Watch_Dogs: Game or Prototype?

I upgraded my keyboard last month and got a copy of Watch_Dogs with it as part of a Razer promotion.  In no way did this bonus influence my purchasing decision;  I’d heard pretty bad things about the PC release of Watch_Dogs.  By all accounts the game has ropey PC performance, a story that’s far from engaging and very restrictive missions for a supposedly open world game.  Still, this was meant to be one of the big releases of the year so I felt I should give it a fair go, especially with no GTA V PC in sight.  This, in hindsight, was a mistake.  I should’ve left well alone.  All I had heard was true, but even worse there wasn’t even a good game underlying everything.  Instead I found what seemed like a constant disregard for the player, like the designers had been playing with prototypes for new functionality without actually playtesting it from the perspective of the gamer.

To be clear, Watch_Dogs does include some interesting gameplay ideas.  The hacking to control the city is novel, and the first couple of times you use it to crash a pursuing car or create a new route are exciting.  The (endless) side activities are reasonably varied and do certainly keep you occupied when you want a break from the godsawful story.  The amount of work that’s gone into giving NPCs background information when you hack them is astonishing, and the little twists on standard mini-games like poker to use your hacking skills are fresh and don’t make you feel like you’ve had power taken away from you as so many of these sorts of side-games do in other games.  Unfortunately each of these seem like unfinished concepts that, once implemented, don’t make a full game that’ll keep your attention for long enough.  It’d be like trying to have a full length movie for Bob Fleming.  He’s great in sketch form, but wouldn’t work for a full feature.  The whole game feels like this, like nobody actually tried to see how the finished product would work.  Three particular experiences stick in my head after playing through the game.

Aiden Pearce (the protagonist) is obsessed with his phone.  Maybe this is meant to be a subtle social commentary about the youth of today and their addiction to their smartphones.  Maybe it’s just a bit too much focus on the hacking motif.  The problem is that Aiden has become so dependent on his phone he seems unable to use his hands for anything else.  Button on wall?  Lever to pull?  Lift to call?  Use the phone!  While I can see the convenience here if you’re a few feet away from the switch in question, the problem comes when you get close to the item you want to use.  Get within arms reach and the camera stops you being able to get the object in focus for hacking.  Since Aiden won’t put the bloody phone down and use his hands you find yourself backing up to call a lift, then walk forward again to get into it.  This is particularly frustrating if you’re under fire at the time, given how weak Aiden is in a firefight.

Speaking of firefights, the combat is just awful.  You either engage in a stealthy approach to combat, or go in guns blazing.  The former is laughable given quite how dumb the AI is – it’s very easy to fire a gun, which briefly spikes alertness, then duck into cover and let everything settle back to normal.  Apparently discovering 15 of your mates with a bullet between their eyes doesn’t phase the average criminal in Chicago.  Or police officers for that matter (let’s not dwell too much on the confusion around fighting the police – it’s never really clear where Aiden draws the line).  The guns blazing approach is only made difficult thanks to the awkward cover snapping mechanism, Aiden’s weak body and the fact that all animations, especially melee, seem to take forever while leaving you exposed.

The last thing that really drives me nuts in Watch_Dogs is the approach to mission briefings and checkpoints.  Strangely, the checkpoints for failed side missions are pretty good – they’ll restore any items you’ve used and dump you back close to the action.  No harm, no foul.  The main missions, on the other hand, are approached with what seems to be a pathological hatred of the player.  Checkpoints regularly dump you back before a slow walk or exposition so you can repeat another piece of story that adds nothing to the gameplay.  Worse still are  the bits before the missions.  Prior to a mission, Aiden will often receive a long unskippable call from another character which’ll tell him where to go to start the mission off.  Unfortunately, this happens each and every time you’re ready to do a new mission, including after every side mission you complete.  This gets old pretty fast and starts to make you regret tackling any side missions, which in turn means you’re less likely to level up until after the main storyline is complete.  It’s a shambles, and it’s disrespectful to the player.

I can’t help but feel that all of this is an extension of the usual UbiSoft approach to gamers – I just don’t think they like us.  They just see us as an audience to see their artwork.  You won’t be surprised to learn that Watch_Dogs has a long unskippable credit sequence as well.  This’ll ring true with anyone who has completed the Assassin’s Creed games.  I know they want to show off their people and have a chance to have their names in lights, but there has to be a better way.  Every other game will let you view the credits from a menu.  Another option would be to have the credits scroll over every screen in the game.  It’s not difficult, and it doesn’t have to impact the player.

Anyway, in short, don’t bother.  There are better games out there.