Say what you will about Ubisoft, but it knows how to put on a show. The publisher's conferences are often a highlight of the season, acting as both a frenetic showcase of the titles it has on the horizon and a celebration of games as a medium. Things were always going to be different in 2020, as the company wrestled with the disruptive nature of COVID-19 and the subsequent cancellation of a centralised E3 event. As a result, we got Ubisoft Forward: an impressive showcase that could have benefited from some expectation management in advance of its airing.
I say that not to be snide, but because I believe that Ubisoft is unique in its ability to arrest the attention of the industry at large. In years past, the publisher has used its annual showcase to reframe the conversation around the current generation and, should the stars align, get us looking eagerly towards the next.
Perhaps that's because Ubisoft is able to leverage the immense talent across its studios to push entrenched genres in new directions, take creative risks on new IP, and invest in radical overhauls of its most successful franchises in a way that few other publishers are able (or willing) to. That's what we see on full display at its conferences. That's also what was missing in Ubisoft Forward; it felt as if the focus was closing out a financial year wrought with delays and postponements, when it should have balanced that against a desire to give us a glimpse into Ubisoft's vision for the future of gaming.
Preparing for the next generation
In preparation for the first Ubisoft Forward, I found myself looking back to E3 2013. Just five months out from the launch of the PS4 and Xbox One, many of us were looking to the third-party publishers to get a gauge on what the next generation could actually deliver. That's exactly where we are today, months out from the launch of the PS5 and Xbox Series X with little indication of the games we should be excited by beyond launch.
Back then, it was a question that Ubisoft was only too eager to answer. Its E3 2013 presentation did an excellent job of giving us games we could look forward to playing in the fall, and on either generation of consoles. Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Rayman: Legends were good looking games that were easy to get excited over, the types of games you'd expect to see closing out a successful generation.
Ubisoft has made a similar move here in 2020, positioning Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Watch Dogs Legion, and Hyper Scape – each impressive in their own right – as must-play games for the year, an assertion which is difficult to argue with. Ubisoft is also embracing the good-natured spirit of Microsoft's Smart Delivery initiative, so you'll also be able to make these current-gen games next-gen ready for free on both Xbox Series X and PS5 whenever you do make the jump to next-gen, which is a nice touch. Where Ubisoft excelled in 2012, however, was in its ability to give us the reason to invest in a new console. It didn't just dwell in the present, it also gave us plenty to get unreservedly excited about playing in the distant future too.
Ubisoft unveiled The Crew, a sprawling open-world racing game that sought to blur the lines between single and multiplayer sessions; say what you will about the game now, but back then the tech was impressive enough to garner interest. We got an extended look at Watch Dogs following its reveal in 2012; it had always looked too ambitious for the PS3 and Xbox 360, and once it was confirmed for next-generation consoles it was as if we were given permission to believe that what we had been seeing was real. Nothing in the Ubisoft Forward showcase had that same visceral impact, if anything it made the argument that there's still life in the PS4 and Xbox One yet, given the bold design choices being made with Valhalla and Legion.
Let's flash back to 2013 one last time to talk about the surprise that closed the show: The Division. Its surprise reveal was a moment that had necks snapping to attention. Unveiled alongside Massive Entertainment's proprietary Snowdrop engine, that first look at a next-gen exclusive was genuinely spellbinding. People talked about this trailer for months. If ever there was a question of why we should invest in one of the two new consoles, The Division's first trailer was the answer. Its visual fidelity, its detailed open world, and complex team-based combat set an early benchmark for what we should expect from the next generation of games. Ubisoft is, traditionally, extremely good at getting people as excited by the present as they are about the future. Ubisoft Forward didn't make any great strides to replicate this, and the absence of a look ahead was noted.
It's a balancing act
Ubisoft Forward lacked a forward-thinking message. The publisher's decision to focus the majority of its energy on Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Watch Dogs Legion, and Hyper Scape certainly has us excited about the games we'll be playing in the immediate future, but it gave us little to be excited about beyond that.
The highlight of Ubisoft's E3 2013 presentation wasn't just Alice In Chains' Jerry Cantrell awkward demonstration of Rocksmith on-stage, it was the masterful balance the publisher struck between its content. By showing eagerly anticipated games like Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag and Splinter Cell: Blacklist we were given an excuse to get excited, only to later have our expectations for what is possible upended by the arrival of something on the scale of The Division.
The ability to compare the present and contrast it with the future is what was missing here. The reveal of Far Cry 6 was too amorphous to fill the void. As lovely as the CGI trailer was, all we were able to divine from it were tone and story – we still have little idea of how it will play or whether it'll be doing anything truly revolutionary. As a result, we have as clear of an idea of Ubisoft's next-gen strategy today as we did last week.
Perhaps it isn't fair to expect Ubisoft to pull something like that together when all of its development teams are working under stringent stay at home orders. With another Ubisoft Forward expected for later this year, there's a good chance we'll get updates on its mass of in-development titles: Gods and Monsters, Beyond Good and Evil 2, Rainbow Six Quarantine, Skull & Bones, The Settlers, Roller Champions, and Massive Entertainment's mysterious Avatar Project. These games will likely be a priority for Ubisoft in the era of the PS5 and Xbox Series X, and I can't help but feel as if their absence was a bit of a missed opportunity.