unity, it’s the fact that the game should not have been reviewed until after it was released. Since both the AC franchise – and Far Cry 4 too – are knocking at the door of the persistent world genre, it’s a lesson the French publisher would do well to take to heart. Review outlets may lose out on those all-important hits, but we’d do a better job for our audiences if we could review finished code.
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