Here’s everything you need to know about how I feel about Watch Dogs in one go.
At the end of my first session with the game I ended up jumping onto a freeway so I could get a car and head to the next mission. I ran around for a little while, taking in the sights and fiddling with the in-game phone/magic wand to try and hack things in the environment. I didn’t expect to find anything worth doing, but to my surprise I found a sign that I could hack. So I hit the Square button, and it changed before my eyes. So instead of offering some useful information, it changed to a simple message:
“U MAD, BRO?”
I sat there and stared at the screen for half a minute. And then I threw the controller aside, turned off the console, and went to eat some hot dogs.
So yeah. I would tell you that the bar is set pretty low, but I’m not the best judge. That would require me to find the bar first, and last I checked it was hurtling toward the center of the earth.
Playing Watch Dogs makes me think of -- and simultaneously empathize with -- Chef Gordon Ramsay. Okay, sure, it’s easy to look at his fits of berserker rage in Hell’s Kitchen and think he’s just the worst, but if anything the reverse is true. He’s just trying to get the best food out to his customers, and has a very low threshold for mistakes, stupidity, or silliness (anyone who laughs when the contestants are in the middle of service? Pretty much done). He’s trying to give each contestant a chance to win his favor, but he has to let 19 other contestants go per season. And for many of them, he has to say something like “I just don’t get it” or “I can’t do anything more with you” to chefs who can’t make the cut.
That’s how I feel when I play Watch Dogs. I’m trying my hardest to give it a chance. I want it to get the fair shake it deserves, merely by virtue of existing. I’d gladly let it prove its case, and prove why it’s “a true next-gen experience” or “the start of a bold new franchise” or whatever. But it has to be good. Receiving praise and support is a privilege, not a right. It may have the right to a fair shake by existing, but because it exists, it demands to be judged. And that’s what I’m here for. This is the part where I play Chef Ramsay, and decide whether or not Watch Dogs gets to keep its jacket.
But there’s a problem. If we’re keeping up the analogy, Watch Dogs burned its jacket itself -- before it even stepped into the kitchen.
I don’t understand the strategy here. Any of it. Any of it. I wish I could say that I came to that conclusion after completing the game, but I have extreme doubts that I’ll even make it to the halfway point. The game, in my eyes, has shit itself long before that point. The game, in my eyes, shit itself within the first five minutes. Maybe not even that long. It hasn’t gotten any better since. Oh, sure, there are glimmers of competence (note the word choice), but it feels like I can’t take a step down the virtual streets of Chicago without finding something stupid, pointless, annoying, unintentionally hilarious, misguided, half-assed, depressing, banal, or just plain bad.
Okay, you know that thing I do where I list a whole bunch of grievances I have with a game or movie set to Groose’s theme? I was thinking of doing that again with this game, only -- like I did with 47 Ronin -- I would extend it through the rest of the post. And I might do that before post’s end. (Or you can just load it up now and play it in the background.) But while playing Watch Dogs, there was a thought that kept bubbling up in my mind.
I said earlier that I was willing to give Watch Dogs a chance to prove its case, and I stand by that -- because A) it should be able to prove its case, and B) any piece of art should do the same using whatever means it can. That’s “The Deal.” That’s something that proves why a product exists, at a bare minimum. But more importantly, it has to deliver on its premise. Proving its case goes beyond just the basics. It requires vision, and the ability to confidently answer the question a consumer might have. There are many questions that a consumer can justifiably ask, but one rings out louder than all others: “Why?”
So I’ll go ahead and ask Watch Dogs the same question: why?
Why should I care about Watch Dogs? Why should I care about leading man Aiden Pearce? Why should I praise the game as best I can? Why is the information contained within -- the theme, the context, the message, every beat of the story -- important, or even entertaining? Why go with those design choices, and how far are they willing to go to make the best game possible? Why is each element (gameplay or story-wise) justifiable by Ubisoft and its developer cadre? Why is Watch Dogs a good game?
The answer to that last question -- for me, at least -- is that it isn’t.
Watch Dogs has no vision. No ambition. No imagination. And that’s the root of a lot of its failures. It’s a hodgepodge of Ubisoft’s greatest hits -- Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry 3, Splinter Cell -- fused with Grand Theft Auto for good measure, but only manages to ape those conventions without A) understanding what made them good, useful, or unique in the first place, or B) making an argument as to why I should play Watch Dogs instead of, say, GTA5. But as it stands, GTA5 is VASTLY superior in virtually every way. So the question then becomes “why”? Why try to tread worn ground with a “bold” new franchise? Why is the strategy for this next-gen game “the same, but less”? (Unless you order and pre-order every special edition, of course.)
I’m not even joking. Others have pointed out the issues elsewhere, but in my experience, the game is pretty much Grand Theft Auto Minus 5. The number of features that I took for granted, but miss all the more once they’re absent is staggering. Here’s a quick list of things I’ve found:
--You can’t jump on your own, meaning that your only options on foot are walking and running.
--You can’t use melee attacks on your own, which becomes a problem if you’re trying to hijack a boat.
--You can’t use the radio. You can play certain songs with the D-pad (in or out of a car), but no faux-news reports or talk shows unless they’re incidentally worked into a story event.
--You can’t customize Aiden beyond basic palette swaps.
--You can’t level up his skills (walking, swimming, driving) by doing those things in-game. There’s a standard upgrade system, sure, but that just calls into question how arbitrarily gaining “skill points” instantly makes Aiden capable of doing hacker things he couldn’t before.
--You can’t do any fun activities like yoga, golfing, biking, movie-watching, TV-watching (outside of the occasional ad on screens you pass by), or anything that would shatter the illusion of a “serious” “story”…even though you can talk to some guy in a back alley peddling access to supposedly-psychedelic minigames. That begs the question of why those are in there if not to appeal and pander to thrill-seeking gamers at the cost of tonal inconsistency, but whatever. This clearly belongs in a grounded suspense thriller:
--You can’t find, pick up, or buy melee weapons like bats or bottles. Only guns.
--You can’t eat food. Only buy drinks that restore your bullet time, not health (because you’ve got regenerating health…even though Aiden’s just supposed to be a normal dude).
--You can’t run into wildlife on your way into the great outdoors.
--You can’t plan or stage heists. Only the same basic mission archetypes.
--You can’t meet with wonderfully absurd NPCs you find along the way/in side-missions.
--You can’t shoot from the hip.
--You can’t blind-fire.
--You can’t shoot while driving.
--You can’t drive a car for shit in this game.
And on that note, let’s talk about the driving.
I said "driving", not "driver". But thanks anyway, Kamen Rider. I appreciate it.
In a game like Watch Dogs, there are two gameplay elements that the devs absolutely couldn’t afford to screw up. The first is the driving; if you can’t steer a vehicle as well as you should, then it’s not only going to make missions harder, but it’s also going to make getting from mission to mission a complete chore. And it is a complete chore; I had my issues with Infamous: Second Son, but I’d gladly take being able to actually control myself and bypass traffic accidents over doing anything in Watch Dogs. There have been points where I felt like even taking a single turn was a crap shoot; I usually have to come to almost a complete stop in the middle of the street so I can get the right angle. Damned if the game would allow it.
I don’t even know how you describe the driving in the game, let alone how you implement it. It’s like -- you know how some games have camera sensitivity issues and whatnot? Where you tilt the stick a little bit and the camera swings out of control, and if you tilt it a lot it goes crazy? Almost at the same time, WD has the same problem, and also the opposite of that problem; setting aside the fact that it feels like there’s some serious input lag, there have been times where I felt like if you push the stick a little you go out of control…but if you tilt the stick a lot, it barely does anything. So get ready to hit millions of walls, lamps, and pedestrians on your way from A to B.
I’m just glad that you don’t have to do a lot of driving in the game. Oh, wait, did I say “you don’t have to”? Sorry, I meant YOU ARE CONSTANTLY BEING FORCED TO DRIVE. It’s to a point where there’s apparently a mission type/game mechanic they call “stealth driving.” Stealth. Driving. So basically, they managed to combine one of the most hated video game mission types -- forced, nonsensical, insta-fail stealth sections -- with a game mechanic that threatens to be borderline broken.
Ubisoft, do you -- do you just hate gamers or something?
All right, so the first gameplay element? It’s not great. But there’s always the second, and the backbone of WD -- the element that could both justify the game’s existence as well as set it apart from others. And that, obviously, is the hacking. It’s the one thing I could have hoped for, and saw insane amounts of potential in. Finally, a game that puts the emphasis back on tactics and subterfuge! A new way to interact with the world and combat situations besides exploiting bad AI, abusing takedown animations, and just shooting people! At long last, a new way to engage with a game!
The promise has not been fulfilled. In fact, I’m pretty much certain that hacking is downright detrimental at times.
Here’s how it works. Tap the Square button, and Aiden will pull out his phone -- “The Profiler” -- and pull up data on the people around him. Hold the button, and you can interact with the world around you. In the case of people, you can listen in on phone conversations, unlock music for your playlist, find side missions, and (most commonly) make some of their money your own. In the case of your surroundings, you can hold Square to affect machines and such around you. Leap from camera to camera like a ghost. Change traffic signals. Blow up junk. Et cetera, et cetera -- all to give you an edge against the baddies.
It’s just a shame that the application is so nightmarishly limited. So much so that -- wait. You play as a guy named Aiden who uses his immense and nigh-unstoppable power to affect the environment around him, drifting from place to place through high vantage points while undetected by human eyes? Is it just me, or does that sound a little bit like…?
WHY IS EVERYTHING TURNING INTO EVERYTHING ELSE THESE DAYS?
But getting back on topic. When it comes to hacking, the expectation is that you’re going to use your powers to alter the environment in ways you wouldn’t have thought possible. Sadly, what’s “possible” in this game is -- while you’re on foot -- usually limited to finding stuff to blow up. Seriously, the dominant strategy (if you can call it that, but I’ll explain in a minute) when you’re in a mission and trying to beat dudes without getting seen is to blow up panels and such once they get close enough.
Or you can make pipes burst and stun them. Or -- and I kid you not -- you can blow up the bombs they have on them. Soooooooo…I guess in the near-future, bombs are connected to the internet? And if so, why? And if not, then how is Aiden blowing them up remotely? What are the limits on Aiden’s tool set, if any? If Aiden can remotely hack anything in future Chicago, then why does he have to bother getting within spitting distance of terminals and such? Why does he need to hack guards to unlock doors and get codes? Why does he even need to get out of bed if Chicago is fully wired and thus --?
No, no, let’s save the story stuff for the next post. Now, in all fairness there are a couple, more conceivable and likeable things you can do through hacking. You can mess with cell phones to distract guards, and force them to answer annoying messages/calls. You can make forklifts and car alarms go off, and make another distraction. In one instance I dropped a huge shipping crate on the guy (which I would have enjoyed more if the physics didn’t bug out and make the crate stand on one corner like the Madison Cube Garden. Later on, you can unlock the ability to jam their comms so they can’t call reinforcements, so that’s appreciable.
Or you can just not spend five minutes using cameras to find something to detonate and run in with your gun at the ready. Shoot ‘em when you’ve got a shot, hide behind a corner, and wait for them to come near you so you can do your takedown move and win instantly. And before you ask? Yes, forming a guard pile and racking up the kills around a corner still conceivably works. I started one mission expecting to do it stealthily (under penalty of death), but cleared out everyone by 1) driving a moving van into a facility and running people over, 2) backing out and hiding behind some boxes by the door, 3) mashing Circle to takedown anyone that came near, and 4) repeating until I had more than a half dozen guys dead at my feet. And I didn’t have to hack a damn thing.
Ubisoft, seriously…do you just hate gamers? Do you hate games?
Can you use hacking to take down the baddies? Yes. In fact, I’ve heard that it’s possible to clear an entire area from a block away just by jumping from camera to camera and tripping traps like you’re playing
Two Souls Ghost Trick. That’s
likely where the challenge and skill comes in…but I suspect that that’s also
where the tedium comes in.
Why would you waste time hacking and methodically dispatching opponents when Aiden can rush a gunner, smack him down, and go into cower-behind-cover mode so his health can regenerate and he/you can do it all over again? And not to go off on a tangent, but why can Aiden take those hits or regenerate his health? I know those are modern gaming conventions, but I thought Aiden was just a normal-ass dude. You can’t just put something like that in without giving at least some viable explanation. Last I checked, Aiden wasn’t Master Chief.
Okay, sure. I’ll be fair. The option to hack is there. It can be useful, and it can screw with your enemies. But even so, the hacking -- the central conceit of the game -- should do more than just “be useful”. I can’t help but think back to Metal Gear Rising; using Blade Mode to cut up an enemy even more was more than just a gimmick. It was the only way (beyond items) for you to regain health and energy. There, it was a defining mechanic; here in WD, there have been times when hacking actually got me killed or hurt.
Imagine this scenario: you’re chasing a guy into some complex, and he’s shooting the stuff around him to make traps and trip you up. It’s a signal that you’re supposed to fight fire with fire. So you pull out your phone and hack some junk, and you make a panel explode to make him stop, and give you a chance to smack him. Mission complete, right? Nope. That one explosion ended up triggering several other explosions -- and they go off right on top of you. Mission failed. Start over.
And even beyond that little mishap, there’s still -- get ready to jump for joy -- hacking while driving, which is slowly turning into one of the most dreaded things I’ve ever had to face in a video game. Setting aside the fact that you’d have better luck riding an ostrich than controlling a vehicle, most of the car chase missions require you to use hacking QTEs to conclusively end a chase. I wish I was joking, but I’m not; enemy cars have such high durability and momentum that fighting them off is a hassle at best and impossible at worst. There was one instance where I stole a fire truck just so I could get some peace on the road…though that, for one reason or another, made it so that any vehicle I tapped against burst into flames and/or exploded.
So, unless you’re in a heavy vehicle like a garbage truck or a moving van (and there’s a good chance you won’t be, because missions can arbitrarily take the vehicle you used to get there away from you), you have no chance of stopping a target by running them off the road. They’ll just get right back on the move with nigh-instant acceleration and perfect control. Since you can’t shoot at them, your main strategy is to use your hacking to put up an obstacle and make them crash. Block off the road, raise bridges, cause traffic accidents, things like that. Easy, right?
Well, no. It’s a system that’s full of problems. The QTEs are situational; that is, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to get into the proper position to spring a trap. If you’re in a chase, there’s always (if not often) the possibility that you’ll be on the freeway or a bridge or something, and nowhere near a good spot to trigger a trap. I’m assuming that there are upgrades later that’ll help, but by how much, I can’t say for sure -- but even if there are, why aren’t the abilities I have almost from the get-go more effective? Why wait for something I desperately need?
But let’s set that aside for now. In any case, it’s a struggle to get ahead of your target, especially if they’ve got help and have goons plowing into you…with pinpoint accuracy and to phenomenal effect, of course. And the way most of the traps work, you have to be either far enough ahead or far enough behind -- at a fixed distance, either way -- to trip another driver up. Otherwise, you can’t trigger the trap in time and the chase goes on.
But let’s say you do manage to make your target crash up. Okay, cool. You win, right? Again, nope. Setting aside the fact that you’re almost as likely to crash in a traffic jam, when you pull off a successful hacking crash, camera control gets stolen away from you so that you can watch your “beautiful” chaos in slow motion.
That’s a problem when, in some cases, you have to be watching the road behind you to trigger the trap at just the right time. So basically, that means that the chance of you crashing even after a successful attack goes up by about 4000% percent…which, of course, can lead to you either getting stuck, wrecked, hurt, or killed. Mission failed. Start over.
Congratulations, Ubisoft. You’ve made your main selling point a crap shoot. I have to admit, that takes some skill.
So the hacking bounces at random between being helpful, hollow, and harmful. So the question at hand is, “Why would anyone choose to use it instead of guns and murder?” And the answer to that, in theory, is the Reputation system in place. I say “in theory”, because like pretty much everything else, it’s completely borked.
There is absolutely no reason why there should be a
Karma Reputation system in this game, least
of all in a GTA clone and thus BUILT
on breaking the law. After all, a rep
system would imply that you A) have the capacity to do genuine good in this
game, and B) have genuine consequences for your actions. But neither point comes into play -- not the
way it was intended, and certainly not in a way that’s of any merit. This is coming from someone who tried his
damnedest (and largely succeeded) at being the best hero he could be in Second Son.
Even if you can boost your reputation by solving crimes, there’s no sense of satisfaction that comes from it. And the reason for that is because the game’s underpinnings make it impossible for you to be a “Protector”. Aiden is an amoral, self-serving asshole who accomplishes everything in-game by committing crimes of varying degrees. He is effectively the villain, and no amount of thug-smacking can change that.
Remember this for next time.
But it gets even worse. Pretty much the only way you lose or gain negative Reputation points is if you run over/kill civilians. Stealing a car? No consequence. Siphoning bank accounts? No consequence. Listening in on phone conversations? No consequence. Hacking cameras that don’t even come close to belonging to you? No consequence. Causing traffic accidents on a whim? No consequence. The list goes on -- and there’s not even a real benefit or consequence to your rep meter. Supposedly, all it affects is how likely civilians are to call the police on you. That’s it. Well, it changes the light on your PS4 pad from blue to red. Game-changer!
What really kills me about the system is that it smacks of a severe lack of self-awareness (which extends to pretty much the entire game, but I’ll get to that next time). Here’s one instance I ran into: I’m chasing after a guy in a car, right? So naturally, the game wants you to hack the street and put up an obstacle to stop him. So I did. I got lucky and chased him into an intersection, and caused a pileup to stop him. Setting aside the fact that I crashed too, I got out of my car and ran after him as he tried to escape, eating one bullet after another as I zoomed in to smack him. I got him, of course, and the game congratulated me with rep points and EXP to unlock new skills. And for a moment I actually thought to myself, “Whew. Job well done. Looks like I actually managed to serve some justice.”
I didn’t even get to finish that thought. Because the half-dozen other cars that piled up thanks to me exploded, one after another. So basically, in order to stop one person, I had to end the lives of several others -- several innocents, for that matter.
Again, without consequence.
You know, it’s almost as if Ubisoft ripped the system wholesale from the Infamous games without thinking about how to properly implement it or why it worked in the first place. But you didn’t hear that from me.
So here’s the question that needs to be asked: why?
Why did there need to be a reputation system in a game built around cyber-crime largely conducted by the player? Why build a game around a central mechanic -- the major selling point -- and then have that mechanic hamstrung every step of the way? Why make one of the basic elements at once a hassle to get through and more pronounced than said central mechanic? Why make a game that acts like it has a broader scope, but only takes minutes to feel like a smaller, much-too-familiar product -- a cover album of all the greatest hits? Why spend at least $68 million on a game and delay it six months for “polish” (boosting the price even further), and then release a game that still has buggy sound, broken hitboxes, wonky physics, bad controls, poorly-implemented mechanics, and glitches so prevalent that you can brush against a trash can and send it hurtling towards a civilian at escape velocity?
I can’t come up with an answer. Can you, reader? Can you, critics? Can you, gamers? Can you, Ubisoft? Because if you can’t -- if no one can -- then there’s one last question that comes to mind.
“Why does this game exist?” As it stands, it looks like the answer is “just ‘cause.” Because as bad as the gameplay is, there’s still the story.
Oh God. There’s still the story.
I’m out. I’m gonna go play some Mario Kart 8. I need a little therapy. Either that, or Mars’ weight in cigarettes.