99 problems and a glitch ain’t one.
Ubisoft has successfully internationalized development efforts, leveraging the time and energy of thousands of highly skilled artists, designers, programmers, and producers to bring top-quality blockbusters to market. In fact, the company’s latest open-world action game harkens back to one of my favorite titles of the past console generation. While many gamers decried Assassin’s Creed III‘s glitches, I still look back on that game’s story, setting, and main character as a wholly engrossing experience that sticks to thumbs like wet cement.
No media has so completely addressed nor imparted emotional understanding of an atrocity like Assassin’s Creed III did with the seizure of tribal lands in colonial America. Sure, the experience was not without its issues, but providing an entertaining and unfolding landscape of interactivity with a narrative that metaphorically embodied the plight of native Americans proved a monstrous mountain that Ubisoft developers clearly addressed as one cohesive group. I had hoped that Watch Dogs would achieve the same clarity of vision, but the game’s open world has focused more on establishing itself for sequelization and less on what a street-hackin’ man means. Still, Watch Dogs has served up an amazing base of emergent gameplay and reactive systems with a big focus on freedom.
Hero Aiden Pearce and partner Damien Brenks use their tech-savvy minds to steal six figures from a hotel and its guests. When another hacker counters their work Aiden flees and soon faces down a fixer, a hitman hired to exact revenge, with his niece in the back seat of the car. After her death, Aiden blames himself and promises to fix things, leading players through a tutorial where Aiden stages a blackout in a baseball stadium after interrogating his niece’s killer. My grasp of the story proved the only data theft I couldn’t solve with a gun. It felt as though narrative threats trumped each other faster than manufacturers in the Android smart phone market, with objectives pitting Aiden against mobsters, followed by gangbangers, followed by the oppressively omniscient CtOS system that monitors and controls Chicago. Where ACIII’s objectives confused some because we were the ones being taken advantage of, Aiden doesn’t really know how to handle his own techno-agency, even if the game’s mechanics proved increasingly fun and shockingly true to life.
Triggering all greens at a busy intersection to intercept pursuing police officers only enhanced the feeling of weaving in and out of traffic that many open-world games lean heavily on. The same could be said of escaping capture by triggering a blackout that dramatically affects an environment’s look. The tools Aiden Pearce has at his disposal will likely leave even gilded bleeding hearts envious of the nefarious applications in our real world. How could lifting a few dollars from someone’s bank account be bad when select few in our society horde wealth like they can take it with them after the lights go out? While the hacking mechanics rely on a one-button-breaks-all approach, most of the Hollywood computer-babble has been washed away in a generally mutual respect between developer and player.
That’s great news too, since Watch Dogs features an expansive and deep skill tree with categories for gunplay, crafting, driving, and hacking. The game even features a relatively deep hacking minigame, the best since Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I loved rotating junctions to solve networking puzzles, especially since it ramps up to a “boss-battle” of sorts later on. That doesn’t mean players won’t struggle to swallow a few of the game’s story missions.
More often than not, I felt like the title forced Aiden into a permanent gray area with copious amounts of splattered brain matter and bloodshed, whether or not I wanted to embrace the “vigilante” role as a protector of Chicago’s citizens. Depending on the weapon equipped, a takedown can still result in a kill leaving perfectionists to suffer. It’s better to give up any hope for a stealthy, no-kill run now. In fact, one mission starts with Aiden’s desire to send a witness a message. Our hero waltzes into a police station with the intention of getting arrested. “I just want to let this guy know I can get to him,” Aiden said before swaggering through the metal detector like a rock star.
20 dead cops later, we’re supposed to shrug off Chicago’s finest because the game’s constant mission objective states that these prison guards were corrupt even though the profiler reveals that they had children or that they liked to sing at open mic night. Embodying judge, jury, and executioner will likely leave Chicago’s streets and bureaucracies just as dirty as ever. It’s interesting and engaging to scan crowds and discover Internet pirates, gamers, and child pornographers, but I wouldn’t trust the profiler app any more than I trust Apple Maps. Narratively, it’s too convenient to give the player two details and a finger on the trigger. Assassin’s Creed III managed to make our founding fathers seem weak and manipulating thanks to convincing performances, but Watch Dogs favors the same kind of digital immediacy that’s ruined dinner with family or even conversation before the trailers in a movie theater.
I mean, what if the stoplights all turned green on the way to work? Watch Dogs leaves those questions to players outside of missions. Every objective has a heavy sense of immediacy, even if I left one waypoint in pursuit of an individual but often forgot why I started the mission in the first place. That probably speaks to Ubisoft’s fantastic orchestration and original soundtracks, but I also came to hate the late-game combat encounters for relying on Uncharted-esque armored enemies that required buckets of machine gun ammunition. I had to blow these guys up or run away and sometimes I never had the option to do even that.
The prison mission exemplifies largely nonsensical designs that fail to add to the experience other than to show us the depraved depths we can sink to. Playing as a clean vigilante feels more satisfying and mechanically next-gen compared to rough and jarring crashes, explosions, and gunplay. I could also complain about no-alarm objectives, instant death glitches, or the tangled mess of competing ideals that seem largely focused on controlling power that no single system should have.
That won’t keep Watch Dogs from standing in this launch window as a hugely entertaining open-world. A few boring follow-this-target missions wait, but I could hack stoplights to get people moving again. The game wears its tainted hopeful heart on its sleeve and plainly laments the state of the world we live in, seen and unseen.
When I went from blowing up a sex slave auction to chasing down Aiden’s nephew who texts, but doesn’t speak to him, I felt the weight of a 21st century world screaming through my eardrums like the L-train. It’s at that precise moment that I realized the prevalence of technology in our lives has driven us all a little insane. Aiden’s nephew Jackson serves as an emotional ground for all this electrifying action. When all I did for hours was blow away gangland thugs and disrupt drug deals, Jackson served to remind me, perhaps more than Aiden, that life doesn’t serve our appetite for destruction quite so readily as the virtual worlds we inhabit.
I sat in Ubisoft’s offices with sensory focusing headphones, less than three feet away from the television, gripping the PlayStation 4 controller with sweaty palms and I wanted nothing more than to run out to the street and throw the first smart phone I saw into traffic, immediately hugging the person whose digital life I just tossed away. Maybe it would have been an act of violence that woke someone up but my bear hug would have replaced the digital bondage we all share. At least it would have been love and not another out-of-office e-mail or 140 characters of nonsense.
Late-game moments seem to mirror gameplay and characters from other major open-world releases. Watch Dogs gets cheesier than even Chicago’s deepest pizza in a red neck heehaw third act that undermines the taut, dramatic ground work wired in the first two. Worse still, the pre-rendered trailer leaned on Aiden’s dramatic break-up of sex trafficking but the in-game missions surrounding this subject fall completely flat. Players get introduced to poor Poppy, a seemingly deadly woman who is prepared to murder her “new owner” when Aiden intervenes, apparently secures her safety and then tells her to sit patiently so he can use her to track the ring.
Once Aiden arrives at the human trafficking auction with its full stage of cuffed, naked women, his weapons get arbitrarily taken away and magically given back just as he leaves. Watch Dogs seems to argue that saving one would-be slave should be just as satisfying as any other lame gaming attempt at “edgy” subjects. Aiden has to abandon Poppy in the middle of this crowd and then we never hear from the woman again. Please let downloadable content deliver Poppy’s own brand of justice since Aiden doesn’t seem so concerned with it when more gangbangers wait for slaughter near the back entrance. Watch Dogs executed Human Traffic investigations as well as Modern Warfare 2 tossed up “No Russian” for its oh-so-thoughtful audience.
These missteps get corrected through truly next-gen multiplayer that’ll pervade the experience if you let it, along with gobs of side-objectives, collectables, augmented reality games like NVZN (third-person alien blasting around the city), and digital trips that allow Ubisoft to add fantastic elements like the Spider tank. The focus on setting up Watch Dogs as a new franchise will pay off in the years to come, but it does come at the main game’s expense.
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