Watch Dogs – Impressions 1

            One of Watch Dogs’ greatest strengths is its open world, though those strengths are tempered strongly by a great many flaws. There is a large, sprawling map – Chicago – which is littered with icons and objectives – as would be expected in a modern game from this genre. But despite the impressive quantity of these diversions, many of them are lackluster or maybe even boring. There are quite a few collectibles, and phone games which feel strangely out of place. There are a few dynamic events, like crimes which occur organically, or online races which are initiated by fellow players, though I have to imagine these prompts occur to a lesser extent than was to be found at launch. The rewards for completing these events are initially unexciting; a few experience points are earned, to be applied to the obligatory skill trees, with skills that are similarly unexciting. There is a larger progression system, though, which encourages and rewards persistence in these activities. These rewards are, generally, more useful – an exotic car or some impressively powerful weapon. While gazing at the progression screen and seeing these rewards, I have been tempted to engage in the side activities to a greater extent, but no matter the value or usefulness of a weapon, I don’t want to endure boring gameplay to unlock it.

            Going back to Chicago. Having never travelled there (though sporadically desiring a trip to the city), I can’t comment on precisely how accurate its depiction is, and while I would expect the developers to take some liberties, I have to imagine they portrayed it relatively honestly. Games based on a real place like this are kind of a double-edged sword; adhering closely to the layout of an actual place when constructing the world can bring about certain limitations. In setting a game in a fictional location, greater creative freedom is possible. True, Liberty City may be based off of New York, but it is not New York. But some of the greatest moments for me so far have been the discoveries of certain landmarks scattered around the city; there is a brief blurp about each location, and a bit of experience is also awarded simply for checking in. Travelling to the Willis Tower, gazing straight upwards and seeing the towering magnanimity of the place, reaching ever upwards towards the sky, is oddly satisfying; it makes you feel small.

            Travelling across the map is, of course, largely done by vehicles. They handle well overall, and the motorcycles are especially fun to pilot; reaching a rapid speed, weaving in and out of traffic, then letting up on the gas and coasting onwards to make a successful turn; it can be really exhilarating. The cars, too, are relatively distinct in their handling, and there is a large fleet on offer, beyond the mentioned motorcycles and the swifter, more sporty cars. On foot, the movement speed can be rather slow, but the immersion factor seems greater outside of a vehicle; the world feels larger somehow, and the camera manipulation is tighter; in vehicles, it is zoomed very far back, and while it took a bit to get used to, I think the distance only helps in controlling the vehicles. My biggest complaint in the locomotion, though, is related to the parkour systems. It is easy to hop fences and gracefully slide over smaller objects, and the animation quality for these actions is expectantly beautiful. But the parkour systems are very limiting. There is no dedicated jump button, and this really cuts back on maneuverability. It’s unacceptable in a modern game; if I can realistically make a jump, I think the player character should also be capable of clearing the gap or scaling a building. Even if there was no jump button, a contextual system like that found in the Zelda games would benefit the gameplay immeasurably.

            So far, stealth has played an important role in the primary missions. It is not especially complex; enemies can be tagged with the phone and can be silently dispatched once in striking range. But the entire stealth systems seem to be based largely off of line of sight. The cover systems are functional, but there is somewhat of an overreliance on them. It makes sense, I suppose, and if that is to be such a vital component of the stealth, again the increased maneuverability would only heighten opportunities for stealth; scaling upwards toward a vantage point, safely positioned above foes, would be more rewarding and tactical. Interestingly, in looking at the skill trees, there appears to be almost no skills which directly influence stealth, save for a quieter sprinting; this is disappointing, when the only effective tools in stealth situations are the takedowns and a silenced pistol. Maybe it’s me, maybe I need to switch up the gameplay style. From the first, Aiden is given access to some pretty powerful weaponry, and while I’ve been pretty averse to using those weapons, I feel I should just take the plunge and seem how the gunplay is. With the emphasis on cover for stealth, I imagine it will play a vital role in combat, too.

            With regards to the main missions, I see a great deal of potential. It looks as though it will have a darker tone, which I have always had an inclination towards. It looks to be a mystery tale, Aiden on a quest to find his daughter’s murderer. Introducing his sister and nephew early on seems to humanize him. He clearly holds them dear to his heart, though great tension remains between them, as Aiden is unable to let go of the past and is overly protective of his younger sister and her son. Seeking revenge may not be the most original thing in the world, but it is usually pretty effective, once the main antagonist has been revealed, and as the search narrows and intensifies. Beyond stealth, which is highlighted beautifully in the opening mission inside a sports stadium, the driving has also received great attention in the main story. Trailing and then totally a car can be pretty tedious, with prolonged chases and periodic ramming. The hacking component which serves somewhat to differentiate this game from others in the genre comes into play here; while shooting from a vehicle is impossible, there are still a myriad of other options available to disable vehicles; adjusting stoplights, bursting steam pipes, raising or lowering bridges; all of these options are at the player’s disposal, and help somewhat to enliven the chases. In encounters with the police, they can be pretty relentless, though in almost all of our exchanges, I have chosen to flee rather than engage them directly. They can be called for the smallest infraction, like the shooting of a gun. It’s frustrating to pursue a criminal, shoot his legs to debilitate him, only to be attacked by the law for this vigilantism.

            The mentioned hacking is meant to be the game’s greatest source of originality; nearly every phone in the game world can be hacked, while there are seemingly endless cameras lining every side of a street. The cameras can really help in stealth situations, while opponents’ phones can be employed as a distraction, allowing advancement and incapacitation. Enemies can be exploded, helicopters disabled, calls for reinforcements blocked. It can be quite empowering, and does, in a way, set Watch Dogs has different from other games in the genre. Patrolling the streets, with an impressive number of NPC’s, with few repeated character models, all with unique occupations, flaws, and income brackets – it is very enjoyable; the world truly seems diverse and lived in. It is tamer, though part of that tameness is partially on me. Rather than attracting the police and violently gunning them down, it was more fun to me to hack bystanders’ phones, learn a bit about them, and promptly hack their accounts, stealing much of their contents. It is a terrible thing to do, sure, and hacking overall is both praised and derided. The hacker culture is very strong, and there are some veiled commentaries on technology and its role in our modern world, with corporations and deceivers playing a large role in our collective lives. I like this commentary; it is like the developers are making a statement. Aiden seems to be interesting as a character, compelling at times, not so much at others. He is blinded by revenge, which is admirable until it extends into the irrational. But he is just as bad as the corporations, hacking innocents without so much as thinking twice. I know it’s odd I bring morality into play here, but it is pretty despicable to exploit people like that. Is he an anti-hero? I’m not sure. Either way, I think, or hope, that there is some complexity within him, and that he can grow to carry the game right alongside his native city of Chicago. Hopefully, the missions will be riveting, and I can find more enjoyment out of some of the side activities. Either way, I know I will have a good time simply exploring the game world; even if my wanderings seem aimless, they have great value to me.              

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