Weekend Recap: Dogs and Wolves

I’m maybe 8 hours into Watch Dogs, even though I only finished Act 1 (of 5) last night.

The reason why I’m 8 hours into the game but am barely 20% into the story is because the game is constantly interrupting me with other things to do besides the main story, and since playing the main story means having to listen to shitty dialogue made worse by shittier voice acting, I’m more than content to indulge those side missions.  I check into hotspots; I hack the shit out of ATM accounts (even though I’m not spending any of the money); I hack into buildings and spy on weird people; I unlock ctOS towers (WD’s version of the radio towers in Far Cry 3 and/or synchronizing viewpoints in Assassin’s Creed).  Anything that involves not having Aiden Pierce speak (whether to a person or simply as part of an internal monologue) is something I’m more than happy to indulge in.

Actually, say what you will about the narrative and the characters and the numerous plot holes and nonsensical premise and the rest of it – and I’ll get to all of that – but Watch Dogs is, for all intents and purposes, the modern-day Assassin’s Creed that I wondered if we’d ever see.  My wife watched me play it for a few minutes and thought it was Grand Theft Auto – and certainly you can make that case.  But the DNA between Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed is so similar, in fact, that it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see that this future-Chicago is, in fact, part of the Animus.  Even the digital glitches seem familiar.  (This Eurogamer article all but confirms that the two franchises take place in the same universe, even if the bottom quote of that article calls these references mere “Easter eggs”.)

I can’t seem to talk about Watch Dogs without getting totally scatterbrained, so I’m going to do the rest of this in bullet-points:

  • Comparisons to GTA being unavoidable, I’d have loved it if Watch Dogs had stolen GTA’s driving model, if nothing else.  It is fucking impossible to keep a car moving at any speed on the road without spinning out, hitting a dozen cars, or killing civilians who are all too eager to get in the way.  (Perhaps those civilians feel guilty in that their complacency in letting a private corporation like the one that makes ctOS completely take over Chicago.)
  • To that last point – the reason why the NSA’s surveillance tactics are as thorough and as voluminous as they are is because they are (or were) collected IN SECRET.  There is only a certain amount of disbelief I can willingly suspend, and the idea that a private corporation could do what the one in Watch Dogs has done is completely in-fucking-sane.  In a major, heavily liberal city like Chicago, no less!  Certainly there’d have been some angry op-eds in the local papers, at the very least, because I’m not sure that the general populace would be content letting a group of anonymous hackers be their voice, either.
  • The game’s protagonist, Aiden Pierce, is one of the more difficult protagonists in modern games to empathize with.  And this particular problem with empathy is totally different than what you might expect with the three men of GTA V, who you at least understand right from the get go are monsters.  Aiden is (at least I think) meant to be someone you root for, someone you understand, someone who can guide you through this city and show you how messed up it is.Alas, Aiden is poorly introduced.  The opening cutscenes establish that he’s some sort of hacker, in the middle of the digital robbery of an upscale building.  Something goes wrong and he bails, and then, some time later, he is shot at by gangsters while driving his car, resulting in the death of his niece.  Now, the way this opening sequence is laid out, one gathers that we are meant to feel bad for Aiden, and that this scene helps us understand his rage and his quest for revenge.  They killed a child, after all!  But: he’s also a criminal, right?  Even if he’s only robbing the rich (and who even knows if that’s the case), he’s engaged in illegal activity as a full-time profession, and he got caught, and the bad(der) guys tried to take him out.

    And he’s not charming or witty or even likable, as with, say, the Ocean’s 11 crew.  He’s poorly acted, as he’s basically been a one-note grumble so far, and it doesn’t help that his dialogue is so stupid.

  • Also:  he’s continually recognized by passers-by as “the vigilante in the news”, which makes literally no sense as his face and body are digitally obscured by all the cameras you hack – plus, at least as of yet, he’s done nothing newsworthy to grant him that title.  And while I appreciate all this extra stuff to do, I don’t understand why he’s so interested in doing it when he’s written as being single-minded of purpose.  Why should he care about random crimes?  Why should he care about random people, for that matter?  For all intents and purposes he is a broken man out to right a grievous wrong – why the fuck is the game interrupting me literally every 30 seconds with gang hideouts to break up and criminal convoys to derail?

As I haven’t seen nearly enough of the game’s story to comment on it in any detail, I won’t.  But I will absolutely pass along Cameron Kunzelman’s pretty definitive look at some of the game’s larger issues.  That article alone is enough to keep me stalling, let alone all the other ridiculousness detailed above.

And it’s a shame, too, because there actually is some interesting stuff here.  Underneath all the narrative stupidity and the horrendous, horrendous driving (and the average third-person shooting), the game offers unique ways of handling enemies that have nothing to do with guns.  One of my favorite moments thus far was how I was able to unlock a ctOS station – different than unlocking one of the radio towers – purely through hacking cameras.  I found a hidden vantage point, hacked a surveillance camera, found the guard with the access codes and hacked him, then found another guard wearing a hidden camera, distracted him with a ringing cell phone which put him in the same room as the [cable box?], hacked that; mission accomplished.  I could have just as easily gone in, guns blazing, mowing all the guards down and doing everything directly.  But this was a far more satisfying way of dealing with the situation, and I didn’t have to kill anybody.  Didn’t even have to sneak around!  I just stood out of anyone’s line of sight and my phone did the rest.

This is how the game generally encourages you to play, for whatever it’s worth.  And it’s a really interesting concept, and for the most part it’s satisfying to pull off.  But it’s not foolproof, and it’s not always successful, and you can’t take too much direct fire before getting killed, and the checkpoint system is somewhat inconsistent; a mid-mission death can either mean replaying 5 minutes, or 20.

I’m going to keep playing it, because there’s more than enough to do to keep me busy for the rest of the summer, but I’m not sure how much I’m going to enjoy it.


On the other hand, I can’t say enough positive things about Wolfenstein: The New Order.  Indeed, I very well might put Watch Dogs back on the shelf if it gets too infuriating just so that I can go back to Wolfy and find all the collectibles I missed the first time around.

Unfortunately, it’s now been almost a week since I finished it, and so the words aren’t coming as quickly as I’d like them to.  I did write a whole bunch while I was in the middle of it; I’d really only add that it’s remarkable and refreshing to see a single-player-only FPS so lovingly crafted and cared for in this day and age.  With every ensuing Call of Duty I find myself getting more and more cynical, wondering if the FPS genre has passed me by; even the more interesting shooters, like Far Cry 3, still have moments of tedium (as well as troubling, tone-deaf overtones of tribalism and racism).

Wolfenstein is, at heart, an old-school shooter, and it’s not necessarily reinventing the wheel here.  What it gets right, though, is so tough to do these days; it has astonishingly good pacing, objectives that are clear and understandable, a supporting cast of characters that are as three-dimensional as you could hope for (given their relative lack of screen time), and a diverse and satisfying arsenal and thousands of Nazis to kill.  There are a few tough spikes in difficulty, and towards the very end (maybe the last 30 minutes of the game) I turned the difficulty down just because the hour was getting late and I wanted to see at least the first 20 minutes of Watch Dogs before going to sleep, and because I’m a grown-ass man and I don’t have to feel bad about that sort of thing.  Even with the difficulty lowered, the game was still fun; I don’t feel like I diminished my experience at all.

I’m not sure what the rest of the year’s release calendar is looking like – E3 is just around the corner, but I also expect a lot of games to get delayed until next year – but I’d be very surprised if Wolfenstein wasn’t in the running for my Game of the Year.  Highly recommended.



Categories: weekend recap

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