Ubisoft’s third-quarter financial report heralded an announcement that many had already assumed to be common knowledge: Watch Dogs 2 is coming. Sandwiched into the same release window as Ghost Recon Wildlands, For Honor and South Park: The Fractured But Whole, the mega-publisher is now primed to release each title by March 31, 2017, leading to rampant online speculation as to how those pieces will fall into place.
Assassin’s Creed will miss the opportunity to dovetail with its cinematic brethren later in 2016, while one would assume Ghost Recon Wildlands will be pegged for a similar November/December window to that of Rainbow Siege Siege. That still leaves a late October slot ripe for the taking in AC’s absence. In 2014, South Park: The Stick of Truth benefited from releasing during the relatively quiet March window, indicating that its riotous sequel could follow a similar path in its journey back to the Rocky Mountains.
Conjecture though that may be, it’s a line of thinking that would have For Honor and Watch Dogs 2 emerging as the two main frontrunners to join Wildlands in late 2016 — Hell, we could see the release of all three over the next ten months. But judging by the upcoming one-two punch of Far Cry Primal and The Division, Ubisoft looks to be more inclined to reserve at least one of the two until the turn of the year.
Reading Between the Lines
In fact, when news first leaked that Assassin’s Creed had been ordered on a one year hiatus, early reports claimed that Ubisoft Montreal’s Watch Dogs 2 would swoop in to take its place later this year. But what does that mean for the future of the company’s new franchise? And has the sequel been left facing an uphill battle to win over those burned by poor marketing and a weak end product?
Two years ago, Watch Dogs emerged from a prolonged stint in development shackled with those scathing downgrade allegations. Indeed early trailers had marketed a product that was notably grander in scope, not to mention how they drew attention to gameplay features that were left on the cutting room floor.
Second Album Syndrome
Visions change, of course, and Aiden Pearce’s origins story is one that grew, or at the very least changed, during development. But if Watch Dogs 2 is to make a lasting first impression, Ubisoft Montreal has to bring its A-game from the get-go, which may explain the studio’s current radio silence. That, and the fact that announcing the original title too soon proved detrimental; there’s only so many times you can watch a gravel-voiced protagonist shoot up the Windy City.
Speaking of which, one of the pressing questions lingering over Ubisoft’s tech-savvy sequel is whether players will reprise the role of Aiden Pearce. The fact that Watch Dogs 2 will reportedly take place in San Francisco leads us to believe that Chicago’s Dark Knight will be left wallowing in his own self-pity. Riding explodable RC cars into the sunset with his old partner-in-cyber-crime, T-Bone Grady.
Besides, it wasn’t as though Pearce, the gruff vigilante sleuth that he was, will be remembered as a compelling lead. Undermined by a script that fast descended into a tonal mess, Pearce was little more than a delusional criminal, thrusting the citizens of Chicago into peril without batting an eyelid. Need an exit? How about initiating a blackout on an entire stadium of people just to avoid the cops? Watch Dogs’ cinematic opening and subsequent introduction of Aiden Pearce may have looked cool, but it didn’t really make a lot of sense in the grand scheme of things, particularly when the game’s finale back-pedalled on a campaign of brutal firefights to try and redeem its lead protagonist.
Before the credits rolled, players were left facing the ultimate moral conundrum — one that placed the fate of Maurice Vega in their hands — that ultimately felt shoehorned in, a last-ditch effort to salvage some fleeting shard of redemption from a plot that really had you playing an unforgivable sad sack. Watch Dogs may have been fun at times, but seeing Chicago through the lens of Pearce was not.
Sweep aside a forgettable protagonist and an uninspired story, that kernel of an idea for a technological empire where crime isn’t always solved with a bullet between the eyes is a setting that’s simply brimming with narrative potential. Yes, Watch Dogs dabbled with the technology of our time, peeking behind the curtain of a technocratic society in a way that would do Mr. Robot proud, but its oncoming sequel needs to drastically expand the hacking gameplay underpinning Ubisoft’s Orwellian cityscape.
Worst. Uncle. Ever.
Forget falling back into the relative safe haven of open-world tropes, Watch Dogs 2 is now tasked with defining what Watch Dogs really is — how it plays, how it feels, and the kind of gameplay mechanics needed to drive the series forward. In fusing Ubisoft’s de facto exploration mechanics — those ctOS beacons proved awful similar to Far Cry’s tower system — and GTA-like gameplay, Ubisoft’s budding new IP was lacking an identity, struggling to create a world as unique as its hacking mechanics. Jack of all trades, master of none. Or something to that effect.
Among its compilation of genre conventions, open world stealth is the one category where Watch Dogs truly excelled, lending the publisher’s franchise-starter a sense of personality. Even still, for all of the hustle and bustle surrounding those novel mechanics — “hacking is your weapon” — your ability to interact with the city’s electronics fast became an abstract backdrop in the face of explosive action sequences and cover-based shootouts.
Watch Dogs 2, then, represents a relatively clean palette. If San Francisco really is to play host to Ubisoft’s sequel, the publisher could experiment with a near-future setting. Not cyberpunk, mind, but imagine the possibilities of manipulating autonomous cars or hacking into the virtual reality of other citizens. I want to see a compelling protagonist that can peer into the cyber infrastructure coursing through the veins of San Francisco and toy with the one percent from the shadows. One that’s served by a well-written script and believable dialogue, too, not a character that grumbles through a cliché monologue every other cutscene.
Alas, when it comes to marinating on the possibilities for Watch Dogs 2, people often cite the technical and indeed quality leap from Assassin’s Creed and its sequel in the hope that WD will follow a similar trajectory to success. And while it’s difficult to imagine Ubisoft will annualize the series, after the original raced to nine million sales Watch Dogs’ status as a franchise is secured, even if Ubisoft still has plenty left to do before its crime caper descends on the tech capital of America.