Thursday, 29 May 2014

Whiskey Reviews: who watches the Watch Dogs?

Platform: PC
Release Date: 27 May 2014
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Where to get it: Steam
Price: £39.99

Lets get everyone's favourite sticking point out of the way first; Aiden Pearce is the colour beige in human form. He is a boring, bland, bromidic, brooding bollock of a man. He is not interesting, likable or engaging in any way. He consistently makes the worst choices in any given situation where control is taken away and proclaims to be protecting those he loves while simultaneously going out of his way to put them in danger, ignoring sound advice and even desperate pleas.
Of course there's the opposite view, that Aiden is a driven man seeking to right a wrong done to his family in the past, but even that wrong is his fault. It's impossible to hate the villains of the piece when the main character and all his acquaintances are thoroughly unlikeable twats.

So, back to the usual review format then, shall we? First up is gameplay. Short story: It's a cheap GTA clone where you can push buttons from a distance. Long story: the gameplay is solid but repetitive, the controls are slick and simple, responsive and accurate once mouse smoothing is disabled in the config file. One outstanding aspect of the gameplay is how the camera doesn't snap or lag behind turns when driving but instead remains entirely mouse controlled, giving the driving a feel that even GTA and Saints Row games lack.
Repetition however rapidly sets in when partaking in side missions, distractions and deluxe edition/DLC missions. There's only a handful of tasks present throughout the campaign; tail this guy, knock this guy out, kill this guy, drive here, play with some cameras, hack this, hack that and that about sums up all of the available tasks. Throughout the campaign you'll end up doing each of these tasks a dozen or more times each and the side missions rapidly become grating when they ask you to keep repeating the filler.

Graphics stand up to modern standards but aren't anything special. The city is believable and pedestrians have enough physical models to not destroy the illusion on busy streets. Cars are plentiful and effects such as blackouts, exploding steam pipes beneath street and actual explosions are all moderately believable and entertaining but fail to be anything special. Perhaps the largest let-down then is the performance of the game when Antialiasing is enabled to a significant degree, even on a top-end gaming machine anything higher than 2x AA brought the engine to its knees with anything but a wall filling the screen and even on lower settings stutters, momentary lock-ups and outright glitches are fairly common. On one mission in particular, about two-thirds of the way into the campaign I found myself driving what appeared to be a crimson tesseract. My car wasn't even red and dibs on the awesome band name.

Speaking of glitches, the physics engine isn't the most cooperative. Occasionally taking a sharp turn at high speed caused my car to enter into a breakdancing competition, spinning so fast it appeared to generate its own pull enough to draw in other vehicles and debris from the surroundings. Other times your flimsy sports car can hit a wall at 100 miles an hour and be barely scratched while slightly nudging a chain link fence in a truck may cause you to explode like the world's most inept car bomber.
While driving, any vehicle you take the wheel of also appears to turn into a bulldozer against civilian vehicles but God forbid you actually try to throw your weight around against hostile vehicles, the game expects you to take your licks until the opportunity presents itself to deliver a take down in the form of convenient traffic lights of bollards that you can remotely activate. Neat segway... wooOOoo!

Hacking in Watch Dogs is largely just holding the 'hack' key to remotely activate various objects in the world. There's a decent, if limited selection of things to play with and the small selection enables you to keep track of what everything will do without having to stop and think. However, hacking while driving becomes redundant unless the game gives you a "Neutralise" opportunity where you mash the hack key in a split second to make someone crash their car.
Hacking bollards is pointless since they're always down, garage doors provide a useful way to escape from cops or access vehicles easily but traffic lights and steam vents provide nothing more than a chance to make driving around Chicago more difficult than it has to be. Activating the traffic lights without a neutralise opportunity popping up is akin to a child smashing two Hotwheels cars together, you do it because in your mind there'll be a cool crash but in reality it's a couple of stiff models banging ineffectually into each other like an awkward Transformers sex scene.
There's another hacking mechanic where you solve maze-like doodads by rotating stuff to let power or data or whatever the blue shit on the white lines represents to get to a goal node but it's simple, unengaging and uninventive.

Sound design is almost as bland as Aiden, with some hacking sequences accompanied by the muted, grating sounds of a tortured dial-up modem. Most of the cars sound like lawnmowers and the bikes are especially vile perpetrators with a top-speed sound akin to a malfunctioning fluorescent light bulb being piped through an amplifier. Guns are equally unimpressive, with generic firing sounds that at once feel very familiar but unplaceable, they're just bland and lacking any kind of well, bang.
The final nail in the sound design coffin is more of a personal choice but the musical assortment is full of pop, hip hop and other trashy genres that only serve to irritate rather than engage. Aiden does not seem like the kind of man who would listen to Wu-Tang Clan, or any of the songs on offer for that matter. In the whole soundtrack I found three songs that were to my personal liking and of those three only one was actually something I wanted to hear more than once.

Online functionality has been broken for a good portion of my playthrough but I got into a few contests with other players. The objective was to simply play a game of hacker cat and mouse with the invader finding the hosting player, initiating a hack and then attempting to avoid detection. In the times I was the invader I admit I got a few laughs out of slinking low in my car-seat while the host frantically ran past several times trying to find me and as the host I took quite a bit of satisfaction from finding the invader and gunning them down while they run for their lives.
That satisfaction is short lived though, the online modes are limited and barebones and I never wanted to actually seek them out again after taking a couple of shots at each role no matter how much the little pop-up at the side of the screen (wrongly named Online Profiling, it didn't seem to profile me at all, it just ignored that I kept refusing its suggestions) kept pestering me.

Before giving a final verdict I would like to address the deluxe edition's additional missions and their boasts of "20 minutes extra gameplay" etc. Taking "Signature Shot" as an example sure there's 20 minutes but 18 of them are following a slow-driving car and 2 minutes of them are sneaking up to a box and taking the contents before walking away. There's no shot, no signature and no reason to buy an edition that includes the extra busywork.

Conclusion: Watch Dogs isn't bad. It isn't good. It's just there. All the hype building up to the release may have contributed to the overall letdown but that's no excuse for being boring. To borrow, and twist a popular phrase - Watch Dogs is all filler no killer. The supposedly ultra-cool moments fall flat throughout, characters are unlikable, weapons, driving, missions and sounds are busywork and unengaging. The plot is full of unresolved threads, contrivances that are at odds with the availability of information and vice-versa and people and places most players likely won't care about.

Watch Dogs scores 5 out of 10 shades of brown.

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