If I’m feeling particularly cynical this morning – here, on the cusp of E3 2014 – it’s because I’m tired of feeling like a sucker.
Remember the deafening, jaw-dropping roar of hype that accompanied the reveal of Watch Dogs when it was first announced at E3 2012? Of course you do; it’s all we talked about for the last 2 years, and it’s why Watch Dogs became Ubisoft’s highest-selling new IP of all time when it finally came out.
But what was it, exactly, that we were all excited about?
Is it possible that the trailer was just an amazingly slick, kick-ass bit of promo that made vague promises about what open-world games might look and play like on the new, not-yet-released PS4 and Xbox One?
Look: I finished Watch Dogs over the weekend. I did a fair amount of side stuff in addition to the campaign; there’s still plenty left to do if I wanted to 100% it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know what that stuff will look like. I’ve seen more or less everything that game has to offer. I don’t know how many hours I spend with it – the “statistics” tab is comically bereft of useful information – but I definitely did my time.
And when all is said and done, and for all the game’s actual strengths – of which there are a few – Watch Dogs is, ultimately, one of the most poorly written AAA titles I’ve ever played in my life. However many millions that Ubisoft spent on graphics and animation and gameplay systems are irrelevant in the face of a stupid story filled with stupid characters who say stupid, stupid things.
It’s not just that Aiden Pearce is grotesquely unlikable; it’s OK for a game’s lead character to be an anti-hero. The problem is that Ubisoft clearly thought that Aiden was someone worth rooting for, someone worth getting emotionally invested in, someone whose fashion sense was “iconic”. They misjudged him so spectacularly that it’s almost hilarious.
Aiden is an asshole to everyone; his enemies, his friends, his family. He consistently thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room – and each mission begins with an unskippable interior monologue that is meant to establish why Aiden is about to do whatever it is he’s about to do, and that whatever it is, he is in absolute control of the situation. And yet he gets outsmarted at every turn, and gets gobsmacked by plot twists we can see coming from miles away. (i.e., Clara.)
The script itself makes no sense, and can oftentimes feel as if it was written by many different people in many different rooms, none of whom were able to see the parts of the script they didn’t write. Here are some examples which, obviously, contain SPOILERS, so just know that there are MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD:
When Aiden first meets T-Bone (also: there is a character by the nickname of T-Bone; his given name is Raymond Kenney; the nickname is not explained), they engage in a drinking game. The clearly aggravated bartender says it’ll be $100 up front, as a “damage deposit.” T-Bone looks at Aiden, as if to say, hey man, you’re paying. Aiden then literally says “I’m not a cash kind of guy.” Let’s leave aside, for the moment, that Aiden is in somewhat of a desperate situation by this point and really, really needs to talk to this guy, and is not in the sort of position to be such a fucking dick about $100. Let’s instead notice that by the hours of game-time I’d played at this point, when Aiden finally said that line, I’d stolen over $300,000 in cash by hacking into random people’s bank accounts. This is not me being a dick, by the way – the game continually interrupts you to point out people with hackable ATM accounts. Point being: Aiden clearly had the money. Indeed, I’d just hacked some rich people and walked away from an ATM right outside the bar with an extra TEN GRAND in my pocket, figuring, I’m going into a bar, why not make sure I can buy a round. Why the fuck wouldn’t he just pay the $100, considering what was at stake at the time? Does it just make him look tough?
After Aiden finally rescues his sister, and she’s able to process the ordeal she’s just been through, she slowly realizes that he is “the vigilante” that she’s heard about on the news. One: she heard news reports while being kidnapped? She barely got a chance to talk to Aiden on the phone. Ok, but then Two: even if you turn off the in-car radio, which you should probably do anyway since the soundtrack is pretty shitty, you will be interrupted by news reports. The news reports that continually interrupt you IDENTIFY AIDEN BY NAME EVERY 10 MINUTES.
There is also the issue of Bedbug and Iraq. Well, there’s really a larger racism issue with the whole Black Viceroys gang, in that you can tell the people who wrote this sequence must’ve marathoned all 5 seasons of The Wire in a very short amount of time in an attempt to make sure that this hi-tech pack of black gangsters speak “realistically”. Bedbug, a cousin of Iraq (who is the top man of the gang) is not technically seen getting thrown out of a top-story window, but it’s certainly implied that he did, and his sudden reappearance (only via cell phone voiceover) literally makes no sense whatsoever.
Iraq, on the other hand… I don’t know where to begin with him, so for now I’ll just concentrate on his boss fight appearance at the end of Act 4, which was a bunch of fucking bullshit. You chase him and emerge in this small enclosed rooftop space. There are no obvious exits or entrances except for one door behind you, which is locked. He talks all this bullshit at you and then sends in soldiers to fight his fight for him. The soldiers, by the way, materialize out of thin air. As does Iraq himself and his heavily-armored friend – I know this because I was trying to plant IEDs for their reappearance, and I actually watched them spawn out of nowhere. Iraq also is a bit of a bullet sponge, and while I understand that bosses need to be challenging, Iraq is not a super-human bullet-proof monster; he is an unarmored human being, and when I shoot him in the face from 5 feet away, I expect him to die. And because he is somewhat bulletproof, and because I died several times during this encounter, I had to listen to these goddamned extended monologues OVER AND OVER AND OVER again, and they never once sounded menacing or threatening or anything that was probably intended.
Oh, one more thing. There are two instances where Aiden gets hacked; once by some douchebag hacker/DJ named Defalt (whose look is so clearly modeled after Deadmau5 that one wonders if Deadmau5 might have a claim to copyright infringement), and once by the main baddie, Damien. The hacking is so complete that it actually affects the game’s camera, which glitches out and can cause minor problems (especially when driving, because the driving system still sucks, even after 12 hours or whatever). At this point I was convinced that the whole game was taking place in the Assassin’s Creed Animus, because otherwise there is LITERALLY NO REASON WHY A THIRD-PERSON GAME’S CAMERA SHOULD BE GLITCHING OUT.
I said last week that Watch Dogs is the modern-day Assassin’s Creed that I’ve been wondering if I’d ever see, and there are levels and layers to that comparison that go far deeper than any superficial story elements.
The first AC game’s primary flaw was that there simply wasn’t enough to do; you had these beautiful open worlds but no real way of interacting with them. The ensuing AC games made sure that you had more than enough to do; indeed, you’d run into a side activity every 20 seconds.
Clearly Ubisoft didn’t want to make that same mistake twice, and so Watch Dogs contains more side missions than actual story content. I said this before; the game is so desperate to make sure you have something to do at all times that it can almost get confusing; multiple side missions will open up nearly at the same time, meaning that you have to press multiple buttons on the D-Pad to set up a waypoint. At one point I was doing a side mission requiring me to eavesdrop on a conversation that would lead me to a briefcase that I’d need to scan. While I was eavesdropping, another side mission popped up on my screen, asking me to press down on the d-pad to set a waypoint. But then the eavesdropping part of the mission stopped, and the briefcase waypoint flashed on the screen, but only for a second; I missed which button I needed to press; and when I checked the map, I didn’t know what icon I was looking for. I didn’t fail the mission, but I lost the opportunity to complete it, and so I assume that conversation will respawn somewhere else, later.
As much as the game drove me crazy – and I’m feeling angry just writing this down – there’s still a neat idea here. The idea of using surveillance and stealth to carry out missions is still interesting, and to the game’s immense credit it’s actually executed quite well. The gunplay is competent enough, too, so that when you run out of remote-controlled booby traps you can go in guns blazing and take care of business easily enough. Or at least, if you die, the checkpoint system is fairly generous (IN MOST – BUT NOT ALL – CASES) and you can re-approach your task without having to do the whole thing over. (That said, if you do re-spawn mid-mission, all the bad guys you took out come back, which can actually make things harder.)
But my god, this game made me angry. I don’t want to think about it anymore. Smarter people than me will tackle the game’s myriad issues with respect to its treatment of women and minorities, and I will link the hell out of those essays when they go up. In the meantime, I need to switch off.
I’m not sure what I’m doing for E3. I’ll do my best to livetweet reactions, although that’s wholly dependent on what I can get away with at my day job. In any event – if you’re there, have a great time, and if you’re watching from afar like me, have… also, a great time?