Watch Dogs: The Good, the Bad, and the Annoying

(Note that I started writing this review on July 22, 2014, but was distracted by editing video, The Last of US (PS4), and Destiny and didn’t get around to finishing it until November 1, 2014 when I decided to finish it.)

By the time I finish writing this post and make it public, Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs will have been out months, so you aren’t going to be hurting for a review. There are tons out there, and I really don’t expect this one  to stand out or garner any more attention than any of the countless others, still, I want to add my two cents to the mix for the hell of it.

Let me start off by saying that despite all the hype around this game, I actually had no desire to buy it until the week before it was released. Frankly, I just wasn’t interested. But between some streaming IGN was doing before the release and the fact that I wanted another PS4 game to play, I decided to invest in it because it seemed to have some pretty cool features and game play. While I’ve purchased open world games before, I frequently gotten bored with them before I ever even got halfway through the single player campaign; in truth, they were purchased for the pleasure of screwing around in multiplayer with my friends. That includes everything that I’ve played from Rockstar Games… Even GTA V mainly sits in my Xbox 360 unplayed most days. So Watch Dogs had several advantages: I got the PS4 version because I was always more comfortable with the Sony controllers than the Microsoft ones, better graphical quality than 360 and PS3 at the very least, and it was more relate-able to me given I work and have worked for many years in the computer industry.

Contrary to how I usually do things, I’m not going to comment on the single player campaign; while I think it’s enticing and interesting to an extent, really it’s completely expendable from the game. It’s a token story intended to make your occasional murderous rampages and other misdeeds seem justified. Considering the game was marketed along the lines of Infamous with regards to you having the freedom to choose whether you’re a hero or villain, the fact that the single player game suggests you follow a hero-ish (really more antihero) path seems a bit heavy handed.

But to cut to the chase, here are the things I really liked about the game:

A large play setting; it’s not Los Santos of GTA V, but the City of Chicago in Watch Dogs is a pretty large place.

Great attention to details on many things; where Ubisoft thought to pay attention, they did a kick ass job. Sadly, they didn’t pay enough attention… More on that later.

Things I really, really like about the game include the graphical quality, the handling and feel of most the in-game vehicles, and the idea that a nerd can be a bad-ass.

The bad…

Where Ubisoft didn’t pay attention or simply give a fuck, there are significant flaws in the game, the game play, and fun factor. My biggest complaint, particularly once a lot of people really started playing Watch Dogs was and is the fact that you can’t just start playing and not worry about getting hacked by other random players. Initially, I thought there was some triggering event, such as you pissed off the cops or did something major that triggered the notoriety kharma factor that meant the game was going to try to get you hacked. But now, as demonstrated a moment ago when I logged in for the first time in months, I got into a hacking situation as soon as my virtual boots hit the ground in the game. Fortunately, I’ve found a pretty good and effective place from which to deal with hacks but it’s irritating that I have to worry about it as soon as I start it up. There’s only one way to avoid it: go into the Online game settings and turn off “Online Invasions”. Simple right? Well, the problem with that is that it will reset any and all progress you’ve made in the online modes… So, if you participate in the online aspects on a regular basis but just want a quiet evening trying to complete the various missions, you’re just screwed unless you don’t mind losing your progress.

For the bad stuff, I kept saying this is Ubisoft’s first open world game and that this was damned good for a first attempt. But it isn’t really their first attempt, and frankly the problems really start to show after you get comfortable with the game. Until August or so, there was no cooperative mode in the game at all, and, while you could challenge your friends through the mobile app on your phone or tablet, there was no way to  hack your friends. The best you could do is get in a free roam match with them and screw around either doing things together or, with adversarial mode enabled, killing one another. I have yet to do any of the cooperative missions introduced in August/September, but it’s something that was a long time coming.

Another major issue that has now been addressed was that once you get done with the missions — story missions, privacy invasions, gang hideouts, and criminal convoys — you were completely out of things to do other than hack random people going down the street and initiate (and respond to) online races and hacking. And frankly, those things get boring after a while. It’s now possible to do the gang hideouts and criminal convoys again, though the methodology behind doing them is counter-intuitive. In fact, it’s ass backwards. Rather than just selecting the mission to play again, you have to go into the Gameplay options menu and reset the side missions. While this may get the job done, why not just make them directly playable again? Is it really that difficult to fix?

While I stated the play area is pretty large, it isn’t infinite. More interestingly, it’s rather limited on the Lake Michigan side of Chicago, as you’ll notice in the “issues” video I’m attaching to this review: there’s apparently an invisible wall preventing you from going past a certain point out onto the lake.  Although I didn’t highlight it the video, all roads, rivers and train tracks that would otherwise leave the Chicago area seem to curve into other parts of the city. The latter makes a certain amount of sense, I admit, but it’s still so… artificial.

Another particularly aggravating thing is the enforcement of law and order. If you kill a person on  the street, you can expect to be hunted down by the police and killed. I’d like to say arrested, because sometimes you don’t commit major crimes, and so you should be arrested, right? But, as in the GTA series, if you cross the line in too negative a way, you are hunted down and killed by the police. Hello Ferguson! But sometimes, Watch Dogs’ police decide that you are guilty by proximity and execute you. Throughout the game, you will be given the opportunity to spoil petty (and sometimes not so petty) crimes that occur randomly  nearby which have nothing to do with the story campaign or side missions (gang hideout, criminal convoy, etc). If you kill the criminal, say by shooting them and, I’m quite positive, running them down with a car, you may end up in a police chase even if you saved the intended target of the crime. You’re a fucking vigilante, who just took out a bad guy; why are you getting gunned down? Even if you take them down in a nonlethal way (there’s a melee attack that is only available on enemy targets), if there were gunshots fired, you will end up getting chased by the police. Not the actual criminal. You. Even though your character starts off as this anonymous anti-hero, you eventually end up well enough known that police are immediately after you for crimes you had nothing to do with. What. The. Fuck?

So the bottom line…?

The bottom line is that the game can be a lot of fun and very interesting, but it’s flawed. In July when I started this review, I was going to say that it’s early in the game’s lifespan, and it still is. There’s lots of time for Ubisoft to iron out the problems. But don’t be mistaken, there are lots of problems, and there are rumors that the primary development team has already moved on to Watch Dogs 2, so these problems may not get resolved. Time will tell… My original rating for the game was about an 8. At the time that I started writing the review I’d have put it at about 6.5. Now… maybe a solid 7.5 for resolving some of the problems that it had. But that doesn’t matter; what matters is whether you enjoy the game or not. So, make that assessment for yourself.

Early E3 2012 Impressions

I should actually make this post about my impressions about Sony’s pre-E3 conference this year, but I want to talk about at least one game that had nothing to do with Sony’s conference so I decided to just make this about E3 showings in general… Although I own an Xbox 360, it rarely gets turned on, I just use my PS3 a lot more than the 360 and enjoy it more as well. I’m a PlayStation man, what can I say? Needless to say, I didn’t watch the Microsoft pre-expo conference.

Nonetheless, the game I want to mention that wasn’t covered in Sony’s conference is Dead or Alive 5… I had absolutely no idea until today that it was in the works and I have to confess I’m really excited that it’ll be one the PlayStation after the franchise’s long absence from the platform. I’m even more excited that Team Ninja is responsible for bringing it; although I haven’t had the opportunity to play too many of their games in recent years, I always remember the fun I had with my buddies playing the original Dead or Alive on the original PlayStation! Now, I’ll confess there was the legendary breast physics that drew me to the game at that time and has left a huge impact on me since, but the characters were fun to use, and I’m amazed by the interactive fighting stages in this latest installment! While I’ve mainly been a Street Fighter kind of guy for the last few years, I think DoA 5 will fill that gaping hole that Soul Blade/Edge/Calibur left in me with it’s previous installment: when Soul Calibur V was announced, I found I just had no interest in the series any more. IV let me down that much despite not doing a thing wrong… But, I digress… DoA 5 appears to be the pseudo-3D fighter I’ve been waiting for on PS3, and I’m eagerly awaiting the chance to play it!

Being a Sony guy, I have to confess I was let down by Sony’s conference. The Wonderbook for PS Move is interesting and all, but I wouldn’t have made a fuss about it in today’s conference. Even the audience at the auditorium was less than thrilled by it. Now, I know they were excited because they get to have a tie in with J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore and Harry Potter universe, possibly as an exclusive, via Wonderbook, but frankly, that’s not the sort of announcement that I, as a 40 year old gamer, was looking for. I have the Move, and I’d consider getting the Wonderbook and Book of Spells as something to do with my five year old, but that did not get my heart pumping… Especially when the captions, purposefully or accidentally, indicated that the gameplay was not live and the speaker specifically stated moments later that it was. For me, the demo players looked like they were having difficulty getting the game to do what they wanted, when they wanted, which could very well mean that it was pre-recorded footage that was out of sync with the players demonstrating it on stage. If it was indeed live, then the application (because I wouldn’t really call it a game) was laggy, and it’s still not something that should have been demoed prior to the official start of E3.

There were some games demoed that did get me excited and interested, however. The first is Quantic Dream’s Beyond: Two Souls, which, simply put, looks amazing. That alone is nothing out of the ordinary for that studio… I never played Heavy Rain, but every little bit I saw of the game looked amazing, and I regret never having had the money to spare for it. The Kara technology demo was also amazing and I suspect heavily laid the groundwork for Beyond. It’s still way too early to see what Beyond is going to be, but I’ll tell you now that I’m excited about it! I love a game with a great story line, and this is going to be one that has so much to reveal! 15 years in a character’s life?!?! Holy shit! Even more remarkable is that the lovely Ellen Page will be voicing the game’s main character, Jodi Holmes.

I love role playing games as much as I love air, but when I want to truly unwind, I like to kill things in first person shooters. I won’t even begin to cover the FPS games I’ve played, loved, and mastered over the last 20 years, but today’s press conference had me eager to play Ubisoft’s Far Cry 3. This is a franchise I never played beyond a beta or demo, so I don’t know anything about the story line, characters, or quirks that make it any different from any of the others. But the 4 player co-op caught my eye… In some ways, this game’s co-op mode reminds me of Valve’s Left 4 Dead series (the primary reason I bought my 360), and in others it reminds me of Insomniac’s Resistance 2‘s co-op mode. Considering I love both of those games, I got pretty interested in the game play on Far Cry 3 and I could see myself buying the game simply for that if three of my PS3 owning friends also get it… I did a bit of reading on IGN’s web site about what they thought of FC3‘s co-op mode, and it was hardly favorable, but I think it’s something that I’ll keep my eye on. According to IGN, the game is 3 months away from release and they were pessimistic about the chances of it improving before then, but I’ve seen a lot change in a final release in shorter time. Not to mention that the game as it exists at E3 today may very well be weeks or months old code.

There will be those that are extremely excited over God of War: Ascension but I saw it, more or less, as desperation. The God of War series has been an amazing seller for Sony, and it has done some pretty amazing things over all, especially with #3 which included combat on the back of a titan climbing mount Olympus, but this new one really didn’t seem to do anything particularly groundbreaking. Maybe I’m just not that into Kratos and his adventures — as a matter of fact, I’m not, I’d much rather see a follow-up to Heavenly Sword than another God of War entry — but it really looked like Sony decided to make another GoW game to keep money flowing into the coffers while they prep for the next generation. By this point, I was fairly disappointed in Sony for only having one strong, original title in the line up prior to the official start of E3, but then they reminded me of exactly what I needed to be reminded of…

Naughty Dog has been impressing me since the day I bought my PS3. Before then, actually, because I saw video and screenshots of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune long before I had the money to buy my PS3. One of the first games I bought was Uncharted, and I still play it and its sequels on a regular basis! I still haven’t found all of the treasures in any of the three games, and I’m not about to stop looking! (I refuse to use a guide for most games, and especially these.) Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, sadly, felt like a goodbye to me, that Naughty Dog was ready to move on to bigger and better things. If that’s the case, then I can think of nothing more suitable as a follow-up than The Last of Us. There’s no need for me to describe The Last of Us because I’m sure there are a thousand blogs out there doing just that, and a couple hundred game magazines doing the same in print and electronically, but it looks to be just the kind of game I’ve been waiting for. As I watched the demo for the game tonight, I was reminded of playing the original Resident Evil game on my PlayStation back in 96 when I would get creeped out to the point that I couldn’t play the game at night. While Last of Us may or may not involve zombies, genetic engineering gone bad, and betrayal like RE did, it frankly looks like another amazing work of art weaving extreme attention to detail, an engaging and thoughtful storyline, and brutal realism from one of the premiere PlayStation developers. In my humble opinion, this is a game worth buying a PlayStation 3 to play!

Between Beyond and Last of Us, I think Sony could have let a team of monkeys throw poop at the audience and still pulled off a positive conference this evening. The other games didn’t hurt [much at least], but those were the two stars. The PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale looked interesting, and got even better when it was revealed that Nathan Drake (from the aforementioned Uncharted series) and the Big Daddy (from BioShock) were going to be gracing the game as playable characters, but I was unusually uninterested for most of the conference.