Watch Dogs’ Multiplayer Is Great, Broken, Great

By Graham Smith on June 25th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.

I wrote a long list of reasons why I didn’t like Watch_Dogs very much, and then at the end wrote briefly with caveats about why I liked its multiplayer mode. I thought that would be the end of it, but then a couple of times a week ever since – and it’s been a month now – I boot the game back up to have another couple hours of hacking into other people’s games. How am I going to explain this, I keep thinking. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I’ll try.

Here’s how it works, in case you don’t know. At any point while playing Watch_Dogs, you can bring up your phone and request an ‘Online Contract’. There are different types, but it’s Online Hacking and Online Tailing that I play. Pick one and its matchmaking will drop you into another person’s singleplayer world, without them knowing that you’re there.

I know that Dark Souls implemented this mechanic sometime ago, but I’m new to it. Is there anything more thrilling, more illicit, than arriving unbeknownst into someone else’s private world?

Yes, as it turns out: trying to maintain that illusion while accomplishing the objective of either of those modes. In Online Hacking, that’s stealing data from another play. You’ve got a few minutes to follow them around and then you have to trigger the hack. When you do so, they’re alerted that someone is hacking them and given a rough area that the hacker has to remain inside for the hack to continue.

Watch_Dogs open world is therefore transformed, as streets, alleyways and buildings that were previously only scenery and obstacles between you and your next objective, are suddenly turned into an arena for a deadly game of hide-and-seek. There is no real penalty for either party should they fail – you lose some XP, or gain some for winning – but the desire to find whoever is responsible, or remain hidden if that person is you, is instinctual. I play it again and again and every time I am flushed with nerves. I perspire. My hands tremble on the mouse when a searching target comes close to discovery.

And discovery is not the end. I love that there’s not a hard failure state; you don’t get spotted and instantly lose. The challenge then becomes a high speed chase, further warping Watch_Dogs otherwise stale (but pretty) open world Chicago into the scene of a thrilling pursuit.

Online Tailing sits somewhere between these two experiences. The purpose for the hacker is to keep their target within view at all times, without being spotted in the process. That means that neither player is tied to a particular geographical location, and the experience can be radically different each time. You might join a world where your target is milling around on foot, attempting to complete one of the puzzle-ish ctOS towers. Or you might join a world where the person you need to tail is speeding from one side of the city to the other in a dirt bike, forcing you to keep pace while praying the target doesn’t look behind them and think, “That NPC is driving awfully recklessly…”.

In other words, it’s an open-world Spy Party. It abandons its (literal) laser-focus on the subtleties of human behaviour, but the principle remain the same – one of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong – and all the resulting terror and excitement and laughter comes from the same place. ‘Did that NPC just park? NPCs don’t park.

(Alternative: It’s PropHunt/BoxWar/CrateDM with humans and cars instead of ordinarily inanimate objects).

Of course, there are problems in the randomness and that’s what I criticised in my review. I stand by that. It’s frustrating to spawn in someone’s world and find yourself in the middle of nowhere, with no pedestrians to blend in with and no vehicles to give chase with. But I’ve been thinking about it for the past month with an eye towards writing this post, and I can’t think of a solution that doesn’t stifle some part of what makes the multiplayer so exciting. You need it to be able to happen anywhere, because that’s what makes it exciting and surprising. You need it to provide time limits, so that there’s mounting pressure pushing players towards one another. You need for it to work smoothly within Watch_Dogs’ other systems, without turning off police or pedestrian responses in pursuit of something more consistent and therefore flatter, more boring.

Watch_Dogs multiplayer is a muddled, uneven experience. It also might be the most consistently thrilling and, in spite of its obvious inspirations, inventive multiplayer experience we get this year. I hope hope hope other developers are looking at it, learning from it, stealing from it, and that it plays an even larger role in future Ubigames to come.

, , , , , , .

25 Comments »

Sponsored links by Taboola
  1. Premium User Badge

    Crimsoneer says:

    It is damn great, but it’s a shame the decryption is always – in my experience – a lag ridden mess.

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      I never, ever managed to get a game of Decryption to actually start. Shame, it sounded fun.

    • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

      Well, if all things fail and MP doesn’t seem to cut it, there’s always the uber-fucking-spider-tank-of-doom mode.

  2. Polifemo says:

    “ACTUALLY, it was Demons Souls that first implemented the world invasion mechanic, not Dark Souls”

    There, Ive said it for you. Go obsess over the spelling mistakes now, you smarmy bastirds.

    • Premium User Badge

      AngelTear says:

      Sometimes I wish the system didn’t tell you when you are being invaded in DS. Even if you’re bright red, you can to an extent blend in with the environment, or hide and have the player come to you, use the environment and the enemies to your advantage, or create an ambush, but whenever players see the little warning that you’ve been invaded, everyone runs back to a safe spot and just waits for you to come at them.

      It substantially detracts from the experience of “hunting”, IMO.

      • bigjig says:

        I tend to disagree. I think the tension only really ramps up when the host knows they’ve been invaded. If they weren’t notified a lot of times it would result in the invader popping out at the last moment to strike. This would certainly provide a instant shock sure, but that underlying gut-wrenching tension of trying to figure out where the invader has spawned in and is coming from would be gone.

        • Premium User Badge

          AngelTear says:

          For the way I experience it, both as invader and invaded, the tension when you’ve been invaded lies only in the duel, and in possibly losing your progress in terms of enemies, up to your last bonfire.

          But it may as well be a duel in some neutral arena, because whenever that little popup appears, everyone runs off to a neutral area without enemies, heals up and waits, back to the wall, for the invader to come to them. And there’s no tension in “where is she coming from”, because, if I have a wall behind me, sure as hell they’re going to come from in front of me. It’s more a matter of not falling asleep whilst waiting, maybe spotting the occasional arrow.

          But still, what bothers me the most is that the other player is not naturally going about her business anymore. You’re duelling a player (without their consent) in an inconsequential location that happens to be the host’s world; you are not really *invading their world* they way you do in WD.

          • bigjig says:

            Ah I see, I guess it’s just a difference in playing style because I never just wait around for the invader to show up but rather actively seek them out.

            I think there are other elements to the tension of DS’s multiplayer besides just dueling though. To me most of the tension comes before an invasion has even taken place after restoring one’s humanity, because you never know when an invasion will come. Also, as the invader can be sent back without a duel when the host reaches the boss fog for example, this opens up opportunities for cat and mouse style games when the host is trying to avoid a duel (especially when using sorceries such as “Charmeleon”).

          • sansenoy says:

            I’m sorry to burst your thought bubbles, but you can invade people in Dark Souls without them knowing. When using the Red Eye Orb, only thing able to alert the host to the invasion are the fogwalls, there is no invasion prompt, no message at all… No such item in DS2, of course, they were too busy turning the INVASION covenant into a dull, isolated grindfest. I cannot believe that the core idea borrowed for watch dogs multiplayer is the same one fromsoft nerfed to oblivion in the sequel, a real shame.

      • Prolar Bear says:

        If I’m not mistaken there is a way in the first DkS to invade without triggering the notification. Cannot remember what it entailed though. I’d wager the second game has something similar.

        Also, I think no-notification invasions as a standard would be too lopsided against the player. Whenever I get the invasion notification I instantly get very nervous, doesn’t matter if I have my shoulders against the wall -the invader has preemptively forced you into a corner already.
        Watch_dogs’s world and standard enemies probably don’t pose a challenge as tight and difficult as Dark souls’ small but meticulously crafted areas, so I think a notification is needed in the latter – there’s not much room to hide, and unless you already know the area, nowhere to run.

    • Premium User Badge

      Gap Gen says:

      I’m sure you’ve seen this, but: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ecS0yKnNLA

      Apparently inspired by http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ywyll7GUG5Q

      • Premium User Badge

        strangeloup says:

        Normally I find “trolling” and the like in games tedious in the extreme, but dear lord, that’s masterful work.

        It seems odd — though I’m not complaining — that I’ve only had one invasion in Dark Souls II so far, excepting in the Belfries. In the first game, I’d always be wary of using Humanity if I hadn’t beaten the area boss, because it usually meant an invader would show up in a few minutes.

  3. Premium User Badge

    LTK says:

    Why is there a link to a 2007 article hidden in that upside-down apostrophe? Graham, did this article get hacked?

    • Premium User Badge

      particlese says:

      I had forgotten about the “RPS Feature” text until I clicked on that floating red cheese curl (left-single-quote courtesy of wordpress, I assume). I originally chuckled at that text because blogs are soooooo 2007 (I guess?), but now I smell an RPS ARG.

      Currently, the linked article says there is “1 Comment »”. BUT THERE ARE NO COMMENTS. That makes no sense, therefore Disney secretly bought Valve so they can make “Ricochet 2: The Discs of Tron”.

      • Premium User Badge

        Gap Gen says:

        I recently skimmed the RPS archives and found an article by Alec in 2008 excitedly claiming that his iphone would soon have downloadable games, and wondered whether phones would become PCs in our pocket.

        • The Random One says:

          The past truly is a foreign country.

          Also, having a link hidden in an apostrophe a few paragraphs after mentioning Prop Hunt is weirdly appropriate.

  4. Giaddon says:

    If you spawn into a game where your target is somewhere hard to hack — “the middle of nowhere, with no pedestrians to blend in with and no vehicles to give chase with” — you can go to the menu and choose “abandon mission” to quietly leave your target’s game with no ill effects.

    • Chiller says:

      The problem with this is that usually, by the time you figure out it’s not worth the attempt, the target has been made aware you’re there, and at that point you will lose the XP for quitting. I’ve literally never been able to take advantage of the free quit mechanic.

      The solution is pretty simple, of course: they should have allowed the players to quit without penalty as long as they had not initiated the hack/observation already.

      And before this is brought up: the target can become aware of the pursuer by attempting to start a mission or quick travel or start an online contract. The invader is NOT notified of this, and from that moment on, he or she will lose XP for quitting.

      Also, if you pause the game and the engine keeps running in the background, it’s a sure sign you’ve been invaded. At this point you need only reveal the hacker (by trying to quick travel or whatever is faster), and set up an ambush, which is trivial if you’ve spotted them early. If you’re paranoid enough you’re very unlikely to be caught off guard ever again.

      I have enjoyed the multiplayer quite a bit, especially Tailing, but the aforementioned problems made me classify it as a decent attempt, but ultimately flawed. (Decryption is also good fun, but comes with its own problems)

  5. Monteef says:

    I really wanted to like W_D’s multiplayer. Every goddamn time I actually play it, though? Whether invader or invadee the other guy either trashes me – which is fine – or quits the moment things start going wrong for them. Since you lose standing/multiplayer xp when you ‘lose’ but don’t when you just drop out, this is incredibly frustrating and is one of the main reasons I’ve ditched the game. The other one being, of course, that it starts with a fantastic amount of potential and then completely fails to live up to any of it the further you get into the game, turning into a shoddy GTA-like instead of the much smarter game it could have been.

  6. Chicago Ted says:

    I can’t stand Online Tailing. Keeping a target in line of sight without getting blasted away or them just hopping in a car and zipping to the other side of the city is bonkers hard, especially with how bad I am at the driving.
    The Hacking one’s pretty great though. I recall one where I was following the target casually, and I saw her duck into a parking garage. She came out a moment later, and I installed the backdoor, then walked into the parking garage when she was turned the other way. Got in a car close to the wall, but with another one between me and the entrance, turned off the engine, and started the hack. I just sat there in that car until it finished. She only popped her head into the garage once, at the 70~% mark, took a dekko, and went straight outside again.

  7. Premium User Badge

    mickiscoole says:

    I really enjoyed the online tailing. I was getting fairly good at it, until I died inside a tailing mission and it corrupted my almost 100% save game :(

  8. racccoon says:

    Yet another game that at their debut fucked us over, I tried going back and it still was poor to play, I haven’t been back yet, as I do not believe it or any update to speak any truth due lies in the first place, We shouldn’t have to buy a game and be shown upon launch a disappointment by not being able to play it or play it and suffer.
    The law needs changing far too many games have and are, getting off scot free by selling games that don’t really work as well as they say,.

  9. bstard says:

    We got our Chigago South Club free extra pre-order suit; this MP story is just nitpicking.

  10. The Random One says:

    The IQ already is an average.

  11. bstard says:

    Yes but one of lives mysteries is it can, in theory, be raised.