WATCH DOGS 2 is a game-changer for Ubisoft. The story has a fun-loving tone that fits the setting and subject matter, the atmosphere is dense and painstakingly detailed, and the characters are surprisingly likable, rising above their archetypes as the story goes on. Perhaps most important are the tweaks made to the infamous Ubisoft formula. WATCH DOGS 2 is not a simple carbon copy of every other Ubisoft open world game. The gameplay is refined, streamlined, and efficient, focusing more on pre-made, carefully-crafted scenarios and less on repetitive procedural content. From the moment I picked this game up, I actually had trouble putting it down, but after I beat the game I couldn't help but feel like something was missing.

I can keep playing my favorite open world games for months or even years after I've beaten the main story, but I had no desire to keep playing WATCH DOGS 2 after I completed it. I couldn't put my finger on it at first, but as time went on I started to think WATCH DOGS 2 strayed from the formula a bit too much. To create the perfect open world game, you need both focus and freedom, quality and quantity. You need gameplay that's both diverse and compelling, wrapped up with a story that's both focused and open-ended. It's a difficult balance that many games never achieve.

WATCH DOGS 2 is the perfect object lesson of a great game that couldn't quite find this balance. In their attempts to move away from their tiresome formula, Ubisoft may have gone a bit too far in the opposite direction, creating a high quality, streamlined experience without the bells and whistles many gamers have come to expect.

So, how does WATCH DOGS 2 miss the mark on open world game design? How do we create the perfect open world? Can we have limitless playability without sacrificing quality? Or are we trying to have our cake and eat it too? Well, let's take a look!

The Open World Spectrum

Creating an open world game is a delicate process, and WATCH DOGS 2 is no exception. Most open worlds can be placed on a spectrum between two extremes. On one hand, you have sandboxes: these games tend to be more free-form, placing few restrictions on the player and putting an emphasis on exploration, experimentation, and player-driven scenarios. Games like MINECRAFT, MORROWIND, or DON'T STARVE can all be considered sandboxes.

Ubisoft has become infamous for applying mediocre sandbox features to their open world games. There's often a sea of collectibles scattered across the world, constant random encounters, and a seemingly inexhaustible series of objectives. The goal here is to give the player the sense that the world is alive and to make sure they never run out of things to do, but this has led to a slew of games that lack originality. You often find yourself doing the same few activities for hours on end without an interesting story or intrinsic motivation to keep you engaged. While this interpretation of the sandbox was popularized by Ubisoft, it's been adopted by many other developers over the years, creating a great deal of fatigue for gamers.

[ASSASSIN'S CREED: UNITY] This isn't a game. It's a to-do list.

But after playing WATCH DOGS 2 and going back to some older Ubisoft games, I realized this formula was never the problem. It was the lack of anything on top of it. I feel the same way about the Ubisoft formula as I do about the radiant quests in SKYRIM. In both cases, the developers relied on these mechanics in lieu of diverse, compelling gameplay. With a few tweaks, the Ubisoft formula could provide a simple sandbox experience on top of an already compelling game. I love random encounters, I love emergent gameplay, I love mini-games and distractions, but you can't base a game on those features alone. It's like having icing without the cake.

READ: What are the basic components of an open world game? Let's take a look!

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the theme park: a delicious cake with no icing at all. These are games where the open world can sometimes feel tacked-on, where it's just a method of getting from point A to point B, without much in the way of side activities or emergent gameplay. Many MMOs lean at least slightly in this direction, presenting the player with a vast open world but guiding them in a linear fashion toward the endgame. The goal here is to streamline the game, to create a high-quality experience for the player without getting bogged down with superfluous activities. However, if you place too much focus on one thing, it can work against you. The most recent example of a poorly made theme park is MAFIA III, a game with a solid story and core mechanics bogged down by a lack of diversity and an open world with no reason to exist. Unlike previous Ubisoft games, which lean toward the sandbox, WATCH DOGS 2 definitely slipped into theme park territory.  The game delivers a compelling story with solid mechanics, but not much to do in the world compared to other games within the same genre.

Call me an idealist, but I think we can have the best of both worlds. This is where WATCH DOGS 2 misses the mark, creating several problems that mar an otherwise brilliant experience:

Once You're Done, You're Done

WATCH DOGS 2 has quite a bit of content. There are side quests full of interesting stories and gameplay, collectibles that actually reward the player for finding them, and all sorts of car, bike, and even sailing races. Between this, the main story, and a satisfying gameplay loop, WATCH DOGS 2 can keep you occupied for at least a few weeks.

The problem is that the gameplay loop (the core activities the player performs) is completely reliant on the story and pre-set side-missions. Once you're done with them, you're pretty much done with the game. In a game that focuses almost entirely on using stealth and gadgets to navigate carefully crafted levels, once those levels are complete, you suddenly find yourself with little to do. In previous Ubisoft games, you could keep finding things to do for months after you completed the main story. Granted, the things you were doing were rarely engaging and stopped being fun after a while, but there's a balance between these extremes that Ubisoft is missing.

Take a non-Ubisoft game like RED DEAD REDEMPTION. Along with a solid series of quests, side quests, and collectibles, the game is chock-full of content to keep you occupied for a while. There's an endless supply of randomly generated encounters and procedurally generated bounty hunting missions. Since the gameplay loop is solid, the game can keep you occupied for months on end.

[RED DEAD REDEMPTION] This is widely considered to be one of the best games of the last generation. Getting the formula right is essential.

I respect WATCH DOGS 2's decision to move away from repetitive, procedurally generated content in favor of a more focused experience, but I don't think these design choices are mutually exclusive. The original WATCH DOGS, for all its faults, had some interesting random encounters. You could stop robberies in progress, take out criminals, and generally live out your own vigilante fantasy. There are still elements of this in the sequel but they're not enough to keep you occupied for long. I would have liked to see WATCH DOGS 2 expand upon these procedural activities, making them more hacking and stealth oriented, and generally giving the player more to do in between missions.

READ: What's at the core of our humor? Why do we love absurdity?

What if the eavesdropping and hacking of pedestrians were more involved? What if someone's profile information could generate a random mission for you? What if you could discover a corrupt CEO on the street, travel to his randomly generated mansion and use your hacking skills to steal his money and rewire it to the people he's ripping off? What if you could listen in on a gang member discussing an upcoming robbery, and actually interfere with it for good or ill? What if there were just enough of these unique, repeatable scenarios that they stayed fresh without getting old too quickly?

If WATCH DOGS 2 had more random and procedural missions on top of what we've already got, I'd be playing this game for years to come.

Distractions are Good

It's not just a lack of emergent gameplay that shortens the lifespan of an open world game. Whether you notice it or not, mini-games and other distractions can have a real impact on a game's longevity. Mini-games are rarely the focus of an open world experience, but there's a certain comfort in knowing they're there. You can always take a break from your main quest and immerse yourself in the world by playing silly board games, getting drunk at a bar, or engaging in any number of distractions that give you a variety of things to do.

The original WATCH DOGS had your standard chess games, drinking games, and racing activities, as well as a jarring, anachronistic, yet surprisingly creative set of virtual reality games.

[WATCH_DOGS] Seen here: a mature science-fiction experience.

Aside from some racing activities, there are absolutely no mini-games of any kind in WATCH DOGS 2. I'll always choose a solid set of primary activities over a handful of meaningless distractions, but I have to wonder why the mini-games from the first entry weren't at least carried over to the sequel.

This all connects to my original point. Ubisoft was so committed to dropping the formula that they missed an opportunity to diversify the gameplay. They went so far in the opposite direction that they ignored the (flawed) potential in what they already had.

WATCH DOGS 2 needs more icing. I would have loved to see more hacking tournaments like the one we briefly experienced in the main story. I would have welcomed additional types of hacking puzzles on top of what we already got. What if you could play arcade games at the bar and cheat your way to the top with your hacking skills? It could even be a game within a game, where you're trying to cheat without your opponent noticing.

In a game about technology and hacking, the possibilities for mini games were endless. The lack of diverse, varied activities in WATCH DOGS 2 is a missed opportunity in an otherwise brilliant game.

The New Formula

Open world games are hard as hell to make. Even when you make a great one, there can still be some minor problems that cut short the lifespan of your game.  So what have we learned here? How can we improve upon the open world formula? Well, it all comes down to that spectrum I mentioned earlier, that delicate balance between a free-form sandbox and a streamlined theme park.

READ: How is the latest Warcraft expansion? Let's take a look!

Creating an open world game isn't so much a matter of finding a middle ground here, but of going toward both extremes at once. Varied gameplay is not mutually exclusive with a solid level design. Emergent gameplay is not mutually exclusive with a compelling story. We can take the most engaging mechanics from both sides without sacrificing the quality of either. Is this more difficult than leaning slightly toward one side or the other? Of course, but if history has taught us anything, it's that we can have the best of both worlds.  There's nothing wrong with demanding greatness.

[Morrowind]: An interesting world, a brilliant story, and near-complete freedom. The dream is real.

If you insist on going to one extreme, go all the way. Games like MINECRAFT and EVE ONLINE prove that there's a market for full-on sandbox games. Games like UNCHARTED and PORTAL prove that there's a market for linear, high-quality gameplay without having an open world in the first place. WATCH DOGS 2 faces an identity crisis, where it leans more toward one side, while still retaining elements from the other. As a result, no matter how great the game is, there will always be some lingering issues.

The Point

I love open world games, but creating a great one is a delicate balancing act. There's a million ways to get them wrong and only a few ways to get them right. Finding that balance between diversity, quantity, quality, and longevity may be a difficult task, but it can and has been done before. When an open world hooks you in, there's nothing else like it. Suddenly you're living a life in a virtual world, a world that feels alive, full of things to experience and discover.

We should always applaud a game for innovating, for evolving in a positive way to create a better experience, but I think it's up to us as gamers to challenge developers. I want my cake, and I want to eat it too.

I loved WATCH DOGS 2, and hopefully, Ubisoft will expand upon what they learned from this game without sacrificing the little things that make open worlds so great.

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4 Comments

  1. Profile photo of psychotrip

    psychotrip

    March 2, 2017 at 11:47 pm

    I mentioned the driving activities, and world and atmosphere are indeed amazing, and I praised that as well. In comparison to other open world games, however, I’d still say there’s relatively little to do.

    I think you expected this article to be something it was never intended to be. It’s neither a complete rebuke of the game nor is it an exhaustive list of all its features. My goal was to analyze what goes into a balanced open world game, and to figure out what I thought Watch Dogs 2 did right and wrong in comparison to other games within the same genre.

    Reply

  2. Profile photo of psychotrip

    psychotrip

    March 2, 2017 at 11:44 pm

    “Apparently the author had no idea there are several online modes and additional co-op/solo missions to do in the game.”

    I didn’t mention online functionality because, while I enjoy it, I didn’t find it relevant to the discussion. Any form of PvP by definition adds additional variability to a game, but you can say that about any game with multiplayer, open world or not. This article focused on the procedural and emergent gameplay I thought was missing from the open world, and the delicate balance necessary in making a game that’s both focused and free-form.

    I also explicitly mentioned the collectibles in the game and praised their implementation.

    I think we actually agree on the substance here: WD2 is one of the best open world games I’ve played in recent years, but that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to look for ways in which it can improve itself.

    Reply

  3. Alex Mac

    March 2, 2017 at 11:28 pm

    Even more things worth mentioning, the NPCs and things populating the world feel very alive in their actions and conversations etc. very well done and makes you feel like you’re in a real world. The scoutX app provides a fun time just going around sight seeing and taking pictures of the beautiful living city. More still the Driver App provides endless driving missions, as if you were an uber driver in SF. Lots of fun things to do in this game once the extensive and open ended story campaign is done. Rarely have I read a more wrong article.

    Reply

  4. Alex Mac

    March 2, 2017 at 11:25 pm

    This article bizarrely leaves out a lot of WD2’s features. Apparently the author had no idea there are several online modes and additional co-op/solo missions to do in the game. The extra missions with purple icons are randomized and endless, with varied locations and objectives, they can be done over and over and are different each time. Very fun and great replay value. The elite missions expand on this with bigger scope to the missions.
    The hacking and bounty hunter modes make great use of the world and offer limitless replay value hacking other people online, and participating in bounty chases. The hacking mode especially uses the world brilliantly as one giant hiding place.
    Finally there are random “dedsec” events in the game which offer a bite sized challenge.
    The many, many collectibles within the world are all useful money packs or research points etc. They are almost all located in an enemy restricted area which you can stealth or guns blaze, or require an environmental puzzle to solve.
    WD2 is one of the best AAA open world games at making great use of its colorful world. This article is entirely misguided.

    Reply

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