The stealth genre is quite over-saturated, to say the least. Many opt to sport the same gameplay loop of sneaking your way through an area with roving guards and other obstacles. Often, you are crouched or glueing yourself to assorted cover such as crates or walls, where you might as well be putting the Berlin Wall between you and the nearby guard. With such an over-saturated genre, innovation is sorely needed to spice up the experience and avoid the criticism of ‘yet another stealth ‘em-up’. Watch Dogs and its sequels certainly attempted to do that with the inclusion of “hacking” mechanics (if you class using apps on your phone as hacking). But did it succeed? Which entry did it better? Did it improve over time or did it decay?
Watch Dogs was released in 2014 after a considerably tumultuous development cycle. Developed by Ubisoft Montreal, Watch Dogs saw generally favourable response from critics but did draw flak from the, now stereotypical and oft-mocked, graphics downgrade from its E3 reveal in 2012. The game follows Worlds Most Boring Man 2014: Aiden Pearce, who talks like he permanently has a throat infection and shows to be inept at buttoning up his trench coat, often looking like a badminton shuttlecock in a snapback. Out of the entire series, I would say that the story of the Watch Dogs is at its weakest here. It’s a pretty uninspired revenge story as Aiden sets out to get payback on those who inadvertently murdered his niece as they attempted to assassinate him. But the story here merely serves as the vessel to deliver the main draw of the game: the hacking mechanics.
I replayed a good portion of Watch Dogs in preparation for writing this feature and compared to its contemporaries (or at least one of them) the gameplay hasn’t aged as well. Aiden is weighty and not very mobile. The gunplay is clunky by today’s standards, the AI is rather lacking, and the whole experience is ridiculously easy. How stealth works in this game is ultimately up to you, but the general approach is the eliminate as much opposition in your way via the hacking mechanic. The hacking in Watch Dogs allows Aiden to remotely access security cameras to gain overwatch over the area and set traps by arming explosive pipes, electrical junction boxes, subterranean piping and even the guard’s own grenades. The hacking also allows Aiden to temporarily distract guards by ringing their mobile phones so he can sneak past or knock them out.
The issue with Watch Dogs core stealth system is that its ridiculously easy to cheese even without the hacking. In one of the early areas after attaining the suppressed Spec Ops 1911, I picked off one of the guards whilst hiding behind a concrete block. All the guards, one by one, began to approach the body to investigate, and each time I would pick them off with a headshot. Because I had a suppressed weapon, they had no idea what was going on or what direction I was shooting from.
Now, not all areas allow for this kind of cheap tactic, but for all intents and purposes having a suppressed weapon is an automatic win. There are times where you are forced to hack and it does often yield funny outcomes, so I still used it. Ultimately, Watch Dogs served as a solid foundation for Ubisoft Montreal to develop on and improve. Maybe they should do away with the boring protagonist, forgettable cast (apart from T-Bone) and allow for more inventive uses of the hacking…
Which they did with flying colours. Watch Dogs 2 was released in 2016 and absolutely blew me away with the improvements they made over its predecessor. Ubisoft Montreal added additional features to flesh out the hacking mechanics, stealth, story, world and characters whilst removing the unnecessary features seen in the first game. In Watch Dogs 2 we leave Aiden Pearce and Chicago behind and find ourselves in the Bay Area of California, playing through the plight of young idealistic hacker: Marcus Holloway. Therefore shedding the dark dreariness of Chicago and the over-serious tone which Watch Dogs had throughout. With a team of other colourful characters, Marcus and Dedsec set out to take down Blume and it’s new all-encompassing network; ctOS 2.0.
In the gameplay department, Ubisoft Montreal made Marcus much more mobile and fun to control than Aiden was. Marcus parkours over most terrain, moves at a fast speed and has a much more intuitive quick-hacking system for hacks on the fly. All this allows for a much more fast-paced and overall enjoyable experience compared to its predecessor. Enemies were also made much more aware and threatening. Marcus can only take a few shots before going down, enemies see further, notice you quicker and react more appropriately than their compatriots from Chicago. Suppressed weapons aren’t an automatic win here either. If you mess up a headshot, your target will know where you are, call out to their teammates and swarm you. All of this culminates in making the stealth side of the game much more engaging and challenging, a far cry from the clunky stealth of Watch Dogs.
Watch Dogs 2 also allows for more options to tackle each area, mainly due to the new gadgets at Marcus’ disposal. He has access to an RC jumper, which can access many devices, and a quadcopter drone to survey the area and set off/arm traps. If played smart, you may not even need Marcus to enter the area himself and rely just on the drones to do the work for him.
Ubisoft Montreal also trimmed the fat of unnecessary mechanics seen in Watch Dogs. You no longer need to pick up materials to craft gadgets such as IED’s or distraction tools. Marcus unlocks these in the skill tree and has access to two which recharge over time to prevent you from spamming IED’s and wiping out crowds of guards in an instant. The vigilantism crime prevention has also been removed as it really didn’t make sense in Watch Dogs (how is being seen by the perpetrator and putting them off a bad thing?) and opted not to include it here.
The story and characters have also been greatly improved. Each member has a distinct and memorable personality which I can still recall right now (Wrench <3). The story is also much more light-hearted and rebellious most of the time, but the serious moments are conveyed appropriately to juxtapose with the rambunctious anarchy up to those points.
Charming mini-activities have been included such as a sightseeing selfie app, as well as an Uber app to drive interesting characters around. A great side quest which really demonstrates the rebellious fun of this game was the ATM side quest, where you hack into ATM’s and mess with the customer; either giving them money, paying off their student loans, donating their money to charity, closing their account, or calling the police on them for “suspicious activity”. With such a great sequel building on the original and the sales figures, review scores demonstrating how great the game was, surely they could recreate the magic in the third instalment, right?…
Well, boy, have I got bad news for you. Watch Dogs: Legion is not a good game and is by far the weakest instalment in the franchise in hacking, stealth, characters, and story. In actuality, Ubisoft Montreal saw how well Watch Dogs 2 was received for its gameplay/characters and ripped it all out for Legion.
Legion was released in November 2020 and not only changed city but also the nation. Legion takes place in near-future London and despite your best efforts during and since Watch Dogs 2, Blume has launched ctOS not only across the United States but internationally, including the United Kingdom. The story follows the local Dedsec cell which was decimated as a result of false flag bomb attacks across the city by a figure known as Zero-Day. As a result, a private military company: Albion takes control of London on the Prime Minister’s request to bring order back to the city. To combat this, the sole survivor of the Dedsec annihilation: Sabine recruits you(?) to Dedsec to rebuild. The reason why I question “you” is that you don’t have one sole character to insert yourself to. This is due to Legion’s recruitment gimmick, where you start with one non-descript character and you can recruit most members of the public to your plight based on their skills/equipment.
At first, this is an interesting mechanic but it’s at the expense of pretty much every aspect of the game it relies on. As you can play as any NPC you see on the street, whichever member you play as cannot have a character or character development over the course of the plot as you could start playing as a different one at any moment. No longer do you have a likeable character like Marcus or even a boring defined character like Aiden to see develop or get attached to. Another effected factor was the character interactions. As all the voice actors had to record their conversation lines separately and out of context, the lines often feel stilted. Like watching a poorly acted pantomime or puppet show.
Not only does this have a drastic impact on character attachment, but its also to the detriment of gameplay and stealth. Gone is the upgrade system to unlock new abilities and hacks. Gone is the charming “Arnie of 3D printers, arghh!” to expand your arsenal of weapons. No, you are supposed to use the recruitment system to hire NPC’s who have the skills and weaponry you need, then switch to them when you feel their skill set is ideal for that situation. To compensate for this mechanic, all hostile areas have been designed to complete even if you don’t have the ideal equipment, leading to most areas feeling incredibly easy. I found it more effective to distract the guards by ringing their phone and then clobbering them with a bat. The guards also have been incredibly nerfed, with their awareness heavily scaled back; not even being able to detect you across a brightly lit room or hear you knocking out their colleague.
Watch Dogs: Legion was one of the most uninspired, boring, unchallenging, and uninteresting gaming experiences I have experienced in recent memory. The only thing that held up Legion during my playthrough was the immense recreation of London, with it being one of the best video game representations ever seen. Despite this, the novelty of the city wears off, and all the while I was playing Legion for this feature, I just wanted to play Watch Dogs 2.
As demonstrated in this almost-thesis, The Watch Dogs series has been a mountain of quality in terms of its stealth/hacking gameplay, story and characters. Watch Dogs was a solid basis to expand upon in later developments. Watch Dogs 2 perfected the vision Ubisoft Montreal had for this IP with immense improvements in nigh-on all facets of the overall experience. And Watch Dogs: Legion took all the things that made Watch Dogs 2 amazing and burnt it on a pyre right in front of our faces, descending the proverbial mountain slopes. What does this series have in store for the future? Who knows? Honestly, following the dumpster fire that was Legion I’m not holding out much hope for a future release, let alone a return to form seen in WD 2. I guess we’ll see if Ubisoft can forecast another instalment being viable.