Watch Dogs – Impressions 2

            Watch Dogs is at its best when it is original. Much of the gameplay is a mixture of driving and shooting sections, which have become a hallmark of the open world genre since its inception and popularization; a blueprint has been established, and the developers follow it quite faithfully – for better and for worse. Being formulaic isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if the formula is followed well and accurately. Still, I personally enjoy innovation, and that is one of my greatest gripes with the game – it is too formulaic, and the formula has been better developed in other games; the shooting is fair, but lacks any kind of punch. The vehicles can be floaty and at times difficult to control, though over time natural compensation does emerge – some of the later vehicle encounters can be quite riveting, though more often than not, they are frustrating. Ubisoft have included a stealth system, which is one of the game’s saving graces; it has increasingly become a part of many games, and I feel as though here the game has left behind a contribution and expansion on the open world formula. Beyond the stealth, though, it is the hacking which offers the game’s greatest novelty and innovation.

            The main missions in the game can be all over the place. Many of them trend on the more conventional side, the majority ending in a high-speed vehicle chase or some violent shootout. The locations and specifics of each mission may be more interesting – infiltrating a prison or stealing an identity to gain access into an auction, where the product on offer is the female figure. But even if the location of the shooting is exciting, if the mechanics behind it aren’t sound, the locale means nothing. So many games seem afraid of downtime, or a point where literal action is temporarily held to a minimum. I hate this. Perhaps my favorite mission in the game so far had zero enemies. Access to a hidden bunker was the primary objective; the shipping crate leading down to the place was inoperable; a few generators had to be activated, for the power proper to return and provide entrance to the bunker below. There was a bit of platforming and extremely basic puzzle solving, but the enjoyment factor was there, despite the relative mundanity of the event. This could be as the mission overall served as a respite from the more traditional, action-packed encounters. Still, I would be content if more missions adhered to this more restrained, less bombastic tone. It is not necessarily unique in terms of objective, and even the climbing mechanics have been done better in countless other games, but it resonated with me.

            Another standout mission connects back to the hacking, the game’s greatest innovation. There is a man – a recipient of blackmail – whom Aiden employs to gain further information on his quest to rescue his captive sister. There is great distance between them, and Aiden has to direct the man to a private server room, guarded by gang members. Aiden occupies a bird’s eye view of sorts, surveying the area through the numerous cameras scattered about the place. Watching the movement patterns of the guards and then directing the fellow to secure cover while their gaze is averted is strangely riveting, showing just as in the other mentioned missions not everything needs trend towards the excessive. It was a tense mission and was totally unique. And yet, after that mission ends, a return to the formula begins anew. It shows the great potential to be found in these systems, and it seems like such a missed opportunity that they were not developed more greatly – at least in the missions I have completed so far.

            I have been focused most strongly on the main story, as much of the other content on offer is rather lackluster. There are many icons scattered around the map, though many of them are indicators of silly mini-games or basic collectible quests. There are dynamic crimes which occur organically, and there is even an integrated online component, as each player’s game world is hackable and enterable. I have had a few encounters here and have had overall good experiences. The races can be riveting, though my failures there only serve to indicate how bad I am as a driver. There are also a few cat and mouse games, stealing data from another player and hiding from their field of view until the transfer is complete. Beyond this, there are possible intrusions, Aiden shamelessly playing the role of the voyeur, hacking into an innocent’s residence, and observing some typically wacky things. It can be amusing, especially considering how bizarre their behavior can be, but I almost felt guilty spying in like that. There is definitely a commentary to be made here on the nature of hacking, though right now it seems alternately underdeveloped and at times heavy-handed. These are deep, dark themes, and I can understand it would be difficult to make a perfectly resonant statement; the hacking angle could again be fleshed out, lending the game its own unique identity. There are also smaller encounters like gang hideouts, which have as the objective the incapacitation of some criminal leader. They can be fun, especially when played stealthily, but as with so many other things in this game, they seemed overly-simplified. There is great potential here, but the developers pull back when things really start to get going.

            Even if these side missions are boring, the city still emerges as a dominating force. Being on the ground in the especially dense sections of the city and peering up at the skyscrapers above, stretching upwards seemingly endlessly is very impressive. Graphically, the city itself looks great; there is solid lighting, and the buildings look almost dazzlingly white and bright. The foliage models in some of the more rural areas aren’t anything to write home about, but the draw distance is impressive, and there is something delighting about seeing the skyline from a distance, gazing on from a hill in essentially a fishing village. There simply isn’t enough to do here, though. I personally can find immersion here, as I said downtime and wanderings don’t really bother me at all; but I can understand the more action-focused players who might find Chicago boring; they are partially right, I suppose. There are a decent number of NPC’s on the street, while character models only rarely repeat. Certain of the environments are destructible in a basic sense, though the damage modelling for the cars is very basic. Coupled with the attention to detail in the inclusion of real, physical buildings, the people unite to the give the city a lived-in feel. Alongside the hacking, the city of Chicago may be my favorite component of the entire game so far.

            Another highlight, though, are the characters close to Aiden. The hacker Clara, with an endearing French accent, serves as Aiden’s oracle, and she is unexpectantly likable, even if her initial appearance might be off putting. I like her. Aiden’s nephew represents innocence, and Aiden’s great love for the boy shows his better attributes, and there is an especially memorable scene when Jacks is witness to some of Aiden’s violence. He shows hesitancy, but ultimately embraces his uncle. Similarly, there is a tension between Aiden and his sister, but the love between them is also apparent, as Aiden subjects himself to much torment in rescuing her, the only person besides Jacks he has left in the world after the murdering of his niece. All of these family matters and troubles really ground the story and almost humanize the characters. The narrative is too snaking, though, and increasingly deviates from the compelling search for revenge and the desire for safety of others. I get that going from point A to point B can’t be a simple affair, that a narrative needs turns; but some of the derivations here seem out of place, like the inclusion of the mentioned gang subplot, or the human trafficking angle. They break with the more down-to-earth, gritty tone, and none of the characters involved are particularly compelling. Given that it is still a search for this revenge at this time, the perpetrator still being unknown, no standout villain has been introduced. There are some minor antagonists, like the runner of the trafficking business, but I am hopeful that the main foe will be of a complex sort, with valid – if irrational – reasons to target Aiden, murder his niece, and completely upend his life. This would really help the game, knowing who exactly you are trying to track down. I can only hope, too, that the missions play more to the game’s strengths of hacking and stealth. As it is, the game is at times enjoyable, though it is not groundbreaking in any way; but it has great potential, and while I may not walk away totally impressed of its novelty or originality, there is at least some fun to be had here. 

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