Ubisoft has cottoned on to something lucrative, a particular gameplay formula that has been seeping into its major releases for a number of years. It is an almighty template--one that dictates everything from high-level world structure down to basic core mechanics. Though the Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, and Splinter Cell series still offer unique power fantasies from different perspectives, they are slowly blending into one--and Watch Dogs is next in line.
This is most obvious when examining the high-level structural similarities between titles. During Far Cry 3's 2012 promotional tour, Jeffrey Yohalem, the game's lead writer, stated, "You can think of it like an Assassin's Creed game in first-person." Though he was referring specifically to the narrative delivery structure, much of the open-world framework of Assassin's Creed came to define Far Cry 3's gameplay, too.
Just as synchronising a viewpoint in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag reveals key points on the minimap, activating a radio tower in Far Cry 3 reveals nearby locations. Both actions unlock fast travel points in their respective worlds, as well. All in all, Ubisoft likes to break its open worlds up into distinct sections, which lock off regional functionality until a specific loop is completed.
Other locations that bear more significant gameplay changes are dotted throughout Ubisoft's worlds. In Assassin's Creed IV, the state of the Caribbean's divided seas is anchored to one well-defended fort per region. Breaching the fort, killing its commander, and raising your own black flag over its turrets essentially unlocks that section of the map. New missions can be accepted, vendors set up shop, and a grab bag of nearby collectibles are suddenly highlighted on the map. Far Cry 3's outposts serve a very similar purpose. Severing the alarm, taking down every enemy, and raising the flag of the native Rakyat tribe opens new safe houses and alters the ratio of friendly to enemy NPC propagation in the surrounding area.
For Watch Dogs, these open-world anchor points come in the form of CtOS Control Centers--secure hubs that house the omnipresent operating system that controls Chicago's electronic devices. When players infiltrate a control center and hack its main terminal, they gain access to the region's map and are then able to hack all electronic devices throughout.
These systems allow players to adopt an extremely similar flow from series to series, as they're able to sweep across the open-world map and activate each anchor point, in whatever form it may take, to instil a sensation of "clearing" an area. These forts, outposts, and control centers are all multi-stage encounters with various outcomes: Alarms can be tripped; reinforcements can arrive; systems and resources like wild animal attacks, or the presence of hostile Spanish frigates, interact to make clearing each point of interest a relatively unpredictable experience.
Flipping these locations over to the player's control is not enough to highlight their significance to the world at large, so these anchor points continue to affect the world well after they are breached and cleared. Far Cry 3's outposts will spawn friendly NPCs in the nearby area, instigating additional systemic encounters between the island's opposing factions. Assassin's Creed IV's forts will deploy their cannons and mortars against the player's enemies, should they be led within range of that fort's arsenal. Taking a control center in Watch Dogs allows the player to profile every nearby NPC, which increases the incidence of systemic vigilante encounters with random criminals.
The incidental activities that are also highlighted across the map usually tie in to a crafting system. Near-identical progression can be found in Assassin's Creed IV and Far Cry 3, with the skinning of progressively more dangerous animals being required actions for players wanting to buy their way down a list of increasingly desirable items. Even Splinter Cell: Blacklist appropriated this crafting, but rather than skinning terrorists for their pelts, you're earning cash for functionally similar character upgrades to those seen in Ubisoft's other franchises. Though we haven't seen Watch Dogs' crafting in action yet, Ubisoft has mentioned in the above open-world gameplay demo that players will be able to "craft their tools", so, based on this formula, we know what to expect.
Manipulating these in-game economies is usually more straightforward and less receptive to player expression than taking forts and outposts, but these systems' presentation strives to maintain an in-world presence. Both Far Cry 3 and Watch Dogs tell players they've looted items like an "LCD watch" or "Luxury timepiece", respectively, rather than simply increasing their bank account. And then there are the bar-filling, checklist-completing doodads that populate the rest of each game's map--Assassin's Creed IV's messages in bottles, Far Cry 3's World War II letters, and whatever piece of written, collectible side content Watch Dogs has in store.
Even the way that players deal with enemies feels familiar across Ubisoft's major franchises. Though it was Splinter Cell: Conviction that first allowed players to mark and execute enemies, the marking and tracking mechanic, sans execute, has found its way into Far Cry 3, Assassin's Creed IV, and, of course, Watch Dogs. All four franchises feature some form of free transversal, with Edward Kenway's parkour, Sam Fisher's active sprint, Jason Brody's first-person mantling, and Aiden Pierce's ability to scurry up the city's infrastructure. Each game's on-screen minimap communicates much the same information with near-identical visual language. Your moment-to-moment manipulation of each character is becoming increasingly familiar, whether you're clambering across rooftops in Havana, infiltrating Iranian terrorist cells, scaling radio towers in the tropics, or slinking through the back streets of Chicago.
Ubisoft has not stumbled upon this formula accidentally. It has taken a couple of Far Cry games, six mainline Assassin's Creeds, and elements of the latest Splinter Cells to refine the recipe to where it is today. Does this mean the next Splinter Cell will go open world, too? Hey, if Hideo Kojima can do so in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, anything could be on the cards for Sam Fisher. But for Watch Dogs, a couple of outcomes can be more clearly predicted. The Ubisoft formula could create a competent but all-too-familiar dose of open-world action or the push for a higher degree of environmental manipulation, along with truly systemic interactions, could elevate Watch Dogs above the other games that Ubisoft's formula has concocted before.
The push for a higher degree of environmental manipulation, along with truly systemic interactions, could elevate Watch Dogs above the other games that Ubisoft's formula has concocted before.
We do know that Watch Dogs will have everything we're familiar with--an open world divided into anchor points, a crafting system, systemic and randomised encounters with NPCs. But the game is also expanding Ubisoft's formula to include a reflection of the player's morality in NPC interactions, as well as a mode that blends single player and multiplayer by allowing players to secretly hack into and disrupt the worlds of others. These are some daring leaps forward, and, if we know Ubisoft, we can expect these additions to the formula to filter back, in some way, to future titles in their existing major franchises as well.
And if you don't believe me, well...considering Ubisoft knows exactly where you died in Assassin's Creed IV, we can assume that Watch Dogs is being developed on a mountain of player metrics, which, considering the game's information warfare focus, makes the existence of the Ubisoft formula nothing if not sweetly ironic.