Ubisoft actually makes the best open world games: praise the towers

Despite their good sales, Ubisoft games are unfortunately fated with a less than optimal reputation in gaming communities.

Common criticism includes their games being shallow, padded out with filler content, always reusing the same structure from installment to installment, and generally being the opposite of an interesting, innovative immersive experience. Titles that attract these criticisms are the Ubisoft open world series; like Assassins' Creed in particular, but also Watch_Dogs and Far Cry.

One common term that is thrown around particularly often is that of the "Ubisoft tower", a recurring structure in open-world games that often resembles a tower of some sort. Usually, every in-game region has one of them in some central location; and solving a small puzzle activates them, visually "unlocking" the associated region and filling the region map with icons for all kinds of collectables and side activities.

It is often called the essence of what's supposedly wrong with their games these days: despite the different settings in which games are set, they are said to recycle the same recognizable formula over and over regardless of thematic fit. "Ubisoft towers" are said to have the additional effect of overwhelming people with map markers, making exploration feel more like a chore or a checklist than anything resembling wonder, mystery and exploration. Any time people play a new Ubisoft game, they feel like they are playing the same games over and over again simply because Ubisoft barely deviates from its formula.

Here comes the hot take: I have always felt like the Ubisoft open world games are genuinely enjoyable not despite these things, but also because of them to an extent, and moreso than other way more celebrated open world games.

I have played plenty of open world games over the years simply because they appealed to me the most as games that I can immerse myself in. The Grand Theft Auto series was one of my favorite games of all time, but practically every other spot in my hypothetical top ten list would go... well, to Ubisoft games, or games designed like Ubisoft games like Just Cause 3 or 4. Incidentally, they get a spot up there much rather than well-celebrated other open world games that I played: Fallout and Elder Scrolls; and also The Witcher 3, Kenshi or Horizon: Zero Dawn.

When playing any of the latter games, especially those heralded as true role-playing games with amazing exploration like The Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy, Xenogears, Kenshi or Fallout, I feel... unmotivated to do so. Exploration is not particularly fun there because I feel like the game is not marketing its world to me and I do not get a feel for where things are, whether I am doing the right thing or whether I am missing something important. Fully explorable fantasy worlds are a dime a dozen these days and do not hold the same fascination they used to in the 90s; and if I am looking for a particular piece of content, I might have to traverse an endless world of generic content like overworld enemy encounters just to find anything that interests me. I never know whether I "should" be here or there according to the game designers, where to find the story, and I constantly feel the fear of missing out: am I "correct" here? Should I go some other way? Am I missing a sidequest in this town? Is there a cool item that I missed out on just now? Is there a way forward? Have I encountered everything I can in this area?

Sure, some people will see this as shallow and a typical symptom of my generation; being unable to focus on a fascinating immersive world and explore at my own pace with the tools that are given to me, being unable to feel the thrill of exploring a fully simulated land; but I just see it as good time management. If I can watch any of the great TV shows or movies in this world or - behold - play an RPG with real people at a table, or a video game that has many more exciting and fascinating moments per hour, then I just choose to do these things instead to spend my time. In the 1990s, when we were alone and yearning for "real feeling" computer worlds to get thousands of hours into, this was good design. But today, endless worlds without direction are rather time consuming; plus, they are everywhere from MMOs that you cannot complete in a lifetime to decades of massive open world games you could play. When all of these options are competing against each other, I choose the one that marks what it has to offer instead.

If I solve a Ubisoft tower on the other hand, I feel accomplishment! I have unlocked an entire new region full of new content pieces I can do any time I want (and I know where they are, how many are left and where I can go back to). I feel the real progress in the world making its mark (usually because unlocking the tower also has various flavour effects like less enemies or nice NPC comments when you walk past them), and my progress through the game growing as I go. It is a nice meter to judge by how far I am in a game. And if it is a really, really satisfying feeling to clear an area of the map of its activity markers and having the peace of mind that you could not possibly have missed anything. Collectible counters are fun!

Also, I find the sense of joy much larger when stumbling on a little marker on the mini map randomly when roaming around, as compared to stumbling on an unmarked piece of content accidentally. One gives me the immediate satisfaction of having found and being able to "clear" another marker and experiencing a fun side diversion, while the other makes me wonder how much I missed instead, or whether I should do this thing at my level, or whether this is even the right place to be in in the first place. The side content gives me ways to appreciate the game world beyond the main story and typical side-quests, and what other people call "bloated filler" I call diversity of things to do when I am in the mood for a particular game world but perhaps not the game itself.

Thinking back, I really did not get far into any of the games commonly called the best of the best, like Fallout, Elder Scrolls or The Witcher. Fallout 4 I'd give up very early on because I felt like I had no real idea where to go, which area of the map was safe or the one I was "supposed" to be at, which side quests were fluff and which ones were larger plotlines, where side content was and how much I should engage with it. In Elder Scrolls, I felt a lack of direction too; but ironically, the existance of map markers in Skyrim actually made me explore more than the completely open world of Oblivion, which just made me give up very, very early. In contrast, Just Cause 3 was the first game I played through to 100%, especially because it gave me clear progression markers and regional map marker collections that made it easy to divide the rest of the game into chunks and choose the content I was in the mood for at any particular moment. Watch Dogs: same thing. I even played it through with my dad watching the entire thing!

Either way, I believe that both playstyles are clearly valid. I envy people who still can be fascinated by a large, open unmarked world full of wonder; but I personally can't, and I instead appreciate having side content clearly marked on the map and the feeling of "clearing out an area" always on my mind. It motivates me to keep going because it is a very very clear goal to work towards; as opposed to games like Oblivion, which spawn you into the world after the intro off to do "anything you want", which is supposed to be exciting but in practice for me means "trying to figure out where the actual fun content is" and forcing me to openly engage with a world that I have not been incentivized to give a single darn about yet.

The existance of an open world itself does not make me excited to explore or "clear" it anymore, and that is why I prefer Ubisoft-styled games that contain plenty of side activities and clearly marked objectives and collectibles over others in the same genre.