Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Outsmarting the Masses: A Watch_Dogs Review

Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row left a gap in my videogame life.  GTA jumped the shark by becoming super serious and real; similarly, Saints Row jumped the shark by becoming too silly.  The 2 franchises changed in opposite directions, which left a gaping chasm in the middle of the open-world action game landscape.  I suppose the question is thus: can Watch_Dogs fill the area of open-world action game abandoned by GTA and SR?  Let’s find out.

Atmosphere, Environment, and Ambiance (40%): Watch_Dogs takes place in a pseudo-realistic Chicago.  This is interesting, considering some of the dumbs on Metacritic confused real-ish Chicago for the satirical New York or the satirical Los Angeles of GTA fame.  The Chicago skyline is represented well enough for the purposes of the game—there is no doubt where the player is.  That said, in order to make the landscape more interesting, Ubisoft decided to contrive a wilderness area right outside city limits.  This is done for the purposes of variety, and it is completely understandable even if it is inaccurate per Google Maps.

The second thing you notice is all the cameras.  This is a pseudo-realistic Chicago direct from the mind of George Orwell.  I recognized Watch_Dogs’s Chicago immediately as a place that would exist if 1984 had been written in 2008 instead of 1948.  The propaganda is missing, sure, but it is clear that there is a Big Brother who is always watching you.  It is easy for the player to get immersed to the point of believing this is Chicago as it would be in Oceania.  The key to all of the atmosphere is ctOS.  ctOS is a computer system that is integrated into everything, from the traffic lights and power grid to freight cranes and forklifts.  The best part is, because you see the world through the eyes of all-universe hacker Aiden Pearce, you just

happen to have access to ctOS.  Through your cell phone, you can change the environment by raising bridges, changing traffic lights, and raising and lowering lifts.  You can also use camera line of sight to look at everyone around you.  You’ll want to take a look at everyone around you because of the other handy element of ctOS access: the profiler.  The profiler provides vital information about people as you walk past them including name, age, occupation, yearly salary, and a personal factoid.  Some of the factoids are benign: “Frequently Buys Comic Books”; some of the factoids are disturbing: “Often searches ‘suicide’”; some of the factoids are immature: “Addicted to torture porn.”  The Chicago portrayed in Watch_Dogs is the cynic’s dream because many, many people have a secret that they wouldn’t want anyone else to know.

Now, this is an Ubisoft game, and that means not all is sunshine and roses in this Orwellian dystopia .  Watch_Dogs does not have the freedom of movement that other open-world action games have.  That is a bit of a negative, especially given that a city like Chicago has tons of opportunities for parkour creativity.  However, Ubisoft did give the player a reasonable amount of freedom of movement around the city.  Some of that freedom is contrived by convenient placement of objects to hack to create parkour pathways.  Also, I’d not been in the game very long when I found a missing texture.  Where there is one missing texture, there are more.

Verdict: I’m not one of the people who watched the 2012 E3 tech demo, and I’ve never had the need to play any game at 6.62*1034 x 6.02*1023 resolution at 9.29*107 fps on my quad linked Jupiter graphics cards.  I know this is Chicago; I can navigate through the city well enough, given how Ubisoft does free running; and there’s enough graphical fidelity to complete missions.  That’s good enough for me. 8.0/10

Characters (25%): There are 2 routes to boosting the self-esteem of the modern, self-loathing “gamer”.  The first way, used by most game companies, is to say, “It’s okay that you are a terrible gamer and a worse human being, because we’ll make the content so easy that you won’t need to communicate with anyone, and you won’t need any skill to complete the content.  You’ll be the same as everyone else.  Isn’t that great?”  Ubisoft, on the other hand, decided to take a more realistic route to pumping up the self-worth of repugnant “gamers” by saying, “It’s okay that you are a terrible gamer and a worse human being, because we put people in our city that are even worse than you are.  Your ID10T errors getting the game to start or run smoothly don’t look so bad now.  Isn’t that great?”

Truly, Watch_Dogs is video game Chicken Soup for the Soul.  Regardless of my mood, every time I’ve launched Watch_Dogs, I’ve found someone that makes my day better.  In one case, it was the dude who got friend zoned live on cam.  Another time, I decided to very preemptively prevent crime by shooting an Eco Terrorist in the head.  Immediately following my act of cold blooded murder, an onlooker called the police.  This is an example of Ubisoft’s attention to detail providing a world with personality, charm, and community.  Some of the people have technology that Aiden can hack.  Hacking in general is accomplished through a single button.  Hacked technology can provide bank account information, which is an important source of money, a view at a text message conversation, or a listen in on a phone call.  When you intercept a phone call, the person you hacked is actually talking on their phone—that’s another nice detail that GTA and SR would miss.

I mentioned earlier that the player looks through the eyes of Aiden Pearce, and indeed, the campaign is Aiden Pearce taking revenge for the death of family.  Here’s the thing: Aiden Pearce is not the protagonist of this game.  The City of Chicago is the main character; Aiden Pearce is a roving, walking, talking, McGuffin.  “How can that be?” you might ask.  Aiden doesn’t actually do all that much beyond shooting and blackjacking people.  Here’s an example.  At the end of a quest, event, or whatever, Aiden has to get away from the bad guys in a high speed chase.  If this were GTA, Saints Row, Just Cause, or Driver, the player could induce the bad guys to get into an accident with the ambient traffic moving around the city.  I’ve been in a couple of dozen high speed chases thus far, and I can say the bad guys can drive faster and with more precision than you can.  Therefore, the only way to get the monkey off your back is to conscript Chicago to help you.  Fortunately, you have the power of ctOS, so Chicago is more than happy to help.

A second example:  A gang has taken over a building that’s under construction, and Aiden has been charged with teaching a non-fatal lesson to the “leader”.  Everyone else is fair game to be killed.  Watch_Dogs is great about giving the player freedom to complete these tasks in whatever way the player sees fit.  That said, the most effective way of completing quests and events like this is to once again conscript Chicago to aid the dispatching of enemies.  Once you’ve hacked a camera, you can leap from camera to camera, so long as the cameras have line of sight with each other.  From the view of a camera, you can use ctOS to interact with many objects: electrical junction boxes, steam pipes, the explosives a baddie has on them, etc.  You can kill bad guys and never leave the safe confines of cover, or walk your way to mission objectives and achieve them without leaving the door to the building where the objective is located. In short, Chicago does all of Aiden’s heavy lifting. 

Verdict: I couldn’t care less about Aiden Pearce’s quest for revenge.  Mostly, that’s because the people of Chicago are way too awesome in their variety to be bothered with doing the campaign.  I could spend time just people watching, reading their texts and listening to their phone calls. 9.0/10

Activities (35%): There's a lot to do.  You start by hacking a ctOS hub in the region of Chicago you are in.  Once that is done, you unlock the ability to profile and unlock more activities by hacking ctOS towers throughout the region.  The activities include typical open world fare from side missions to collectables.  Watch_Dogs sets itself apart from other open world games by making many of the side missions appear spontaneously.  Recall that the player has access to ctOS, and in this Orwellian dystopia, ctOS is monitoring and profiling everyone.  ctOS reports to your cellphone when a crime is about to happen, and prompts the player to set up a waypoint.  When the player approaches the region where the crime is set to happen, the player is directed to profile either the criminal about to commit a crime, or the victim of the crime about to be committed.  If Aiden alerts the criminal or the victim to Aiden's presence at the soon-to-be crime scene, the criminal will not commit the crime and walk off.  Aiden monitors the situation until it becomes clear a crime is taking place, then ctOS will advise Aiden to neutralize the threat.  Neutralizing but not killing the threat gives a reputation bonus, and saving the victim gives a bigger bonus.  Stopping crimes is rewarding in and of itself, but using ctOS to prevent crimes that are about to happen simultaneously drives home the Orwellian setting while ultimately providing the player a better means of being Batman than games where the player *is* Batman.  While spontaneous crime prevention is a highlight, the goldmine of the activity set by far is the invasion collectables.

Invasions are marked on the mini-map, and involve Aiden playing a mini-game to hack a building's secure router.  Sometimes, you have to mess about with a bit free running and ctOS play to unlock the door to the secure router; conversely, sometimes the routers are just available to be hacked without any unlocking necessary.  The secure router hacking mini-game will be familiar to players: route the blue water around the pipes to unlock things until you unlock the main junction of pipes.  ICE is represented by red highlighted junctions that start a countdown timer.  It has to be said that Ubisoft did pay attention to a fair few of the little things that make the world believable from the macroscopic view.  Successfully completing the hacking mini-game for an invasion rewards the player with a camera eye view of a scene in progress.  From the camera, you can hack other mobile devices for the same kinds of rewards that you get from the world at large.  I can't say enough good stuff about the scenes that play out from the invasion collectables.  Thus far, I've seen a dude profess his love to a girl only to get
catastrophically friend zoned; I've seen a housewife ask the plumber if he'd clean her pipes adult film style; and I've seen a CEO attempting to bully a toy company customer service rep into giving him a refund for ordering the wrong action figure.  Some of the scenes are more disturbing, but all of them have a sense of social commentary about them.

Beyond that, there are points of interested that you can check in to a la 4Square that act as a collectable, QR code collectables, investigation collectables scattered thoughout Chicago, as well as AR games and psychadelic "Trips".  All of this is effective distraction from the campaign story missions of Aiden Pearce's revenge, and brainlessly bludgeoning your way through the campaign will result in you missing the meat of this game.  It's as if Ubisoft was trying to comment on gamers by making a conscious design choice to keep all of the cool stuff outside of the campaign missions.

One more thing to note.  The driving is very arcadey, and cars can suffer a beating before blowing up.  This was another design choice by Ubisoft not only to reinforce that Chicago itself is the protagonist and supposed to do the heavy lifting for Aiden Pearce, but also to jab at gamers who believe realism is the be all and end all of open world game design.  The overwhelming majority of the time, Aiden is going to use freaky mind powers to raise a bridge, road blockers, spike strips, or change traffic lights to escape from or incapacitate enemies.  There is a definite distinction between different cars and how they drive.  A rear engine supercar is faster and more responsive than a Watch_Dogs equivalent of a Fiat 500.

Verdict: There's a lot to do.  According to Steam, I'm 15 hours in, and I haven't even unlocked everything yet.  The invasion collectables are brilliant, as are spontaneously appearing side missions.  I'll get around to the campaign missions at some point, I suppose, but I'm in no rush, which is high praise to give an open world game. 9.5/10

Final Score: (.40*8)+(.35*9.5)+(.25*9)=8.6/10

Final Thoughts: There’s a part of me that really wants to believe that someone had the presence of mind and strength of character to stand up before the money men at Ubisoft and convince them that the best thing Ubisoft could possibly do given the amount of hype the 2012 E3 tech demo generated was to stop trying to meet the expectations of unreasonable, entitled, douchey, repugnant “gamers”.  That the best thing to do was to accept that a bunch of terrible human beings would flood forums and Metacritic to whine and snivel about being “lied to” and how Watch_Dogs was just a GTA or SR clone with a bad protagonist and main story.  I want to believe they used the extra 6 months between the original release date and now to tweak the design and the content specifically to fill a niche in open world games abandoned by GTA and SR, in an environment where an open world game has never been tried, and spit in the eyes of the worst of the worst of the gamer fraternity.  I don’t believe Ubisoft set out to create a Chicago filled with representations of what they think of us as gamers, but when Watch_Dogs is looked at as an Orwellian dystopia that’s a commentary about us as gamers, I feel like Ubisoft might have hit the nail on the head.

There have been reports of Uplay logon issues and graphical performance issues, but I haven’t encountered them.  What I have encountered is something unique.  An open world game totally distinct from GTA, SR, Driver, and Just Cause, but also a game that fills a niche in open world games none of the other franchises can fill.  A game with more stories than just one tired revenge tale.  A game willing to take the risk of making a social commentary about the very people that are relied on to make the game a success.  Thanks, Ubisoft, you truly outsmarted the gaming masses.

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