Lessons From ‘Assassin’s Creed’: Read Reviews Before Buying

Source: Ubisoft

When it comes to buying big-budget video games, here’s some tried-and-true advice: if the game is out but you can’t find any reviews, be wary — you might have a clunker on your hands.

Late reviews for big games don’t always mean the game will be bad, but they’re a strong indication the publisher doesn’t think it will receive high scores. I bring this up now because of Ubisoft’s treatment of this year’s installment in the Assassin’s Creed series.

Here’s how game reviews work. For most AAA titles, publishers send reviewers a copy of the game a week or two in advance so they have time to play it and write a review before the game is released to the public. Generally, this is on the condition of a review “embargo,” which dictates exactly when the media outlet can post its review.

Early review copies and embargoes are a mutually beneficial arrangement. For gaming websites, it allows them to post timely reviews prepared in advance without having to rush through the game to post an opinion. For game makers, the embargoes mean that their games get a bunch of coverage simultaneously, generating lots of hype and fanfare — assuming reviewers like the game.

But not all games are slam dunks. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, a game might not be very good at the time it launches. And when a game is bad, the company that makes the game knows it. They employ in-house game testers and commission “pre-reviews” from companies like EEDAR that specialize in that sort of thing. Again, if a game isn’t up to snuff before it lands on store shelves, the publisher knows it.

Source: Ubisoft

So what do they do? They have a couple of options. First, they can set the review embargo to the day the game comes out. This means poor reviews won’t affect their preorder number and will have minimal effect on the all-important first-day purchases. The other option is not to send out review copies at all, or have them arrive the day the game releases. This ensures that the reviews will be posted as late as possible, meaning most early customers won’t be exposed to potentially poor reviews.

Which brings us to how Ubisoft has handled the review copies for its two latest Assassin’s Creed games, both of which came out on November 11.

Assassin’s Creed Unity, the game that’s releasing exclusively on current-generation systems (Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC) had a review embargo set for noon Eastern Time on November 11, a full 12 hours after the game had released. That seems to signal that Ubisoft knew it might not score great in reviews, but was confident enough for the reviews to post on day one of its launch.

Based on the reviews that came out at the embargo time, that assessment seems spot on. Although most reviewers liked Assassin’s Creed Unity well enough, citing the digital recreation of Paris during the French Revolution as its high point, nearly everyone mentioned encountering technical issues like game-crashing bugs, their character falling through the environment, and severe drops in frame rate. The game currently has an average reviewer score of 76 on Metacritic — decent, but not great.

Source: Ubisoft

A number of the game’s day-one buyers have taken to YouTube to post instances of particularly low frame rates and choppiness they’ve encountered while playing. The “user score” on Metacritic is 4.1 out of 10 at the time of this writing, with 159 people chiming in. Note that these users haven’t had time to play through the entire game.

More troubling for fans of the series, however, is the case of Assassin’s Creed Rogue, the installment that’s exclusive to previous-gen systems (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC). Ubisoft decided not to send out early copies to reviewers at all. Assuming the game takes as long to play as most installments in the franchise, we won’t see full reviews posted for several days.

Again, that doesn’t mean the game will be bad, but it’s more than enough reason to hold off on buying it until reviews publish.

It bears repeating: Unless you’re absolutely sure you’ll like a game enough to warrant a $60 purchase, always wait to see what reviewers have to say before buying it. That much money can buy a lot of other things that have no chance of disappointing you.

Follow Chris on Twitter @_chrislreed

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