Art by Redline XIII
It’s easy to look at games like God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2, or anything on the Switch and say 2018 was another fantastic year for gaming. And for the most part, that sentiment is correct. At the same time, it casts an uneven spin on the realm of AAA titles, burying the reality of a worrisome trend that’s cropped up in recent years.
AAA developers – like EA, Ubisoft, and Bethesda – have always created new worlds for gamers to enjoy. Yet, these offerings have become bland, stale, stunted, and even disappointing. Worlds that used to excite us, now fill us with nostalgic longing for what used to be (spurring projects like Beyond Skyrim or Fallout: Miami).
And while good games can make us forget lackluster titles, they’re slowly starting to become the rule, rather than the exception.
Whenever the discussion about underwhelming games comes up, EA is at the top of every list. Their skill at making middling AAA titles is hard to rebut, with titles like Mass Effect: Andromeda and Battlefield V on the market.
EA, with Origin, has taken to granting 10 hour demos for their AAA titles. With each, players get full access to the game until the time limit is up. I think this is a great idea and decided to take advantage of the demo for Andromeda, but even with full access to everything the game has to offer I only managed to get about three hours in before moving on to something else. Even though the story was intriguing and the combat was mostly fun, it just wasn’t engaging. So, I uninstalled it and never looked back.
Battlefield V, on the other hand, is a different beast entirely. I was invited to take part in the closed, and open, Beta for the game, and I genuinely enjoyed my time with it, but couldn’t justify paying a full $59.99 (US) for the title (especially considering free alternatives like Planetside 2). Then, there was the media storm surrounding the way DICE decided to market the game. The backlash from social media, and journalists alike, created a whirlwind of negative publicity that overshadowed the game’s release. And, if anything, made it less palatable to everyone.
Then, there’s Anthem. I’m happy that Casey Hudson has returned to Bioware to work on the game, but I’m worried what it will be when it finally releases (we’ll find out in February).
(not) Reinventing the Wheel (enough)
Ubisoft, like EA, has a long history of beating its series like a dead horse. Most have hit a comfortable, familiar stride, making it easy to know what to expect when the next offering drops. To Ubisoft’s credit, they’ve tried over the past year to put a new coat of polish on some of their titles, but in my opinion, the attempt has proven only marginally successful.
The Crew was a fantastic game when it released back in 2014, and Ivory Tower made more than a few improvements over its lifetime. Needless to say, I was excited when the sequel was announced, but it lacked all of the first game’s charm. The campy story was replaced with a strange, poorly implemented, social media system that awarded “followers” (read: XP) for winning races. These acted as a barrier for entry to higher level challenges and events. But the way it was all implemented felt like busy work, and the races felt uneven. In the end, it couldn’t hold my attention for more than a few hours.
Far Cry 5 is another example of Ubisoft’s tried and true formula. I bought the game around the end of November (on deep sale) hoping it would be an interesting title to play with a friend, but found it far less enjoyable than previous titles in the series. It looks pretty good, and there’s plenty to do in the wilds of Montana, but after putting a significant amount of time into Ghost Recon Wildlands, Far Cry 5 feels like a lazy copy and paste job.
Which brings me to Assassin’s Creed…
This has been one of my favorite game series since it first arrived on PC way back in 2007. I really appreciated the change in direction with Assassin’s Creed: Origins, and the focus they put back on the “real world” narrative that’s been missing from the last few titles in the series, but I’m still disappointed by how much of a letdown it was. Last year, I wrote about Ubisoft’s open world formula and their heavy-handed guidance of players from one objective to the next. This, more than anything, colors my feeling towards the present, and probably future, of the AC series. And I think that this, more than anything, is going to be the long-term stumbling block the series will have to overcome to be a AAA powerhouse again.
All of this makes me worry about Division 2. The first game was just okay, and the developers have said that the second title in the series fixes a lot of gripes player’s had, but I’m worried about Ubisoft’s ability to pull off a passable rework that’s going to feel fresh enough to justify the AAA price (because the first game definitely wasn’t there).
With Fallout 76, the developer that can do no wrong, is finally getting flack for some of their shoddy development practices. I defended 76 at the end of last year, and still maintain that it’s good, but I can see where people are coming from when they complain about the game. I understand. And I’d have no right to criticize EA or Ubisoft if I didn’t acknowledge that some of the same laziness I’ve accused those developers of has rubbed off on Bethesda.
There’s been a lot of “doom and gloom” in the media regarding Bethesda’s future after the Fallout 76 debacle. I still believe in Bethesda and the worlds they’re capable of creating, but I do agree that 76 has painted a large question mark over the developer’s future. Especially when companies like CD Projekt RED, and now Obsidian (with their recent acquisition by Microsoft and the announcement of their new game in 2019), are starting to elbow in on Bethesda’s previously uncontested territory.
Starfield is going to be a make or break title for Bethesda. Besides gameplay, story, and graphics, delivery is going to be paramount. Will it be something polished, or will it house many of the familiar bugs Bethesda games are known for? In the case of the latter, I think a similar backlash to what was seen with 76 can be expected. We’ll just have to wait and see…
Finally, there’s the AAA push towards mobile. I’m not going to belabor the point, but more than a few developers are looking to move into the mobile space, gamer preferences be damned. Everyone saw the infamous Blizzcon moment where developers responded to booing fans by asking, “Do you guys not have phones?” Then, there’s EA taking Command & Conquer mobile. Not to mention Fallout Shelter and, later this year, The Elder Scrolls: Blades, from Bethesda.
There’s nothing wrong with mobile, but when there isn’t really much of a hardcore market for it (in the US, anyway), I don’t see the reason to push so hard in that particular direction.
Show Me the Money
The slow, inexorable decline of AAA titles has been happening for years. By saying that, it isn’t my intention to bring down all the men and women who work tirelessly to create every game I’ve mentioned. On the contrary, kudos to the people who make such sweeping entertainment possible.
But, honestly, the fault doesn’t lie with them.
As the realm of video games has grown and matured, so has the end goal of game development. For the people making the games, passion for the project is still the driving force, but for the corporations overseeing the developers, money takes center stage. It’s the reason why larger companies gobble up smaller developers for blockbuster franchises. It’s the reason why companies push unrealistic expectations on developers (like the rush EA pushed on Mass Effect: Andromeda and Activision’s road map for the Destiny games). It’s the reason why so many companies have eschewed expansions for DLC (ironically, started by Bethesda’s infamous Horse Armor). And it’s why so many modern games feature micro transactions, loot boxes, unique currency, seasonal expansions, and the “games as service” model.
Underdogs to the Rescue
In 2019, I think smaller studios have a unique opportunity to succeed where some of the bigger ones are falling short. Sony has already shown that, if given ample creative space, developers can go the distance. Santa Monica Studios exemplified this in 2018 with a fantastic offering in the God of War series. And Microsoft seems poised to follow in Sony’s footsteps with the acquisition of Obsidian. Their pending game, The Outer Worlds, seems to be the RPG everyone was hoping for in Fallout 76. And if everything works out just right, we’ll get a chance to see for ourselves in 2019.
That’s where most of this year’s excitement seems to originate – smaller studios, developing exciting ideas from the heart. And I can’t wait to see what we get!