From the time Watch Dogs was first brought into the public consciousness, all throughout the time it was put through the PR hype cycle, and ending with its release, I was amazed as to just how predictable everything fell into place from a press reaction standpoint:
STEP 1, Initial trailer – pre-release E3: Hype. “Holy cow, guys! It’s open world, but you can hack! This is amazing! This could be the thing that saves AAA gaming!
STEP 2, E3 – release: HYYYYYPE! “Oh my God! Look at this one thing that’s different from Grand Theft Auto! It’s totally indicative of hacking culture! This could be the GREATEST AAA GAME EVER!
STEP 3, release: Meh. “It’s just another AAA game. Yawn. I want a game that’s going to knock my socks off! AAA gaming is dying!”
All of these steps, one through three, were usually perpetuated by the same exact people, often at the larger sites. I get amazed when people get worked up over the opinions of someone who writes for IGN, Game Informer or another very large site, because it’s like getting angry at a See ‘N Say for saying “oh, look! It’s a pig! Oink!” when the arrow is pointing at the pig and someone pulls a string. The industry tells these people what to say and when to say it, down to the minute, and any deviation from the accepted norm is ruthlessly eviscerated even by other media members, on a person whose career is now officially over. If anything, post-release is the only time we get any actual commentary unless it’s a hot button issue having to do with something unrelated to playing games – take a bow, Tomodachi Life and Assassin’s Creed – because everyone’s scared of losing access.
I was able to rent the game over this weekend, and my opinion tends to meld into what everyone is saying in step 3: Watch Dogs is the Roarsarch Test of AAA gaming. It is the prototypical 2014 era AAA game, and how one views Watch Dogs will largely depend on what those words mean to the person doing the viewing.
Right off the bat, I was greeted by my favourite title sequence: the one where there’s no title sequence because the game has to install a patch first. OK, no problem, patches are better than the alternative. Then, the installation of game data. This took a whole 15 or 20 minutes or so, during which time I played countless games of LUFTRAUSERS1 on my Vita. A tip for aspiring developers: if I am waiting so long for your game to load that I start playing another game, on another system, simply to pass the time to where I can play your game, you’re doing it wrong. Once all of this was done, it was finally time to… log into UPlay, with the threat of losing key missions and cars in-game if I didn’t. Now we’re getting ridiculous; the PlayStation environment is already a DRM shell, why do I need to use your shittier, alternative scheme as well? Thankfully, I already have a UPlay account because it was either sign up for UPlay or let my Steam copy of Trials Evolution go to waste2, so this was relatively painless. After this, it was time for an opening cutscene of a hotel robbery, featuring the kind of high-class “hacking” technobabble that impresses laymen but make someone who actually works in IT security laugh his ass off. Without getting into details, I spent this entire video asking “seriously, does anyone believe this shit?”. Naturally, the whole point of this setup was to kill someone and give our protagonist his Sympathetic Antihero merit badge so he can sit at the cool table with Niko Bellic, Carl Johnson and Wei Shen.
Twenty-five minutes into the game, and we’ve had multiple software installations, one awkward DRM log-in with a DualShock controller, a story that borders on Julia Stiles in Ghostwriter levels of laughability, and literally zero interaction beyond the UPlay login. It’s a bog standard AAA experience, both on and off the proverbial field.
Then, there’s the tried-and-true tutorial mission, where I learn one thing: things that I view as standard issue – like the ability to punch – aren’t options. Every thing I have to do, except “shooting” a gun, is in the form of a quick time event. Being a beginner, everything is clearly mapped out for me, which is nice – it beats reading a manual – but at no point did I get the indication that I would be able to do any of these things on my own during the course of gameplay. The main gameplay option that differentiates Watch Dogs from every other AAA sandbox game is the ability to hack into devices with a smartphone; in most cases, this is cameras, which can be used to link to other cameras, open security hatches, and even interact with or overload machines that I wouldn’t think to be computerized. Of course, in action, it just means hitting the Square button everywhere I go, looking for things that come up to hold Square on, and either looking around for more things to Square to, or taking a reward. Looking around for icons that tell me to enter glorified quick time events is not my idea of a good time.
Don’t get me wrong; there are some positives to the game, among them being that it’s absolutely gorgeous. While I don’t know what the PS4 version looks like in comparison, the PS3 game is still a looker, with great character models, a lively city, and all of the other trappings one would expect from such a well developed game. I’ve heard of performance issues with the PS3 version, but haven’t played long enough to see them. It’s possible that any performance issues occur because there’s always information popping up on screen about random nobodies in the street, saying how much they earn, quirks about them such as whether they sued someone for sexual harassment, and other stuff. This happens all the time to the point where it got distracting within the first couple of minutes. I’m pretty sure the crew in Montreal were trying to make a point about the ubiquity of information and the death of privacy, but I’m also sure the irony of them doing it while working for a company that extensively data mines via their proprietary DRM scheme is lost on them.
I didn’t end up playing Watch Dogs long, all said. Open world games have to really grab me to draw me into what I know will be over 100 hours of putzing around with not just the main storyline, but also plentiful side quests as well. I don’t know what the magic formula is, but I usually know within a few hours if I’m in it to win it. Skyrim, Saints Row 2 – IV and Sleeping Dogs all managed to pull it off just as decisively as the last two Grand Theft Autos failed at it. Watch Dogs is in the latter category. I personally view modern AAA gaming as a potent exercise in publisher avarice, blinding people with pretty lights and buzzwords while going around and picking their pockets via DLC and boring gameplay elements they’re too big and risk averse to change, so I will naturally have little interest in a game that takes all of those elements and turns them up to 11.
1 – I’ll save the extra column and put it here: LUFTRAUSERS is great, you should buy it, and if you have an Android or iDevice, you should get Vlambeer’s other game, Ridiculous Fishing.
2 – Compared to the Trials Evolution mess, UPlay on this game isn’t too bad. That piece of shit made me install UPlay – software I want nothing to do with – on my PC and run it in the background to play my game on Steam, with its own achievements and everything. I don’t even remember how I ended up with Trials, to tell the truth; Lord knows I should know better than to buy a Ubisoft PC game by now.