2014 felt like the year that AAA games and developers fell face-first onto the pavement. Their games simply weren’t good enough. Some were riddled with bugs, others bland and disappointing. Promises were broken, innovation failed.
Early in the year Square Enix released Thief, Eidos Montreal’s reboot of the classic PC stealth game. Considering the phenomenal success that the studio’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution was, we all expected great things from Thief. But what we received was a horribly restricting experience; a closed-off world full of designer-designated routes, contextual jumping, and obtuse level design. It was an early indicator as to how stormy 2014s seas would be for AAA.
After having been delayed from Christmas 2013 to mid-2014 for extra polishing, Watch Dogs should have been the powerhouse that we saw at its E3 reveal. Alas, what we received was a game with significant graphical cut-backs. And despite that, it ran abysmally poor on many PC set-ups. Once again it appeared we were on track for a year of poor optimisation when it came to PC ports. Yet this isn’t even Watch Dogs’ biggest crime. Rather than being the inspired hacking sandbox that its marketing suggested, it was infact a tedious modern-day Assassin’s Creed, complete with towers to climb, incredibly generic side-quests, and hundreds of pointless things to collect. What originally seemed so exciting eventually became one of the most risk-averse games we’ve ever seen.
Watch Dogs was just the starting point for what’s been a pretty terrible year for Ubisoft. Their ambitious racing MMO The Crew released to minimal fanfare thanks to its dull road networks, merely functional design, and a lack of passion for its cars. Far Cry 4 is certainly playable and exceptionally fun, but it’s also the same game they released two years ago. But it’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity that has provided Ubisoft’s – and the entire AAA industry’s – biggest failure of the year.
Unity desperately needed more time. Its ambitious perfect-scale replica of Paris is impressive, but it struggles to work as hardware buckles under the pressure of unoptimised code. Framerates fall like pianos from third-storey windows, faces dissolve to reveal jawbones and eyeballs as textures glitch out, and highly-trained assassins stumble from three-inch-high steps as the parkour system struggles to calculate the right action. The game desperately needed another few months of development, but doing so would drop it from the Christmas window. That had already happened last year with Watch Dogs, and Ubisoft clearly didn’t want that to happen again. Unity shipped a broken mess for the sake of being under the Christmas tree.
Those bugs are not what truly ruin the experience though. Assassin’s Creed is upsettingly poor by design; ruined by Ubisoft’s dogged determination to force all manner of insane out-of-game elements into it. Chests that require you to log into a website in order to open them, sections of the game that need to be played in an app, areas that promote micro-transactions. It’s a complete faff; you can’t just get on and play Unity because it frequently asks you to switch to your tablet, tab out to a browser, or use your credit card just to progress. There’s already an awful lot to do and take in in an Assassin’s Creed game. Adding these elements just makes it obtuse and frustrating. And in doing so, Ubisoft have created the new successor to Assassin’s Creed 3’s dunce cap.
Over at Activision, 2014 was the year that we were promised big changes in Call of Duty, but Advanced Warfare turned up with barely anything new and shiny. The exo-suit was apparently a response to fan demands for innovation, but a double-jump and dodge simply didn’t cut it. The maps in multiplayer simply don’t feel like they offer anything new to make the most of players’ new-found mobility, and in the campaign the variety of new toys on offer were nothing more than single-use momentary distractions from filling corridors with machinegun fire.
EA and DICE similarly promised big changes to Battlefield with Hardline. They clearly had confidence, allowing people to play the beta within minutes of it being shown off at E3. And whilst that’s a bold move to be applauded, the beta itself soon revealed itself not to the be the thrill-ride the E3 demo showed off, but little more than Battlefield 4 with a few police cars thrown in. Fan feedback was quick to point this out, and in response EA pulled Hardline from its October release date and delayed it until spring 2015. We can only hope that the final game comes closer to their E3 promise.
With this timeline of big-budget disappointments, it’s no wonder that 2014 was the year that smaller studios and Kickstarter successes took the spotlight. With the classic RPG renaissance gearing up with the truly brilliant Divinity, and games like Rust and DayZ offering compelling reasons to dive into the growing survival genre, the PC has offered up not just a compelling alternative to AAA this year, but a truly better one. It’s no wonder the heavyweights crumpled in 2014.