Assassin’s Creed Unity, or Why I Can’t Pre-Order Games Anymore.

Arno UnityI love games. I probably love games too much; they’re a massive time sink sometimes. I can attribute a lot of my slow progress this NaNoWriMo to the arrival of Assassin’s Creed Unity. Unfortunately, while I love a lot of games, I love few as much as I love Assassin’s Creed. This blog isn’t really about games, but my obsession has peeped through a couple of times even here. Assassin’s Creed is a divisive series, for everyone that loves it for its historical settings, it sense of atmosphere, the size of the game world, there’s somebody who hates it for its occasionally awkward gameplay, bugs or odd story lines. Me? I’m usually there Day One.

The series has had its ups and downs, but despite publisher Ubisoft’s ever decreasing reputation, they have earned my loyalty in the past. I happily signed up in advance for the latest entry and, loaded up on caffeine, got ready to play at midnight on the dot. A new Creed arrived every year, and yet I enjoy those opening moments as much every time. This year Ubisoft takes us to Revolutionary Paris, promising beautiful graphics, giant crowds and a fully developed cooperative multiplayer element. And as the story begins, everything is going fine. We begin in a palace in Versailles, everything looks beautiful and the narrative carries the player to Paris, where it throws open the gates and says “The city is yours!”

Unfortunately, things start to fall apart soon after. In my first couple of hours with Unity, I encountered some very unpleasant things. A few were tolerable. The game performs badly, but is playable. A few were worse, the game has numerous bugs that will often send you falling to your death while walking along a rooftop or something remove people’s faces entirely. The worst bug I encountered involved a feature called Assassin Rank. The game tracks your progress using a simple experience point to ranking system. You are supposed to progress through ranks like Initiate, Apprentice, Soldier before topping out at Legend. Unless you check your ranking in the Assassin’s headquarters, at which point the game promptly sets the player to Legend and all the multiplayer features break.

The single player campaign in similarly hampered. A big part of the series is exploring cities, climbing rooftops in search of collectibles. Unfortunately, you cannot collect everything in Unity without signing up for three separate services. Uplay (Ubisoft’s own gaming network), Assassin’s Creed Initiates (a sort of Achievements website for the series), and the Companion App (a lousy side game that is time consuming and dull), and all three of these services were either broken or failing to communicate correctly at launch. Ubisoft have fixed some of these problems, and promised fixes for the rest, but for a £55 product to be in this condition at launch is unbelievable.

The extent to which this stops someone enjoying Unity depends on the individual. I still had a great time playing through the single player story, as a lot of others will. I found the setting enjoyable, and as the most egregious problems have been corrected, I find a game that might not be the best in the series, but still entertains. The question is not whether or not Unity is a good game (It is, when it works) but why this information was concealed from the consumer. For Ubisoft, the answer is obvious; pre-orders are a big win for the publishers these days. Getting committed buyers before the product has launched helps publishers to gauge interest and helps retailers organise their launches, but the system is open to abuse. And abuse the system Ubisoft has. By enforcing a strict review embargo, preventing the press from reviewing Unity until Noon release day, Ubisoft has turned reviewers into accomplices into an attempt to defraud.

Some will say I am being hyperbolic, but before the game’s US release, I had no idea this was a game containing micro transactions. I had no idea this was a game requiring signup to separate services to fully enjoy. I have no idea this game suffered from even minor performance issues, let alone seriously crippling bugs, and if I had known it, I wouldn’t have bought it. I would have waited until Ubisoft corrected their own mess, and in the meantime I would have enjoyed the other Assassin’s Creed that came out on the same day and doesn’t have these problems. Ubisoft knows I feel that way, and they’ve never even heard of me. I know they know it because they went to such lengths to hid information from the consumer. Unity is a game sold through misinformation and deceit. I can think of no better word than fraud.

And if it’s that easy, then everyone who plays games is screwed. That’s why I can’t buy pre-orders anymore; I’m not sure I can even buy games in the first week anymore. It’s why I no longer feel comfortable banking on any games in a post-Unity industry. Because we’re living in a world where the third largest video game publisher is happy to release a broken game. We’re living in a world where the third largest video game publisher wants to sell  their flagship game for £55, and charge you  extra to progress through the game faster. We’re living in a world where the third largest video game publisher in the world wants you to sign up for three separate services to get the most from your £55 game, but won’t pay to make those services work. And we’re living in a world where the third largest video game publisher in the world wants to do all that and hide it from you until after your bought the game.

What does a word like trust mean in an industry where this is possible? Unity isn’t even a bad game (when it works), but where Assassin’s Creed III made me lose a little faith in the franchise, Unity destroys any trust I had in the industry to be honest and accountable. A pre-order is, in a way, a promise. A promise is meaningless in a world without trust.

Paris looked pretty though. It’ll make a nice advert, I’m sure.