With Watch Dogs 2 due out later this year, what, if anything, is it that the franchise really needs? Let me start off by saying, I don’t think Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs is a terrible game. Any video game that sells over ten million units has to be considered an outright success. Add that to an aggregate review score of around 80%, and you would have to conclude that Watch Dogs is a pretty solid game. If there is a real problem with the game, it’s that it didn’t quite live up to the expectations that we all had for it.
It’s not as if we got to that level of expectation by ourselves, though. Ubisoft released a number of gameplay teases that, while technically were true, implied a level of interaction that they ultimately failed to deliver. A good example of this is the claim that every single non-player character (NPC) in Watch Dogs is unique. While this is true of their character card or profile, which pops up when you scan them, it really has no gameplay application. Sure, you can pick the type of character that you want to hack or embezzle from, but it has no noticeable effect on the game.
The original Watch Dogs game does manage to offer a lot of various missions but again, none of those side missions add up to anything. They don’t change the game world or the overarching narrative, which isn’t terribly inspiring or original. While this gives the player plenty to do, most players didn’t want to do any of it. Personally, this is how I’ve often felt about Ubisoft’s other open-world franchise, Assassin’s Creed. It’s almost as if there’s too much to do to feel any sense of accomplishment and again, there’s no real reason to.
The purpose of a narrative in modern games is to motivate the player. This is particularly difficult in large, open-world games. Fallout 4 is a great example of how even a ton of content can get stretched too thinly. Generally, the bigger the area, the less dense that narrative is. In Watch Dogs’ case, that means that there’s lots of locked doors, and most of the NPC’s are just irrelevant.
As weak as Watch Dogs’ narrative is, the other game mechanics were also not quite as polished as they could have been. Of course, there was also that issue of misrepresenting the graphical fidelity of the game. In the age of Photoshopped magazine covers, that might be excusable, but shoddy gameplay isn’t. The driving aspect is the easiest target for criticism, with loose arcade physics that just weren’t fun. As matter of fact, moving around by foot really wasn’t any better.
What Watch Dogs 2 needs is probably the same thing the next Assassin’s Creed needs, and that’s for the games to get smaller. It doesn’t matter how large the area you can explore is if there’s nothing for you to find. Ubisoft Montreal vice president Lionel Raynaud addressed these issues in a recent interview.
“With the first one we didn’t have such a good reception, and it was fair. We had a lot of flaws in the replayability of gameplay loops and you could feel that the game was a first iteration…We have this ambition to have games that are worlds with systems that offer more agency and freedom for players, that allow them to discover the world in the way they want. We want them to be less narrative or character driven and more creative, with more choices for the player.”
While he admits the original game was a bit scattershot, and that they probably bit off more they could chew, it’s not clear that the problems with narrative density will be addressed in the sequel. It seems that Ubisoft will rely more on emergent gameplay where the player creates their own story. If that’s the case, it’s probably best temper to our expectations for Watch Dogs 2.