Phil Hartup on videogames

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Hack-’em-up Watch_Dogs isn’t as clever as it thinks it is

Ubisoft's much-hyped Watch_Dogs isn't about shooting people - instead, it's all about hacking the world around you to control the city and trip up enemies. Yet this ambitous premise falls flat.

A screenshot from Watch_Dogs, with the protagonist hacking a control panel to electrocute an enemy. Image: Ubisoft
A screenshot from Watch_Dogs, with the protagonist hacking a control panel to electrocute an enemy. Image: Ubisoft

Watch_Dogs isn’t bad, but it isn’t great, which is a description that could perhaps sum up Ubisoft’s output in many ways. This is a developer that has their formulae, whether it be Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, Splinter Cell or Anno, and they make that game time after time. In the case of Watch_Dogs that formula is Assassin’s Creed plus Splinter Cell, and the result is a resounding meh.

­­­The positive elements of Watch_Dogs are on display very early into the game. The world you inhabit, a scaled-down Chicago, is very well made and has a sense of verisimilitude that most games never get close to. The pavements are teeming with people going about their daily business and the range of things they do is such that the game is the first of its type to actually lend itself to people watching. The core mechanic of the game - the ability to hack into computers - plays into this, as everybody you see will yield some information to your phone for you to read on the screen as they pass by. These secrets, coupled with their job and their income, gives the ordinary characters populating the world a little bit of personality, and even if they are just the product of some random generation going on behind the scenes this is more than games usually provide.

Of course, these civilians aren’t perfect. Sometimes you’ll find them doing odd things, where their AI has gone awry, and this can happen a lot in the middle of action scenes. It can look silly and it can momentarily break the illusion the game is trying to weave, but for all the hiccups you have to respect the ambition. Adequately covering the entire range of things that a player might do with a range of convincing reactions from the passers-by is something no game has managed.

The ability to hack into computers in this world is what supposedly makes Watch_Dogs different from the likes of the GTA or Saints Row series, but this is not a convincing mechanic. Essentially what you have is the ability to cause things to happen remotely with your phone. This could have been great had it been done with the same sense of reality that binds the rest of the game world together, but it isn’t. The game doesn’t feel particularly realistic when you hack a traffic light and all the cars immediately accelerate into the intersection. Nor does it feel realistic when you hack somebody’s hand grenade and cause it to explode, because grenades don’t have WiFi connectivity linked to their detonators, they have pins, because nobody outside of the Ubisoft offices would ever think a WiFi hand grenade to be a good idea. What would it even be WiFi for? Does it have Flappy Bird installed on it? An MP3 player built in? Can it check the weather?

Hacking can be a genuinely scary thing when you think about it within a more realistic framework. It is possible to hack car controls for example, or some medical implants - but a grenade? A Saints Row game could get away with that sort of silliness, but Watch_Dogs is a serious game, with a serious leading man, a serious theme (about the nature of surveillance) and a serious story about dead women. Such flaws in the tone stand out like a clown nose on a funeral director.

The day to day mechanics of the game are reasonable. The driving is very forgiving, more in keeping with Saints Row than GTA 4, and cars follow the traditional mechanic of being shot or rammed a certain number of times before exploding. In truth this part of the game feels like it should have borrowed more from GTA 4, whose harder-to-control cars and more realistic damage modelling would have suited the world of Watch_Dogs very nicely - but, as driving mechanics go, they're about good enough. Combat isn’t great, being heavily-based on a sticky cover system that can be hard to control and unforgiving. Stealth too feels like it isn’t quite right, as guards will patrol in fairly intelligent ways when you upset them, but they have a lemming-like habit of funnelling into ambushes in an orderly manner regardless of the pile of bodies in front of them.

The game on a mechanical level relies on too many elements that are just about serviceable, and this is a shame. The world is well crafted enough that it is one that could be great fun to explore and mess about in, but the sheer averageness of the playing experience undermines that. What is the point of an open world game, teeming with activities in an interesting setting, when so much of that enjoyment is tied to lacklustre mechanics? You can pass the time in Watch_Dogs easily enough and it won’t be unpleasant, but many games have done better.

What the game does do well is multiplayer, where it borrows heavily from Dark Souls in that players can pop into your game unannounced and mess with you, and you can return the favour against them. There are different game modes that require you to stalk and alternately hide from other players, rather than just killing them, and that’s genuinely creative and making good use of the tone and style of the game. As limited and generic as the game is in so many areas the multiplayer is something that it does well.

The last thing to mention with regards to Watch_Dogs is its greatest failings: the story and the characters. By the usual run of things in an open world I can forgive a godawful story and horrible characters because usually I can ignore them. I played and enjoyed many hours of Far Cry 3 without bothering to touch the main story, and the same went for Assassin’s Creed 4. Both these games created a world I was happy to pootle around in with an attitude of live and let live towards the main antagonists and their third-rate shenanigans. Watch_Dogs though isn’t like that, the plot and the characters are more pervasive, and they are awful.

The hero of the story, Aiden Pearce, is a prick. In the prelude to the story he carries out a robbery, but in doing so he invokes the wrath of forces unknown. Those forces retaliate by attempting to kill Aiden in a car crash while he is driving his niece to a place called Pawnee. Obviously the niece dies and not Aiden, who sets off on a quest to take down whoever called in the hit. A smart man would accept that it was his own fault for not going to ground after the robbery went sideways in the first place. Not Aiden, because he’s a prick.

The crash in itself is the worst kind of blunt force emotional manipulation. Here is a cute little kid, she’s your niece, oh look, now she’s dead, bet that makes you angry and motivated to get on the case doesn’t it? Well, no. Given that this is a game where I caused about fifty spectacular road traffic accidents just trying to get the hang of the driving and traffic light mechanics, any number of which might have cost the lives of cute little kids, and the game is okay with that, all the game has done is shown that the main character has no respect for lives that aren’t related to him.Even if you play him as carefully as you can, Aiden is still a man who will kill, torture and destroy to avenge a tragedy of his own making.

The use of a dead girl to provoke the revenge quest is an old trope called the woman in the refrigerator and it’s as hackneyed as it gets. The way that Aiden repeatedly ignores his sister’s requests not to get involved also speaks to the disdain the game has for women. Sure, Aiden is directly responsible for the death of her daughter, but that doesn’t mean he should honour her wishes to stop putting the remains of the family in danger, right? Course not. The game portrays women as objects to further the plot, and the plot is largely focused on killing men.

The story and the actions of the main character are utterly at odds with the world that the game creates. Walking through the streets the game creates a sense of life - people have names, they have jobs, they have passions, quirks, secrets. And here’s Aiden, a man utterly devoid of humour or empathy, plodding around, stealing money from them, spying on their phone calls and backing his car over them (yeah, um, that last one could be my fault). It was hard to shake the feeling that the best way to win at this game was to stop playing.

Watch_Dogs achieves one thing, perhaps, and that is that it raises the bar for what a game can be while still not actually being particularly good. This is easily the best game I have ever played that wasn’t good. Very few games contain as many things to do over such a wide area as Watch_Dogs, very few can match its production values, very few can boast as many original game mechanics or new ideas. But it just doesn’t work. With Ubisoft being Ubisoft though I’m sure they’ll try again.

Tags:Gaming