Sunday, June 8, 2014

REVIEW - Watch Dogs.

Watch Dogs is the next franchise from the mega-developer Ubisoft Montreal, whether we want it or not.  An open-world action game with the structure of Grand Theft Auto but without the style, it sees super-hacker Aiden Pearce rampaging across present-day Chicago in a series of missions with a pistol in one hand and an omnipotent smartphone in the other, which permits him all sorts of otherworldly tricks.

It's okay.  It's no Assassin's Creed - though it has its moments.

1: You've seen a lot of bullshots of this game.  I'm not going to show you any.
2: Aiden can hijack every security camera in the game, but he's always obscured when one points at him 

- a nice touch.

A developer and publisher of Ubisoft's size will, happily, experiment when it comes to smaller stuff like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon or Child of Light, but with their multi-million-dollar tentpole title Watch Dogs, they have sailed as close to the familiar coastline as they could, never letting land out of sight.  That's prudent business practice, but it makes for a... mild product, lacking any real spice or sweetness.

Their other major franchises weren't so conservative.  Far Cry, born of the folks at Crytek, permitted beautifully emergent gameplay in an open-world FPS - a unique premise which Ubisoft honed to a gleaming edge in 2012's Far Cry 3.  Their own Assassin's Creed, despite its warbling quality from one game to the next and the very real danger of franchise fatigue, continues to feel vital and unique in the company of any other open-world action game on the market by way of its unique gameplay recipe.

In Assassin's Creed there are no cars.  It's an open-world platformer.  It's not a cynical meditation on the modern age - it's a fascinating jaunt through historical settings.  It doesn't fancy itself a third-person shooter - it's a stealth-brawler.

Assassin's Creed, rather like inFamous, is an anti-Grand Theft Auto open-world game.

Watch Dogs has no such claim to its own identity.  It is Ubisoft's Grand Theft Auto, and is largely flavorless in comparison to Rockstar's gold standard.

Not... quite... right.
Watch Dogs vehemently denies its status as a clone with an Ubisoft-esque approach to mission structure. While Grand Theft Auto will offer a variety of potential core missions at any given time, Watch Dogs provides a linear string of story missions as you work through its campaign.

It does, too often, feel like work.  It further attempts to separate itself from Rockstar's standard with a heavy emphasis on stealth gameplay, not all of which works particularly well, and is easily broken by the player.

Regularly, mission success will hinge on never being seen by enemies.  You can kill them left and right, but if one sees you and you kill him before he can alert his friends - tough luck, start the mission over, you failed.

Not fun.

Hiding in alleys!

It offers a mechanic in which you press the circle button when your car is stationary - Aiden will hunker down in the front seat and "hide" in the car, and cops outside of his now-smaller suspicion bubble will pass him by.  I did not, precisely, thrill to the experience of hiding in alleys as cop cars drove by, stopped, swooped a spotlight over my car and slowwwly drove off.

I put up with it for the mission that forces you to use it, and then never used it again.

More effective are the missions that see you clearing a room or alley or building of a gauntlet of enemies, which permit you the option of clearing them out stealthily, if you so choose.  This is where Watch Dogs shines, and feels different in a good way.
-penny arcade-

Aiden's super-smartphone is jacked in to fictional Chicago's ctOS system, the mother of all big brothers, which is networked into every security camera, every cell phone, every traffic light, steam pipe and explosive in the city.  The ctOS system's tech will "profile" anyone Aiden points his phone at - this is Jerry Admussen, he's unable to set foot in elementary schools, he makes $23,000 a year, and his phone has a vulnerability that permits you to take a peek at his text messages (occasionally amusing).  This is Thom Reynolds, he's an ex-military private security contractor, and the grenade on his belt will explode if you want it to.

You start by finding some good, comfy cover to hide behind and hack a nearby security camera (point your view at it, press square). Watch Dogs functions on some ludicrous hacking-as-magic logic, which permits you to hack anything you have line-of-sight with - so you pan the camera you've hacked over to see another camera (square), jump your perspective to that, and continue on as you profile every enemy in the area (so you can see them when they walk behind walls, a'la Far Cry 3's spotting mechanic), jumping between viewpoints to scan everything and unlock secure doors.

It's fun, here, waiting behind a bit of cover for an enemy to sneak up, tapping circle so Aiden will whip out his little baton and take the guy down silently.  There's a clock radio by the fellow up ahead, so you turn on the radio (square) and sneak up while he's distracted.  Two guards ahead are chatting with each other, so you jam one of them with earphone static (square) before tapping R3, slowing time and putting a silenced headshot into his buddy, then him.  You creep up to a corner, view your surroundings and try to decide whether or not you should take advantage of an explosive vent nearby in exchange for your stealth.

It works, nicely.  Once you break stealth,

Watch Dogs instantly becomes another third-person cover-based shooter, albeit one in which you have a context-specific superpower over your environment, and you really hope that armored, heavy soldier wanders over that explosive grate.  Here, it is serviceable - but rarely feeling particularly satisfying and oddly lacking in style given the impressive pyrotechnics the game can push.

It graces Aiden with a very short, recharging life bar - a single spray from an assault rifle will take him down - which one imagines would invest the combat with a sharpness denied games with bullet-sponge protagonists, but it pays little in the way of dividends.  Armored foes aside, all enemies are as vulnerable to gunfire as Aiden, and clearing areas is never much of a challenge.

This isn't entirely a bad thing, as the third-person shooting has a comfort level that Rockstar took over a decade to achieve - but it also lacks the expressiveness of Rockstar's cinematic action.  There is no blind-fire, for example - I can't count the number of times I was hunkered behind cover and jammed on the trigger to finish off a wounded foe in a vulnerable moment only to be reminded of the game's odd lack - and you can't fire a weapon from within vehicles, meaning all car chases (which constitute about half the game) hinge on your stealth abilities, or your hacking.

As you race through the city streets, you'll have the option to hack steam vents in the middle of the road which erupt under your foes and send them flying, hack traffic lights to cause nasty collisions, blocker bars to cause nasty collisions and bridges (to cause nasty collisions).

If you decide to run instead of hide, it's your only option, and it's not quite where it needs to be.  Every action-centric "hack" in the game consists of simply pressing square.  As you zoom towards an intersection, if it has traffic lights, you can hold square for a half-second and the lights will change - cool!  As you approach an underground parking garage's door, you can hold square and they'll open for you - cool.  It's streamlined to be as smooth and intuitive as possible, but it's so entirely context-reliant that the hacking is denied any real strategic use, or satisfaction on the part of the player.

When being chased and using your hacks to disrupt your pursuers, you never actually pick what to use against them.  As you drive at top speed, zooming in and out of traffic, blue prompts will appear with a high-pitched tone that tells you, if you press square right now, you'll take out a foe.  Jam square.  The camera will zoom behind you to the bollards you just raised or the traffic light you just changed or the steam pipe you just burst, and show you the cop car getting messed up in the fallout.

You didn't pick that steam pipe, you didn't choose to raise those blockers - the game did - you just hit square when it told you to.  Here's an explosion of sparks and glass!  Congratulations!  Don't you feel like a badass master hacker?

No you don't.

When it works, it never feels like the result of player choice or expression - when it fails - when a police chopper is directly above me, slapping me with sniper rounds and I can't pan the camera up high enough to see the chopper and disrupt it with my magic phone, it's just stupid (this happens on foot, too!).

When a chase got particularly annoying, I often found myself more interested in just getting past it than actually playing it out, so I'd open my phone, select the "blackout" ability and walk right past the cops in the darkness to find a little secluded corner - take cover for about thirty seconds - and the chase will end.

Less than fun, not particularly balanced, easily broken.

The game's presentation is generally on-par with a title of its impressive budget, and occasionally the wet streets of Chicago will give inFamous's Seattle a run for its money - but not very far.  When it's raining - or better yet, when it's night time and a bunch of lighting effects are bathing the game world, Watch Dogs is often very, very good-looking.  In the daylight, when the world is entirely lit up, it regularly looks like this:

Not terrible by any stretch of the imagination, but not as beautiful and stylish as the game would like to be - an odd inconsistency for a title Ubisoft has bet many millions of dollars on.

The narrative, as well, is a complete yawner.  "Hero" Aiden Pearce is a gravel-voiced blank slate with less personality than his flashy phone, and every female character in the game suffers from the stereotypes of their genre, from minor characters getting murdered or sold into sex slavery to a major character spending half of the game kidnapped by a bad guy to a capable, sassy badass who ends up as the girl in the refrigerator.  Watch Dogs is a laundry list of gender stereotypes, when it comes to its female cast.

Its villains are equally bland, with the principal antagonist seemingly doing the things he does for no other reason than to be a dick, regardless of whether or not it directly conflicts with his own professed objectives. The highlight is definitely Jordi.

"Well, security in these buildings is pretty tight, so people like this feel nice and secure living way up here.  I mean, these people just had a simple chain lock on their door.  I guess they wanna' have a good look at the pizza guy before they open it all the way.  ...  Well, that's why I brought the bolt cutters.  He opens the door this much, there's a chain right there, I slip them in and - snip.  And guess what?  It's not the pizza guy."
-Jordi Chin, the coolest character in Watch Dogs

A "fixer" associate of Aiden's, Jordi Chin is written as a comic foil to the hero's stalwart seriousness, and comes across as a far more interesting, entertaining and curious character.  Unburdened by Aiden's need to see himself as a "good guy," Jordi enjoys his high-risk and very wet work - he thinks fast, he talks fast, and he expects Aiden to act fast if he wants to get out of this latest jam.  Aaron Douglas, here, takes what could have been another of the game's bland roles and energetically, enthusiastically spins it into one of the best performances of 2014 - deflated only by the narrative's fumbling need to inject the character into the game's climax with absolutely no payoff.

Which brings us to the game's other highlight.  Like Jordi himself, when Watch Dogs allows itself to have a bit of fun, it can be very fun - and the game's "digital trips" are very fun.

Stumbled across on my way to a clothing store, the digital trips are just cool little side-games. Alone sees Aiden wandering the abandoned streets of Chicago where an eerie, unnatural darkness has descended.  Populated only by men and women with creepy light-up robot heads, you must stealth your way past them to avoid their obliterating radiation-stares, and make your way to the darkness engine that produces this evil shadow - while a female voice on a loudspeaker drones on about the crimes you've committed, and how this is all your fault.  Very cool.

Another puts you behind the wheel of a nasty death-car, like something Mad Max would drive, if Mad Max were Ghost Rider.  You blitz up and down the city streets mowing down lost souls for points, completing steadily-escalating challenges of harvested souls and high combos - very cool.

The cherry on the top, though, is Spider Tank. 

If Spider Tank took more than a half-hour to complete, it might legitimize Watch Dogs' entire price tag.  It is so much fun.  The city police and military are buzzing about, desperate to stop the mechanical monstrosity, but they can't catch you as you leap between buildings on mighty spider legs.  They can't stop you, as your armored hull is impervious to all but the most powerful weapons (or is, after you unlock a few skill points), and they cannot out-shoot the awesome infinite-ammo chaingun you wield (tap L1 to switch to the anti-tank rounds!)

It lays down simple objectives - destroy 4 cars, kill 6 cops, go over there and destroy this satellite thing - which get progressively more challenging over its 15 waves.  Smashing the crap out of vehicles with your forelegs is awesome.  Clinging to the side of a building, panning the camera up and slapping a chopper with an anti-tank round is awesome.  Leaping between rooftops on your way to an objective is awesome and, once airborn, splaying your legs out (bwommm) to smash into ten cars beneath you and obliterate them all is awesome.

Spider Tank, for clarity's sake, is nothing but fun, all the way through.

Watch Dogs is not.

But then, let us keep in mind that Assassin's Creed wasn't much fun in its first iteration, either.  Watch Dogs, at least, is far more regularly successful, and one gets the sense that if the game were to try to have a bit more fun, it could certainly manage it.

It stands in solid company with much of Ubisoft's open-world fare, but that's not entirely a compliment.  It is very comparable to Assassin's Creed III - an over-produced title that only stumbles across a fun factor on occasion, a mission here, an objective there, and never as a matter of course - whose greatest pleasure lies in one of its little side-activities.

It's not a bad game, it's just not a reliably fun one - a 7/10, with often-incredible presentation and a so-so soundtrack.  Like a present-day True Crime: Streets of L.A., it's a game that never, ever feels quite as solid, expansive and enjoyable as the Grand Theft Auto titles it competes with, and attempts to garner your attention with a hook it desperately wants you to feel is interesting, and worth your time.

Watch Dogs isn't particularly interesting.  For every moment of gaming bliss (the shootout in the prison was great!)  there are two of tedium, and while you can see where all that Ubisoft money went, it all feels a bit soulless, and is often less than compelling.

A game designed by committee and fed through focus groups - what could come out the other side but something so bland?  I look forward to the much-better sequel.

Seriously, Ubisoft?  You couldn't have found something better to do with your female characters than kill them, kidnap them or sell them as sex slaves?  You kinda' suck.


  1. Makes me wanna' go replay inFamous: Second Son.

  2. Sleeping dogs spoiled me so bad. Though at least they have a gps line in the game world (let's GO rockstar), every time Aidan was in a car chase I'd try to hit the ram button at least once. Then I'd try to shoot out their tires at least once...

    I miss being able to do those things.

    1. Especially given how effective tire shots are in Watch Dogs - why it's unavailable in cars is beyond me. Sleeping Dogs, I feel, is the one GTA-like to actually do a really, really good job of it.