So I played Watch Dogs this week. Fun game. Doesn’t live up to the hype of the original E3 demo, but nothing could. Still, as far as open world games go I like it better than average and it does feel somewhat unique.
There were a host of little things that bothered me about my experience, however. And since nitpicking is so much more fun than vaguely praising something, I’ll be doing a bit of that to start.
The story is probably the main thing that doesn’t quite work. That’s because, as with so many games, the gameplay and the story are at odds. Some high-minded people refer to this as ludonarrative dissonance. Not me, of course. I’m never pretentious.
On the one hand, this is the personal revenge story of gruff-talking, trenchcoat wearing Aiden Pearce, a “hacker” whose niece was killed during an assassination attempt on him. On the other, this is basically a GTA-style game where you waste hundreds of dudes and probably inadvertently kill a handful of civilians while you tear around the city in some pretty difficult to drive fast cars.
It’s kind of hard to take Aiden’s grief and guilt seriously when he has no problem killing tons of mooks who stand in his way. There are a couple of points in the story where Aiden has one of those Am I Actually Terrible Person moments for the sake of drama.
Yes, Aiden. Yes, you are a terrible person. You have murdered hundreds of people, put your family in unnecessary danger, gotten friends and allies killed, caused untold millions in property damage, and invaded the privacy of everyone in Chicago to get revenge for the death of one person. And you were responsible for her death in the first place because of your criminal activities.
Given that Aiden’s reaction to these events is “oh, I might be a bad person, I guess,” it’s hard not to feel like the protagonist is a gigantic sociopath. Aside from the thief aspect of the character, you’re basically playing as a hacker version of Rorschach. You’re even referred to as “The Vigilante.”
I think a lot of these problems could have be solved or at least lessened by giving players more non-lethal options. As it stands, the only way to take down enemies non-lethally is to sneak up on them one-by-one and use the takedown move. That doesn’t really feel like an intended way to play the game. There are no stun guns, tranquilizer rifles, or tasers. Deus Ex this ain’t.
But then again, there are very few choices actually given to the player. Certainly you don’t get to make any narrative decisions. Okay. You get to make one at the very end. In a scene that plays halfway through the credits. You get to decide whether to kill or walk away from a character. The way it’s framed, it feels like the developers wanted this to be the defining moment for the player and Aiden. Are you just like the bad guys or are you different? But the choice rings hollow because of the aforementioned mass slaughter. Sparing one guy might distinguish you from the most ruthless of your enemies, but it does not exonerate the character by any stretch of the imagination.
The lack of choice carries over into the gameplay as well. The things that annoyed me here are typical of open world games. They have irritating checkpoint saves in missions and they generally send you back farther than I’d like when you die. And I died and failed a lot.
There are a lot of arbitrary requirements in missions too. When you chase someone, for example, (this happens a LOT) you must maintain a minimum distance to your target or you will lose. This makes sense in other games because you could actually lose your tail. But in Watch Dogs Aiden has a magical phone that can do whatever the plot requires. Why can’t it track somebody once they get 300 meters away?
The mission structure gets quite repetitive. Here’s how a typical mission in Watch Dogs goes. Go to waypoint to start mission. Use cameras to survey a restricted area before entering and use hacks to soften up enemy lines. Shoot a lot of dudes or sneak to the next objective marker. Occasionally stealth will be mandatory. Find a code on one of the guards. Infiltrate the enemy compound and hack a box with the code you found. Hack another thing and get into a server somewhere. Hear a phone conversation between Aiden and one of his contacts which usually ends with “they’re coming for you!” Find the nearest vehicle and escape from the enemy reinforcements. Crash a lot trying to escape. Finally escape and hear another phone conversation. Rinse and repeat.
This mission structure isn’t bad. It’s pretty cool the first few times. But It gets really predictable after the first act of the game. Fortunately, there are a handful of missions which deviate from the format and offer some pretty memorable moments.
As I alluded to earlier, the driving in this game kinda sucks and that makes chases ragequit frustrating. I got a little better over the course of the game, but never really felt I got the hang of it. Chases are also annoying because the game spawns so many enemies that try to take you down. The criminal organizations that are after you seem to have no end of cars to send after you and it feels like the game is cheating.
It’s even worse when you’re being chased by the police. If they’re chasing you at night, you’re in luck. Just use Aiden’s blackout device to kill the power for about 30 seconds. If they’re chasing you in the daytime then it’s a lot harder to shake them. No police department could ever possibly have the response time that the Chicago PD of Watch Dogs has. I don’t care if they have a giant surveillance system at their disposal. It still feels like cheating. Having said that, I feel like it’s too easy to escape from the law in most games of this sort. I like that the police are a real, viable threat in Watch Dogs.
Besides Aiden Pearce, the other star of the game is the city of almost-Chicago. Having visited the real Chicago several times over the past few years, I can say that Ubisoft got the general feel of things right even though they gave the city major reconstructive surgery. It facilitates gameplay well which I’m guessing was the reason for a lot of the changes.
I find Watch Dogs’ Chicago a more interesting place to be and explore than other open world games I’ve played. That’s partially because I had fun looking for landmarks I knew and comparing the virtual city to the real city; but it’s also due to the high level of detail. It’s particularly cool to see the L-train rolling around. It functions as a fast-travel system although you can actually board the train and ride it around if you want to tour the city that way. That was a nice touch. Pre-release press talked about how the developers wanted to make the city more dense and full instead of just large. Seems like they accomplished that mission.
Watch Dogs features a variety of multiplayer modes. Most of these can be accessed at certain places in the world. As you travel about you’ll get prompts to take place in various online modes like racing or hacking. I haven’t tried most of them. When I did I was subjected to wait times of a few minutes to get matched with another player. I also had connection issues when trying to play certain online modes.
There’s a mobile app which allows people who don’t even own the game to participate. The mobile player commands a police helicopter while the player inside Watch Dogs must race a vehicle from checkpoint to checkpoint. It’s a pretty cool idea but this is where the connection issues reared their ugly head. I tried this mode three times and twice we were disconnected prematurely. I was only able to get matched with another player once using the mobile app and then it disconnected halfway through.
The most seamless of the online modes is invasions. This is a similar feature to Dark Souls’ invasions. You’ll be playing the game and suddenly get a message that another player is trying to steal your information. You must identify and kill or chase away the hacker. The other player just looks like a generic citizen, however. For some reason this mode is much cooler conceptually than in reality, but I did have fun with it the couple times I was invaded.
All multiplayer modes award points for special bonuses and abilities you can only get through multiplayer so there’s a nice incentive to participate in these modes. You can also lose these points by being defeated in the events. That means there’s always something at stake when you play.
Even though Watch Dogs has some serious shortcomings, there are lots of things to like. It’s a solid third-person action game with the added mechanic of hacking which ranges from necessity to gimmick. Bottomline: it’s fun and full of spectacle and isn’t that why we play these sorts of games in the first place? I enjoy it enough to stick around, finish some of the side quests, and do a little more virtual tourism.
Note: much has been made about the graphics since Watch Dogs is sort of the poster child for the new console generation. For interested types, I’m running the game on PC on mostly high settings at 900p. I realized recently that my video card is almost four years old and I was worried about how the game would run. Runs okay with those settings but it definitely wasn’t totally smooth. I think the game looks pretty good, but it’s not mind-blowing by any stretch. I’d be curious to play it with maxed out settings for comparison, but my poor GTX470 would die so maybe later.