Watch Dogs offers a generous array of options, and we push the boundaries to see how far we can go.
By Stace Harman on April 24, 2014 at 1:30 am
There’s any number of clichés that can be called to mind to help us deal with the disappointment of delay. From the tried and tested “everything comes to those who wait” to Shigeru Miyamoto’s oft quoted philosophising that a delayed game will eventually be good — but a bad game will always be bad.
Neither of these maxims are guaranteed to be true, of course – there are plenty of examples of the wait not paying-off or a delayed game that ends up being both late and rubbish – but Ubisoft will be hoping that they ring true when it comes to Watch Dogs. Having recently taken a peek at the upcoming action adventure title, I can report that its ambitious open-world holds a mixed bag of familiar shortcomings and tantalising tastes of freedom.
To the publisher’s credit, it has been forthcoming about why the delay was necessary and exactly what the extra time has enabled the development team to do – and it’s not sexy new features, additional game modes or a slew of eleventh hour changes to the core game play concept.
Instead, the explanation revolves around the myriad systems underpinning the entire experience and the simple fact that the team didn’t feel that they were working as well as they should; the game was good but not all it could be. This naturally leads to the question of how well it all hangs together now and while it’s apparent that it’s not perfect, its world does feel coherent and full of possibility.
First, the niggling negatives — and most of these revolve around the notion that when you offer an open world that can manipulated, altered and explored in the manner that Watch Dogs’ can, there are going to be those players who will seek break it so that they might understand its limits. I’m one of those players, which is why soon after sitting down with the PC build I commandeer a speed boat and set off around bay area of this alternate Chicago setting only to bump up against an invisible wall that stops me heading too far out to sea.
Watch Dogs certainly isn’t the first game to resort to invisible walls, but it’s slightly disappointing that so blunt a solution is being relied on here. At some point, somebody’s going to have to find a more satisfactory answer to this particular challenge, but it’s apparent that it’s not going to be Watch Dogs.
Later, I decide to test the extent to which NPCs react to protagonist Aiden Pearce as he goes about his business as hacker extraordinaire. While it’s evident that running around with a gun in your hand is going to attract attention and result in several panicked calls to the local law, it seems Watch Dogs’ NPCs are less observant in other areas as setting off a car alarm has little effect on the people sitting a few feet away at a nearby bus stop, who don’t so much as flinch. It’s a minor thing but one that jars within a world that feels otherwise busy and alive.
Speaking to lead game designer, Danny Belanger, I ask if such niggles bother him and whether the delay has heaped still more pressure on the team from people who push and prod at the edges of Watch Dogs’ world and so may be more critical of such issues.
“I don’t see how this game can have more pressure,” Belanger answers, smiling. “Even from the start the expectations and excitement has been so high but I think that overall pressure helped us make better decisions.
“Ultimately, we’ve chosen to focus on what we feel is important. We do that by looking at the things that players are doing most often and focus on those areas to make them as good as we can and ensure that the systems fit within the fiction of the world as best we can. Occasionally, there will be the odd cases where a player is adamant to break something or to test it beyond its limits and then we’ll have to just sit back and have fun watching the videos!”
Inconsistencies notwithstanding, what Watch Dogs currently excels at is giving you options and offering breadth, if not always depth. Like its Ubisoft stable-mates Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs has a plethora of things to do outside of the main story missions. From hunting down collectibles, intervening in people’s lives and tearing around the streets in a range of vehicles, there’s always something waiting to distract you and fill your in-game downtime.
Similarly, there’s a pleasing flexibility of approach when it comes to achieving objectives, illustrated by playing an early mission through twice to test different strategies. Charged with leaving an area discreetly, the most immediately obvious option is to avail yourself of a car left to you by your entertainingly offbeat associate, Jordi. Manipulating traffic lights to ease your passage, it’s a simple enough case of driving carefully so as not to call attention to yourself and evading the patrolling police as you slip out of their catchment area.
However, what’s more interesting is the ability to forgo the supplied vehicle altogether, hop the fence, make your way to the closest train station and hitch a ride out of town via public transport. The most satisfying thing about the latter option is that it is in no way signposted and the fact that it is still recognised as a valid approach hints at a pleasing degree of freedom. This suggests Ubisoft Montreal isn’t relying solely on the novelty of its on-the-fly hacking system and is instead endeavouring to work a degree of freedom into all areas of its fictional world.
“We use the term ‘free-approach’,” Belanger explains. “That’s where the story establishes a problem that you need to solve and then you take over and do your own bit of the story. Maybe you need to stop this guy and it then becomes systemic and it’s totally up to how creative or upset or angry you’re feeling at the time as to how you approach the solution. It creates a unique game play situation that you’ve had a strong part in creating.”
It’s a concept promised by many games but delivered by very few. Watch Dogs’ varied mechanics mean it has the potential to entertain in a variety of ways but we’re likely going to have to overlook some familiar shortcomings in order to derive the most from it. I’m also slightly concerned that the familiar segment structure of its world that sees you liberating control towers so as to unlock surrounding content – as seen in the likes of Far Cry 3, inFamous: Second Son and Assassin’s Creed All of Them – may dull its shine and prevent it from feeling like a genuinely new experience.
That said, Watch Dogs has been a long time coming and it’s looking like it will have been worth the wait when it finally arrives at the end of May — as imperfect as it may be, it’s also a lot of fun.