This week, Zero Punctuation reviews WATCH_DOGS.
The hype train for Watch_Dogs had all the grace and subtlety of a 19th-century steam locomotive dangerously overloaded with jizz cannons and jizz cannon maintenance equipment. Which, as we’ve often learned, can be the warning sign that the publishers don’t have a lot of faith in the game being able to stand upon its own merits. Well, it certainly can’t stand upon its understanding of how hacking works, I can tell you that straight away! Basically, if your hackers are mostly hip young DJs and tattoo artists who all cribbed their sense of style from the halfway point between My Little Pony and Pinhead from Hellraiser, and have been so obviously workshopped to oblivion that they might as well be snapping their fingers and referring to authority figures as "daddy-o", then you are already showing your ignorance, 'cause most hackers are fat, greasy shit-minglers with terrible beards, posting Google Street View images of the houses of people who think we should have to pay money to watch TV shows. What will certainly not help is having your hackers put on very serious faces and wave their handheld devices about the way Marvo the Master Wizard works his magic wand!
Fortunately, the protagonist of Watch Underscore Dogs is not one of the heavily-workshopped Johnny Lee Miller rejects, but Aiden Pearce, a character who appears to have had all personality sandblasted off, 'til he’s a blank cipher who doesn’t even know how to button a trench coat properly. He was a hacker who did any work for hire and stole money from bank accounts, but then accidentally targeted someone powerful who killed his six-year-old niece, which gave him a little Spiderman moment and he declared that from this day forth he would use his powers to… continue working for hire and stealing money from bank accounts, but also fight crime! In-between. If he can be arsed. Not stealing-money crime, or property-damage crime, or murdering-policemen crime; just, you know, all the bad crimes, the ones committed by people other than himself. Oh, but no one can understand Aiden’s pain! Other than, you know, the kid’s mother, his sister, who seems to be infinitely better-adjusted about the whole thing. But then, she also hasn’t figured out that Aiden is the mystery vigilante even after the news media starts broadcasting his name, so she’s probably a few dead kids shy of an origin story.
Watch_Dogs isn’t an easy game to summarize. The elevator pitch must have been delivered during a massive power outage. I suppose you could refer to it as “Assassin's Creed in the future”. Might as well, it’s got about the same amount of stabbing as Assassins’s Creed does these days. Main difference is that instead of using rooftop vantage points to plan ahead, you use security cameras, and I’d say that’s where the game comes onto its own: when you learn to think outside of the little bland cardboard cut-out of a man we have been insolently asked to identify with and turn the environment to your advantage, creating distractions and blowing up people who come to look at them, which never stops being funny.
- “Gosh, I’m curious about that dog barking sound! Gosh, I’m curious as to where my legs landed!”
It falls apart pretty quick when the enemies spot you, because Aiden Pearce in a firefight has the durability of a Pringle between a professional wrestler’s buttocks. But at least that provides incentive to use all these mechanics. In this age of namby-pamby, "play-it-your-way", psychotic mass-market inclusiveness, more games should have the apricots to draw the line and say, “You’ll do it the way we like, or you’ll do it with more bits of metal in you than your love interest’s face”.
But at other times, Watch_Dogs has the old Assassin’s Creed problem with getting easy shortcuts confused with gameplay innovation. For example, if Assassin’s Creed II wanted someone dead, you had to creep unnoticed into close enough range to stab him up the brisket. But by AC Brotherhood, you're free to crossbow them from two rooftops away when you're not just handing it off to the intern. In Watch_Dogs, you can hack traffic lights and barriers to discourage pursuers, but how that applies is that a quick-time event flashes up as you drive along the road, you press it, and hey presto, pursuer fucks off. Thank goodness, I was coming dangerously close to waking up!
And Sass-o Creed-o at its worst always seems to be just assembling a big disconnected pile of stuff to do as opposed to a cohesive whole, which in theory is something for everyone, but in practice is like hiding someone’s birthday present in a room filled floor-to-ceiling with ping pong balls.
All Watch_Dogs' fun side activities are outnumbered by shit ones. The ones I found most specifically vexing were the random crimes. How they work is that a "crimer" and a "crimee" get together, and the moment crime starts, you leap in and brain the offending party with a stick, ideally before the victim gets hurt. But something like five times in a row I failed the mission because I jumped in nanoseconds before the event had been officially declared a crime. So I’d see one of the dudes raise a gun or a big knife and then I'd leap out yelling, “What’s all this then!?”, whereupon the criminal would go, “Well, that completely ruined the mood, you asshole!” and then skip off, hand in hand with the erstwhile victim, leaving me with the game saying, “I hope you're proud of yourself.”
But the main thing that kills the sandbox activities is that there's bugger-all they can reward you with. Money only buys weapons and craft items that are all lying around for free anyway, and the character upgrades are as enticing as Chuck E. Cheese prizes:
- “Here's one that lets you steal more money!”
- Not gonna dignify that with a reply.
- “How about the ability to resist tire blowouts?”
- I only had a tire blowout once in the entire sodding game; I just nicked another car. Give me something I can use, like a thing that makes enemies drop dead when Aiden Pearce says something boring!
The ability to disable pursuing helicopters is useful, but it would be most useful from a getaway car, and the camera won’t look straight upwards while you're in a car, so you can’t get line-of-sight. I had to stop the car, sirens blaring all around, stand there in the street like a knob as the police snipers took aim, and point gormlessly at the helicopter like a man with a wonky garage door remote.
Watch_Dogs does not live up to the hype, but that’s hardly fair, because it would need to have made me spontaneously grow a third bollock to do that. A predictable story with no likable characters – Aiden and his sister both look at the grave of the child that is his whole motivation the way they'd look at a middling-difficulty sudoku puzzle – and the gameplay is a lot of faff and chaff packed around one or two core ideas with potential.
I really liked the two or three missions where you stay on the cameras and guide an accomplice from cover to cover, because at that point, you're basically playing as the tutorial voice in somebody else’s video game. They make a whole game of that, I think it would do alright, because any measure that will minimize the amount of time Aiden Pearce’s burbling little face has to appear on-screen is worth about twelve Game of the Year awards right there!
- Keep an eye on this motherfucker: Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw
- Here’s a simple hack for you – stand in the middle of a street and wave your smartphone around and hey presto! You’ve just been mugged
- This was Watch Dogs Review Special Edition #5,789