2003 was a simpler time for gaming. A transitionary time of sorts. True widespread online accessibility was still a few years away and though technology was advancing rapidly, consoles and PCs weren’t the true technological behemoths that they are today. There were no trophies or achievements to display proudly. Things were different. Games, or rather, peoples’ attitudes to them were different too, at least on a rudimentary level. There were less variables to consider. This, coupled with the fact that titles were simply cheaper to make at the time, meant that studios, in general, were more willing to take risks.
This brings us to Beyond Good and Evil. Considered by some (myself included) to be a classic of its generation, it is nevertheless easy to see why the game may have gone on to struggle financially. The game is often consigned into the miscellaneous genre of the “Action Adventure”, where games that can be difficult to pinpoint are regularly forced to tread. In reality, Beyond Good and Evil is a mesh of various genres, with platforming, stealth, third-person combat, exploration, and even photography thrown in for good measure. Add in a large dose of anthropomorphic characters and a linear structure and the game doesn’t come across as being overly marketable.
This all led to a dichotomy of sorts, wherein the aforementioned aspects proved to be detrimental to the game’s overall sales performance, with Ubisoft considering Beyond Good and Evil to be a financial failure, despite its receipt of widespread critical acclaim. The bust was big enough for Ubisoft at the time to scrap any future plans for a continuation of the series, even though the game ended on a cliffhanger of sorts, as the game’s director, Michel Ancel, had originally envisioned it to be the first instalment in a trilogy.
The game, of course, went on to attract a large cult following throughout the years, adjoining with the likes of Earthbound and Killer 7 as titles whose mediocre sales didn’t reflect their overarching popularity amongst the gaming community. The fanbase grew as word of mouth spread. Clamours for a follow-up were abundant. A short tech demo was released in 2008 but nothing concrete had been shown until now; 14 years after the original game’s initial release, not only do we finally have official confirmation of a Beyond Good and Evil sequel, but also actual confirmation on what the game will entail, albeit the details remain minimal for the time being.
As a fan, it should obviously be both encouraging and exciting to have learned of such an announcement (and it is). However, along with nervous anticipation upon viewing the trailer at E3, one of the primary emotions I felt was that of concern. 14 years is a long time by any reasonable standard, but in an industry that moves as quickly as the games industry it can seem astronomical. The relative innocence of previous generations are gone and the even though the specifics we have for Beyond Good and Evil 2 are scarce at the moment, they nonetheless, in my opinion, reflect that.
First and foremost, let’s address the somewhat puzzling choice to release this game as a prequel rather than an outright sequel, despite there still being questions left unanswered from the first game. Of course, it is important to note that we still know very little about the game, however, on the surface, this seems largely disappointing. Ubisoft have gone on record in the past, stating that they won’t release a game that doesn’t have the potential to be made into a franchise. The games industry has always been dominated by franchises to a certain extent. However, in an age where the majority of the more esoteric experiences tend to come mainly from the indie circuit, and new IPs are more and more scarce from AAA developers, the decision to deviate from the game’s original storytelling plan and instead focus on something new could be seen as a form of risk management. There will, no doubt, be some form of appeasement for long-term fans of the original, but the choice to not continue with the plot is hard not to be considered a disappointment.
Likewise, as previous stated, the original game was released during a time of transition in the industry. Sandbox games were gaining popularity, but still in their relative infancy, with the revolutionary Grand Theft Auto III being released only two years previously. As things stand today, the sandbox genre, along with online multiplayer, are arguably the two most popular aspects in gaming, with major studios often eager to emphasise one or more of these two components. Ubisoft, being the enormous company that they are, are no different.
The original Beyond Good and Evil was “open world”, yes, but the game was essentially linear, and the map acted as more of an extended hub world rather than a proper sandbox, to a certain extent mimicking the format of a classic Legend of Zelda game. With news that the prequel will feature a “vast and seamless online playground”, it is clear to see that Ubisoft are reluctant to release the game without maximising its appeal to an audience as large as possible. The primary purpose of anything a studio releases is to make money, so this makes sense. Ubisoft are also more than entitled to do what they want with an IP they created. However, it is unfortunate that the changes they are making don’t seem to ring true with the original tonality of the game. Speaking of tone, the inclusion of a foul-mouthed, cockney monkey in the trailer seemed to be some way off the more measured atmosphere the first game possessed. I would view this as being more a curious creative choice as opposed to anything to do with the current gaming zeitgeist, but it is nonetheless an oddity.
None of what I have written in this article is a criticism per se, merely a set of observations. It is early days yet, and, despite some of the suspicions I have described, there are reasons to be optimistic too. The trailer itself, despite not featuring any gameplay, was an impressive aesthetic accomplishment. Pairing this with the idea of having a vast world and/or universe for exploration does, also, seem like it could possess a certain appeal. Indeed, the fact that the hugely talented Michel Ancel is back as its director is also an encouraging sign, especially when you can see that the game is clearly such a passion project for him. The question remains, however; can Ancel and Ubisoft manage to deliver a financially successful title that not only manages to draw in new players, but also stays true to the original game and its loyal fanbase? Only time will tell, and I for one am eager to find out.