Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Watch Dogs - A Bold New IP That Needs A Little Work

In actuality the very top is replaced with the new blue PS3 banner,
but this is the best I could find.

During E3 2012, Ubisoft announced a new IP called Watch Dogs (stylized WATCH_DOGS) which aimed to focus on a hacking mechanic in an open world Chicago. While watching Sony's E3 2013 press conference, I got a better look at the game and found it to be an interesting idea, so much so that I ended up pre-ordering it at San Diego Comic-Con 2013. Initially my pre-order was more of an excuse to get a free shirt, but since then I decided I might as well play the game anyway due to the interesting concept. When I got my copy I also had to deal with finals in college, hence why the review was delayed until now. Looking back on it, I’d say that Watch Dogs is a very interesting new IP, though it definitely needs to make some improvements if it wants to survive as a series for more than a game or two.

Watch Dogs follows the story of Aiden Pearce, a vigilante hacker whose niece was tragically, and inadvertently, killed in a car accident caused by an attempt on his life. Since then, he’s been hunting for the person responsible for her death and, eleven months later, by using a backdoor in Chicago’s ctOS system, he finds the hitman, Maurice Vega. At first, Aiden believes that the hit on him was ordered because of a failed robbery he orchestrated at the Merlaut Hotel, since Maurice wouldn’t tell him anything. However, as he investigates further, he realizes that there is more to it than he thought and tries to find the source of it all. Not far into his investigation however, his family is dragged into the conflict as a man named Damien kidnaps Aiden’s sister, Nicole. To save her, Aiden complies with Damien’s requests and, over the course of the game, is surprised to learn just how complicated the web of connections is to find the one who ordered his hit.

Aiden Pearce in his default outfit.

When the story began, I was hooked on learning more about the world until the very end. The web of intrigue and the political involvement, not to mention the corporate elite in general, made the story that much more fascinating to play through. That said though, it’s also a bit generic. Aiden Pearce is a man motivated by revenge and he has to go from one place to another while dealing with gangs and bosses, all while speaking with something akin to a Christian Bale Batman voice. I was able to get into him anyway, but his lack of real character development got me to focusing on the side characters which turned out to be much more interesting to follow from time to time. For example, there’s a gang member with the nickname Bedbug who’s not only a little dense, but he’s shown to have a very wide range of emotions. During his involvement with Pearce, they never meet face-to-face and Bedbug is terrified the entire time, added to him being afraid to directly confront his boss and having a home life where even his Grandma thinks he’s a loser; it’s enough to genuinely feel sorry for him.

There’s also an antagonist, a hacker name Defalt, who is hinted at through the story, but once he finally shows up, he’s powerful enough to be on equal footing with Pearce. His unique presence, including being an expy of Deadmau5, got me wondering why the game wasn’t structured around him being the ultimate villain. In fact, I found his part of the story to be much more interesting, but felt disappointed by this portion lasting only a few missions and ending with a very unceremonious disposal of him.

Defalt is actually a very interesting antagonist.
Also, why isn't there a Defalt outfit?

Like the story, the gameplay is also pretty uneven. I’d like to begin with the game’s main gimmick, which is the ability to hack at the push of a button. The concept of hacking in an open world is a cool one, which Watch Dogs thankfully pulls off very well. By holding down a single button, just about anything can be accessed or altered in some way, such as screwing around with traffic lights or peering through cameras to hack from further away. You can even hack civilians for quick cash or other great rewards, including the locations of certain side quests or caches. Hacking is also helpful during a police chase, since you can impede their progress by activating blockers or combusting steam pipes. I also liked that hacking isn’t a mini-game that imitates any form of Hollywood hacking, but rather is explained by using backdoors or other exploits to gain access to that part of ctOS. There are some instances where a mini-game is used, which I guess would play the Hollywood hacking a little straight, but when that happens it becomes an interesting breed of puzzle game that I enjoyed playing through.

This leads into something which can negate the wondrous idea of open-world hacking: gunplay. Aiden has access to a sizable selection of weaponry, with some guns obviously being more effective than others, although it isn’t always required. Guns can affect how you are viewed by the residents of Chicago depending on how you use them, including robbing stores or killing criminals unnecessarily, but there are points in the game where stealth and hacking simply won’t be an option. A silenced pistol will help with the stealth option to minimize detection in missions which require going through small areas populated with enemies, but it would be a little better if the hacking had more emphasis in the grand scheme of things. I’ll repeat that I liked the hacking, and it works really well, but the fact that most of the time you use it to blow stuff up or spy on people takes a little of the fun away from such an amazing idea. If the environment could be solved more like a puzzle just by hacking, then I might have felt more powerful in a bold new way, as opposed to someone armed to the teeth that can also hack to get the job done. It’s not a total waste of a perfectly good gimmick, but it’s enough to wish that the developers had focused more on stealth, which is the more entertaining way to play.

If only pure hacking was more of an option.

But Aiden can do more than just hack with his Smartphone. He also has access to a variety of apps, one of which acts as a manual of sorts for the game; it’s not a manual like ones that would comes with games in the olden days, but it’s not like the game doesn’t kind of tell what you can do as you go anyway. You can also check your progress or spend skill points to improve various aspects of the gameplay, including more things to hack or better driving and combat skills. One very useful app is the ability to summon any car you want on demand (as long as it fits into a list), which will materialize at the nearest spot to you to minimize the pain of getting one. Cars, motorcycles and trucks, to name some types, all have their own sub-lists and individual stats, which help making a selection easier. Of course the actual driving is an interesting subject, since the physics are a little floaty, as in the game itself is pretty good about the realism until it comes to colliding with any car or object (or even just turning/drifting). Steering is a little hard to accomplish because the cars are a bit sensitive to the controls and objects will comically fly about once you hit them, including phone lines and highway barriers (those yellow things that resembles trash cans and are filled with water or sand). It’s not impossible to get through the game anyhow, since I managed to drive my way across the city with little problem, but when it does get in your way, it really gets in your way; alternatively you can make a game out of it and see how closely you can total your car between points A and B.

One of the most fun apps by far though is the one for Digital Trips. Digital Trips are side games that you can play, which are similar to the VR game interactions spread across the city, but are far more immersive by putting you in an unconscious dream state, with someone even explicitly stating that they aren’t drugs. Digital Trips have you accomplishing certain objectives for skill points which you can use on each game’s individual skill wheel. The Trips end when you either fulfill all of the objectives or fail to meet one in an allotted time frame (or, in the case of one Trip, die). Obviously they get progressively difficult and it can get easier to screw up, but overall it’s fun to play each of the four Trips: Alone, Madness, Spider Tank and Psychedelic. My only real complaint beyond this is that there is a fifth Digital Trip, Conspiracy, which is DLC only, but the game actually went out of its way to not only place it in the Digital Trips app, but also plaster “Downloadable Content” on it and have selecting it take you to the DLC store. I don’t mind DLC normally, since I can choose to ignore it, but having it be advertised when it’s not a main menu announcement is going a little far for my tastes.

But on the other hand this Spider Tank is really awesome.

The Digital Trips aren’t the only major distraction however, since there are a number of side missions to partake in, some of which have their own storylines. Completing these missions in full can be very satisfying or, in the case of the Missing Persons cases, terrifying. When not uncovering a Weapons Trade operation or locating Burner Phones though, there’s always the ability to stop a crime or the Privacy Invasion side missions that will essentially grant you free experience or cash. These distractions are by now an essential element of an open world game and it’s good that there is pretty good execution to boot. Since I pre-ordered the game, I also had access to an exclusive mission, The Palace, but I didn’t really get very far because when I tried playing it, I kept running into a broken checkpoint that prevented me from going any further. You see, you’re supposed to go to the mansion of SoSueMe and hack his stuff before chasing him. When it gets to the part where you have to chase him and the checkpoint does work, it’s an exercise in frustration because you have to wait for a cutscene to end and then go down a specific winding path to catch him. When it doesn’t work however, he doesn’t even enter his car and you can kill him, but it will generate an invincible rag doll that will perpetually have an objective icon and can’t be removed no matter what you do (even if you grenade blast him to the nearby riverbed and make him fall through the game world).

In fact, glitches turned out to be a part of the experience in general. There’s nothing too game breaking, the worst is usually water not reacting to bullets, but sometimes there wouldn’t be a single car on the road at all. During a certain mission near the end of the game, I swear that Chicago turned into a large scale ghost town, since no one was around and, once, the only parked vehicles were motorcycles (how oddly specific). This was especially annoying since I was, by design apparently, unable to avoid the cops chasing me, which necessitated a vehicle despite none being around. I had to resort to stealing a police car right in front of them, which solved the problem for a bit until I found out that dying was the only surefire way to get cars (and people!) to finally spawn. It feels as though there was some sort of miscommunication (or lack thereof) with QA or they couldn’t fix that in time for release.

Fortunately, the PS3-exclusive hour of content was free from glitches. It consists of four missions, Ctrl, Alt, Delete and Shut Down. These involve Aiden working with the hacking collective DedSec to steal data from another group and use it to upload a virus to cripple them without being seen. The missions themselves amount to three tailing missions and a stealth/defense mission. I actually enjoyed these for the most part due to their simplicity and you may not be missing too much should you go away from the PlayStation versions. However, I always prefer the option where I get more out of my game, so I would encourage prospective players to take this into consideration.

Of course, one of the most hyped features about Watch Dogs was the ability for players to hack each other’s games via asynchronous multiplayer. I only took advantage of the Online Hacking option (there’s also Online Tailing and Racing), but I got the gist of how the logistics work. In Online Hacking, you invade someone else’s game either on a whim or encouraged by them having a bounty. When inside, you then install a backdoor and try to steal their data to benefit your game, though you have to be careful not to get caught; when on the receiving end of the invasion, it’s up to you to track down where the invader is and kill/neutralize them before they have a chance to do anything. Whenever I was hacking someone, I felt a huge adrenaline rush as I hoped that they wouldn’t find me, leading me to conclude that the mode is absolutely terrifying to initiate. Being on the receiving end however is a different story, since I’ve been successfully hacked a couple times but then figured out that the best way to quickly take someone down is to make sure you are in an isolated area or one with only one or two entry points to more easily pick them off. This mode works very well and it’s good that such a natural extension of the game’s gimmick is a success.

When you see this, it's time to act fast.

The most common complaint people would likely have about Watch Dogs is the graphics. The E3 trailers had very advanced graphics and looked very nice, which served as a heavy contrast to a later trailer displaying toned down capabilities. At first I sort of cared, but then once I played I didn’t really care. The graphics are still very nice and detailed, with great cloth and hair physics to boot, plus I didn’t really notice too much of a difference anyway.

I’m pretty impressed with the voice acting, particularly from the side characters, and was surprised to learn that Aisha Tyler has a physical presence in the game, so when I see her now I’ll be able to recognize her. No real complaints with voice acting (I usually never do unless it’s bad or wooden). As for the music, the licensed stuff is just all right, I even made an in-game playlist of the songs that I did like, but the original score is amazing. It captures just the right feel for each scene and is also very listenable to boot. If I see a soundtrack for it, I’d totally think about buying it.

Overall, Watch Dogs is pretty good game, though more by virtue of not being bad. There are some really great ideas in here, but for everything good there’s usually something else that almost negates it, resulting in a package that more or less (and more accurately) is just okay. If they had ironed out some of the bugs, emphasized the hacking more or had something that was more tonally equal, then this could easily have been a real gem. But as it stands, the questions it raises aren’t explored enough, especially given the world at the time of this writing, and the main character isn’t completely interestingI ended up liking the game anyway, but prospective buyers should consider if this is really the game for them. If you’re totally sold on the game though, and the graphics are really important to you, then consider buying a PS4 copy to get a little more bang for your buck.

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