Thursday 18 February 2016

Late To The Party: Watch Dogs

Welcome to "Late To The Party", E14's take on media after the initial reaction has had decent time to die down. With this I hope to add my opinions to the general collective effort of informing the world at large what people reckon about stuff they've tried out. The difference in this case is that for the most part, I rarely get to media (whether it's games, movies or TV shows) at the time of release unless it's a particularly highly anticipated title on my side. For instance, there will never be one of these about Fallout 4, as long-time readers of E14 will be well aware that I'm somewhat of a fan of the series and as such got in there early.

Getting the standard stuff out of the way first, Watch Dogs is a game released in 2014 (at varying times of the year depending on what system you own, regrettably for Wii U owners), combining elements of GTA-style open world gameplay including driving, shooting, running, with elements of stealth thrown in for good measure. Watch Dogs also throws in new mechanics surrounding protagonist Aidan Pierce's efforts to fill up his wallet using the wallets of others, a policy that can only be described in my experience as "really bloody effective" the game, I should say. My real-world wallet is only ever filled with my own money, if that.

On release, Watch Dogs suffered from the same sort of issues surrounding delay and hype (a lot of them self-inflicted in this case) that I've talked about on the E14 Gamecast. To recap for those who haven't listened, my feeling on the subject is that hype is very much a double-edged sword. Build a game up too much, for too long, and no matter how good it is the reaction will generally be underwhelming. A good example of this is L.A. Noire. Delays combined with Rockstar's frankly excellent job of selling the game as something different left people picturing a game that could possibly never hope to exist. Prove me wrong, game developers, I would love the game it sounded like! They (quite understandably) pictured a game which would rival GTA for complexity, and when they were not delivered this game they were disappointed.

So, then, to Watch Dogs. First of all, getting the cheap gag out of the way, there's not even a single dog in it haaaaaaaaaa, and I don't remember my character even owning a watch haaaaaaaaaa. The reality, however, is that for me what the game delivered was far in excess of what I had been led to understand was there (with the caveat that obviously I benefited from any fixes made during this period). I assume, from the fact you've got this far, that you would like to know on what I base my statement. Well, wonder no more, for an explanation follows!

It's important to acknowledge at this point that although my experience was a generally pleasant one, I did see a couple of weird glitches and bugs (in fact, my Xbox One hard drive used to contain a clip of my car driving into a tree due to what I believe is known as 'driver error' only to chuck me out and sink into the ground). It's also probably worth acknowledging that I was playing on Xbox One, whereas my understanding is that the bulk of the issues occuring with the game at time of release were on the PC version, an unfortunate trend in video games recently which I hope will soon cease.

Overall, however, I really thought Watch Dogs was quite good. It looks rather good, especially considering it's a cross-platform, cross-generation game (in that it's been released for every system from last generation and this generation, including the Wii U). The world is sufficiently nice-looking and detailed to be engaging, and often was the time I found myself walking around the city just appreciating landmarks (for which there are also collectables and achievements, which I will readily admit was a factor in my decision). I will happily admit to not being a massive fan of the story campaign, which I will explain a little further in a bit.

However, the core gameplay was so much fun for me that the story felt less vital. I'm very much of the opinion that a decent-sized world combined with a reasonable volume of stuff to do within that world makes for an engaging experience. It's the reason I didn't care for the S.T.A.L.K.E.R games of the ones I've played (too big a world, and not enough in it), and I was pleased to see that Watch Dogs doesn't have the issue in the same way. If I had to liken the map size to another game, I felt it was probably closer to something like GTA: Vice City (incidentally my favourite of the series, although I have yet to play GTAV).

A new game, particularly one that represents the start of what is presumably a new franchise, succeeds or fails (in my estimation, at least) on the implementation of its new feature set. For Watch Dogs, this is obviously the hacking element. Players can interact with NPC characters to rob them digitally, eavesdrop on their phone calls (either for potential rewards like stashes of credits or for an amusing audio exchange) or even tap into their security cameras or webcams, with sexy results! I seem to recall hearing that there were sexy results, though I confess to never having seen any during my playthrough.

I found this mechanic really quite well-executed for the most part. The hacking stuff is quick enough that you can do it passing an NPC (at least in the majority of cases, there are a couple of occasions where you have to stay nearby for a short period and so on), and it makes for an enjoyable additional mechanic, with you using your hacking skills to fund the purchase of better weapons and gadgets. The weapons are your standard action stealth game set, with pistols and light machine guns making up the bulk of the choices. As someone who generally favours pistols, they felt sufficiently powerful so as to do some damage, with headshots obviously making for higher damage, without unbalancing the other guns, which is always a plus.

If I have one criticism of the hacking mechanic, although it could be argued as a game mechanic thing overall, I found that I accumulated vastly too much money to do the basics. I may have been missing something where the money needed spending, and I suppose for those who have to own *every* gun and upgrade it might be a useful amount of cash. That was just my feeling. I also found that occasionally the hacking traps (like blowing signal boxes next to someone) didn't have a consistent effect on those who strayed into its radius. While we're talking about enemies, as well, I'd like to get something off my chest: is it me or are enemies in games requiring stealth wildly inconsistent in their AI, specifically in terms of spotting people? I can't figure it out; sometimes they breeze right past me with my cap sticking up over a box, and sometimes a nearby farting cat sends them into ultra-vigilant mode.

Ok, so we've covered the new stuff it introduces into the game world, what then of the stuff that's a bit more well-trodden? Well, for my money (and I did buy it using my money) I found that side of things really good. The controls were tight, with no really fiddly bits that spring to mind. The driving stuff was probably my least favourite bit of the game, but then I've never been massive on driving sections of games like that. It was cool to be able to ride around on motorcycles as well, I'm always happy to see them included in a game. One thing that I thought was especially cool in terms of getting around the city was the metro system, with players able to either stay on the train and enjoy the scenery or quick warp to the location desired. It made for some fun moments, where I tested theories about what would happen if I did certain things on the train (and then made a swift getaway). The police chase stuff was cool too, especially when you gain the ability to do things like bring up automatic bollards on a road to block their passage, and thankfully the controls are generally sufficiently tight to allow you to do it once you've driven through rather than chance it.

Naturally, nothing is perfect, and for all the fun I had playing Watch Dogs there were some niggles. I thought, for one thing, that the campaign narrative was one of the most...meh I had played. While I played through until the end and found it well-written in that there were no loose ends, a good story makes you desperate to get to the end to see what happens (a particularly good example of this being the original Mass Effect which managed to trick me into thinking there was a sense of urgency to playing the final mission, a trick that is no mean feat in an expansive RPG. It's also one I won't fall for again, other games...) and I didn't get that feeling with Watch Dogs. There was no real sense of "I have to get to the next bit to find out what happens", even when there was a bit that was portrayed as time-critical. Maybe Mass Effect dulled me to the effect, and maybe the story just wasn't gripping enough.

Another thing was that in the side missions, I experienced incidents of fiddlyness. For instance, sometimes I would fail for moving in too early because although the person I was tailing would draw a gun and pull the trigger on someone, the bullet had apparently not travelled far enough into the victim's sternum to constitute a crime. That's if I even got to that stage, as it was equally possible for me to fail just by standing in the wrong place, like my disastrous career as a stage hand.

All in all, however, I thought Watch Dogs was a really enjoyable experience when I played it. I certainly think it's worth checking out nowadays, since all the issues around bugs and glitches have been largely resolved. Considering that I was the victim of low-level fraud when purchasing the game (long story), for me to enjoy it says a lot about the quality of the experience. Now, if you didn't enjoy this game and *weren't* the victim of low-level fraud (and no, I'm not including the graphical downgrade, it's up to you to decide if that forms part of your opinion), I'm not suggesting that you are out of order in any way for feeling aggrieved, although one could argue that I'm implying it pretty hard. I'm just saying that this game is fun, and that I recommend it, especially at some of the crazy prices I've seen it drop to in sales and stuff.

I mean, I saw it drop to £1, for God's sake. A single pound when bought with any other product. You could buy a £1 gift card with it for a total spend of £2. A Happy Meal doesn't even cost £2 anymore, so it's Greggs or AAA game. Your call, but I think you'll appreciate the game slightly longer than the chicken bake. And for all their faults, those chicken bakes are pretty good, too. Not quite good enough to warrant their own written piece, although never say never!

Rob Wade

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