When Watch Dogs was first announced, I was as excited as anybody for a new IP, any new IP. That the game would seem to take our modern world into consideration along with modern questions and challenges that exist in daily life made me sit up and take notice. Even if that wasn’t what Ubisoft explicitly stated at E3 several years ago, it’s what was on display at every showing of the game. As time wore on, my enthusiasm and the enthusiasm of others waned. Maybe the game was shown too far in advance of release for the promise to hold our attention? So, I soon forgot about it and simply waited for the game itself to finally appear.
There was a palpable tension when I first put the disk into my console and then waited for the mandatory updates before I was allowed to continue. Would this game live up to the hype or would it fall far short of expectations? Would it even try to live up to its own implied promises? The opening sequence of the game set in a stadium seemed to set the player up for a hard boiled thriller in the style of Heat or Drive. I could see the promises on display. Or at least that seemed to be the case in the first few tutorial missions. This feeling did not last for long, though.
The game introduced me to Aiden Pierce in its first few hours, the most generic and dullest possible protagonist possible. He’s on a mission. A mission that the more you think about it, the less sense any of it makes. His niece was killed in an attempted hit gone wrong, and now Aiden wants to figure out who did it and why. And already I have questions. For instance, there is a reason when a character is driven by revenge that typically the motivation for revenge is made into a daughter or wife. While Aiden may indeed have a close personal bond with a character as removed from him as a niece, however, you have to show why he is so attached to her. You can wave details like a fully developed personality for the character and a believable close connection with them in another version of the revenge story, as the audience can fill in the blanks with close family, but they will need at least some perfunctory explanation as to why this avenger would care enough about anyone else to go to these lengths. Seriously, we get tearing up a city in Taken for the sake of a daughter, but you have to throw me a bone here. These questions without answers continue to pile up, right up until the very end of the game.
However, the main narrative being a dud doesn’t mean that the rest of the game is as bad. It didn’t look like Ubisoft even cared to try and tackle the vast ocean of thematic material available to explore in the game, but Watch Dogs is an open world sandbox. So long as something in it could hold my interest, both I and the game could walk away with a pleasant enough, if not spectacular exchange. Not even a handful of hours in, though, and I was desperately looking for something, anything to do. The game would occasionally offer a bright light of hope, but like a will o’ the wisp it would vanish into the mire, taunting me further in and dragging me further down. In trying out the many, many available minigames, side objectives, and optional missions, I found that Watch Dogs didn’t seem to care about me participating in any of them. I don’t mean in a progression sense, I mean in a “Oh, yeah, that exists. Whatever.” kind of way. For instance, Watch Dogs has a pretty neat Chess minigame. You can solve puzzles and play against certain random opponents in the game. I went to a park where there were half a dozen chess tables set up in a semicircle and proceeded to try my hand at these character’s challenges. I solved all the puzzles that one NPC had to offer, and when I moved to the next one, I was dutifully informed by the UI that no, in fact, I was not allowed to play Chess anymore. The boards were not available a red icon informed me. Come on, game, I finally found something that offered me a modicum of enjoyment and now you taunt me by parading it in front of me only to say, “You can’t have it.” Why?
It was pretty sad that my enjoyment of the game was predicated on playing a completely different game within it in the first place, but really?
After sampling the numerous other offerings, often only once, and leaving with a sour taste in my mouth, I resigned myself to shuffle my way through the main missions and be done with it. The storyline consists of missions that despite what Watch Dogs built itself up to be only rarely consist of hacking into secure locations and instead involve me driving around recklessly or shooting lots of dudes, like every other crime sandbox game since GTA III. Though, the dudes do now hide behind chest high walls. And while the game before hand was only boring, now that we get into the meat of the experience I am finding it to be outright infuriating.
What is wrong with this game? In a single word: everything.
Neither the driving mechanics, nor the shooting mechanics are at all any good. They are sloppily implemented with no connection to the action on screen. The driving is fairly loose with a physics engine specifically designed to make you pull your hair out. A single hit can send your car off course, losing momentum and allowing your pursuers to catch up. Not that you can ever seem to leave them behind. And the developers expect me to fight with these vehicles. Too many missions are concerned with taking down a single target with a car. Then, of course, there are other missions that will put you in situations where you end up in warehouse arenas and have to kill waves of enemies before you can proceed. I did ask myself who all these people were because the game made a point to say these were “freelancers,” not the soldiers of the game’s shady private security firm. The guns have no weight leaving me wondering if I had hit the target or if I was in danger from an enemy because there was always a slight chance that I wouldn’t know that I was getting shot until I died. Plus, there is a real disconnect between the action on screen and me holding the controller trying to direct the action. Aiden will stick to cover when he feels like it and not always when you tell him to.
Badly implemented mechanics are compounded by the god awful level design. It isn’t until something is gone that you begin to miss it. I may have been a fool to complain too loudly about the chest high walls evenly spaced across the battlefield as ludicrous as they may have been. The more “natural” set up of Watch Dog‘s locations along with the poor enemy placement means that combat has less to do with the planning and skill necessary to get through any particular section than it does with patience and luck. And this is further compounded in certain missions by vastly spaced out checkpoints, meaning that any failure whatsoever means having to go through the meat grinder all over again and again.
I failed these missions over and over and each failure happened solely at the whim of random intersections of code and my actions within the game world. I would repeat a series of actions in the exact same way to get through part of a level only to be shot in the back because an entire clip isn’t always enough to take out an enemy it would seem. Each failure would further darken my mood as I became more and more inclined to hurl the controller through my television screen. I would end up seething at this game as I continued to throw myself at obstacles over and over again for hours, forgetting what even the purpose of any of this was. Where had the story gone? Why was I going into this trailer park filled with gun nuts? Hell if I know, but after dying around 50 times because the checkpoint decided spawning right below the helicopter gunship was a good idea, I figured that was the lesser of the questions I could be asking about this mission. And,, no the game will not let you look straight up to use your disable helicopter app.
It is a stealth mission that I am referring to, but I only beat it by grabbing a nearby pick up truck, driving straight through the front gate, through the compound, chasing the target halfway across the countryside, and emptying a grenade launcher through his windshield before setting down IEDs for his dozen or so redneck buddies in hot pursuit. Stealth indeed.
Each failure on my part to proceed and each failure on the game’s part to be fair to its own rules was another step downward. It was another mark against it. My mood became worse as I sat fuming on my couch.
Despite its promises to be something more, all that Watch Dogs wants to be is a standard video game. It wants to be the lowest common denominator, action extravaganza. In short, it wants to be fun.
I didn’t like the person I was becoming while playing this game. Scowling became an omnipresent facial expression even after I had turn the game off. It was turning me cold. It was making me bitter. It was making me resentful at both the game, myself, and my chosen medium. I couldn’t stand this game for long stretches of time. I had to walk away from it completely for days if not weeks on end. I had one friend ask me privately if everything was okay in my life. It was leaking into my real life. Watch Dogs somehow managed to be irritating, intellectually insulting, and emotionally damaging. This game hated me, and I was all too willing to return the favor.
Watch Dogs was delayed by almost six months to fix it, and I can see why they wanted to. I can almost see the developers looking at their build and seeing and knowing that it wasn’t right for launch. They wanted to fix it, but it was all for naught. The problems with this game are not surface level issues, they are deeply embedded problems inherent in the game’s very core. No amount of development polish was going to hide that. And I was okay with that. If that’s all Watch Dogs was, despite everything, I could write the game off as just another piece of designed-by-committee schlock shat out at the end of a cycle to meet a quarterly financial report.
But then the ending happened.
The game doesn’t end where it should have if it was going to be another run-of-the-mill forgettable hack job. It decides to keep on going and double down on its own incompetence and thematic immorality. Up until now, any message the game might have had, good or bad, was pure accident. Much of the storytelling is so bizarre and at certain points becomes downright deranged. Characters (read: Aiden) contradict themselves and their motivations multiple times within the same cutscene. Sometime before the camera even cuts to a new angle. For whatever reason the developers decided that, no, this game was going to make me understand its message. They wanted everyone to understand what they were trying to say, to make it crystal clear. Elements that lay forgotten for nearly the entire duration of the game’s play time are brought back with a vengeance to scream “See! This is important! This is about something!” The anonymous hacker group DedSec comes right the hell out of nowhere as a counter to the corporate overlords that the whole game has been asking Aiden to undermine only to toss these rebels to the side within a few short seconds. And in the end, after the bad guy is dead, Aiden is a wanted murderer and all the stated purpose for this game ever existing is wrapped up, then it goes one step further.
At the very end, the game asserts that the only true righteousness is that of the ubermensch vigilante. Watch Dogs isn’t against corruption or concentrated power. It’s not a cautionary tale about data mining or information control. No, it’s perfectly okay with all of that tyranny, so long as it is the tyranny of the individual. The whims of a single amoral jackass without convictions, morality, or philosophy has a greater right to determine society’s fate than any other power.
This isn’t a warning. This isn’t a condemnation. The game says this should be celebrated. The chaos, damage, and pain inflicted on the entire city at large and those closest to you is cause to rejoice. It presents you with Aiden and all his power mad, self-satisfied empty ennui and tell you he is king.
I have a personal pantheon of works I find so utterly vile, so poorly conceived, so incompetent towards their own culpability in their lack of conviction that they breeze through the insolubility of their own meanings without any awareness or responsibility. These are works are not just an insult to my intelligence and taste, but to my very soul. They not only reject a moral spectrum of the universe, but do so without an ounce of artistry or care for craft. They defy an emotional truth to any reality that humans can recognize and do so gleefully and in pandering ignorance. It is a pantheon of works whose sole purpose is to affect a negative resolve upon the very concept of art itself.
I induct you Watch Dogs. I induct you alongside Law Abiding Citizen and Holy Terror. May you rot in hell.