Was ‘WATCH_DOGS’ Bad?
A couple of weeks ago a game came out called watch_dogs. You likely heard of it. That’s because it’s very possibly the most hyped up game of the past five years. As with anything hyped up this much it didn’t quite live up to audience expectations. In actual fact, some people outright dislike it, with it only barely scraping more than 50% on Metacritic. Now before we condemn it to the bargin bin we should try to remember that the gaming public are notoriously fickle, and have a habit of jumping on every passing bandwagon. Just look at the speed with which Call of Duty went from being the franchise that raised the bar to a joke. We’re looking at only a 5 year timeline.
Why were the expectations for this game so high in the first place? It’s not like Ubisoft have managed to deliver on their promises in the past. The hype train first left the station when the game was first revealed at E3 as the next generation system launch title. it was one of the first times we had seen the capabilities of the PS4 and XBOX1 being applied to a game. The graphics and scope of the game was something we hadn’t really seen before and it was a good sell. Suddenly the gaming public had a reason to pre-order a new console. Watch_dogs fulfilled the same role Assassin’s Creed did for the previous generation. Even though we were looking at a promotion video it was enough to get us interested. Then game the disaster – it was delayed. Many of the orders put in for a launch day console was based on the promise of this game and suddenly we’d be waiting another six odd months to get our grubby mits on it. Not only did this take the wind out of everyone’s sails but it meant that when the game arrived on the shelves the initial impact of the new consoles had worn out.
So that’s one strike against it before it even got out the gate. Ubisoft seemed convinced it was still going to be gangbusters though…to the point that they assumed every one else was on the same page. They started pumping out special editions for every different retailer willing to make shelf space, and churned out so many optional extras that it became impossible to obtain all of them without winding up with a dozen copies of the game disc. It got so complicated trying to decide which one of the best value you almost needed a colour coded table to work it out. Wait, did I say almost need one?
Holy shit, they really expected people to go nuts for this thing. You’ll notice that no one product you can choose from – whether it be the Dedsec, Vigilante, Limited Exclusive, Standard, Deluxe, Gold or Season Pass – gives you the whole thing. You may also notice that Ubisoft are pulling words out of their ass because the ‘Exclusive’ and ‘Limited’ editions don’t contain anything that is exclusive or limited. Not to mention that most of the content can only be obtained by pre-ordering and paying the full price without even seeing a review or signing up to bloody Uplay, one more thing to send you spam.
It’s a proven marketing strategy. They told us the product was so good that it was a best seller based on producers hype, without a single copy leaving the shelves or a review being written. We’ve fallen for it before and we’ll fall for it again.
Eventually WATCH_DOGS came out and we got our copies home. There’s no denying that it makes a good first impression. An immense amount of work has has gone into the visual and sound design. Chicago looks superb and the way the hacking mechanic highlights aspects of the environment is awesome. Getting information and text messages from the people walking down the street in real time makes it feel like a highly immersive world. The way people respond to objects being hacked feels genuine. When the slow motion is activated the drops of rain hanging the air is spellbinding. Keep in mind that I was playing this on a PS3, not even the top of the line hardware.
Then I opened the map, and holy hell who designed this thing? Same problem we had with the recent Assassin’s Creed games – absolutely everything gets thrown onto the map from the get go. We just started playing the game, we’re still getting involved with the story and learning the mechanics and they’ve given us a map riddled with dozens of indecipherable icons. Which ones are side missions? Which ones are pointless time-filling games? More importantly, which one lets me continue with the damn game?! Some people like having the entire map open to them from the moment they insert the disc but the GTA method of filling it out as you go makes for a more comfortable gaming experience.
Without having paid much attention to the trailers and story details prior to play I was pretty ignorant of what the game was about, narratively. When the opening missions involved taking some guy hostage and murdering cops I took that to mean I was playing the role of a criminal. You’re a hacker, that makes sense. But after hitting the open world I noticed a meter in the top right indicating my favour with the public as a vigilante. Wait, what? I thought I was the bad guy! Why do I have to worry about public opinion?! OK, there’s a mugging happening over there…I’ll shoot that guy.
The public hate me even more now. So popping a mugger isn’t on…I’ll stick to beating them into a mushy pulp. Right, so I’m a good guy. Does that mean I have to stop stealing from the public as well? Mmm…no, I can steal as much as I want.
Ok – I’m expected to stop muggers and to go as easy on them as possible buuuuuuuut I’m free to steal everyone’s money via hacking or car jack them willy nilly. It’s not an exaggeration to say that you steal money from people while chasing a mugger down the street.
This is one of the biggest problems facing this game. There is no clear vision governing the game. It’s in every way the product of design by committee. They’ve tried to give the protagonist an emotional backstory, motivation, edginess, rebelliousness, honor and at the same time the hero and a daring criminal. The end result is a character who has a tiny bit of each, and they’re all spread so thin than the overall impression is a dullard who doesn’t comprehend how coats work.
Let’s not forget that some of gaming’s most famous icons also lack personality, such as those Italian plumbing siblings. So long as the game is fun we can live with a bland character. The success of Zelda and Mario games should be proof of that.
It’s a shame that playing Watch Dogs gets dull fast.
As it’s been said there are a myriad of optional bits and pieces to partake in around the map. There’s driving, hacking, running, jumping. The problem is that they all utilise some or all of the normal game mechanics. There’s little to separate out the ‘fun’ side missions from the ‘serious’ story missions. Because I spent a large portion of the early game trying out these side-missions I’d only hit the 20% mark on the story mode by the time I’d unlocked every hacking ability in the game and used them a dozen times. Even the big ones, like disabling helicopters, had become routine I’d the story was still warming up.
Considering the difference between the side-missions and story extends as far as mopey dialogue and dragged out cutscenes this didn’t provide much motivation to continue the game. After only one fifth of the game was finished it had become repetitive to the point that I’d turn it off mid-mission to play The Wolf Among Us instead.
Then there’s the hacking mechanic, what truly is the unique selling point of Watch Dogs. There’s a few things that can be said about being able to wave your magic cellphone and causing explosions, or the horrendous ‘hacker’ stereotypes that gave us Lisbeth Salander-lite for a love interest, but they don’t bother me.
What bothers me is the lack of fun you can have.
Rockstar understands that when you’re given free reign in a virtual city you want to do some dumb shit. The Saints Row series REALLY understood it. Ubisoft had their fun extracted by boring scientists. There’s some satisfaction to be had when a car chasing you gets brought to a halt when you make road blocks pop up in front of them, but I want to cause some fucking mischief. I want to send incriminating texts from people’s phones, switch public big screen billboards to the porn channel and take control of people’s cars to send them on a joyride. I want to raise bridges and send traffic ramping into the river. You’ve given me the keys to the universe and I want to fuck around with it.
Ultimately that’s what’s most disappointing about the game. It doesn’t take long before the hacking gimmick becomes routine and then it feels no different from the driving, shooting and running mechanics. Ubisoft created a great concept and then let it all go to waste. After a fortnight my copy went onto ebay and got turned in The Lego Movie Game. No regrets.