An island at a time.
It is July 26, 2019. Parisians flock to public fountains and air-conditioned museums. The temperature has just reached 42 degrees Celsius (107 Fahrenheit) and the sidewalks are nearly vacant. It's the hottest day in Paris history.
In a conference room in Montreuil, a commune on the city's Eastern side, Benoit Martinez has his work cut out for him. He's speaking to a group of English-speaking journalists, myself among them, each still glistening with sweat from our walk to Ubisoft Paris. We're here to see Ghost Recon Breakpoint, and Martinez is here to show us Auroa, the fictional world that couldn't feel farther from the sun-baked streets we just escaped.
"Sense of place is important," Ubisoft Paris' art director tells us. "Sense of place is key."
On the screen behind Martinez, screenshots show a lush, green landscape, speckled with crimson flowers and laid out beneath a layer of clouds. In the distance, a heavy rain falls on sloping hills. It's hard not to think of New Zealand. But of course, this is not New Zealand. It's Auroa.
In this sense, Breakpoint marks a turning point in the long-running franchise. Since 2001, every mainline Ghost Recon has taken place in a real-world setting, ranging from Russia, to Mexico, to East Africa, to Russia again. The series has long staked a claim on realism and authenticity, and these digital versions of actual places have only heightened that pride. For Breakpoint to veer into the realm of outright fiction is no small feat.
Nonetheless, after 18 years, the leap feels necessary. In 2017, Ubisoft Paris drew pointed criticism for its depiction of Bolivia in Ghost Recon Wildlands, a game portraying the South American country as a narco-state overtaken by a Mexican drug cartel. The Bolivian government itself threatened legal action--which it has yet to pursue--and Ubisoft, as is now customary, reiterated that Wildlands is a work of fiction, and "imagines a different reality than the one that exists today."
So, Breakpoint's imaginary archipelago setting seems well advised. Not only does it let the team take cover, so to speak, behind a thicker layer of fiction, but also opens new creative possibilities.
"We built Auroa from the ground up," Martinez says. "If there is a building, we asked ourselves, 'What is its purpose?' We have breweries, wineries, and houses for everyone who lives and works here. We even thought about their commutes. The thinking was: if you follow any of our roads, you should end up somewhere."
Auroa is now home to Skell, a corporation focused on developing military drones and artificial intelligence. But Martinez and his team didn't just think about Auroa's immediate present. They also imagined its past. Ubisoft Paris scattered the crumbling ruins of an indigenous population, as well as those of an American military occupation, across the islands. Auroa tells its own story, Martinez tells us, and that's key to developing a fantasy.
Watching Martinez continue his virtual tour of Auroa, from its vast salt marsh to its remote tropical forests, I'm reminded of Assassin's Creed Odyssey, another open-world title developed by a Ubisoft studio. Odyssey introduced Exploration Mode to the series, opting for organic discovery over artificial objective markers. To complete quests in Odyssey's Ancient Greece, you often had little more than vague geographical directions--"West of those mountains" or "South of that lake," for instance--making it all the more exciting to stumble upon your next activity.
"When you name something, you start to care about it. We want you to care about Auroa, so we named as much of it as we could."
In a similar vein, Breakpoint will rarely show you exactly where your next target is. You're behind enemy lines, in unfamiliar territory, being hunted by skilled fighters. A lack of information feels natural here. To facilitate this process of exploration and discovery, Martinez and his team have taken pains to actually name as many places as they can: at present, there are 365 individually named landmarks in Auroa.
These include cities and outposts, yes, but also lakes, valleys, and lagoons. Later this day, I'll get hands-on time with Breakpoint, in a demo that tasks us with finding a hostage "near the Devil's Forest."
"When you name something, you start to care about it," Martinez tells us. "We want you to care about Auroa, so we named as much of it as we could."
As a global collective of AAA studios, Ubisoft has built its legacy on the back of its worldbuilding--not only in the historical sandboxes of Assassin's Creed, but the tech-laced cities of Watch Dogs and the rural swaths of Far Cry. Breakpoint, like Assassin's Creed Odyssey before it, feels as if it could be the accumulation of decades of worldbuilding experience.
And in this day and age, a game's initial release is only a small part of the story. Wildlands, for its part, improved immeasurably in the two years after it launched, adding new modes, missions, and quality-of-life updates. When looking for good examples of games-as-services, or "lifestyle games," one need look no further than Ubisoft's portfolio.
In keeping with that trend, Martinez and his team have built their archipelago not just as a complete world in itself, but as a foundation for future expansions. They've taken pains to create a past and present for Auroa--soon, they'll turn their attention to its future.