Watch Dogs and why the open-world genre’s biggest success story is also its own worst enemy

Pearce’s clothing is customisable to a point. He’s lucky Chicago has outlets
trading exclusively in his signature style, with over 50 colour variations on
his cap, hoodie and coat combo. Other outfits come as preorder DLC

“Rarely has a single button done so much, and so well.” – our Watch Dogs review.

We’ll admit we were surprised. Until a couple of weeks before release, nothing Ubisoft had shown of Watch Dogs, either before or after the delay, contained anything to suggest it would ship with a glut of sidequests, minigames and busywork.

In retrospect, we should have expected nothing else from the company behind Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry 3; Ubisoft spent the PS3/360 generation finessing an effective template for open-world games, and it was always going to carry that over to Xbox One and PS4. Assassin’s Creed’s viewpoints informed Far Cry 3’s radio towers, and now Watch Dogs’ CTOS control stations. Ezio Auditore’s treasure chests have morphed into Jason Brody’s loot containers and then the smartphones carried by Aiden Pearce’s fellow Chicagoans. But what’s disappointing is the extent to which Watch Dogs borrows from Rockstar. Despite all the advances in technology, development practices and budgets in the 12-and-a-half years since it was born, the 3D Grand Theft Auto remains the set text for studios making open-world games. And Ubisoft doesn’t so much take a leaf out of it as lift a couple of chapters.

It’s why Pearce spends a decent chunk of Watch Dogs’ five-act campaign doing dirty work for nasty people, a fundamental flaw in any game following the Rockstar style that stars a supposedly noble protagonist. Here it is more elegantly handled at least; Pearce has no choice but to do his master’s bidding after the kidnap of a family member. But even that riffs on a Rockstar concept: the plight of John Marston in Red Dead Redemption. Open-world games of all stripes have long struggled to reconcile their good-hearted main characters with a genre that affords the player such tremendous scope for carnage.

Another question that open-world games have struggled to answer is how to ensure players don’t miss out on any of the assorted sidequests, collectibles and sundry distractions that litter their landscapes. In GTAIV, Rockstar pestered the player with a seemingly endless succession of phone calls from associates wanting to hang out; in Red Dead Redemption and GTAV, the sidequest-giver physically meets the player to ask for help. In Watch Dogs, Ubisoft doesn’t seek to improve on that, exploring instead how to present it in a game in which the superhero is a smartphone. The result is a HUD popup that offers to mark a side-mission waypoint on the map with a single button press. It’s far from a perfect solution, but at least it’s easily ignored, and it’s a preferable option to the Saints Row tactic of surfacing activities as missions in the main campaign.

Such iterative tweaks to the Rockstar formula should, however, be a Rockstar job, not that of a different company bankrolling a five-year project – a game whose ending, and the thousand-plus names in its credits, make it clear that this is the first in a long-running series. Watch Dogs’ adherence to the Grand Theft Auto formula is far from slavish, but it is very often blatant – most obvious in, of all things, Texas Hold ’Em, which offers the same single-button skip to your next turn as Red Dead Redemption. If Ubisoft, one of the few companies on the planet that can match Rockstar for team size, timescale and budget, can’t cast off all the old genre baggage, which company can?

At the heart of the problem lies a fundamental misunderstanding of how to effectively use all that space. Do players really want a map littered with sidequests and distractions? Does that make for a more believable world? Clearly, there’s a market research paper out there somewhere that claims that it does, and the reception met by games such as LA Noire and Mafia II – games whose open cities housed a linear campaign and little else – suggest that some ancillary content is preferable to none, whatever it is. Yet those two games got something right: the population of real-world metropolises tends to go from A to B, ignoring the morass of distractions that surround them. When you set off for work in the morning, you’ll stop for petrol or coffee, but never turn up late because you couldn’t resist a street-corner game of chess. People that live in big cities don’t really see very much of them.

Ubisoft Montreal claims the late delay to Watch Dogs was necessary because its core systems weren’t playing nicely together, implying that work was already complete on the sundries. Had the studio focused only on creating content that served the core mechanics as effectively as its campaign missions do, not only might it have got the game out earlier, but it would have felt a good deal more coherent. Padding serves no one. Imagine being the junior developer who thought they’d got the job of a lifetime making a next-generation open-world game, and then spent three months making chess.

In Ubisoft Montreal’s defence, the need to make a game that runs not only on new consoles and high-end PCs but also 360 and PS3 has surely limited its ambition. Given that Assassin’s Creed Unity is leaving the old generation behind, it seems safe to assume that the next Watch Dogs will do the same. Minigames and their ilk are, like 360 and PS3, rather showing their age. Do we really need them any more? Here’s hoping that the greater processing power of new console hardware isn’t going to be solely devoted to making shinier, bigger versions of the games we’ve already played, and that future Watch Dogs games will ensure every playable feature will be as flexible, emergent and novel as the systems at its core.