Late to the Party: Watch_Dogs
When Ubisoft unveiled Watch_Dogs at E3 2012 I was blown away by its stunning graphics and the disruptive power that the Buff and trench coat-loving hacker had at his disposal. Together with the ill-fated Star Wars: 1313, it was a tantalizing first glimpse at what lay in store for us in the enigmatic, next generation of consoles. After the initial reveal our anticipation continued to grow, it was also a showpiece at the PlayStation 4’s coming out party in February of 2013 and had another great E3 showing. Many preordered Xbox Ones and PlayStation 4s just for Watch_Dogs and millions were spent by Sony and Ubisoft to put the two together in a PS4 bundle just for that reason.
And then the other shoe dropped. A little more than a month before its original release date of November 2013 Ubisoft announced that the game would be delayed until late May of this year in order to add more density to the world and iron out the tiny little bugs that conflicted with the many system’s that we would be given the keys to. That delay, coupled with gameplay videos that showed what many believed to be evidence that the developer had ‘downgraded’ the graphics, and had pulled some next gen wool over our eyes in that reveal video. But now, over two years after we dared to dream of making Chicago’s infrastructure our bitch we can endeavor to finally find out if Watch_Dogs has fulfilled our inflated expectations.
But before we begin outlining the merits and demerits that it deserves, let’s have another look at the launch trailer.
WARNING: Mild story spoilers for Watch_Dogs are contained in this review.
The game opens with a hack gone wrong that leads to the death of Lena Pearce, the niece of the assassin’s intended target and our protagonist, Aiden Pearce. We rejoin him a year later, an appropriate amount of time for Aiden’s emotions to progress from sadness to rage, allow for Chicago’s new city wide operating system that unifies all utilities under one network to be fully installed, and bring the timeline of the game more closely in line with the original November 2013 release date. After we meet his worried sister and his traumatized nephew and establish Aiden’s desire to protect them we set out on our mission of cyber vengeance against those responsible for Lena’s death. And no-one, from the lowliest street thugs, the human trafficking gangster bigwigs, the privacy destroying corporate elite, or corrupt politicians are safe from his wrath.
Aiden is not alone in his campaign, as he has the help of a few old friends and new allies including Clara, the Girl Who Has A Dragon Tattoo Somewhere On Her Body, T-Bone, a dreadlocked Redneck and fellow hacker who switched off the East Coast in 2003 (his bonafides and excuse to make him someone we can pay to as) and last but not least, Jordi, a lovable sociopath that I wouldn’t be surprised to see throwing a few C4-filled puppies into a shark tank alongside GTA V’s Trevor.
The first problem I have with the storytelling of the game is, like in Ubisoft’s last marquee title, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, we are not given enough time to bond with the characters we are avenging, protecting, or obliterating. They are nothing more than murder springboards, mission giving facades or emotive objectives. There was an attempt for us to connect with Aiden’s sister at the beginning of the game when he goes to visit her and his nephew on his birthday, but I think Aiden and I felt that the situation was equally awkward. That awkward feeling persisted throughout the story’s considerable length which was about 20 hours. There were some situations, especially those that involved modern day slavery, that made me feel quite uncomfortable, but that too was fleeting.
It doesn’t help matters that our hero, or antihero, depending on how you decide play him, has zero personality and his gravelly voice makes it sound like he is trying to affect Nolan’s Batman, but the end result is him sounding overly droll. His vocal tone is meant to allow him to fit either the noble vigilante or violent anarchist archetype, as every attempt is made to prevent the player from feeling morally pressured to do one thing or another. If objectivity was the goal, I would have preferred that Ubi made Aiden a silent protagonist, or if that would make it too difficult for the player to connect with the avatar they are playing as, put the entire game in a first person perspective where we are more used to that kind of thing.
The story is only one piece of the puzzle of a game, especially one of the open world variety. It is the gameplay, not the tears provoked by the story, which will keep us coming back again and again.
Let’s get one thing out of the way, Watch_Dogs has the best shooting mechanics of any open world game I have ever played, and it is an equal to the best linear third person shooter in my opinion, Max Payne 3, especially because the slow motion shooting is replicated almost exactly. Aiming is smooth and not overly sensitive, meaning you don’t have to rely on the lock on crutch that I tended to sway towards when playing GTA. Sliding into and out of cover is equally painless, as is the parkour based traversal system, as even without a jump button you can easily reach most rooftops or quickly navigating around obstacles while on foot. The progression system is also well designed, with functional upgrades only a few gunshots, car chases or hacking mini games away.
The only gameplay system which seems to have been a sore spot for many is the driving. I heard that it was too finicky and that the overly forgiving damage model robbed the player of receiving satisfying feedback. I felt the same way at first, until I went back and played Driver: San Francisco, which was designed by Ubisoft Reflections, the team that was also given responsibility for the driving in Watch_Dogs. Similarities were definitely present, both games attempted to fuse arcade driving in their handling with a more realistic and weighty simulation so the player could differentiate between different drivetrains and engine placements. What was different is that Reflections had licensed cars for reference in Driver: San Francisco and therefore had much more real world telemetry and general information to go on that would reflect the actual performance of the cars represented in that game. In Watch_Dogs the varied set of cars, trucks, motorcycle and boats are more generic and more varied simultaneously meaning they all need to fulfill the basic requirements of getting Aiden from one side of the map to the other and some are better at evading the cops or causing roadblocks. Each vehicle does have a rating of their respective qualities, from acceleration to durability but there is not a lot separating one high performance car from another. Don’t worry too much about it though after about an hour I had little trouble dodging between vehicles at high speed on my chopper (the motorcycle, not the aircraft).
Watch_Dogs covers all of the basic gameplay requirements of a game of this type, but one of the main reasons it was so initially alluring was because Aiden’s could ‘hack’ everything connected to the ctOS system, including pedestrians phones for cash and surreptitiously listening in on text and chat conversations, surveillance and cell phone cameras, traffic lights, blockers, transformers, the elevated (L) train and the entire power grid. When used spontaneously it can be as empowering and dynamic as we imagined it might be. One of the best examples of this that is burned forever into my game playing memory went like this: I got into a chase with the fuzz (let’s not dwell on the reasons why) and, spotting a train pulling into a nearby station, raced up the stairs, hacked the train to keep it from pulling away, jumped into the closing doors, hacked it again to get it moving just as the cops scrambled onto the platform. Phew I hadn’t escaped quite yet though, as I could see the flashing lights of the cop cars screaming alongside the tracks trying to beat me to the next station, just then my vision faded to blackness as we entered a tunnel and I heard the warning horn of another train that was about to pass alongside us. Thinking as fast as I could I stopped the train again, jumped out, and hacked the train going in the opposite direction before it passed us by, jumped in, hacked the first train to keep up the charade and finally, hacked the other train. As I pulled out of the tunnel, heading in the opposite direction, I half expected the cops to immediately know that I had switched trains, but no, as my train rounded a turn I saw those same flashing lights hot in pursuit of the train I wasn’t on. Awesome. In more formalized missions, hacking can give you a certain degree of flexibility in deciding how to tackle a situation, you can hack to distract, surveil and tag your enemies, or orchestrate ‘accidents’ like setting off a bumbling guard/gangster’s Wi-Fi connected hand grenade (what?!), but it feels much more scripted and therefore more like just another tool in your arsenal. Not bad, but not revelatory.
Part of the reason this review is being written so long after the game’s release date is not only because of my desire to finish the story before giving my critique of it, it is because it was so hard for me to stay on that critical path because, unlike GTA, Sleeping Dogs, and Assassins Creed, I actually wanted to indulge in the side missions. As is the case for every open world game under the sun, the map is filled with side quests designed to add variety to the main story missions, which on the whole are quite well designed, despite no one seemingly being able to come up with an alternative to the endlessly frustrating ‘tailing’ mission type.
The side missions include towers that you need to puzzle out how to get into in order to uncover more of the map, guarded areas that are either access points to that neighborhood’s network or the hideouts of gangster’s you need to knock out. There are also a handful of recurring mission types, the most common of which is the Minority Report like preemptive crime detection. While it made me feel like a vigilante badass at first, the crime rate started to creep back up as time went on as I simply couldn’t be bothered to intervene in the same mugging, beating, shooting for the fortieth time. The ‘Digital Trips’ deserve more attention than I am giving them, but I don’t want to ruin the surprises that lay in store as they allow for some interesting uses of the game’s gameplay systems and will keep you coming back to score chase, to destroy your friends’ score and fill out each minigames’ discrete progression tree.
Multiplayer was an intriguing experience, it reminded me of Assassins Creed and Dark Souls in that you can be invaded by anyone at any time and you have to find the invader, who is doing his utmost to pretend to be an NPC and steal your ‘data’. The adversarial modes are less interesting but fun in their own right, the Capture the Flag variant is definitely worth playing. I only wish that you could elect to invade your friend’s game, but I think that was prevented in order to minimize the possibility of insider XP trading.
Overall the gameplay systems, as many as there are, work like a unit without collapsing under their own weight, which is impressive in its own right.
Hypothetical graphical demonstrations do not a liar make. That’s the best way I can describe how I rationalized the graphical differences between what I saw at E3 2012 and what I was playing. The Disrupt Engine powering Watch_Dogs has dynamic wind, weather, water and time of day simulations, highly reactive NPC AI and hackable objects almost every direction you look that can interact with those pedestrians and automobiles in explosive ways. While car headlights don’t create their own shadows and gunfire isn’t as explosive, the retail version of Watch_Dogs on PS4 is certainly attractive. I haven’t spent very much time in Chicago, but I have never been in a game’s rendition of a city, yes even in GTA, that felt so believably rich with detail and life. It is unfortunate that we live in a post Infamous: Second Son world, as we have to acknowledge that open world games can be much more attractive, at least those that aren’t held back by having to function on last generation consoles.
After reading such an exhaustive, or exhausting, depending on how much you were able to read before nodding off, review, you might expect me to go to great lengths to summarize everything I’ve written, but no, as I think my conclusions are pretty straightforward. Watch_Dogs, despite having both underdeveloped characters and story has refined gameplay mechanics and immense gameplay value in its side missions and potentially in the multiplayer component. It feels and looks like Chicago, and is a place I look forward to returning to in the very near future.