The Template Strikes Back
When “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” launched in 2017, it was a refreshing take on the open-world action genre of video games that was so popular during the eighth generation of consoles. Many of the single-player titles released sought to emulate the success of “Grand Theft Auto,” “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” and “Assassin’s Creed.”.
But one formula became commonplace— and it was the one used in the “Assassin’s Creed” series. Developed and published by Ubisoft, “Assassin’s Creed,” “Far Cry,” and “Watch Dogs” were all very successful and popular titles that shared the same common identity.
Ubisoft had in the previous generation received critical and commercial acclaim with “Assassin’s Creed II” and “Far Cry 3” in particular, and didn’t so much as refine this success as they did transmogrify the common components in an easily replicable template that would make up the bulk of their games in the eighth console gen.
This success saw other studios try to emulate this blueprint as well with titles of varying acclaim such as “Horizon: Zero Dawn,” “Mad Max,” “Mirror’s Edge Catalyst,” “Days Gone,” “Shadow of Mordor,” “Spider-Man,” and “Infamous: Second Son.”
Some of the qualities that all of these titles share are open-worlds with obscured maps that are only accessible when climbing some form of tower or structure, RPG progression systems, loot and crafting, and an asinine amount of collectibles and checklist side missions.
The problem with this style of game design is that in an open-world setting, it adds up to nothing but busywork or chores. The elongated progression system glued on the back of the seemingly endless amount of side missions never results in a satisfying gameplay loop. Instead, it just pads out the length of the game, encouraging the player to forgo the narrative (even if it is good) to engage in a quagmire of meaningless bullshit.
I mean … just look at this fucking map from “Assassin’s Creed Unity”.
But hey, let’s be fair. This was the first game in the “Assassin’s Creed” series during the eighth generation. Let’s check in, oh, I don’t know, three games later?
Well maybe it’s just the Ubisoft games themselves? Surely those other games I mentioned have taken the good parts of that formula and expanded upon th—
Maybe there’s just a lot to do, and the game is giving you more bang for your buck. Maybe all of those icons are thoughtfully designed and meaningful pieces of content to engage with? That’s where you’d be wrong.
Instead, much of it is the same. You’ll have a handful of variations of things on the map that you can go do, but they’ll be just that. There’s dozens of bandit camps you can clear out, but at the end of the day they’ll all play out nearly identically. If you’ve cleared one, you’ve experienced what it’s like to clear them all.
When you climb a tower in “Assassin’s Creed” to unveil the myriad of bullshit available to you in that region, you’ve climbed them all. This experience is replicated ad nauseam for the entire game(s). These things have become so ubiquitous to Ubisoft’s game design that they’re colloquially and pejoratively referred to as “Ubisoft Towers.”
These are extremely bloated experiences that may have a handful of enjoyable hours of content that are strung out across dozens of middling hours.
Going back to “Breath of the Wild,” the reason why it was such a revitalizing experience is because of the way it took modern open-world design philosophies and turned them on their heads. There’s “Ubisoft Towers,” sure. But their application in the game and the way the game’s world is designed around them is completely different.
In “Breath of the Wild,” the world is pensively designed. So when the player ascends these towers, they don’t simply press a button to disclose every activity around them. Instead, they have to scan the horizon themselves and note the landmarks to find what looks interesting to them.
Not only that, but the map is not littered with these activities to the point where their very inclusion becomes overwhelming. Contrastingly, “Breath of the Wild” makes excellent use of negative space, which is areas of “emptiness” between points of interest that give the player not only time to reflect on their journey and what their next action will be, but also serve to create a more believable world.
This is an intricate world that the player has found themselves in instead of a world designed around the player.
“Breath of the Wild” also has emergent gameplay systems baked into its DNA to the point where there are so many cogs spinning behind the world, that the world itself is a living entity.
See a canyon that you can’t cross by jumping? Chop a tree down and use it as a bridge. Are your weapons nearly broken and there’s an encampment of enemies guarding an item you need? Lure them into a corner and push a boulder onto them from atop a cliff.
“Breath of the Wild” has been discussed in excess at this point, and many minds more astute than mine have assessed that it is a response to the Ubisoft world design that dominated last gen.
“Gods and Monsters”—I mean, “Immortals Fenyx Rising,” is a game that at first glance seems like an attempt at recreating the “Breath of the Wild” open-world formula as well as its aesthetics. You can climb any surface, it has “vaults” the same way the “Breath of the Wild” had shrines (areas outside of the open-world that contain unique puzzles or challenges), a stamina bar and health bar both tied to an upgrade system, and a cell-shaded, watercolor art style.
But that’s pretty much where the similarities in these open-world games end. While “Immortals” may have the veneer of “Breath of the Wild,” it’s just window dressing around another typical Ubisoft experience.
The things that “Immortals” tries to incorporate don’t do much to change the way that the character not only engages with the world, but also progresses through it. In order to advance your character’s growth, you’ll complete a slalom of the same objectives like weight puzzles or cleaning up yet another enemy encampment to gather a plethora of items and collectibles.
There’s others of course, like ones where you shoot your arrow through a series of rings or race to the end of a checkpoint, but none of them do enough to differentiate themselves from the last five that you’ve done … and the map is absolutely bursting at the seams with these. Worse yet is the way “Immortals” tries to ape “Breath of the Wild’s” subversion of “Ubisoft Towers.”
In “Immortals” you’ll climb to the top of a monument or statue and go into a first-person perspective like in “Breath of the Wild,” but the location design simply isn’t strong enough for anything to be noteworthy from these heights and the game knows this. So instead you’ll aimlessly move your crosshair around the area until you get the “click now” highlights which reveal exactly what is in the area you’re going to and often what type of activity it is.
This ends up not only failing to encourage exploration, but it also adds tedium to the process in a way that even the much maligned “Ubisoft Towers” of older games were lacking.
The characters and narrative failed to entice me to continue playing after the 12 hour mark. The narrative is framed as a conversation between Zeus and Prometheus, and this isn’t in and of itself a bad setup, but the writers constantly try to make jokes. Nearly every single piece of dialogue is a quip or snarky comment and it soon wore thin on my patience.
Its politics also rubbed me the wrong way. The whole story basically revolves around finding all of the deities who have been overthrown and had parts of their essence removed by Typhon and restoring the world to them. Aphrodite, for example, before your meddling is a sweet and kind goddess who cares deeply for the animals in her domain and wants to do nothing more than ensure that there is no pain or suffering for them. The game frames this as a negative and a net loss for the narrative. Instead, the pompous, greedy, and jealous individual that she actually was is somehow better because … reasons?
However, even the game admits that the gods are selfish and incompetent. They end up being much better as the current versions of themselves.. But, they’re the all-powerful and omnipotent gods and that’s just how it has to be.
That kind of posturing coming from a massive corporation like Ubisoft is just a tad on the nose.
The combat is serviceable but nothing more. You’ll get a decent assortment of melee-oriented abilities that aren’t well balanced because when facing enemies of appropriate level, you’ll probably have no issue clearing them without even taking damage, due to how generous the game’s parry and dodge windows are. The only way to get a decent challenge is to combat enemies far above your level.
It is a very pretty game, and I often found the most enjoyment I had in the game was just walking around. There is a surprising amount of visual detail up close, especially in the first real area,which is Aphrodite’s domain.
But that’s about the only good thing I can say about this game.
“Immortals” isn’t a bad game in the traditional sense. It’s competently made, performs well, is polished to a sheen.
Instead, it’s this forgettable, inoffensive, milquetoast experience. Moreover, it’s audacious that Ubisoft would have one of their studios try to replicate the very game that was created to highlight the problems with their titles. Even the name is about as captivating as diet water.
But it gets even worse if we dig deeper.
“Immortals” serves as a microcosm for Ubisoft’s design ethos. I remember hearing someone once describe “Assassin’s Creed Origins” as a game they weren’t enjoying but couldn’t stop playing.
That makes a lot of sense seeing as these games are essentially Skinner boxes. They’re designed to drip feed positive reinforcement at just the right pace that players stay hooked. The player pecks the button and they get the corn.
“Immortals”, like most Ubisoft games, is an exercise in operant conditioning. It’s manipulative in how it gives the player just enough reinforcement to keep them strung along but obfuscates that with video game window dressing. It constantly berates the player with auditory and visual feedback with a reward always within reach to camouflage these systems.
Not only is that manipulative, it’s kind of insidious. The way “Immortals” does this while wearing the skin of “Breath of the Wild” underlines how perverse it is.
I didn’t finish “Immortals,” and I don’t plan to. Even though I have nearly 15 hours in the game, I stopped finding new things within the first five.
I thought that maybe “Immortals” would be something different from the Ubisoft catalogue in the way that “Watch Dogs 2” was. In fact, I was told this by more than a few game review outlets. Unfortunately, that is not the case, and “Immortals” is just another Ubisoft title to add to the pile.
If that’s what you’re into, that’s great, because you’ve got yet another title to sink dozens of hours into.
But if you’re someone like me, it will only serve to reaffirm the feelings you have towards games of this ilk.
They aren’t fun. They just give the illusion of fun.