The police are on your trail. You’re surrounded, when all of a sudden, with the tap of a button on your smartphone, the whole city is plummeted into darkness. You’ve just caused a city-wide blackout, and now, you have escaped.
Sounds cool? Well, it is the premise of the hit video game Watch Dogs, released by Ubisoft on May 27, 2014. This open-world action-adventure stealth game was the subject of praise and criticism both before and after its release, but still remains a classic hit, still talked about by gamers today.
Before delving into the series as a whole, we must go back to a time when this video game franchise wasn’t even a franchise yet. It is the summer of 2012, and the game is announced at E3. Ubisoft, a well-known and prominent video game developer at this point, known for its blockbuster open-world games such as Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, has just shown the teaser for their upcoming game about a stealthy hacker attempting to overthrow a society which has become engulfed in technology; in a city where everything is connected, one man is attempting to manipulate the system to his benefit.
At the time, the concept seemed revolutionary: technology was rapidly advancing and spreading throughout the world, as it still is, and a major work of media was to address the faults of relying on technology, an important matter. A video game where the player could take this matter into their own hands, hacking anything and everything at their will — the trailer was a massive success. Ubisoft was praised. All looked well for a potential future video-game series.
Watch Dogs, scheduled for a fall 2013 release, was eventually delayed until May 2014. When the game was released, however, viewers noticed a difference. According to them, the game appeared to have been downgraded in both gameplay and graphical value from that shown at E3 2012 and 2013. There were less environmental details, and less features for the player, than in the game shown at E3. A huge controversy arose, with Ubisoft denying the allegations. Nonetheless, this was not a good look for the company and the game received heavy criticism for this matter.
Graphical downgrades weren’t the game’s only criticism, however. The game was heavily panned by many critics for what they called a “bland” and “dry” plot, including a “dull” and “boring” protagonist, Aiden Pearce. However, this viewpoint wasn’t shared by everyone; in fact, many praised the game’s story and characters, saying that its intense and focused nature allowed the characters to flourish, with Aiden being not boring, but driven: a tough-as-nails vigilante whose no-nonsense nature fares well with his protective nature, as he protects those he loves throughout the story.
Ultimately, Watch Dogs had a riveting plot and characters, and Aiden Pearce is still to this day one of the most iconic characters in modern-day gaming. He is a representation of the divide between technology and safety, as he uses his hacking skills to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. Thus, the claim that the game suffered due to a poor story and characters is merely laughable.
Despite the heavy criticisms, the game was still a massive financial success, selling over 10 million copies by the end of 2014 and winning Ubisoft the Studio of the Year Award for 2014. At this point, it was clear that Watch Dogs could become a successful series, but only if the sequel was done right. The first game was a financial success, but still garnered impressive criticism. If the sequel followed a similar suit, it would surely be the end of the series.
As predicted, Ubisoft eventually revealed that a sequel to Watch Dogs was in the works. In March 2016, they released the teaser trailer, which revealed that Watch Dogs 2 would be set in San Francisco, and star a new protagonist. Learning this news, many gamers who hated Aiden Pearce were glad to see a new protagonist, who would be named Marcus Holloway. Of course, some who liked Aiden Pearce viewed this as a demoralizing change, but still accepted and embraced it. They hoped, however, that Aiden would at least appear in the game at some point (which he ultimately did, in a cameo many viewed as disappointing and unfaithful to the original character. Aiden Pearce, a man who took down an entire criminal underworld by himself, randomly gets captured and imprisoned by a gang in San Francisco? Bruh).
Watch Dogs 2 was released later that year in November, and once again, reception was mixed. Critics praised the game’s open-world recreation of the San Francisco Bay Area, which faithfully represented a smaller-scale version of the city of San Francisco, along with Oakland, Marin County, and the Silicon Valley region. The improved hacking skills were also praised.
However, like the first game, the plot and characters were heavily panned. Ubisoft took careful consideration to make the characters in Watch Dogs 2 as lively and upbeat as possible, as to not repeat the “dullness” of Aiden Pearce. This backfired, as the characters were extremely underdeveloped and often acted unrealistically, with cringe-worthy dialogue as an attempt to “be hip” and “with the times”. The characters — with the exception of Wrench — were all underdeveloped, which made them unmemorable. This especially applies to the protagonist, Marcus Holloway, who was simply a puppet who did whatever DedSec told him to do, with no personal connection whatsoever. In contrast, Aiden Pearce had a personal connection, as he was acting to avenge his niece’s death, making his story relatable.
Similarly, the story was an unorganized mess; rather than a linear story with specific missions, Watch Dogs 2 relied on an “Operations” system where the main missions contained mini-missions within them. In theory, this is great concept, but it only works when the plot of a game is actually developed enough; in this sense, Watch Dogs 2’s plot was as developed as a fetus, with numerous plot holes and missing elements which, if they existed, would’ve made the overall story that much better. Again, in contrast, the first Watch Dogs had a fully developed plot, and although not perfect, the characters fit in well with it, making it fresh and unique, unlike the second game.
The game’s holes were exposed. Many players, who went back and played the first game prior to the release of the second game, later realized how much better the first game really was in comparison to the second game. All of Watch Dogs 2’s failures made the first Watch Dogs’ failures look like strengths. Ultimately, Ubisoft revealed that the game’s pre-orders were ‘disappointing’, and there was an eighty percent decrease from the sales of the original. At this point, players realized that Watch Dogs 2, although still a great game, paled in comparison to the first one, and the future of the series was looking dreary.
Nonetheless, if a sequel were ever to come, it would most likely be Ubisoft’s last chance to get the game right, or the series might be done for. Would Ubisoft learn from their mistakes, and make Watch Dogs 3 similar to the first one, while ditching most of Watch Dogs 2’s plot and gameplay choices? Or would they continue down the same path, making Watch Dogs 3 a subpar game with an undeveloped plot and characters?
Fast forward to 2019, three years after the release of Watch Dogs 2, and the third game in the series is announced. It is called Watch Dogs Legion, and stars… everyone. The game has no central protagonist. Set in a future version of London, where technology rules the streets, the player can take control of anyone their heart desires, with everyone collectively working with DedSec.
Announced at E3 2019, the game received a March 6, 2020 release date. However, a few months later, the game was delayed until late 2020, with its release date being currently unknown as of November 2019. This delay until further notice may reflect a positive change, as delays usually do.
However, it is no surprise that many ‘traditionalist’ gamers are unhappy with the path Ubisoft is taking the Watch Dogs series in. What was originally an epic tale about a hacker vigilante fighting for justice and avenging his family has turned into an unorganized shitshow, where old grandmothers are running around fighting thugs in pig masks. It arises the question of whether or not the series is heading in the right direction, considering how much it has drifted from its original feel.
Of course, this question cannot be answered until Watch Dogs Legion is released. As of now, the game appears to be revolutionary in its genre: never has there been an open-world game where the player can play as every citizen (or so Ubisoft claims) that has their own unique story, missions, and gameplay. Never has a modern-day open-world game been set in London, complete with its famous Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, and Underground system which the player can ride (although judging by Ubisoft’s history of downgrading games, this is a feature that could ultimately be cut). Surprisingly, in a game with ‘Dogs’ in the title, the Isle of Dogs is absent (as well as actual dogs, which appeared in Watch Dogs 2 only). Oh, well.
Despite everything the game claims it will have, and the hype associated with it, this is Ubisoft’s final chance to get a Watch Dogs game right; that is, a Watch Dogs game with a complete plot and developed characters (although in a game where every character has a story, that may not happen). If Legion fails to nail all of these aspects, the Watch Dogs series may be done for good; it will be a mere memory, a primary example of a great concept gone wrong.
An ultimate embarrassment for Ubisoft that would be.
Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.