Saturday, June 21, 2014

Review: Watch Dogs (2014)

Watch Dogs (2014)

Available for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U (in fall 2014), PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Price: $60 (at launch and as of this writing)

When I first booted up Watch Dogs, I was loving it. The opening level, which had me sneaking out of a fictional version of Wrigley Field in the middle of a baseball game after ruthlessly interrogating a man, had me by the balls. Sure, it was largely scripted and linear, but it was a tutorial; it needed to show me how everything worked first before letting me loose. Using my smartphone to hack into the power grid and plunge the stadium into darkness made me feel like a techno-god straight out of a classic cyberpunk novel. I couldn't wait to see what I'd be getting up to in the rest of the game.

And for a while, it kept up that feeling of euphoric power that I had felt. But then I started to spot the seams in this game's presentation. The side quests all seemed to revolve around repetitive collectible hunts, police chases, and drives from point A to point B, a far cry from making me feel like a l337 h@x0r. The ctOS towers, which revealed said side quests after you hacked into them, felt lifted wholesale from Assassin's Creed's synchronization points. The combination of the silenced handgun, slow-motion Focus mode, and dumb enemies made me virtually untouchable in stealth, while in open combat the game ramped up the difficulty not with intelligent AI, but by filling the enemy crowd with annoying bullet sponges clad in heavy armor. Diversions like the augmented reality games and the "digital trips" were fun, but all too brief. The city looked good on the surface, but felt more soulless the longer I spent in it.

It was after completing about ten story missions when it hit me: Ubisoft Montreal had pretty well copied the Assassin's Creed template wholesale, pasting it into modern-day Chicago without even trying to make it stand out as its own creature. The rest of the game did little to disabuse me of that notion.

What a heartbreaker. Watch Dogs is a game that I'd been paying attention to for a while, looking like it had the potential to be the game to truly kick off this generation of gaming. The initial demo that premiered at E3 two years ago promised a revolution in open-world gaming with all-new means of gameplay. As it stands, I'd have to argue that inFamous: Second Son, while not a perfect game itself, clobbers it on that front. Watch Dogs looks and plays nicely enough, the controversy about the game's graphics having been apparently downgraded since that gorgeous preview being overblown in my book. No, the real argument gamers should be having about Watch Dogs is "how did a AAA game like this, a new IP that Ubisoft was clearly banking on to carry them through this console generation, turn out to be so mediocre, dull, and meh?" While Watch Dogs attains basic competence in most of the things it does, it's all been done better by other open-world games, including Ubisoft Montreal's own Assassin's Creed series. The flashes of brilliance that come up make it all the more depressing how it fails to maintain that feeling through the entire game.

You play as Aiden Pearce, a criminal hacker who, after a job gone wrong, finds himself a target. An attempt on his life results in the death of his young niece Lena, and he spends the following year trying to track down the people responsible. What follows is a parade of conspiracies, twists, blackmail, and double-crosses involving Aiden's partner Damien (if you can't guess by that name that he turns out to be a bad guy, go watch The Omen again), his sister Nicole, the Irish Mob, a powerful South Side street gang, a renegade hacker named "Defalt", the mayor, and last but not least, the ctOS, a surveillance network installed in Chicago run by Blume Industries, a shady corporation that you can bet doesn't have the public interest at heart.

It sounds like a great setup for a conspiracy thriller, and it works in bits and pieces and certainly looks cinematic in its presentation, but the problem is that the story seems to go out of its way to undercut any real stakes it might have. The audio logs scattered across the game all hint at something deeper going on, with a hacktivist group called DedSec working to expose Blume's secret agenda, which seems to go well beyond mere surveillance into the realm of subliminal messaging and more. However, none of that ever comes up in the main story, which revolves entirely around Aiden's attempts to protect his family, specifically to rescue Nicole after Damien kidnaps her as leverage to get Aiden to do his dirty work. At least, that's when it's not going off into tangents about breaking into a street gang's headquarters, infiltrating a sex trafficking ring, and battling an elite hacker trying to steal your data, which are all dropped after a few missions, do nothing interesting with those subjects (just as the game in general doesn't do anything interesting with the themes about surveillance that it merely touches upon), and distract time and attention that could have been devoted to far more important matters. For instance, one of the game's main villains, the Irish mob boss "Lucky" Quinn, only appears a couple of times before the mission where you kill him. And in light of all the information revealed by those audio logs, the core of the story feels much too small and petty, especially once it's been revealed what's truly going on. Even before the ending, I could tell that there were going to be sequels going by how little the main story incorporated all the side stuff on display here, and the game ends exactly where I predicted it would -- atop a mountain of sequel-bait. It's The Amazing Spider-Man 2 all over again -- less a complete game, and more the foundation for Ubisoft's next million-selling franchise. The fact that some Easter eggs here imply that Watch Dogs is set in the same universe as the Assassin's Creed games only make the matter worse, indicating to me that Ubisoft is hell-bent on creating its own X-Files-by-way-of-Marvel continuity.

On top of that, our main character, Aiden Pearce, is a dull, unlikable tool. He'd be a parody of the cookie-cutter "stoic white guy" protagonists of countless action video games if Watch Dogs wasn't so keen on playing his character dead seriously. I don't know if it's the fault of his voice actor or the writing, but Aiden is an entirely one-note character whose only emotions are a blank face and anger. The game tries so hard to humanize the poor guy, giving him a dead niece and a defensive "big brother" attitude towards his sister Nicole and her son Jackson, but it never allows him to earn such humanity by, you know, acting like a normal human being. Dude, when literally every single outfit in your wardrobe is some variety of trench coat (even the '20s mobster outfit that came with the preorder), you ought to rethink your priorities.

Now, I can forgive a game with a poor story if its gameplay knocks it out of the park. Grand Theft Auto III isn't still considered a classic on the strength of its plot, which, looking back, was a mess of half-baked ideas cribbed from thirty years' worth of gangster movies. Nor is it remembered for its once-controversial subject matter, which has been rendered tame and toothless by subsequent games in the '00s and after, including its own sequels. No, it's still considered a classic because of its revolutionary gameplay whose shadow looms over what's coming on a decade and a half worth of games, including this one. (And on that note: apparently GTA III is old enough to be retro now. Damn, I'm getting old.) Prior games like DriverBody Harvest, and even The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time had incorporated bits and pieces of what GTA III accomplished, but that game pulled all of those disparate elements together into something unique and revolutionary, whose formula was refined and updated with each sequel.

I bring up GTA III because Watch Dogs does practically nothing that other open world games haven't done better in the past. Its parkour-inspired movement and, as mentioned earlier, its map synchronization are both taken from Assassin's Creed, but not implemented nearly as well. Seeing the pulse emanating from the ctOS tower on the map, illuminating all of the sidequests in its radius, is no replacement for the epic view of the city from the top of a church steeple, followed by you taking a leap of faith into a conveniently-placed bale of hay. Free-running, meanwhile, isn't as smooth or as useful as it was in those games. I recall a statement made by someone high up at Ubisoft explaining why they'd never make an Assassin's Creed game set in the modern era, and this game demonstrates that better than they ever could -- when you have ready access to automobiles and guns, you remove the utility of the series' main gameplay mechanic. Keeping free-running in here felt pointless, especially in the stripped-down form it exists in, and furthermore, it didn't make sense either story-wise or stylistically for a hacker whose main abilities revolve around technology to be able to do such physically demanding moves.

This is indicative of a much bigger problem running very deep within this game's design. Rather than displaying enough confidence to build its gameplay around its fundamental hacking mechanic, like (sigh, here I go again with this comparison) Assassin's Creed did with free-running and parkour, Watch Dogs all too frequently returns to tired gameplay mechanics out of some mix of laziness and cowardice. The shooting is competent, with the cover system working smoothly and the game offering a wide selection of guns to blast your foes with, but only on rare occasions could I call it "fun". Enemy AI relies less on smart tactics than it does on the sort of whack-a-mole gameplay (when they stick their heads out to aim, whack 'em) that we've seen in countless cover-based shooters, and its solution to the problem is as lazy as the AI is. The elites and enforcers, big guys carrying military-grade weaponry and wearing body armor to match, were quite intimidating the first time I encountered them... at least, until I figured out how to counter their sole trick. Turn on slow-motion Focus mode and aim for the head (with the .50 caliber sniper rifle in the enforcers' case), and even the toughest bastard will go down in one shot, reducing the most dangerous enemies in the game to mere nuisances.

So the shooting is dull, but functional. The same cannot be said for the driving, which is embarrassing. Driving in Watch Dogs is only a step above the Saints Row games, which at least had the justification of being last-generation titles that were going for a more cartoonish style. None of the cars have any personality to them, with differences in driving mechanics only occurring on the extremes of the spectrum -- a supercar, a rusty old econobox, and a big truck all feel different, but the cars in between all seem to blend together. Floatiness is the norm for nearly every vehicle, and it is difficult to keep any control of your car at any speed above "suburban crawl" without relying on Focus mode. Collisions have no real "oomph", with cars seeming to bounce off of one another, and damage modeling is a joke, with canned animations for each part of the vehicle and the engine belching smoke and making different noises but still functioning properly no matter how damaged the car is. I'd call it last-gen if not for the fact that the Grand Theft Auto games have had better vehicular damage (including realistic deformation and engine/wheel damage) for six years now. The last two GTA titles remain the gold standard for great driving in open-world games, with GTA IV having a more realistic and heavy feel to its cars and GTA V up there with some of the best arcade racers, and apart from those two, it's shocking how so many open-world games pay so little attention to a gameplay mechanic as fundamental as driving. In hindsight, the poor vehicle handling as I was wrapping up the tutorial was my first warning sign that this game was going to be a huge letdown.

It's not like it would matter a whole lot anyway if the driving were up to par, since the game world that you take your car through is bland and lifeless. The game is ostensibly set in Chicago, but apart from some landmarks, the drawbridges, and the El train, there is almost no local flavor to be had here. Neighborhoods seem to blend together, with the Loop feeling like any generic downtown, the South Side feeling like any generic ghetto, the western neighborhoods feeling like any generic middle-class neighborhoods, and the small town of Pawnee to the northwest feeling like it could be located anywhere in the country rather than having any Midwestern flair -- and any feeling of rural tranquility is destroyed whenever you look to the southeast and see that most of that area is in close sight of the Chicago skyline. Radio stations are replaced with a Pandora-like online radio system, and while it made sense with the hacking theme and the selection of tracks was diverse, it made me miss the great radio stations that the GTA games have. I may have never been to Chicago myself, but I've never been to Miami, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Seattle either, and I've played open-world games set in all those cities that made them feel truly alive and unique. Watch Dogs, on the other hand, does absolutely nothing interesting with Chicago, and its few attempts to do so fall flat. Being able to scan anyone on the street and read a short bio, and perhaps hack into their bank accounts and music libraries and listen to their phone conversations, was interesting for a while until I realized that they're all randomly generated, and the conversations started repeating themselves. Even GTA III -- which, I must remind you, was made thirteen years ago back when the open-world genre was in its infancy -- gave its generic East Coast metropolis of Liberty City more life than Watch Dogs' Chicago.

The side activities are the saving grace here, and even then, it's a mixed bag. The game offers a very long list of them; we get ctOS breaches, privacy invasions, QR codes, burner phones, investigations of missing persons, human trafficking, and the weapons trade, fixer contracts, gang hideouts, criminal convoys, poker, chess, shell games, drinking games, augmented reality games, and finally, digital trips. Like any diverse selection of content, they run the gamut from bland to some of the best parts of the game. The criminal convoys were all too frequently displays of the game's worst tendencies as a shooter, the fixer contracts got repetitive quickly and highlighted the game's subpar driving mechanics, the chess, drinking, and shell games felt pointless and didn't mesh with the atmosphere the game was trying to create, and the security breaches, privacy invasions, phones, and investigations were little more than fetch quests. However, the gang hideouts were among my favorites, being among the few places in the game where it broke from the shooter mold and embraced its hacking mechanics. I was often able to take down all but two or three enemies just by hacking items in the environment, only breaking out the guns to mop up what was left. It was here where I was able to recapture the feeling of being a master hacker that I had in the opening segment of the game. Likewise, the QR codes scattered throughout the environment, while still fetch quests like the others I mentioned, were at least interesting fetch quests, forcing me to actually explore the environment looking for a camera positioned in just the right spot where all the elements of the QR code (which are often painted on different buildings) align just so. They frequently had me saying to myself "how did I miss that?" when I finally solved them. Poker is nothing you haven't seen before, but it still works.

Finally, we have the digital trips. While some of the other games on this list made for fun diversions, aside from poker there was often very little to them outside of a few minutes of gameplay. The digital trips, however, were where this game simply cut loose and went crazy, allowing you to drive an armored death-mobile around a city overrun with demon zombies, go on a rampage in a spider-tank, sneak around seemingly empty streets that have been taken over by an evil AI and her robot minions, take part in some psychedelic platforming, or live out a remake of They Live! and fight evil alien cyborgs lurking among us. I finished them all wishing that they had lasted longer, because each of them had the core of a great game in its own right and they took advantage of their basic ideas much better than the game itself did.

Even in normal gameplay, so many little fragments of the game shined that it was that much more of a shame that it kept ruining them by making the same mistakes over and over. There are all too few moments when this game truly lives up to its promise of building an open world around computer hacking, but when they do come, they offer a beautiful glimpse into what it could have been. For example, while the driving mechanics were fairly poor, they also provided some of the best and most interesting vehicular combat I've ever seen. Aiden can't shoot his guns while driving, so he has to use his phone to hack items in the environment, such as traffic lights, drawbridges, steam pipes, and road blockers, to get his pursuers to crash or otherwise lose them. I loved this creative use of hacking, and it made chases infinitely more interesting than if I had merely shot at them in drive-bys. The stealth is also very functional, and would've been much better if I didn't receive a silenced handgun very early the game, which makes it much too easy to take down enemies. (A lot of this game's problems could have been easily solved if the designers had said "less guns" during production.) When I was forced to rely on hacking, melee takedowns, and support items like electronic lures, remote bombs, and signal jammers, stealth gameplay was a lot more interesting than when I could just pop headshots without fear of enemies hearing the sound, often reaching the heights of the Assassin's Creed games that it's clearly drawing influence from in this regard. Hacking into one of the ctOS servers without killing a single enemy or even being spotted has to go down as one of my most memorable gaming moments this year, and it still stuns me that the game that produced it was the same one that annoyed me so.

Likewise with the game's online multiplayer, which, far from a mere afterthought, actually offers something creative that I haven't seen before. While there is the usual suite of deathmatches and races, the highlight is, fundamentally, a game of hide 'n' seen 'n' kill. There are two players, one of whom is trying to hack the other while hiding in plain sight amidst the crowds of people around him or her, and the player being hacked must use his or her phone to scan the crowd to find, and then terminate, the hacker before the job is complete and the hacker can take off. Having played on both sides of this mode, it is amazingly tense however you look at it. When you're the hacker, you're constantly looking for a place to hide while remaining close enough to your target to do your dirty work; I was screaming obscenities for a full minute one time when I got busted with my bar reading "99% complete". Likewise, when I was the target, I was racing against the clock to find the hacker, which again had me swearing up a blue streak the one time the hacker finished his job just as I realized exactly where he was hiding.

Score: 2 out of 5

While bits and pieces of it showcase the promise of the initial previews, overall Watch Dogs is a massive disappointment on many levels thanks to a poorly-written storyline and a bland setting and gameplay, problems that largely stem from a refusal to commit to its central conceit. It is the triumph of hype over substance, feeling like it was designed by a committee of studio executives, so packed with disparate design elements lifted from other popular games that it lacks any soul or purpose of its own. Wait for it to hit the bargain bin.

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