Given that the original Watch Dogs was a considerable success with 10 million copies sold, and also being the biggest launch of a new IP ever in the United Kingdom, a sequel was never in doubt. The more relevant question was; when is the sequel likely to arrive?
Well the facts are now in. Ubisoft released an announcement trailer on Wednesday 8th of June, which you can watch below. The overview is that Watch Dogs 2 will release on November 15th 2016, be set in San Francisco, and feature a new protagonist called Marcus Holloway.
A 2016 release makes sense from a business standpoint, especially given that Ubisoft’s flagship franchise Assassin’s Creed is taking a year off, but is the public actually ready for a new Watch Dogs game yet? Despite the commercial success it garnered, Watch Dogs wasn’t exactly a critical darling, receiving a respectable, but fairly subdued response from critics. It also generated some controversy for the apparent graphical downgrade it received since the initial trailers were first shown off.
So did the game really resonate with those 10 million people who bought it? The pervading online chatter seemed to suggest that many people felt let down overall. Without wanting to be drowned out by the choir, I’d echo a lot of those sentiments. Personally, I quite enjoyed my time with Watch Dogs, but the story and characters were instantly forgettable, and the hacking mechanics weren’t as pervasive as I’d hoped for. There are a number of issues that Ubisoft will need to address if they want these same people, myself included, to come back for a second time.
As mentioned, there was a fundamental issue with the game’s protagonist, Aiden Pearce. As a hacker, Aiden gains access to ctOS, the operating system that connects everyone and everything in Chicago, from people’s personal phones to traffic lights and security cameras. Using this tool, Aiden tries to track down the people responsible for murdering his niece in a hacking job that goes wrong.
The story is well grounded (despite the almost-magical hacking abilities you have) and Aiden is understandably upset over the death of an innocent relative. However, his portrayal is that of an unlikeable dirtbag who is willing to murder anyone who gets in his way. With virtually no setup or background about his personality or character, you are thrust into Aiden’s world, and it is a consequence of his own actions that his niece is killed. Rather than pausing to rethink his choices, Aiden immediately doubles-down on his sleazy, murderous lifestyle, despite his sister and everyone around him pleading for him to stop. The more people he kills, the more danger he creates for the people he cares about. There’s an argument to be made that the developers did this intentionally, to depict how dogged determination and a thirst for revenge can only bring pain to those around you. However, this isn’t really addressed very well in the game. There is no character arc or progression, and Aiden’s outlook remains the same throughout the story; an unquestioning belief in his own righteous revenge. Aiden is a very single-note character who is portrayed as a one-dimensional ball of gruff anger, making the player rather unsympathetic to his plight.
It isn’t as if the side characters were much better. Aiden’s sister Nicole is little more than kidnap-fodder. His hired hacking partner Clara is a boring caricature, and the less said about T-Bone and his wacky scrapyard robots, the better. The best character is Jordi; a fixer who takes a little too much pleasure in his work, but he only stands out as a quirky character due to the dross he’s paired up with.
It’s difficult to say for sure that Watch Dogs 2 will make any strides in this area, but the signs are promising so far. Marcus and his crew at least seem to have a little more personality. The trailer definitely has a more uplifting vibe to it, as if the members of DedSec are fun-loving nihilists that remain unbowed in the face of corporate control. While they might turn out to be an annoying bunch of meme-spouting exaggerations of youth culture, it does seem like an attempt to move away from the self-seriousness of the previous game.
On another note, the number of side missions in the first game was staggeringly high. Doing these activities only served to drag the game out further, and some of them felt very contrived; shoved in to fit Ubisoft’s open world formula. I’m not sure why a hacker would need to physically break into server rooms to access more of the network, but the game was full of ctOS towers that served as Watch Dog’s version of the towers in Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry. Watch Dogs also had side content in the form of gang hideouts, fixer contracts, criminal convoys, investigations and privacy invasions. This kind of content is prevalent in many open world games (especially ones made by Ubisoft), but here the sheer number of them felt like a huge chore. This was reinforced by the fact that many of the side missions provided little variety.
Ubisoft have already announced that ctOS towers are a thing of the past in Watch Dogs 2. This is a positive step, meaning that the entirety of San Francisco will be available from the start. The developers have already stressed that the map will contain tons of content, but at least you’ll be able to tackle this content at your own pace without having to unlock parts of the map first.
Perhaps if the hacking aspect was more pervasive the grind might be mitigated somewhat. In Watch Dogs you could hack security cameras, traffic bollards, garage doors and water mains, most of which were useful in a high speed pursuit. If Ubisoft could come up with a more environmental uses for hacking, it would seem like more of a cohesive piece of the game, and less like a gimmick to be used occasionally. Most situations on foot were easily solved by shooting as opposed to anything to do with hacking, supposedly the most powerful tool in the city. Watch Dogs 2 has already shown hackable drones, and the developers have suggested that non-lethal playthroughs will be possible. Perhaps this means there will be more opportunities to use your hacking abilities to disable your opponents, but the game will need several more of these examples to justify the hacking aspect better than the first game managed.
That said, the original Watch Dogs did have a lot of things going for it. The idea that you could hack people’s phones, gaining personal data and even cash, was a great idea. It also provided some amusing randomly-generated moments, such as finding out people’s secret fetishes and criminal records. It made the city of Chicago feel more alive, and the city itself was a very well realized beast. Some of the best moments in Watch Dogs were to be had by just walking through a park, taking in the environment and being a voyeur into people’s lives. If Ubisoft can take these elements and transpose them into San Francisco for the sequel, then they’ll be on to something rather compelling.
Mechanically, Watch Dogs was a little stronger than it often got credit for. Some people didn’t like the driving, but I personally found it fine, if a little floaty. Shooting and hacking was easily accomplished, even in tight situations. The already established gameplay gives Watch Dogs 2 a solid base to work from. It seems that Marcus will be a proficient practitioner of parkour, which may help the game flow a little more seamlessly and help the player to traverse the environment easier.
Perhaps if the developers can work with what they’ve already got, plus address many of the fundamental issues surrounding the story, characterizations and dull side content, Watch Dogs 2 might be something to look forward to. After all, given the gameplay improvements made between the first Assassin’s Creed and the second game, Ubisoft do have a track record for improving their sequels. If Watch Dogs 2 can breach the same gulf, that’s half the battle won. They’ll then need to sell this to the people who were disappointed with the first game, and that could potentially be a difficult sell.