It's been an interesting week traipsing around the virtual incarnation of Chicago in the game that's supposed to herald the arrival of the next-gen. I'll admit, like most people my interest was piqued when the game was first revealed, though not because of the visuals, but by the possibilities it offered. Who could resist running around an open world in a cyberpunk setting which doubles as social commentary?
After spending a week with the game, I had a few thoughts that I wanted to share which have been burning inside me.
While playing, one of my main criticisms was that after a short while, the novelty of the side quests that pop up every minute wears off pretty quickly. Thwarting crimes becomes all too formulaic and repetitive, eventually losing all incentive once your reputation reaches Vigilante status. But you'll end up doing them because they're quick, easy, and your reputation's going to take a lot of hits as you constantly mow down virtual pedestrians thanks to the god awful driving mechanics.
I don't know who conceived the mechanics and I'm flabbergasted that they were actually approved, since driving is one the integral pillars of the game along with combat, stealth, and hacking. Fixer contracts (one of the four side quests) have you perform driving-related missions that seem to have been taken out of Burnout Paradise's book. These quests wouldn't be so tedious if it wasn't for the driving mechanics. I actually think driving would be a lot of fun thanks to the unlockable hacking abilities, such as being able to blow up steam pipes and raise spikes to take down pursuers; however, most of the enjoyment is sucked away by the horrible controls. You get used to them eventually, but they'll always feel like a hindrance, like an anchor weighing down the S.S. FUN.
Despite the terrible driving mechanics, I was pleasantly surprised by combat in Watch_Dogs. The cover system is actually great and the guns offer enough tactical variety to take out enemies. Though in the end, I ended up using the silenced pistol most of the time to help me stealth through as much as possible. But the gunplay isn't what distinguishes Watch_Dogs' combat; it's the ability to hack environmental objects to create distractions, lure enemies, and then blow them up while you're sitting meters away, watching them panic helplessly through the eyes of the cameras. Ah, technology! Isn't it great?
The gang hideout side-quests are by far my favorite thanks to the combat and stealth mechanics. They're just an extension of the fun parts of the campaign missions. Which leads me to the campaign. I've heard some complaints about it, but I honestly enjoyed playing through the missions. They aren't too complicated and lengthy, but they mesh well with the game's narrative. The plot is nothing groundbreaking, but it's not awful like the driving.
And yet, despite the entertaining stealth/combat sequences, despite the beautiful, detailed virtual Chicago, and despite the horrible driving mechanics that I would be more than willing to overlook, there is one critical flaw that prevents me from giving Watch_Dogs anything greater than a 6 or a 7: in spite of its immense scope and beauty, virtual Chicago feels very limited. Maybe it's because I was playing Skyrim before this, but I just didn't experience the same sense of discovery. Sure, I was awed by the gorgeous details, but once you're familiar with the objectives and things to do in each area, there isn't much else to motivate you besides completing them for the sake of completion. In Skyrim, there was constantly new quests and stuff to do as you explored new areas and talked to the inhabitants. I guess what I mean to say is that Watch_Dogs feels very limited in its interactivity. It's almost as if the developers spent so much time and resources on creating this fine-looking playground for you to run around in that they exhausted ideas to improve your interaction with it. Take the virtual denizens, for example. There are only two things you can do with them; hack their phones or kill them. The first time I played Watch_Dogs, I would actually select who I wanted to hack based on their profiles as I tried to follow some semblance of an ethical code. I quickly realized that it was an exercise in futility because the game did nothing to reward or punish you for those decisions. Steal money from a cancer patient's bank account? Totally kosher in Watch_Dogs' eyes. The primitive reputation meter is the closest thing Watch_Dogs has to morality. I just don't understand why Ubisoft would be content with just scratching the surface of the character. Or maybe the lack of morality is just supposed to be some flawed commentary on hacker culture. Or perhaps it's intentionally absent to highlight the fact that Aiden Pearce is a self-absorbed, irresponsible dick. I don't know why they didn't implement it, but I do know that it could add some much-needed depth to a pretty shallow experience. Here's another fun example of silly Ubisoft decision-making: you can drive around crashing into anything and everything and you'll never see the red and blue lights sicced on you.
So I suppose my frustration must have reached its peak for me to have written all this down, but it's truly vexing to see such apparent flaws holding a game from greatness. It's even more disapponting when I realize that I've experienced this before while playing Bioshock Infinite, another game with a beautiful world that can also be described by the phrase, "You can see, but not touch." Granted, there is a lot more to do in Watch_Dogs due to its open nature, but I believe the underlying flaw is similar. To conclude, Watch_Dogs is a decent game, but could be so much more.