If you read my Black Flag review last year you’ll see I ended the review with something of a positive postulation about the direction which Ubisoft Montreal are taking with their new developments. With Far Cry 4 footage slowly emerging online and the Assassin’s Creed franchise entering higher echelons you can’t blame me for my enthusiasm. As the biggest and arguably best games developer in the world right now you’d be forgiven for expecting every facet of their multi-billion dollar output to be a cut above the products of their competitors. Unfortunately if you’re looking to play Watch Dogs, then prepare to be let down.
If you happen to remember the E3 showcase footage from last year then you’ll remember seeing a video game which promised intensely detailed urban environments populated with ludicrous numbers of people. Most impressively though, the people themselves were largely autonomous; going about their daily lives with their own direction, their own goals and their own secrets. Aiden Pearce, the moody protagonist of Watch Dogs is a member of this futuristic society and is for purposes which suit the game a master hacker, able to wirelessly tap into any CPU-driven electronic device. Walking through the densely populated urban environments, Aiden can hack phones, PDAs, laptops and other devices at will, harvesting bank details and credit card numbers; reading personal emails and texts and almost anything else nefarious one could think of. Upon reading these emails Aiden could backtrack through thousands of conversations between random citizens, follow paper trails and uncover side missions at his will. All this of course aside from the main game which takes part in this sprawling dystopian metropolis. Along his wide ride Aiden will be able to hack into other electronic devices to help him achieve his goals, hacking traffic lights and electric trains to aid his escape and maybe into the police database to clear his name. The true experience could admittedly be further from this pledge, but it’s still a long way from the promised game.
Initially it seemed Ubisoft Montreal had done it again. The science-fiction location, the futuristic dystopia, the third-person action and exploration with the main mechanics of hacking and subterfuge smelled like a strong and heady broth from afar. Personally I was expecting a game somewhere between Assassin’s Creed and Uplink. I wasn’t expecting a game as deep as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, nor was I expecting a world as rich as Fallout 3. I was however hoping for something to add substance to this small sub-genre and I was rightfully expecting something better than Syndicate.
In departure from my usual style I am going to talk about the visuals first. I usually finish on visuals as a footnote to a review as it remains my opinion that a game needs to be a good game first, before looking pretty. If a title looks nice that’s the icing on the cake but the cake is the most important part. The reason for this departure is mainly due to the massive gap between the promised and the delivered visuals. For a game which boasted mindblowing high-density crowds filled with beautifully-detailed NPCs and ne’erly a repeated citizen mesh the grim actuality of the Watch Dogs crowd generation system is that which can be seen in Grand Theft Auto 3. There seems to be somewhere around twenty or thirty static meshes used to generate crowds meaning it’s sometimes possible to see three or four clones all stood together and individuals share animation sets with no variation. The crowds themselves are bereft of the CPU-crunching levels of density seen in the E3 demo and rather are what any gamer would consider normal for an city-based free-roamer in this day and age. In fact you’re going to see far bigger, denser and more varied crowds in the Dead Rising series and that’s barely used as a marketing ploy, unlike Watch Dogs which has tried to sell its crowd generation system as a main feature. Further to the low-poly NPCs and the sparseness of the crowds, the level of polish in Watch Dogs when compared to the E3 demo is practically non-existent. The lighting and post effects shown off at E3 were truly next-gen with bloom, weather effects and fancy cloth simulation just some of the elements which were pointed out. None of these features have made it into the final game. Bear in mind we’re not just playing this on the console releases but we’re also playing the PC build with all settings on max, settings which in a game like Crysis 3 still makes our eyes stream tears of pure joy. It seems that in an industry pushed inexorably forward by consumer opinion it’s becoming more and more common for developers to feel pressured into delivering only the most bleeding edge visuals, to the point where they’re quite willing to embellish and polish a “best-case scenario” PC mini-build to the point of complete untruth. As consumers we’re constantly berating games that don’t look next-gen enough, that don’t wow us with their graphical chops or technical prowess. We’re the first people to act entitled and butthurt when a game doesn’t live up to our lofty, often impossible standards. When a show like E3 rolls around I can imagine the panic a publisher feels to please the baying crowds, and the pressure they’ll exert on a development team to make sure their product shines amongst the competition. Consumer opinion is of such high import that a game can be said to be dead in the water if it doesn’t impress on pre-release. Which is exactly how we find ourselves in a situation like Watch Dogs. “The initial reaction was fantastic guys, now just roll out those changes over the entire game and make everything look at least as good as the five minutes we showed them. You have six months.” It’s like ET all over again but this time we’re all complicit in the lie so it seems almost unfair to point the finger squarely at Ubisoft Montreal. If we as consumers could temper our expectations and let a game speak for its own merits then perhaps we can stop with the entitled fanboyish cries when one game’s visuals don’t compare to another. It seems that thirty years (almost to the day) since the great video games crash of 1984, we and our industry have forgotten the mistakes of the past and we’re still braying over something as crass as graphics. Only time will tell if those same mistakes will have an impact on the future of gaming.
Back on track with Watch Dogs, it strikes this reviewer that with all resources ploughed into realising the impossible dream of developing an open-world game with movie-quality looks has had a disastrous impact on the gameplay itself. Driving the cars feels floaty and decidedly old-fashioned, gunplay is predictable and uninspired and the general feel of over 80% of the game is that of deja vu – players who’ve put hours into Sleeping Dogs, GTA or other open-worlders will have seen this all before, often better elsewhere to boot. The standout game design elements at play are social reputation and hacking. These two elements are the key USPs which are supposed to demarcate Watch Dogs from its competition. Firstly reputation is bunkum. The idea of generating a good or a bad rep is quite clearly lifted wholesale from PlayStation’s flagship open-worlder inFAMOUS, only Sucker Punch did it first and they did it better. Aiden’s reputation in Watch Dogs seems to have no appreciable difference on the game at all; citizens barely react to Aiden’s presence anyway and whether he’s being a good guy or a bad guy seems to bear no weight at all. Despite the frankly archaic ideal of player decisions falling simply into good or bad, the worst sin is that pursuing either end of the spectrum has basically no impact on the basic gameplay. I always liked the way the three-way rep meter worked in GTA2 back in the day, where gang members would treat the player differently depending on how friendly their actions had been toward rival factions. It seems a shame that no developer since has found a way to top that, despite the millions spent in games development twenty years on.
The other area of Watch Dogs’s gameplay, which in this case was touted as the main selling point of the entire game is hacking. Gamers were told they would be given the ability to hack near enough anything with a staggering degree of flexibility and depth. This in part is true with there being a large number of things which can be hacked, but each thing is hacked in the same way and each individual device only has one outcome. Gates will open, electricity boxes will explode, bollards will deploy. Whilst these various abilities come in useful and help to mix up the otherwise bland missions there is a palpable sense that each mission has a right way and a wrong way to be achieved. Guard patrols are predetermined with no variations and each guard usually wanders in front of an item which can be hacked to incapacitate or otherwise block their line of sight to Aiden. It’s all rather forced, with trial and error winning out over reactive exploratory gameplay. Hacking into cameras is one neat feature, with Aiden able to look through the camera’s lens remotely after hacking it. Aiden can then tag his adversaries (like Batman’s Detective Mode) but crucially can daisy-chain from camera to camera provided they are in line of sight with one another, all the way to the top of a building sometimes all without leaving his safe spot in the car park. This is the one feature in Watch Dogs that feels original and Ubisoft Montreal celebrate this by making the player use it all the time. A lot of the missions call for this daisy-chain method as it’s often quicker to follow a mark or locate an item this way than it is to physically explore. At first this is novel and very interesting but after a while begins to grind and the vanilla interactions with the game’s other hackables makes the game feel decidedly boring after five or so hours.
At various junctures during the game Aiden will hack a proper computer and this will call for a hacking mini-game. These gameplay nodes are usually the main posts upon which the story hangs; acquiring the details of a character important to the story or a document from a top-secret facility – these are the meat of the game and even these are unimaginative and flimsy. Assassin’s Creed and even Bioshock had better hacking mechanics and neither game was centred around the theme of hacking. Kevin, Raff and I were in the pub recently and we were chatting about hacking minigames – lots of our favourite games have excellent hacking minigames in (Paradroid in fact has a solid hacking mechanic) and we all noted that of all the games this generation, Watch Dogs paradoxically has just about the worst example. Like the item interaction, it all just feels very vanilla, not quite the top-drawer content we were promised. If Aiden could interact with items differently; perhaps timing the activation of the level’s hackables or linking them together in a way similar to Gunpoint then maybe the gameplay would feel fresh but after a couple of hours most gamers will be left feeling that they’re playing that’s taken all of its best ideas from other people and is still substantially less than the sum of its parts.
Aiden’s journey is a path of vengeance, trying to track down parties who have wronged him he will cross paths with friends and enemies alike. By the end of his tale many friends will have become enemies and some enemies may have become friends. I cannot mention a lot more about the story partly for want of ruining the many twists but partly because this is another area that has fallen shy of the mark. Aiden is a deeply unlikeable character motivated solely by revenge and self-servitude. Terse, argumentative and endlessly aggressive our protagonist is not a character which many gamers will empathise with. There’s something to be said for the gritty nihilistic anithero, there’s substance to the stoic pragmatic gunslinger but Aiden Pearce just feels like a caustic whiner, railing against a set of problems his poor life decisions have created. In no way could I feel sorry for Aiden and frankly it would be a challenge to want to help him. Aiden’s narrative decisions for the large part are rooted in self-gratification or petty revenge and there’s no hint at a greater sense of altruism in his actions. Even the many crime-solving side-missions are baited with money or other rewards. After not too long Watch Dogs begins to feel like an exercise in one man’s fealty to his own cynicism, a worldview I struggle to identify with. For the same reason’s I found Assassin’s Creed III’s Connor to be a confrontational and difficult protagonist to identify with I find it hard to enjoy playing as Aiden. That combined with a whole heap of otiose, repetitive hacking missions and seriously below-par open-world gameplay I think Watch Dogs serves as a grand example for the pitfalls of style over substance. When you consider the folding money Ubisoft will have thrown at making this game look amazing; all the misplaced resources hurled into the visuals and it’s all reduced to ridicule when the game doesn’t even look that good at all.