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  • A Look Back at Ubisoft’s Support for the PlayStation Vita

    November 6th, 2017GamespotUncategorized

    This is the third entry in a series of articles looking at the output of a number of Vita-supporting companies, from launch through to the present day. I’ll be examining the games they released, how well they sold (if there's sufficient data), how well they ran in the case of ports, and will take a brief look at games which perhaps should have come to the console, either in the west or in general.

    All of my previous articles have been centered around Japanese publishers (Bandai-NamcoKoei-Tecmo, and Square-Enix, respectively), due to the fact that they've offered much more support than western publishers. Among the western publishers who did show up there have been varying levels of lesser support and leading the group in my mind is Ubisoft, which at least provided a spree of decently-budgeted games early in the Vita's life, even if this evaporated fairly quickly as time went on.


    Launch & 2012 - Full Force

    Unlike the Japanese publishers I've examined in this article series, Ubisoft managed to have a much better launch showing on Vita, mixing ports, existing IPs, and new games.

    Perhaps the most noteworthy of Ubisoft's launch games was a brand-new entry in its quirky puzzle-rhythm mash-up series Lumines, entitled Electronic Symphony. Just as the company had graced the launch of PSP with the franchise, Ubisoft also managed to show up for the Vita's first day on the market with what many reviewers described as the handheld's first "must have" title. It was easy to see why - it looked gorgeous on the shiny new OLED screen and masterfully updated Tetris' formula to create an addictive new puzzler. Official sales numbers are unavailable for the game (VGChartz suggests around 230k), but it's likely it benefited greatly from being a standout launch title.

    Speaking of standouts for the console's launch, a port of the November 2011-released Rayman Origins, Ubisoft's seminal 2D platformer, also received rave reviews. The Vita version was an incredibly solid effort, translating the beautiful design to the console's gorgeous OLED screen with ease, alongside maintaining the solid 60fps gameplay. Sadly, local co-op multiplayer was cut from the release, but a ghost mode that allowed you to challenge your friends' runs was put in its place. While sales numbers are scarce for the port, VGChartz estimates it broke the 500k barrier, and it's worth noting that the title as a whole made a profit for Ubisoft.

    In a more surprising move, Ubisoft also partnered with mobile developer Gameloft to bring two of its most popular franchises - Asphalt and Dungeon Hunter - to the Vita at launch. The latter, a Diablo clone with the title Dungeon Hunter Alliance, which had previously been available on PS3, was sloppily ported over, with plenty of slowdown happening when there was a lot of action on screen. However, it still fills a niche that has remained relatively un-tapped on the console (that of the isometric dungeon-crawler). The former, a Burnout clone entitled Asphalt Injection, was heavily translated from a previous iOS release, yet it was somewhat remarkable for being the only racing game on the handheld to target 60fps (although it often failed to meet this). Aside from that fact, it had a full showing of cars and tracks, providing a solid alternative to the stripped-down Ridge Racer that was available at launch. Consumers nonetheless considered the product overpriced, given the much lower entry point for its mobile counterpart.

    Sadly, these would be the only Gameloft titles that Ubisoft would bring to the console; the publisher's Vita partnership with Gameloft appeared to dissolve soon after. To complete its launch lineup, Ubisoft also released a late port of the music-rhythm game Michael Jackson: The Experience, one of the few examples of a game that had also been available on PSP also being brought to Sony's new handheld. Featuring vastly improved graphics and presentation over the last-gen version (or even the counterpart 3DS version), the title was an impressive outing on Vita, even if it was a game that didn't interest much of the userbase.

    Following this launch blitz, however, Ubisoft went oddly quiet. There was one major title in development that we'd known about for quite some time - a new Assassin's Creed game - but other than that Ubisoft revealed no plans regarding future Vita support. This title eventually appeared in October 2012, as Liberation, and was an interesting proposition for handheld gamers. Clearly a high-budget effort that managed to achieve the "console quality on the go" mantra, the title still struggled with performance and cut-down features compared to the console versions. Despite this, the game sold well at 600k units by February 2013, putting it in the upper tier of Vita sales. It would eventually go on to clear more than 1m copies sold according to VGChartz.

    Overall, then, launch and 2012 was a solid if unsurprising year for Ubisoft on Vita. Considering the publisher had been one of PSP's biggest supporters among all western publishers, it was expected that Ubisoft would show up in full force for Sony's new handheld. However, cracks were already beginning to show, with notably reduced output in the latter half of the year and a lack of known upcoming titles for 2013.


    2013 - A 'Ray' of Missed Opportunities

    Ubisoft had a much quieter year on Vita in 2013 compared to 2012, with just one title released, and although it was a fantastic release, it was a shame to see support evaporate so rapidly. Perhaps sales of the company's launch games simply hadn't been sufficient, but it was more likely a sign of the shift in the times, as smaller-scale spin-offs of key franchises became less viable.

    Ubisoft's release for the year was Rayman Legends, the follow up to 2011's Rayman Origins. It was delayed from being an exclusive Wii-U title in February to a multi-platform title in August 2013. The Vita port was itself delayed slightly until September and frustratingly had a number of missing 'invasion mode' levels compared to the other versions, but these were eventually patched in to the game in November. Despite those minor hick-ups this was another triumph of a game for Ubisoft on the handheld and received rave reviews.

    Otherwise, Ubisoft remained notably quiet, with no commitment to future Vita games and no other releases scheduled for the year. For me, what stood out about this was the great deal of missed opportunities to bring their older games to the handheld - particularly in the form of HD Collections. Due to the PS3's lack of backwards compatibility, Sony had started an initiative of porting PS2-era titles to the PS3 via 'HD Collections', starting with the God of War Collection. 

    Ubisoft jumped aboard this bandwagon with Prince of Persia Trilogy in 2010, followed by Splinter Cell Trilogy in 2011, and Rayman 3 in 2012. Despite companies like Konami proving that the Vita was a viable market for these types of games to be re-sold on Vita yet again when it released the Metal Gear Solid Collection in 2012, Ubisoft did not follow suit, and its HD ports remained PS3-only - a very disappointing decision.

    Perhaps even more surprising was a retailer listing which never materialized. In the middle of 2012, UK retailer GAME listed Ghost Recon: Final Mission for Vita. It was presumably being developed by Ubisoft Sofia, which had handled 2011's Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars and 2012's Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation. Nothing ever came of this, however, suggesting the game was quietly cancelled despite the fact that it would likely have been a boon to Vita - especially if it had made the most of the first ever dual-analogue handheld for precise third-person-shooter controls.

    As such, 2013 remained a disappointing year for Ubisoft on Vita. Despite an (eventually) great port of Rayman Legends, Ubisoft's support was simply not there and there were a lot of opportunities for games which made sense to come to Vita that were never taken. This wasn't a situation that would improve in future years, either, as Ubisoft slowly wound down its support for the handheld.


    2014 - A 'Light' of Hope?

    As with 2013, 2014 was highlighted by a sole game from Ubisoft - a undoubtedly great game at that, but still only a single release. The frustrating part was that it was built on Rayman Origins' engine, yet other titles which used this did not make the jump across.

    This sole game was Child of Light, a beautiful hand-drawn 2D JRPG that mixed intriguing narrative, beautiful music, and compelling gameplay into an all-round great package. Aside from being a great port, it was notable that Vita was one of the only platforms that received a physical release, marking an odd vote of confidence in the platform from Ubisoft. Thankfully, it sold well enough to turn a profit, suggesting that sales on Vita (combined with other platforms) were solid.

    Despite this, other viable games did not manage to find their way to the handheld. Chief among these was Valiant Hearts: The Great War, a game which runs on the UbiArt Framework, the same engine used to power Child of LightRayman Origins, and Rayman Legends. This would've been an easy port to the Vita which never happened for unknown reasons, particularly as the company still seemed to have some love for Sony's console, and it was a title that plenty of fans were holding out for.

    Other Ubisoft games from 2014 also skipped Vita, although whether all of these would've been technically viable is another question. Assassin's Creed Rogue is the big one, the PS360 sequel to Black Flag, which pushed the limits of what the 7th gen home consoles were capable of, yet was still a 7th gen game at its core. Also missing from the handheld was Trials Fusion, the physics-based racing/platform series, which made its debut franchise appearance on PlayStation hardware with a PS4 version. It would have fit in nicely on Vita with other similar releases like Urban Trials Freestyle.

    So 2014 remained a year where Ubisoft did show up on Vita, but only in a very diminished capacity. It's a shame to look back and see so many missed opportunities for larger titles on the handheld, but it was clear by this point that Ubisoft simply did not see the Vita as any kind of core element in its business strategy going forward, despite the relatively decent press the console received thanks to the launch of the Vita Slim and PSTV throughout 2014.


    2015 - A Very Slow Year

    For the third year in a row, Ubisoft's support in 2015 consisted of only one game - a delayed game at that, being a port of Tetris Ultimate that also released on other platforms during 2014.

    There wasn't anything fundamentally wrong with the game and it provided a decent take on the classic puzzler gameplay, but given Ubisoft had made much more effort with its earlier release Lumines Electronic Symphony on Vita, it came across as a little disappointing. Being a fairly low-budget game in general, it highlighted yet again that despite the company coming out strong for handheld in its initial year, Ubisoft really didn't have many plans for the console following this, despite relatively strong sales for games like Assassin's Creed III: Liberation.

    As usual, there were plenty of missed opportunities to support Vita in 2015 too. The mobile release Assassin's Creed Identity, developed in the Vita-friendly engine Unity, seemed like a shoe-in to do well on the handheld but it never appeared and remained iOS/Android only. This seemed like a strange decision as the title was clearly designed to be played in bite-sized chunks on portable platforms and would have been a fairly simple porting job.

    Similarly, Ubisoft Reflections' experimental 3D platformer Grow Home - also developed in the Unity engine - managed to skip Vita entirely despite being the kind of artsy, low-budget effort that had seemed to thrive on the handheld just a year earlier in Child of Light.

    With Vita's hardware sales rapidly diminishing in the west, it was becoming more understandable why larger western publishers were continuing to ignore the handheld, but that didn't stop it from being incredibly disappointing to see great-looking titles that would be more than capable of running on the hardware skipping the platform entirely.


    2016 - One Last Hurrah

    Ubisoft had slipped into a comfortable trend on Vita by 2016, releasing one sole game on the handheld each year. Nonetheless 2016's release was a surprising announcement that definitely caught me off guard; a game in a franchise that I never thought would actually return to the handheld.

    That franchise was Assassin's Creed and the game itself was Chronicles, a compilation of three side-scrolling spin-offs to the main series. Developed in Unreal Engine, which was notably difficult to get running on Vita, the port was handled by Climax Studios, who had previously developed Smart As for the handheld as well as ported Dead Nation and Resogun across (you can read about their efforts in my article about porting studios). Their experience with the console probably had a hand in the title coming across (I suspect they have some Vita fans among the team too), but it was ultimately Ubisoft that gave the green light for the game to be released on Vita. More than this, it received a physical release in both North America and Europe too, a rarity from a western publisher in 2016.

    In spite of this good news, games like Grow Up (the sequel to Grow Home) skipped over Vita, despite being a decent fit for the handheld. At this point, it was far from surprising though - it was safer to assume that no games were coming, despite shock announcements like Assassin's Creed Chronicles being made.


    2017 - The End

    Unlike other articles in this series where I've at least managed to name a title per publisher that was coming to the Vita in 2017 (and in some cases 2018!), Ubisoft have nothing. More than that - nothing the company has announced really makes sense to release on Vita either, with bigger games like Ghost Recon Wildlands and Assassin's Creed Origins being far too powerful to run on Sony's handheld.

    What's worth noting is that the company's mantra seems to be shifting going forwards - rather than the bespoke, unique titles it relied on in the past, Ubisoft increasingly seems to be shifting towards 'games as a service' - that is, one release with a heavy focus on online play that is constantly updated with new content going forwards. This approach doesn't particularly lend itself well to handheld games, and makes me wonder what its future with the Switch will be too (perhaps more collaborative efforts, such as the well-received Mario & Rabbids?).



    In my opinion, Ubisoft was one of the most under-rated supporters of the PSP, bringing a great spread of titles ranging from unique spin-offs of console franchises like Assassin's Creed Bloodlines or Driver 76 to bespoke experiences like Lumines or Ghost Recon Predator. In the first year of the Vita's life, the company continued this mantra with almost-there spin-offs like Assassin's Creed III: Liberation and unique new titles like Lumines Electronic Symphony.

    Following this, from 2013 onwards, all of that stopped. Suddenly, the Vita simply became a downport machine for very specific titles and all of the early promise that had been showed was gone. I have to commend Ubisoft for being one of the few western third parties to still release Vita games in 2016 - Assassin's Creed Chronicles was a big surprise and a great release - but it's a shame that so many other games which would've made perfect sense on the handheld during this period didn't make the leap across.

    What ultimately scared Ubisoft off is anyone's guess, but Sony's rapid withdrawal from Vita development, alongside dwindling hardware sales, likely didn't help. As such games like Ghost Recon: Final Mission remain nothing but a retailer listing; a cruel reminder of a future that almost happened, but didn't quite. Still, I'm content enough playing great ports like Rayman on my Vita - that alone almost makes up for everything else!

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