One day you will purchase a multi-pack bag of assorted crisps. Maybe because you’re going to a party, maybe because you’re living on a budget. You won’t be overly fond of any of the contained flavours, every bite will feel a little on the soft side of fresh, and the individual packets will be 90% air, but you’ll at least feel comforted by having choice and abundance.
Welcome to Watch_Dogs, the latest videogame from Ubisoft. You play as Aiden Pearce, a brooding packet of cheese & onion whose hacker-criminal past has led to the death of his niece. Now you must run, drive and hack around its ready salted open world on a quest for truth and vengeance, alternating between salt ‘n’ vinegar main quests and a prawn cocktail of crafting and side missions familiar from Far Cry 3 among others.
Running low on crisp flavours, I may just end my review right here. But there’s something of Watch underscore Dogs stuck in my teeth and I need to unpick it. This is wot I think.
That was Watch Dogs analogy number one. Here is number two.
Late last year I played around with the Leap Motion, a control device which can track your hands down to individual fingers in 3D space. It’s designed to enable Minority Report-style air-swiping interfaces and it feels like magic when it works. The issue is that it only works 90% of the time.
It feels churlish to complain about something which is only magical 90% of the time, but in some things, ten percent can seep out and render the rest infuriating and useless.
I feel similarly about Watch Dogs. It’s set in a beautiful, open world Chicago. It lacks the grandiosity of Grand Theft Auto V’s Los Santos, but there’s a similar thrill to taking in its cityscape, speeding along its sweeping motorways, and visiting its re-created landmarks.
The city is populated by the requisite gun, clothing and food stores, but also a dozen possible activities. Aside from the main story missions, there are street crimes to stop and criminal convoys to ambush in Aiden Pearce’s role as a vigilante, there are ctOS towers to scale and unlock in the manner of Far Cry 3’s radio towers, there are “investigation” side missions in which you’re tracking and stopping criminal enterprises, there are mini-games like chess and poker, and there are roughly two billion collectables.
On top of that sits the game’s hacking system. It’s not Gunpoint – you will not be doing anything as complicated as re-wiring the city’s infrastructure – but it layers a set of interactive triggers on top of the world, unlocked through skillpoints. To begin with, you can change traffic lights and raise and lower bollards at the press of a button, to clear paths or cause crashes. Soon you’re able to open doors and gates to open up new paths, raise and lower the city’s bridges, and explode steam pipes.
It’s empowering but has less of an impact on the open world than the scanning mechanic, which allows you to see information on every pedestrian in the world around you. It’s easy to see the crowds milling around the streets of most open world games as nothing but litter in your path, but here they have names, interests, a job. It’s immediately humanising when you see that the hoodie in a backalley “writes vampire fan fiction”, and you’ll feel bad when your car careens into him and relief when a message pops up to say that your reputation has been affected by his being injured, not killed.
Some of the best moments I’ve had in Watch Dogs have come just from being in its world, driving around and exploring its streets. I so often find this about open world games. I like the in-between moments.
Given all of Watch Dogs’ beauty and detail, and its multiple flavors of content offering both choice and abundance, is it churlish to tear it apart for the ten percent it gets wrong?
No. The Leap Motion wouldn’t have struggled to detect me giving Watch underscore Dogs the middle finger over a miserable weekend of playing it to storyline completion.
Bad men who don’t like Aiden Pearce being a hacker attack him while he’s driving with his niece. His niece is killed in the crash. A year later, Aiden is still searching for the people responsible, driven by anger, grief and guilt, and having split from his hacking partner and gone into semi-hiding. By comparison his sister – his niece’s mother – seems to have grieved and moved on, because it’s important that women not have agency in a story like this. (She’ll spend half the game waiting for you to rescue her from a kidnapping. Other roles for women in this game include: victim, sacrifice, property for sale at an auction.)
I cannot describe Pearce’s character any better than “cheese & onion”. Even his anger, grief and guilt are mild. Anyway, it doesn’t matter: your investigation spirals and you get drawn into more and more corruption involving city officials, the police, and the company responsible for creating ctOS, the interconnected system which you can hack and which allows you to use your phone to open doors and blow up things. Every campaign mission is about about furthering that investigation.
At the game’s best, those missions are about breaking into a secure facility of guards. This is the closest the the game comes to allowing you to be creative with its toolset.
On one mission to hack a server, I needed to reach a small building at the center of an open yard near the city’s docks. There were three gates in and out and guards on patrol all over.
I could have hacked open any of those gates, but I found a fourth way: a maintenance worker’s mobile lift, which could be hacked to lift me up to the rooftop of an adjacent building. I am using the word “hacked” here but really I pressed Q to make the lift raise. I used it.
You can only
hack use what’s within range. From my rooftop vantage I was able to hack use a camera, and then effectively hop from one to the next and get close to whatever I needed to within the area. I marked each of the enemies on my minimap, turned off the ability for two of the guards to call in reinforcements, and pressed use on the guard who my phone told me had the server access code. I then dropped down into the yard.
From here, I tended to take it stealthily. Hitting a button sticks you to a nearby piece of cover, and you continue to use that to carefully skirt around corners, sprint across open spaces and remain unseen. Get close enough to an enemy and you can perform a swift take down move. Chain these moves together, get inside that server room, and your reward is a Pipemania-with-a-twist minigame, but even this relatively simple performance feels great, and the escape back out into the open world can be exhilarating.
But this is not how it goes. Here is how it goes: you press ‘hack’ to use the camera under your crosshair, but at that moment the game’s predictive targeting decides you’re actually looking at a guard in the middle distance. The guard explodes, because you hacked his grenade. Everyone on the level is now alerted.
You drop down and take cover behind an object and begin to move quickly towards the server room, still trying to avoid conflict. You press C to move behind a pillar, but in your haste didn’t have time to deal with the fiddly targeting here, either. You hide on the wrong side of the pillar, are too stuck to it to quickly disengage, and are spotted by a guard or six who begin firing at you.
You press 1 to bring out your weapon and nothing happens, I don’t know why, and press it a second time and now you have a machinegun in your hands. You rapidly press your left mouse button while aiming at the nearest guard, but this only causes you to awkwardly twitch your arms. You need to hold down the button for longer if you want him to lift his arms and then fire, a system that seems designed for analogue triggers more than digital buttons.
Now you’re dead. Reload, you’re back outside the compound. Start again.
This is Watch underscore Dogs’ missions at their best.
What do they look like at their worst? Forced stealth missions in which being spotted is an instant fail, turning misinterpreted controls into a tedious roulette. Or maybe the occasional wave-defense missions, in which death against an onslaught of enemies spins you back to an autosave placed before a cutscene.
Maybe missions in which your objective is directly contradicted by the things the characters say. When Aiden says, “I have to beat them to the next train station”, he doesn’t actually mean it; when you get too far ahead of your racemates, you’re told that you’re “losing your target”. The task is actually to destroy them before they reach their destination. When Aiden says “I better get out of here,” but driving away in your car prompts a, “YOU ARE LEAVING THE MISSION AREA” warning, the task is actually to stand still for a second until inner monologue triggers the next objective marker.
Maybe any mission involving a helicopter chase. I have an unlocked ability which allows me to scramble those for 30 seconds, stopping their pursuit. Unfortunately I can’t angle the camera up steeply enough to see helicopters while driving, swimming or running, and standing perfectly still so I can crane my neck skyward exposes me to fire from its high-powered sniper rifle.
Maybe just every mission, in which the environment is designed both restrictively and inconsistently. On one mission I arrived, saw the tower block which lay before me, and decided a sniper rifle would be a fun approach. I figured I could buy one from a nearby gun shop, so I hopped back in my car and sped off. When I reached an invisible boundary, the game yelled at me for leaving the mission area, failed the mission, and reloaded me back to the outskirts of the gang’s base I was to infiltrate. My car was now gone, as if as punishment for daring to deviate.
On another mission set inside an abandoned, cargo container-filled warehouse lot, you rely on Aiden’s climbing and jumping in order to reach your destination. He’s less nimble than Ezio, but your movement is similarly prescriptive: you can only jump at ledges where there’s something to grab, for example. In this warehouse lot, some cargo containers can be climbed upon. Some can’t. These two types are not visually distinct. In one area you need to bypass an unclimbable fence; you might think that a set of stacked boxes which lead up to its height would be the perfect way across, but your inability to jump an inch forward without the game’s say-so will see you stymied at the top.
These are the things that made me slam my keyboard, throw my mouse and scream bloody swears. Watch Dogs is infuriating because of its controls and rendered dull by its slavish devotion to scripts and plots. It bends no further than an inch to the imaginations of its players. For a game about being subject to an inescapable, oppressive computer system, that’s at least apt.
It’s equally apt that the subversion of these constraints should come from the game’s ambient multiplayer. While going on your merry way around Chicago, other players are able to “infiltrate” your game, turning your singleplayer suddenly multi. In some instances they do so in order to “hack” some data from your character, a process which takes a set period of time during which they must hide and you must find, identify and kill them.
This – as Dark Souls players will know – is brilliant. It’s never less than exciting, although in my six or seven experiences thus far it’s also largely based on luck. When I was first infiltrated, it happened at an inner-city intersection below a raised train platform and above an underground tunnel. The person hacking me could have been on any level, which made them next to impossible to find on time. In some respects this could be credited to my opponent, who may well have waited as I drove through town before triggering the attack, but it was just as much luck that I happened to be near this area when they logged into my world.
I’ve experienced good luck, too. In one instance I attempted to begin a singleplayer mission, which isn’t possible when you’re being infiltrated, and was instead given some rough information as to the location of the hacker. Using my minimap, I was able to turn the tables, ram their car in a head-on collision, and take them out before they could retaliate. The other player wouldn’t have expected that.
In an instance of bad luck, I infiltrated another player with a mission to tail them unseen for a set period of time. I teleported to their location to discover they were out in the backwoods north of Chicago, stood unmoving next to a dirt bike. I observed them for a while – an odd thrill – before they got on their bike and sped away. At which point I realised my only means to follow was a damaged novelty van with a sombrero hat on top. By the time I had guided the smoking wreck through a three-point turn on a narrow dirt road, my charge was a kilometer away, uncatchable.
Still, I’ve had fun with these moments of off-kilter multiplayer, and they make far better use of Watch underscore Dogs’ strengths – its open world, its hacker theme, its push-button explosions, its stealth mechanics – than anything else in the game. Even more explicit multiplayer modes, like the 3-8 player Risk And Reward mode in which you must hold a piece of data for a period of time while other players scramble to steal it from you, takes place over a dozen city blocks and plays out like a giddily enlarged game of hide-and-seek.
I struggled at first to resolve the varying quality levels of Watch underscore Dogs. Its city is beautiful. I enjoy spending time in its open world. The architecture, the detail, the music on the radio, the re-created streets, the wind effects, the traffic and pedestrian systems… All this art. Isn’t this the magical 90%? Is Watch underscore Dogs too expensive to hate?
Then I remembered. Those things aren’t a game. The game is sloppy controls which cause you to constantly do the wrong thing accidentally with disastrous consequences; is inconsistently interactive world design; is a cover system whereby you get stuck on scenery or it guesses incorrectly where you want to move. The game is insta-fail stealth missions, wave-defense missions, escort missions, missions where what the characters say and what the objective is don’t match up. The game is five crashes to desktop, including two which required me to reboot my machine before it would reload. The game is restrictive objectives which don’t make use of the possibilities provided by the open city or the hacking mechanics, and checkpoint positions that force you to re-watch short cutscenes or re-perform rote actions after every death.
Fuck underscore that. When the world is full of pickled onion Monster Munch, don’t settle for less.