The Dreaded Backlog: Watch_Dogs
Welcome to THE DREADED BACKLOG! It’s incredibly easy to buy video games, but it takes a lot more time to play through them. All of us have a backlog of good gaming intentions that need to be fulfilled. Together we must overcome the overwhelming threat of THE DREADED BACKLOG!
To Ubi or not to Ubi? That is the question. I’ve never been a fan of the fiddly Assassin’s Creed series published by Ubisoft. However I’ve had a few dalliances with the Tom Clancy titles. Thus when I saw Watch_Dogs going cheap on the Xbox Live store (Xbox One) I figured it’d be fun. Especially as I’ve recently been watching Person of Interest on Netflix and wanted to play something like it (hacking and violence). In that regard I wasn’t disappointed.
Watch_Dogs succeeds and fails at many things. Its primary success is in creating a world in which Chicago is ruled over by a unified computer operating system and how fucking wrong that can go. You can black out street lights, enable traffic lights, disable police helicopters and later on even explode steam pipes. The hacking puzzles wherein you have to essentially establish a functional virtual pipe system is well realised. It is evocative and satisfying and by being purely visual avoids horrible faux-hacking dialogue that usually pervades cringy cyber-crime properties. Whilst at the time of release the game was slated for its surprising amounts of gunplay and car chases, I actually found that element complimentary to the morally grey-as-fuck world that’s portrayed, plus they have that in Person of Interest. In addition to a generous firearm armoury you get this cool whippy-stick thing to hit people with. I love my whippy stick. I call him ‘Mr Whippy’.
HOWEVER. The game’s biggest problem is its protagonist Aiden Pearce. He dresses like a total prick whatever outfit you put him in and that’s not even the worst aspect about him. His motivations are a laundry list of generic man-wants-to-save-women-and-family tropes. His wider personality is as if Christian Bale’s Batman voice became sentient. Aidan grumbles with all the dull grit of his video game protagonist stock type: the grizzled growling stubbled white hero guy. The other characters are marginally better as they don’t do horrible shit whilst dressing like a prick, but still without emotional cores. In fact, the best characterisation in the game comes from random passer-bys whose filthy secrets you can examine with a single glance from your phone.
If there is anything that describes the mixed quality of the game it’s Aidan Pearce’s reputation meter. You can gain a reputation as a hero of the people or an infamous villain based on the qualities of your actions, be it saving innocents or murdering cops for easier getaways. Now we’ve all played games where you drive in a city, so we all know that sometimes you run over civilians by completely accident. (In fact in Watch_Dogs civilians run into your path out of fear, when they’re actually safe, more often than you hitting them. Fucking Ubi, am I right?) So if the game had an overly realistic driving system you’d avoid running people over, but no one would be able to pull off amazing driving feats in high octane chases without some sort of real life rally driving training. So to address this issue, your reputation meter is easy to restore. You could murder a hundred civilians, but as long as you’d make up for it elsewhere your reputation as a hero would be maintained. This is to address the unbalance unrealistic driving creates, but it also causes there to be a world where loathing for murderers can be diminished by said murderers preventing petty crimes. What is one life worth? About five wallets saved apparently.
I liked the gameplay. The story peaked competently enough even if the characters within it are dreadful. The side missions are varied enough to suit everyone’s tastes: be it hunting rogue hackers or taking down crime lords. However some side missions are hidden behind random progression unlocks that require you doing side missions you aren’t interested in to get to the content you want. To put it another way: The game wants you to play it your way, but to do so you have to play it their way first. So yeah, I’d just about recommend Watch_Dogs, it’s fun and competent (especially for a cross-gen game) if shallow narrative-wise, but the thematic work hints at more depth. I have great hopes for the sequel.