Watch Dogs

Reading time: 12 mins

Last week I finally finished the game Watch Dogs, at least to the point where the main story was done. I found the whole experience overall quite frustrating, and wanted to share some thoughts on the subject of attention to detail, and how little touches can make a huge difference to people’s enjoyment of using your product.

What’s this Watch Dogs thing then?

Watch Dogs is “an open world action-adventure stealth video game developed by Ubisoft Montreal and published by Ubisoft” – thanks Wikipedia. It’s more widely seen as “that game that’s kind of like GTA where you’re a hacker”, or “that one that I was going to buy last year but then it got ridiculously delayed”.

The premise is pretty simple. Everyone has a phone, everyone’s under extreme surveillance, and through this as protagonist Aiden Pearce you’re able to spy or eavesdrop on pretty much everyone you come into contact with. Yes reader, you may be catching on that there are some rather obvious remarks about current society ‘hidden’ in this game. The fact that you’re frequently encouraged to get the companion app, and like me you may be playing on your Kinect-enabled Xbox One is not lost on me.

As Aiden, a skilled hacker (/driver/firearms expert/athlete/chemist/parkour-ist), you’re able to access information on everyone you encounter walking down the street, as well as being able to control city infrastructure including surveillance cameras, traffic lights, and security systems. With phone in hand, you can scan the lady walking towards you. Her information flashes up – she earns $10k a year, has recently been diagnosed with cancer, and helps the homeless. What the hell; you empty her bank account anyway, taking her meagre $100 for yourself from the nearest ATM. The temptation may be for you to scan everyone without thought, however certain individuals can detect your intrusion, report you, and place a bounty on your head for other players to invade your game and collect. I think this is meant to make you consider the risk, and whether that extra couple of hundred dollars is worth it, however the reality is that if you avoid known ‘Blume Associates’, or simply jam their communications, there is no consequence.

This is the first of my (and many others) problems with Watch Dogs. Despite being well received by critics and setting a new industry sales record for Ubisoft, anecdotal reviews have been less kind. Many cite a lack of polish, frustrations, and generally some huge holes in the game’s user experience. I’m inclined to agree on all counts.

So what problems are there?

For a game which beats you over the head with the themes of ethics and morality and right and wrong and surveillance and big brother societies… I just don’t care. Walking around the city, I’m more likely to snigger at scans that reveal Bruce Wayne subscribes to a BDSM website and Aisha Tyler (Lana from Archer) is a gamer and bourbon enthusiast, than I am to rethink my intention of plundering someone with a Rich Bank Account blue square around them because of their personal situation. Lack of story depth and character personality have been accusations made against the game, but this extends to your general morality – there simply isn’t any reason to be “good” or “bad”, apart from if you’re “bad” the public are more likely to report you for crimes… but you can just block their calls.

This lack of direction and incentive isn’t just contained to morality. In general, key game mechanics such as money are hugely flawed, and are possibly best summed up best by Yahtzee on Zero Punctuation if you have a spare 5 1/2 minutes. Throughout the game you pick up an obscene about of money, to absolutely no end. I bought every car, every outfit, every gun (despite being able to just pick them up off enemies), and ended up buying all sorts of gadgets for the sake of it, just to spend the money I was racking up without thought. Certain missions require you to deliver cars unscratched in order to achieve a higher monetary reward. As money is essentially worthless, these missions provide very little incentive to be completed, and you care little for finesse and avoiding crashes. When there’s nothing of value to be achieved, the only reason to complete tasks is a because of a sense of completion, or what I’ve personally come to know as “game OCD”. I unlocked almost every skill upgrade yet have never used half of them – some being as useless as “gaining more money at ATMs”. See above.

“As a gamer…”

These problems are things that I find pretty hard to understand. In the web industry, the mantra “As an X I want to X so that I can X” gets repeated ad nauseum. When applied to Watch Dogs, it falls flat on its face. As Aiden, I don’t understand my motivation. As Sally the gamer, I understand it even less. The “so that I can” part is absolutely crucial, and I simply don’t understand what I am meant to get out of much of the game’s mechanics.

However, when I do want to achieve something, Watch Dogs seems to enjoy stopping you doing so in a variety of ways. Doing a mission? Your HUD will continue to flash up with a variety of spam. Perhaps it’s meant to be another clever observation on society and how we’re tethered to our devices and notifications, but I find the constant alerts that flash up exceedingly irritating. THERE’S A CRIME! THERE’S AN OBJECT POORLY HIDDEN! THERE’S A CONVOY! SOMEONE’S INVADING YOUR GAME? WOULD YOU LIKE TO ANNOY SOMEONE BY INVADING THEIR GAME?

Which brings me neatly to my next point – the game invasion mechanism – one which is pretty cool in a way – is actually incredibly annoying unless you’ve specifically chosen to do something online. At one point I found myself in a precarious position up a building, attempting to complete an objective that had taken me a while to progress, but was notified that someone was hacking me. I had to rapidly jump down, and try to find the invader, before being annoyed at having to repeat my lengthy climb again. On numerous occasions I reached a mission marker only to be told that I couldn’t start it before I found the person stealing my data. My response? Turn off the console. I’m not alone either – a recent patch changed the logic so that those being hacked didn’t lose ‘rep’ (a kind of online XP) if they didn’t find the hacker, in an attempt to minimise disconnections.

It’s a game about hacking. I get it. I get that I’m keen on dishing it out but not being on the receiving end. I’m also playing a game because I want to play it, and I would like to be able to do that without being told that I can’t start the mission I’d just travelled to the other side of the map for, because someone else wants to play online. Can I please just play the game, and come back to dicking about and giggling about hacking my friends when I want? It is possible to turn this feature off, however then you lose all of your collected online XP, along with any perks you’ve gained. Don’t punish the user for wanting to play the game differently. Let people achieve the tasks they want to achieve, when they want to achieve them.

It’s the little things

As I mentioned at the start, one of the major criticisms aimed at the game is that of noticeable rough edges. After a lengthy delay, many were expecting more, but some of the lack of polish is laughable.

Plants are solid. Bushes are solid. You can be driving through a field and find your car stops dead because it hit a branch, or smash through a metal fence before hitting a solid bush. Aiden takes phone calls whilst swimming. A helicopter could see me through the walls of a carpark. I first encountered the now-famous window reflection ‘creativity’ when I was on a lift travelling up the side of a building in an alley, yet looking at a reflection of a huge, spacious square. This is the kind of thing that as pointed out by someone in the comments of that Kotaku article, cannot be unseen once noticed.

The music is one thing that I quite like in some ways. You’re able to set up your own playlists, or listen to music when walking around, and there are some decent songs on the soundtrack. Whilst music can also enhance an experience, when done wrong it can heavily detract from it. For example, when driving with music on through a radius where a crime is occurring, it is automatically stopped. I’m not really cool with you making that decision for me, but let’s go with it. Once your vehicle passes through the radius, your music restarts from the beginning of the song rather than resuming, which is very jarring. I also encountered a strange feature/bug later in the game. After a poignant moment in the story (which I understood was poignant because of the overuse of slow motion and an extended cut scene, not because anything in the plot had made me care) I then had to go somewhere else to start a new mission. On getting in a car, all I could listen to was weepy piano music on the soundtrack, being told that the music app was unavailable. Sorry Aiden, I gather you’re feeling a bit down, but I kind of like driving around with some pop punk on, and when I’m in between story missions and on my way to take down a gang hideout side mission you don’t get to pick what goes on the stereo.

Consistency is also lacking. In certain menus you use the left stick to navigate items; in some the right. Interfaces and interactions in general are done very poorly, both in terms of the pause/skills menus, and whilst playing. For example, the game has the ability to ‘check in’ to locations. When a place has not been previously visited, a prompt flashes up when you get somewhere close. After this initial check in, the game requires you to stand right on the spot for the check in action to trigger, meaning that you never think to check in despite being mere metres away. On several occasions I’ve had to stop and think about how to perform an action due to a confusing interface or unintuitive action, which isn’t something that I should be doing after sinking multiple hours into an activity.

Just before the end of the game, I was having trouble with what turned out to be the final mission. I failed a couple of times but had to go out of the house, so I shut my console down (normally) after dying. I had three goals to achieve, but the most I’d done was hack two and then get killed. On loading the game up the next day, I had to evade the police, but then apparently my task was done! After this, I was presented with some quick time events, and then…. the credits.

Oh, the credits. The developers of Watch Dogs apparently decided that those who finished the game hadn’t enjoyed enough things they didn’t want to do, and decided to inflict the final insult on everyone… the un-skippable credits. They went on so long that I wondered if they were just looping, but apparently not. It wasn’t even as if I was meant to just give up. No, there’s a final bit of the game after the credits, complete with a rather large moral decision that appears to have absolutely no bearing on anything at all. Perhaps a sequel, but who knows if one will be made?

Wow that’s a lot of moaning!

So why on earth did you keep playing it, you fool?”, I hear you say? First, as I’ve said, game OCD. Second, the fact that the best part of £50 has been taken off me has something to do with it. And third… loads of it is really good fun.

The game itself can be pretty challenging at points, especially when you don’t use gadgets, or haven’t unlocked upgrades. I found myself trying certain missions, such as gang hideouts, deliberately attempting different approaches. One of my favourite approaches requires patience – there are a number of explosive panels around the map, and it’s possible that baddies will walk in front of them. If not, they can be lured. Once in proximity, these panels can be exploded thanks to Aiden’s 1337 skills, which is the single most chuckle-worthy and satisfying thing about the game. It’s like the Batman Arkham games stealth takedowns, but on crack.

In the earlier parts of the game I was also enjoying the fact that I was extremely underpowered when it game to gang incidents, which forced me not to go for my usual tactic of “wade in and shoot everyone at close range”. I like it when games make me get out of my comfort zone – indeed one of the criticisms of Dishonored I had last year was that by the end I was bored of sleep darting, and ended up shooting everyone and not caring. With Watch Dogs, I didn’t tire of the stealth element, although I admit that I did end up sniping a lot of people by the end.

And this is the frustration I have with Watch Dogs. I enjoyed the premise, the portrayal of Chicago, the gameplay, the firefighting, and the missions. I enjoyed the multiple, The Raid-esque passes in different ways through a gang-riddled tower block. It’s witty, and I enjoyed the calls and text conversations intercepted. I just didn’t like the execution, and my frustrations came about purely because of implementations that seemed poorly thought out and untested with real gamers. Whether or not this is the case is another matter, and ordinarily I’d put it down to my own fussiness, but the fact that the same observations are widespread is very telling.

Rough edges, a lack of direction, incentive and clear interfaces, coupled with inconstant and buggy experiences, can turn what could otherwise be a thoroughly enjoyable, memorable experience into one that gets remembered for all of the wrong reasons. Remember that next time you’re creating anything, be it game, website, or anything else.

Header image is concept art from the Ubisoft Watch Dogs website.