TIME

Here’s What’s Coming in PlayStation 4 System Software Version 2.0

Sony

Sony lays out a slew of new features in its upcoming overhaul of the PlayStation 4's dashboard.

Companies usually save their big guns for major number turnovers, because that’s what we’ve come to expect after a lot of this-point-that integer creep (unless you’re Apple, anyway, at which point you shift from subsets of the number 10 to big cats to surfer hangouts to national parks).

Sony has a name for its upcoming major PlayStation 4 operating system overhaul. It’s called “Masamune,” after a widely acclaimed Japanese late 13th/early 14th century swordsmith. And yes, that is a little audacious, but then the update sounds fairly ambitious.

Version 2.0 will bring Themes, a dedicated YouTube app and something Sony calls “Share Play”: a way to play local co-op with friends on other systems, which sounds just like ordinary co-op, and is, except that you need only a single copy of the game between the two of you. The idea seems less about saving people money than creating quick-help scenarios, say you’re stuck and need a hand, or want someone to actually take over your controller and drive. Call it “Help Play.”

But we’ve known about that stuff since August. Yesterday, Sony announced a bunch of additional features, one of which involves rejiggering the way your console handles content in the menu, another that shows you “players you may know,” the option to listen to your music while playing a game (off a USB device, with support for MP3, MP4, M4A and 3GP formats), new voice commands, some new live broadcasting channels and filters, and the option to change the dash’s background color (weirdly absent at launch, so more of a catching-up thing ).

Of them all, I’m most intrigued by the content area change. Here’s Sony’s bulleted breakout:

PS4’s Content Area, which shows the latest games and apps a PS4 owner has used, has been redesigned to help make it easier to quickly find and access content. It now shows 15 of a player’s most used apps or games, and additional items will be added to a player’s Library. The Library on PS4 has improved filter and sort functions to help organize contented by type (game / app / TV & video), name (a – z or z – a), recently used, or install date.

That’s the one I’m most excited about, if I’m parsing what Sony’s saying correctly and it’s going to shorten the left-right scroll sprawl. I don’t mind the way content stacks now in one super-long line that grows with each new game you play, but I’d say I’ve visited the tail end of that line maybe a handful of times since the system launched. Not seeing stuff you’re not sure you need, or only rarely use, is roughly analogous to it not being there.

We’re still in the dark on Masamune’s release date, but it’s supposed to drop “later this fall,” technically giving Sony until December 21.

TIME Video Games

8 Takeaways From the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One September Sales

Some of the more interesting points plucked from NPD's September video game sales figures.

Continuing a long upward-downward trend that’s defined much of 2014, combined sales of video game hardware like the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were up significantly year-on-year for September, while physical software sales were down, reports NPD.

Let’s step through the pullouts.

The Xbox One didn’t outsell the PlayStation 4 after all

Did anyone think it would? They did: Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter predicted earlier this week that the Xbox One would outsell the PlayStation 4 in September.

“We expect Xbox One sales to exceed those of the PS4 for only the second month since launch,” Pachter said, according to VentureBeat.

And yet Sony claims the PS4 “won the month of September, nearly tripling August sales” (it credits the limited-edition white Destiny PS4 bundle as a major factor).

Remember that we don’t know by how much the PS4 outsold the Xbox One (perhaps it was photo finish), and to be fair, analyst predictions are never guarantees.

New physical software sales are plummeting…

New physical software sales took another dive in September, dropping 36%, says NPD.

Save for May, which was basically “Mario Kart 8 month,” new physical software sales have been slightly to dramatically down every month through September. Bear in mind that NPD’s figures don’t take into account used retail game sales or digital software sales, and focus strictly on classic video game demographics (that is, not smartphones, tablets, other mobile devices or microconsoles and so forth).

…but new hardware sales have skyrocketed

Hardware sales were up 136% for September, year-on-year, says NPD. The lowest year-on-year month for hardware was January, just 17%, which makes sense because January 2013 was a five-week reporting period (whereas this year was just four), plus January’s the sales hangover after the holiday splurge.

Generally speaking, year-on-year hardware sales percent increases have been in the high double and occasionally low triple figures. Considered against the declining new physical software figure, and given that you can buy just about anything on the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One digitally, well, let’s hope someone reputable’s conducting insightful surveys, so we can get a better sense for what the correlations are, and whether software sales are in fact up.

Destiny broke at least one record

Destiny was the top-selling video game for September, whether considered as a standalone SKU or against other multi-SKU competitors. NPD calls it “the most successful launch of the year so far,” then adds that “an even more prestigious feat was the fact that Destiny had the best launch month of all-time for any new IP in video game software.”

Traditional sports games ruled the roost

While Destiny took the top sales slot, Madden NFL 15, FIFA 15 and NHL 15 (all thee with cross-generation versions) each placed in the top 10. On current-gen consoles, Sony says those three game sold the most on the PS4.

Super Smash Bros. can still do big business for Nintendo

September was all about the 3DS, from Nintendo’s vantage anyway. Even if the game was only available for the last two days of the month, Super Smash Bros. for 3DS easily placed in the top 10, competing with multi-platform SKUs to snatch the fourth slot, beating Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, NHL 15, Minecraft, The Sims 4, Disney Infinity 2.0 and Diablo III.

Nintendo’s pocket-brawler sold 705,000 units in all, with over 135,000 of those as digital downloads. The game bolstered 3DS sales, too, helping Nintendo to 140,000 units, a 55% increase over August sales.

Where’s the Wii U in all of this?

Up 50% in unit sales over August, says Nintendo, helped along by sales of it Zelda brawler Hyrule Warriors (190,000 units), and sustained sales of racer Mario Kart 8 (60,000 units, for a lifetime total of nearly 1.2 million units).

Pay no attention to the noise

Sony’s September sales breakdown has a bunch of stuff in it that you might call “infometrics,” not to be confused with the science of informetrics (note the “r”). Infometrics is a buzzword I used to hear a decade or so ago from “data intelligence” companies trying to up-sell their analysis services. It’s basically a fancy neologistic way of saying “look, some numbers!”

So we have Sony’s claim, for instance, about “social sharing” amounting to 450,000 hours of live gameplay. Trouble is, we have no idea what that number actually means or what to stack it against in the press release. It sounds impressive–nearly half a million hours of stream sharing!–but consider that game streamer Twitch alone does something like 15 billion minutes a month, or 250 million hours, total.

On the other hand, this is interesting and tangible: Sony says Destiny is the most-played PS4 game, with “total gameplay hours” five times higher than the next-most-played game.

TIME Video Games

Fixing What’s Wrong With Gamergate Starts With You

Whatever you think about games, game journalism or recent critiques of the way video games treat women, you have an obligation to be respectful in debates, and it's a shame we still have to say that.

This is how far we have to go: the Entertainment Software Association, a U.S. video game trade association and sometime D.C. lobbyist group, is now having to remind us that threatening to do violent harm to someone is the opposite of okay.

“Threats of violence and harassment are wrong,” an ESA spokesperson told the Washington Post Wednesday. “They have to stop. There is no place in the video game community—or our society—for personal attacks and threats.”

Read those words again, slowly, because they are a measure of the distance that remains between right here and now, and the point at which our species practices general civility in all its forms of communication, where human beings can depend on each other not to be cruel, condescending, vicious and in some instances even homicidally hostile over cultural disagreements. It should be as shocking as some of these threats that in 2014, someone has to utter the words “harassment is wrong.”

And yet at least three women who work in the games industry have had to temporarily leave their homes after being threatened with horrific acts of violence, simply because they said something someone else found disagreeable. Critic Anita Sarkeesian, known for her video series deconstructing female tropes in video games, just canceled her appearance at Utah State University after someone threatened “the deadliest shooting in American history” if she was allowed to speak. (The university deemed the presentation safe to proceed after consulting with local law enforcement, but can you blame anyone so threatened?)

The locus of all this animus in recent months is a so-called movement known as “Gamergate,” another neologistic slogan born of the infamous 1970s political scandal whose tendrils have circumnavigated space-time to motivate people to lazily append and then rally behind an egress descriptor glommed onto a vague reference label. Like the Tea Party, Gamergate may have been forged with something like an original central purpose: in its case, ostensibly reforming perceived corruption in “games journalism.” But as some of its supporters began violently threatening women who wrote about the topic, it quickly snowballed into something far messier and treacherous, a perplexing mass of conflicting idea-vectors, vitriol-filled social media assaults and online forum-filled cascades of general thuggery.

In a recent Salon article celebrating Richard Dawkins’ slight backpedaling on religion, the site references an interview with the evolutionary biologist, in which Dawkins says “There is a kind of pseudo-tribalism which uses religion as a label.” He’s talking about The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), reacting to a question about what could motivate a group to acts of utter barbarism like the beheadings for which ISIS is now infamous.

“Pseudo-tribalism” summarizes nicely. Swap “religion” for “Gamergate,” specifically for those using the term to denigrate and terrorize women, and you have the analogue. That well-meaning proponents of Gamergate have utterly failed to wrangle the slogan back from these bomb-throwers means it’s time to abandon it, to find a better way to prosecute concerns about journalistic corruption, and to wade civilly into the intellectual debate about female tropes in games.

Whatever you think of Sarkeesian’s thoughts on games and those tropes—and it should go without saying that there is room for civil debate about any critic’s thoughts on anything—there’s no room in such a debate for harassment, libel, slander, rape threats, death threats, posting intimate photos of someone without consent, outing their geographic location to intimidate them and so forth. Harassment is not debate. Harassment ends debates. It’s antithetical to dialogue, and, assuming you’re not so aberrant or sociopathic that you can’t tell the difference, isn’t meaningful dialogue what you’re after?

This is how you change the debate, and it has to happen before dialogue starts, before you even get to the level of worrying about semantic contentiousness over whether the label “gamer” is forever or forever stultified. In logic debates, there’s a thing known as the ad hominem fallacy. Ad hominem is Latin for “to the person.” It means to attack someone personally–and irrelevantly–instead of debating the actual idea or claim or argument. The litmus test is this: after you’ve typed out your comment or message board post or social media screed, does it violate this fallacy? If so, that’s what the delete button’s for.

If you don’t care about respecting someone else’s right to disagree with you, if all you want is to cause harm for some twisted sense of catharsis, what can I say but that you’re doing something that’s the opposite of noble, the opposite of productive, the opposite of moving the ball down the field in whatever direction you think is important–and when you escalate harassment to the level of violence, it’s the very definition of psychopathic.

What I find most depressing about any of this isn’t the state of journalism (it’s hardly just “games journalism,” folks) or what men think about women and women about men. It’s that as human beings in 2014, we still think it’s okay to pick up a keyboard or tablet or phone, venture to someone else’s online space, pull out our weaponized words, and open fire.

TIME Video Games

World of Warcraft Enjoys Over Half a Million Subscriber Bounce

Blizzard's indefatigable fantasy MMO picks up players as both its 10th anniversary and next expansion loom.

World of Warcraft‘s next expansion, Warlords of Draenor, trundles onstage November 13. And so Blizzard’s tireless fantasy MMO, slow-bleeding subscriptions for years, is experiencing a kind of bounce — to the tune of about 600,000 subscriptions. The new worldwide subscriber tally: in the vicinity of 7.4 million.

Blizzard hasn’t announced or confirmed the 600,000 figure; it’s the implicit takeaway subtracting one press release from another.

In early August, Activision Blizzard revealed World of Warcraft‘s subscription base had fallen to 6.8 million, down 800,000 from the prior quarter, when it stood at 7.6 million. The last time the game’s base was that low, the housing bubble hadn’t popped, The Sopranos was still on the air and the Governator was only midway through his California reign.

Yesterday, Blizzard slipped the 7.4 million figure into a press release about a Warlords of Draenor prelaunch patch. That number is current as of September 30, 2014.

At its height, World of Warcraft commanded 12 million subscribers. That was October 2010. Someone’s been plotting all these press release points on a Statista chart if you want to see the broad sweeps. The actual chart probably looks more like one of those chaotically scribbled volume-trading maps, with subscriber activity trending gradually down, marked by periods of noisy, frenetic re-acclimation.

A subscription surge was inevitable. It’s happened every time the company releases an expansion. Warlords of Draenor, which follows Mists of Pandaria‘s release two years ago, is Blizzard’s fifth expansion for the game. Its raises the level cap from 90 to 100, shines up the graphics, plugs in the customary new dungeons and raids, and for its new feature trick, gloms on user-created garrisons whereby players can recruit in-game characters to automate loot-gathering busywork.

World of Warcraft celebrates its 10th anniversary on November 23 (brace for the glut of press paeans). It’s one of the longest-running MMOs of all time, and it’s the most broadly played subscription-based MMO by any measure. Plenty of MMOs have lived longer–I believe Furcadia, which launched in 1996, currently holds the record–but the nearest rivals (like EVE Online, which launched in 2003) have only fractional populations.

TIME Video Games

Don’t Blink: Assassin’s Creed Rogue Is Coming for PC

Ubisoft confirms its ice-pirate tale of an arctic Assassin gone rogue is coming to Windows PCs early next year.

The best place to play the Assassin’s Creed series remains a Windows PC, if you don’t mind waiting.

This isn’t a subjective thing: If you want the games to run at your monitor’s native resolution, for the older ones to look as good as they’re ever going to, and now to play the highest-fidelity version of Ubisoft’s upcoming ice-thronged conclusion to the Kenway saga, you’ll want a box that runs Windows. The catch: you have to wait for that last perk until next year.

Ubisoft just confirmed Assassin’s Creed Rogue will hit PC in “early 2015.” It did so in a slightly sneaky way, too: at the close of a brand new story trailer.

Assassin’s Creed Rogue lets you play as Shay Patrick Cormac, an Assassin who’s thrown in with the rival Templar faction. You’ll spend much of your time skippering arctic waters in a ship capable of river travel and parkouring across frozen ice-scapes, which is another way of saying “Assassin’s Creed IV with snow.”

The no-longer-exclusive PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game arrive on November 11 this year, the same day Ubisoft’s franchise rethink Assassin’s Creed Unity arrives for PlayStation 4, Windows and Xbox One. But where the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions top out at 720p (1280 by 720), the Windows PC versions of these games have included subtle visual enhancements, and best of all, they run at whatever resolution your system’s capable of.

TIME Video Games

Is This Video Game Collection Worth $164,000?

Forget all that mad money, where the heck do you stash over 5,700 video games?

How do you value over 5,700 video games, more than 50 game systems, complete Nintendo and Sega game sets, and the ever-indefinite extension in such taglines “more”?

I have no idea. I collect rare books and I still haven’t the faintest. But someone has to try, and this Wyoming-based eBay seller’s come up with a round number for his apparently vast and immaculately groomed lot: $164,000.

$164,000 sounds like a figure arrived at carefully. Not $150,000, not $160,000, but $164,000. That has to be the result of an additive calculation, an item-by-item tabulation, not some ballpark figure plucked from the ether in multiples of ten- or fifty-thousand bucks.

More than 4,000 of the games are Nintendo-related, says seller reel.big.fish, with the majority from the 1980s and 1990s (he calls this period “the golden age” of gaming, which, just forget all the problems with such nostalgic labels, identifies the demographic the eBay sale’s targeting). The collection includes “multiple complete sets from Nintendo and Sega,” and “arguably” every retail game Nintendo put out from 1985 to 2000 (in the video below, the seller notes he’s only missing Stadium Events, though he has a reproduction cart). Other systems represented in the software mix include Atari, PlayStation, Sega, TurboGrafx and Xbox.

Want every Nintendo 64 console color variant? Custom hand-built and painted shelves (yes, shelves)? Complete-in-box Mario and Zelda sets? Eighty-one variant carts sorted by the number of screws (I had no idea this was a thing)? All 14 Virtual Boy games plus a 15th “bonus import”? Rare development carts? Dust covers for every single NES game? (I don’t, but maybe you do, and the sale currently has over 3,700 watchers, over 950 views per hour and over 50 inquiries so far.)

If you want to see the complete list, the seller’s put up a Google Doc spreadsheet with everything here (warning: it’s godawful slow to scroll, at least on a 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro). The seller says there’s no breaking this thing up, though I’d wager a gazillion people are going to ask for the privilege anyway. And note that $164,000 is just the asking price: he’s taking offers.

And if you want a tour of this fellow’s video game room–over 11 minutes of wall-to-wall game rubbernecking!–your wish is granted.

TIME Video Games

Want to Visit a Slice of Destiny DLC Bungie Hasn’t Unlocked Yet?

A YouTube Destiny player illustrates how to triple-jump your way to an unfinished area and a marginally higher score.

This is what happens when boredom ensues in Destiny: you spy a tantalizing column of light, notice the architectural lattice surrounding it, nose around the framework until you discover a way to leap into that column of light, and presto: Scotty’s beaming you up.

YouTuber Nowise10 just released a video that details how, in Bungie’s sci-fi multiplayer shooter, he (I’m assuming “he” because of the YouTube avatar) was able to force his way into an area called “The Terminus” while exploring Venus. It’s part of an upcoming 2015 DLC release titled “The House of Wolves” that we’ve known about since well before launch (it’s the second of two expansion packs—the first is called “The Dark Below”).

But specifics, like the name “The Terminus” itself, were unearthed more recently when players discovered a glitch in the game that revealed information about the upcoming DLC packs. Bungie acknowledged the glitch in a note explaining, no surprise, that the content packs were unfinished, and that the details might or might not change.

Nowise10’s discovery looks extra-impressive because of how improbable it is. For starters you need to be able to triple-jump and balance like a funambulist. And then you have to be bored enough to wonder whether it’s possible to find your way into an unreachable column of light (that just so happens to really be a gravity lift). And then you have to be patient enough to string guesswork trajectories together, and dexterous enough to land on (without slipping off) all the slender alien trelliswork.

But maybe I’m overstating the difficulty. Watch the video and you’ll see Nowise10 almost casually navigate the precarious route without slips, tumbles or do-overs.

The reward if you make it? A vacant new area with, according to Nowise10, three dead ghosts. Finding ghosts in Destiny is a side-game where you recover little polyhedral robot-things, and those things unlock an achievement and bolster your grimoire card score. There’s thus a score-related incentive for players to pay a visit to The Terminus, which I’d assume means Bungie’s going to have to update the game to remove your ability to do this in short order.

TIME Video Games

Super Smash Bros. Wii U and Amiibo Are Going to Make 2014 After All

Nintendo

Super Smash Bros. Wii U arrives on November 21, along with Nintendo's first 12 amiibo toy-game figures.

Was that ever in doubt? It was. I’ve heard more than one forum-goer, podcaster and Nintendophile fret about possible Super Smash Bros. Wii U slippage into 2015 in the wake of E3, where the company’s gaze was fixedly on the 3DS version.

But no, Super Smash Bros. Wii U is coming this year, and you can throw down with the likes of new characters from the Mario series, Punch-Out!!, Pokémon X and Y, Xenoblade Chronicles and more on November 21.

That’s just a few days after the season’s final heavy-hitters make their showings (Dragon Age Inquisition, Far Cry 4, LittleBigPlanet 3 and Grand Theft Auto V are due on November 18). It’s also the final Friday and weekend before everyone hops into planes, trains and automobiles for destination Thanksgiving-ville (and, more crucially for both sales and retailer stocking reasons, it’s a full week prior to Black Friday).

Nintendo’s also revealed that November 21 will be the day it simultaneously rolls out its preliminary amiibo lineup. Amiibo is Nintendo’s characteristically quirky-sounding vamp on the vaunted toy-game. Like Skylanders and Disney Infinity, players buy clusters of figurines (in this case, Nintendo-specific) which are then capable of wirelessly interacting with Nintendo’s 3DS and Wii U, as well as–and here’s one of amiibo’s unique selling points–swapping data between the two platforms.

To make a data transfer happen, you just tap the figures on the Wii U GamePad, and Nintendo says several of the figures work across multiple games. Upcoming games that support amiibo at launch will include Super Smash Bros. Wii U, Mario Party 10 and Yoshi’s Woolly World, as well as Mario Kart 8, but Nintendo’s not saying when the latter will happen, and notes the game “may” require a software update to make it amiibo compatible (why “may” and not “will” is anyone’s guess).

In the initial November amiibo wave, Nintendo’s rolling out Mario, Peach, Yoshi, Donkey Kong, Link, Fox, Samus, Wii Fit Trainer, Villager, Pikachu, Kirby and Marth (that’s 12 in all). It’ll follow with a second wave in December that’ll include Zelda, Diddy Kong, Luigi, Little Mac, Pit and Captain Falcon (six in all, or 18 all told by 2014’s close).

Checking up on sales of the 3DS version of Super Smash Bros., Nintendo says the beat-em-up’s done quite well, sales-wise, turning out more than 2.8 million copies sold worldwide, counting both retail and digital versions (it launched on October 3 here, and on September 13 in Japan). In fact, Nintendo isn’t doing half bad this year in first party sales, considering the Wii U’s chicken-egg install base problem. Mario Kart 8, its Wii U-buoying force of gonzo-racing nature went on to sell in the vicinity of three million copies after its arrival last May.

Nintendo says Super Smash Bros. Wii U‘s suggested retail price will be $59.99, while its amiibo figures will sell for $12.99 a piece. Nintendo’s special Wii U adapter that’ll let Smash fans use up to four original GameCube or WaveBird controllers with the game will sell for $19.99. If you don’t have a GameCube controller, you can pick up Nintendo’s special (and I assume limited time offer) Super Smash Bros. Wii U one for $29.99. Of if you just want to grab everything in one package (game, controller, adapter) Nintendo’s selling a bundle for $99.99. All three of those SKUs will be available when Super Smash Bros. Wii U launches on November 21.

Last but not least, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Nintendo’s Mario-series-spawned puzzle game starring a character that looks like a mushroom (but isn’t), will launch on December 5 for $39.99. Nintendo says the game will support amiibo figures as well, but sometime in 2015.

That’s Nintendo’s holiday in a nutshell. It’s also IP proving grounds time. With Disney’s and Activision’s respective toy-game updates just out, will Nintendo’s amiibo resonate? Will kids clamor as much for Mario, Peach, Donkey Kong and Zelda as I’m assuming they’ve been for Disney’s formidable stable of Marvel superheroes, or Activision’s reinvigorated originals by studio Toys for Bob?

Nintendo’s strategy, I’m assuming, involves Smash-bashing its way through the holidays, clinching a noteworthy chunk of family gaming sales, then emerging in 2015 with brag-worthy handheld and set-top sales figures. Trouble is, no one knows what’s coming in 2015 or when. Star Fox? Splatoon? Zelda? Xenoblade Chronicles X? Mario Marker? Yoshi’s Wooly World? We’ll see.

But Nintendo’s been lurching from first-party blockbuster to first-party blockbuster. That may be enough to tread water, and at least the company’s finally delivering on its first party promises. But since games take at least a year if not two to develop top to bottom, and given how much more technically advanced (read: not possible on the Wii U) today’s multiplatform superstar games are, it’s hard to imagine third parties falling off their horses in January 2015 and crossing their fingers the Wii U’s going to be able to keep pace with (much less supersede) its rivals through 2016.

TIME Video Games

Assassin’s Creed Unity Will Only Run at 1080p on PCs

Both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions of the game are locked at 900p and 30 frames per second.

Ubisoft’s upcoming Assassin’s Creed Unity, a sneaking game about two secret societies warring during the French Revolution, will only be capable of 1080p display resolution if you’re rocking a Windows PC.

The 1920-by-1080 club’s doors are officially closed to game consoles, says Ubisoft. What’s more, both consoles will top out at 30 frames per second (enthusiasts tend to prefer games that run at 60).

Speaking with VideoGamer.com, Unity senior producer Vincent Pontbriand said the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One CPUs weren’t up to the job of juggling the game’s massive crowds.

“Technically we’re CPU-bound,” he said. “The GPUs are really powerful, obviously the graphics look pretty good, but it’s the CPU [that] has to process the AI, the number of NPCs we have on screen, all these systems running in parallel.”

Ubisoft

Pontbriand says Ubisoft Montreal’s design team, which had been hoping for a “tenfold improvement” in A.I. performance from the new consoles, was surprised and frustrated by the bottleneck. “It’s not the number of polygons that affect the framerate,” he said. “We could be running at 100fps if it was just graphics, but because of AI, we’re still limited to 30 frames per second.”

Frame rates aside, the pixel difference between 900p and 1080p would in theory be a GPU- and not CPU-related bottleneck, thus locking both consoles at 900p may have been a political decision.

Indeed, Pontbriand told VideoGamer.com that the studio “decided to lock [both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions] at the same specs to avoid all the debates and stuff.”

PlayStation 4 and Xbox One buffs have been locking horns since the systems launched last November over worries the Xbox One isn’t as powerful as Sony’s system. The concern is premised on the way each system displays graphics, and games released for both consoles have so far run at slightly lower resolutions on the Xbox One, though developers have argued the differences are visually trifling.

Last fall, when Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag arrived, both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions ran at 900p. But Ubisoft quickly released a patch that upgraded the PlayStation 4’s visuals to full 1080p. Given Pontbriand’s statements, it seems unlikely it’ll do something similar with Unity.

The corollary to all of this? The highest fidelity version of the game, assuming you have enough processing gas to cook with, is going to be on Windows PCs.

TIME Video Games

How Assassin’s Creed Unity Navigates the French Revolution’s Politics

Assassin's Creed Unity's creative director explains how the game engages with the French Revolution's controversial, often lopsided-looking political ramifications.

“[Just] as the French revolution … understood itself through antiquity, I think our time can be understood through the French revolution,” said Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, in a December 2001 Jacket interview.

Indeed, the French Revolution is one of these ever-topical historical periods brimming with controversies and lessons. It resonates across the political spectrum, and artists have explored it in countless books, movies, paintings, musicals, musical works, plays and more.

You can add games to that lineup on November 11, when Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Unity rolls out the most elaborate interactive simulation of the tumultuous time yet conceived.

It’s not a political game in the sense others that grapple with events like the Israeli-Palestinian crisis or food imports in the U.S. head-on are sometimes described. But the label or category “political game” can be misleading. It suggests there’s such a thing as a nonpolitical game. That’s a misnomer. Even a game as inocuous as Pac-Man can have political implications, and positioning a book or film or video game as apolitical, say for commercial purposes, to avoid alienating potential buyers, is as political a maneuver as any other.

Assassin’s Creed III tried to square this circle by relegating its political commentary–some of it witheringly critical of American historical revisionism–to optional encyclopedia entries. The trenchant stuff was there, but mostly happened offstage.

Where does Unity sit on that spectrum? Does it dig into the French Revolution’s political ramifications directly, or circle the periphery? I put the question to Unity director Alexandre Amancio late last week. Here’s what he told me.

We’ve already seen the series’ ethical framework shaken in recent games, with storylines that question both the Assassins and Templars’ motives. Is Assassin’s Creed Unity a continuation of that degree-by-degrees shift, or a more radical rethink?

I think Assassin’s Creed Unity takes things even further than we’ve seen to date. I think the French Revolution is the perfect setting for that ambiguity, because if you look at the French Revolution itself, the idea behind it is obviously that this is one of the first populist movements, when the people revolted against this old-school autocratic society. But the way the French Revolution proceeded, up to the Reign of Terror, you can definitely see how something that starts off as a genuinely positive idea can turn into a bloodbath and chaos.

Ubisoft

You’ve described protagonist Arno’s story as a redemption quest. Redemption from what?

At the beginning of the game, Arno’s adopted father dies, and the father happens to be the Grandmaster of the Templars in France. And because of certain details surrounding this death, Arno feels somewhat responsible.

So joining the Assassins is a means to an end for Arno. By joining the Assassins, he feels he has a better chance at redeeming himself for this mistake. That may sound counterintuitive, because if you want to avenge the death of a Templar, you wouldn’t join their enemies.

The thing is, and this goes along with your question about moral ambiguity, that the Templar Grandmaster is murdered because of a plot within his own order. There’s an extremist movement that causes a shift in leadership, so it’s sort of a coup. And part of trying to figure out who was responsible for the death ties into finding out who actually murdered the Grandmaster and why the Templars are shifting ideologies, but it’s also mixed in with the French Revolution and who’s pulling the strings behind both things.

This is how we tie Arno’s redemption quest in with the Revolution. A lot of the elements we see in the French Revolution we try to echo and mirror through metaphor. It’s the idea of extremism and how if you take two separate political entities and you take them to extremes, they wind up looping back and becoming the same thing.

You see this especially at the beginning of the story, where the Assassins and Templars are getting a little closer, because they’re figuring that the state of France is hitting such a critical point that it might explode. So by maybe moving toward detente and working together, maybe they can prevent the situation from deteriorating into a bloodbath. But what you see is that there’s elements on both sides who’d rather see society crumble, and so the game is sort of a study of that.

Speaking of the factions, if we’re thinking on the grand scale of human history, specific political ideologies tend to be short-lived. Creative license aside, isn’t it stretching the bounds of plausibility to portray the corruption-obsessed Assassins and control-obsessed Templars as these ideologically cohesive movements for millennia?

The more you play on these high-level universal truths and the more you tie them to different areas of the narrative, whether it’s the character’s personal story or history itself, or the events, the more I think they start to permeate the whole experience. I think that’s how you build a deeper and more satisfying experience, where it’s not just surface and touches every part of the fabric of the narrative.

The Assassins certainly go through that. I think that’s reflected through Arno. Arno’s character arc is a reflection of the Assassins’ progression, from the beginning of the revolution to afterward, and how he understands the truths that were told to him at the beginning.

Any time you read scripture, you’re always responsible for interpreting it in a certain way. So the same text that you read before and after a traumatic event might have a totally different meaning. Y0u might realize that something you thought was an absolute truth at one point in your life, after certain trials and tribulations, you look at that same phrasing and you see in reality that it meant something completely different.

This is Arno’s character arc. It’s about the meaning of what it is to be an Assassin, and what the tenets of the Assassins truly mean. The reason we did this is that it’s a renewal for the series and a new beginning for the brand. It felt like this study of what it means to be an Assassin was very important for new players as well as those who’ve been playing the story for a long time.

Ubisoft

Now if you look at the Templars, you have a similar thing going on, but with a different take altogether. The idea is that if you look back at the historical Templars in the Middle Ages, there was a great betrayal, a purge of the Templar order executed by Philip the Fair [Philip the IV, king of France in the late 13th century] and the Pope [Clement V]. This was the historical end of the Templars. And if you look at what Jacques de Molay [the last official Grandmaster of the historical Templars] was actually doing, he was already shifting the world toward something else. He thought that autocratic control was not the way to go, because people are always going to rebel against control and seek freedom. Even if the Templars believed people needed to be controlled, he understood you will never be able to change human nature.

So he was shifting the order toward something else, like a banking system, maybe something where people would control themselves if the system was built to reflect human nature. And if humans could regulate themselves, maybe it would be much easier to control things. But before he was able to undertake this, there was a betrayal and the Templars were purged.

What we’re seeing in Assassin’s Creed Unity, is somebody rising up, finding these old texts and realizing this guy was a prophet, that he was centuries ahead of his time, and this is what has to be done, and that the French Revolution might be the perfect setting to pull the strings and shift the world from something involving autocratic control to something more governed by desire and money and the economy.

How politically pointed can you afford to be in a game that’s part of a multibillions franchise, played by players of many political persuasions? How corporate-beholden are you to keep the political implications of this plot point or that one anodyne?

Very little, because that only becomes delicate when you want to take a strong position with a certain kind of view.

What we actually try to do, and I think this is just a personal belief that we have, is to avoid reducing history. You can’t start taking sides, because that makes it biased, and what we’re really trying to do is expose every slice of history in the most unbiased way possible.

It’s obviously incredibly difficult. History is always subjective, because it’s written by people, and no matter how objective you try to be, human nature makes it subjective. We try very hard to portray things as factually as possible. But for instance, we discovered that the French Revolution even today is controversial. Historians and specialists of the period don’t agree with everything and every event. We consulted with two historians on the project. We had a full-time historian on the project, but we worked specifically with two people known in French Revolution scholarship circles, and we had them review the entire script. And we noticed that even between them, there were things about which they didn’t agree. One of them thought that portraying a certain event in a negative way was positioning us in a Royalist category, for instance. You know, the September Massacres are called the massacres and not “the jubilation” for a reason, right? However well-intentioned the initial purpose was, the fact remains that it was a time of chaos.

So they weren’t always in agreement, but one thing the historians were in agreement about was that we portrayed the French Revolution in the game in a very objective way. They felt it was faithful to the gray area of this period. The very fact that our narrative is not about something that’s moralistic in the sense that we’re not forcing you to side with a certain camp expresses this. Our story is about individuals, about how these events take them down a road where they’ll learn things about themselves and their own views. We’re not trying to expose the evils of society and say these people were wrong, these people were right.

If anything, what we end up saying is that everybody was wrong. It’s a human thing. We believe in a certain truth or certain ideals, and then because we’re protective and convinced by these ideals, we fall into the trap of taking them to extremes. And the thing is, most often the truth’s somewhere in the middle. If anything, we’re trying to say people should try to keep a more open mind about the other side’s position on the political spectrum.

Ubisoft

You’ve also said that in Unity, unlike in Assassin’s Creed III where as Connor you were involved in or even instigating pivotal events in the American Revolution, that’s not what you’re up to as Arno. You’ve called Unity more a romance that happens to be framed by the Revolution. But romances are really, really tricky to pull off in any medium without botching the chemistry or coming off as oversentimental. I can’t think of a non-indie mainstream game that’s really done it.

You’re absolutely right. When you’re making a game about anything emotional, cinematics are your way of telling the narrative. The thing is, when you’re watching a cinematic in a game, you’re removed from the core of the experience, which is your input with the controller.

You mention indie games, and I think there are some that have succeeded in having you really experience emotion or feelings for NPCs when you’re playing the game by generating those things through interaction. The reason a shooter is visceral is because the movement and pressing of the button is exactly reflecting the emotion you’re trying to convey, say stress, adrenaline and so forth. Every time you’re able to provide input through the controller and directly reflect the emotion you’re trying to convey, it works. On the other hand, when you’re asking the player to be passive in watching interaction between characters on screen in a cinematic, of course the player’s going to feel removed, because games aren’t films.

What we tried to do is make the romance, as much as we could, happen during gameplay. Of course there are some cutscenes where a little bit of exposition takes place, but that’s inevitable. We really try as best we can to have the characters interact during gameplay. I think that’s how you get players to feel something in a video game.

Now another thing we did is the fact that, because the nature of a romance story is the interaction between two characters, and usually the gameplay is about you stabbing people or sneaking around the world, it makes it very difficult to do romance as something other than a side element. But because we made Arno’s romantic interest, Elise, a Templar, because she is from a different faction than the player, all of a sudden that makes it more relevant. Even if their ultimate goal is the same, because she’s affiliated with the losing part of the Templars, the one that got purged, their methods might differ, and their motivations certainly differ.

I really like opposites, and I like exposing the opposites, because I think that it’s through showing the opposite of something that you can strengthen what you’re trying to convey. Elise is motivated by a desire for vengeance. Arno is motivated by a desire for redemption. These two things are very different, because one ultimately leads to your doom, while I think the other can lead to you actually being saved.

By making their objectives the same, but their motivations opposite, hopefully their interactions will create tension, and players will feel this impossible decision and the inevitability of the relationship as they move forward. Ultimately the romance part of this game is a Cornelian dilemma, where Arno is stuck in this impossible decision, where he ultimately has to choose between the values of the Creed and his love for this woman who happens to be on the opposite side of the spectrum.

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