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Flappy Coat Physics: The Game (or, "Post-Recession Batman")

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    Watch Dogs

    Rating: 3.5 – Good

    Flappy Coat Physics: The Game (or, "Post-Recession Batman")

    Watch Dogs has been out for a few weeks at this point. And everyone in the game apparently loves me—they love Aiden, I mean. Newscasts keep saying "Chicago has rallied in support of the vigilante." I still find it odd that he’s so popular considering I’ve stolen over half a million dollars by hacking everyone’s bank accounts…

    Anyway, welcome to my comprehensive review of Ubisoft’s latest production, Watch Dogs. As with most of my reviews, this will be broken down into several sections: graphics, story, gameplay, replayability, audio, and finally multiplayer. Pull up your vigilante mask, activate your firewall, and buckle up: we’ve got rather a lot to cover.

    First up is everyone’s favorite/least favorite topic: graphics. Do graphics matter in a game? My opinion on the matter is irrelevant, and I’m not here to debate the merits of either side’s argument. What I will say is that, about fifty percent of the time, Watch Dogs looks great. At night, and when it’s raining –– and especially when it’s raining at night –– Chicago looks incredible. Rather than slapping "window graphics" on buildings, you can "see into" rooms on skyscrapers: at the very least, you can see the physical ceiling lights. Cars are nicely detailed, too, and while it certainly lacks the detailed damage models of, say, Forza 5, they are nowhere near as bad as people were making them out to be, before release. And there’s a lot of attention to detail: articles of trash bounce across the game world, leaves and dirt are kicked up by tires, and pedestrians do their… pedestrian things. And you don’t even know how excited I was when I saw that we actually had modeled grass in Watch Dogs–– not just that awful zig-zagging ‘grass texture’ we’ve seen in almost every video game up to this point. (Seriously, nobody should be that excited about next-gen grass.)

    BUT… rather disappointingly, every character that isn’t Aiden Pearce is a fairly ugly plastic-looking model. It’s not too noticeable on normal pedestrians, but there is a plethora of cutscenes where Aiden stands right next to another NPC: in those cases, you really notice the difference, and you can’t help but wonder why they didn’t put the effort in to maintain textural consistency.

    Another glaring problem is graphics pop-in: perhaps this is another artifact from being co-developed with the Xbox 360/PS3 versions, but there is a very short draw distance for objects and NPCs, leading to people you want to hack disappearing when you drive forty feet past them, and cars appearing right in front of you during high-speed races and getaways. It’s rather disappointing,

    And, unfortunately, Watch Dogs‘ rendition of daytime Chicago just doesn’t look that great: it’s fairly washed out and drab, and few of the textures look particularly sharp. Finally, glass and window reflections are completely static, and don’t show any characters, vehicles, or NPCs.

    I mean, come on, this is supposed to be a next-gen game, and the engine can’t even manage real-time reflections? They had ‘working’ mirrors back in Quake III Arena… which came out in 1999!

    Aiden’s story is not particularly enticing: it lacks any real sense of pace. The story is very slow for the first two acts; then it continues at a slightly faster pace with spasms of intense action. In addition, the supporting cast is generally forgettable. Sure, there are twists and turns, but I never really cared about the plight of the characters. And, for a supposed hacker with hacker acquaintances, Aiden seems to miss a lot of things that come back to bite him in the ass later. As for the family, Aiden’s family, which we’re supposed to care about and protect? I found them generally unlikable and never once was compelled to help them for any other reason than to advance the story. In addition, there are far too many red herrings thrown in considering the length of the story: the final act is basically one long wild goose chase. And, although I can’t go into specific details because of plot spoilers, I also found many of Aiden’s later actions to be of questionable logic: he seems to deliberately and openly set himself up for almost all of the problems and obstacles he faces.

    While the message, and warning, Watch Dogs contains is certainly pertinent to our current society –– the loss of our privacy and safety as a result of our interconnectedness and slavery to smartphones and tablets that contain almost all of our personal information –– it just doesn’t feel as though it’s been implemented into the game as well as it could have been. But, then again, "half thought-out" stories, and plot twists that serve no greater purpose than to exist for their own sake, seem to be an occurrence in many Ubisoft titles.

    In terms of Watch Dogsgameplay, I think the best way to describe it is by comparing it to other games. Now, I know some people hate comparative reviews; some of you might think, for some reason, it’s unfair to compare a new IP to established franchises. But I do this for two reasons. First, because this is a review: often, people will decide whether or not they want to buy a game based off of reviews, and if I say "this plays like [x]," a reader may want to try or avoid a game because they did or didn’t like a game that was similar. Secondly, Ubisoft has made it clear they want this IP to challenge the big, open world game franchises: so trying to review Watch Dogs in a vacuum, without comparing it to its competitors, is like trying to decide whether you like Coke or Pepsi having only ever tried one of them.

    So, on its surface, Watch Dogs plays like a grab-bag of Ubisoft’s previous games. Movement, particularly free running, draws heavily from Assassin’s Creed games; infiltration and stealth play almost exactly like Splinter Cell: Blacklist; the cover system is taken from Ghost Recon: Future Soldier; and gunplay feels like Blacklist and Future Soldier, blended with some Max Payne 3 for good measure.

    Moving through the game world is easy. While walking or jogging, holding the right trigger down allows you to sprint, and holding "B" at the same time allows you to free run. Animations are smooth, and Aiden will often use the environment to his advantage: for example, if you climb a fence right where it connects to a wall, Aiden will jump onto the wall and push himself up and over the fence. He slides over cars’ hoods like Bo Duke. Everything is very fluid, which should come as no surprise given that Assassin’s Creed was all about free running.

    Driving, however, is less enjoyable. It is, in my opinion, mediocre at best, sitting somewhere between Sleeping Dogs and Grand Theft Auto V: not quite as arcade-y as the former, and not quite as polished as the latter. While such a system as Watch Dogs makes it easy to pull off flashy Hollywood-esqe driving, like blasting through intersections and screeching around corners, it has the unintended side effect of making every slightest corner feel like navigating a car with tires made of butter around an ice rink.

    Another notable problem is extreme, albeit occasional, framerate drops. Basically, any time a mission is completed, Aiden "levels up," or other elements of the HUD pop up, the framerate drops noticeably and the entire game stutters for about twenty seconds. At other times, I have had elements of the HUD stay stuck on the screen; most notably big white squares from hacking ctOS boxes. And a few other people have reported a glitch where, upon exiting multiplayer, their singleplayer game progress has been completely deleted.

    Aiden’s cell phone has an app called the "Profiler." When you tap "X," he walks around with his phone out, providing a few (randomly generated) personal details on every NPC you encounter: their first and last names, annual income, job occupation, and a random factoid (a few examples: "registered Democrat," "frequently purchases condoms," or "cancer in remission"). While this system is certainly a cool idea, it’s really just a gimmick. Call of Duty has had a system in place that would randomly generate names for NPC allies for over a decade. Eventually, you won’t care at all about NPCs’ personal details; you’ll just look for the blue boxes around their heads, which means you can hack them for money, new songs for your playlist, hidden item locations, and potential crimes. But, there are times when the income and occupation fields generated completely, and blatantly, mismatch the character. There are several times that I have seen generic low-level gang members with $101,000 in annual income from what would be, in real life, respectable and legitimately high-paying jobs. That just doesn’t make any sense: is being a gang member a hobby, or a side occupation, or something?

    Hacking, unfortunately, basically consists of either a) holding the "X" button to hack (apparently, there really is "An App for That"), or b) puzzles. The puzzles channel "the internet is a series of tubes" in a literal sense, being that the goal is to twist some pipes to channel blue power to… locked boxes, which become more pipes, and use all of those to direct the power supply to the last (conveniently blue) box at the end of the puzzle.

    Now, I’m no computer expert, but I’m preeeeetty sure that’s not how hacking works…

    So, is the game replayable? Frankly, the story is not interesting enough that I would want to go through it again any time soon.

    Thankfully, there are some cool apps on your phone with which you can play. Blackouts cause a citywide power outage, which helps you avoid or evade cops and other enemies; Jam Comms block cell phone signals, preventing civilians from calling the cops and which stops enemies from calling for backup; the Profiler lets you see civilians’ information and identify high profile enemies; and by pressing "up" on the d-pad, you can request delivery of cars, see what "Fixer" missions are available, and play Digital Trips.

    Random crimes become irritating after a while, and it’s got to the point where I generally ignore them unless I need to improve my reputation. These involve you going to a designated area, profiling people until you find either a potential victim or potential criminal, tailing them (without being spotted) until a crime occurs, then chasing down the criminal and giving him a beatdown. (You get bonus points if the victim is unharmed.)

    The random crimes play almost like a copy-paste of eavesdropping missions from Assassin’s Creed, albeit with a different outcome.

    Oh, and if you’re spotted, the criminal just walks away, and you get nothing. Which really makes no sense, because these crimes rarely take place in back alleys: usually, they’re within arm’s length of a whole bunch of other civilians, who don’t notice and don’t care at all about the crime occurring.

    And when the criminal fires a gunshot? Civilians will sometimes call the police –– who target Aiden, rather than the criminal who actually fired the gun. (The same goes for gangs: if someone calls the cops about a gunfight, the cops will instantly come after Aiden rather than the person who actually fired the shot.) Oops: that’s a bit of broken programming!

    Luckily, the game’s saving grace is in its few, but high-quality, side missions.

    Gang Hideouts feel like something directly ripped out of Splinter Cell: Blacklist, but simplified a little like infiltration/stealth in Assassin’s Creed. Gang hideout missions involve you stealthily entering a restricted area to knocking down (melee attack) or taking down (killing) one or more gang leaders, who you need to identify through profiling. You can avoid, beat down, or shoot anyone and everyone who gets in your way; but by far the most interesting way of playing is to hack into security cameras, learn enemies’ patrol paths, and pick them off one by one using a combination of suppressed weapons, melee attacks, and overloads (which causes junction boxes, power grids, and high-pressure steam valves to explode). You can distract certain enemies by hacking their phones, hacking their headsets to cause painfully loud feedback, or hacking their grenades so they explode. (Grenades and gangs’ communications devices are all tied into ctOS, through which they could easily be monitored or deactivated by the police? Yeah, doesn’t make much sense to me, either…)

    Criminal Convoys involve you intercepting a, well, convoy of criminals that drives along a set path. After that, your goal is basically to kill everyone and beat down the gang leader(s). Pretty simple, overall; but you can use exploding manhole covers, hackable traffic lights, IEDs, grenades, barriers, and sniper rifle-enabled overpass ambushes to your advantage.

    Finally, Fixer jobs involve either delivering stolen vehicles to a destination (avoiding or outrunning the cops along the way) or racing through checkpoints to draw the attention of ctOS (and the cops) while your employers do their… work. Now, if ctOS is apparently only capable of finding, tracking, and profiling one criminal at a time… that seems like a pretty huge oversight in terms of its limitations.

    There are also some Digital Trips, which involve crushing things with a giant robot spider and running to collect 8bit-inspired coins. But my favorite, by far, is the very moody and atmospheric Alone. This trip puts you in a completely deserted Chicago, stuck in a permanent night, tasked with restarting generators to restore power to the city. Oh, and you have to avoid camera-head robots while an ambient soundtrack reminds you of how alone you are and a female voice piped through loudspeakers condemns "you" for causing "this." It would make a fine independent game, well worth $10, just on its own.

    And now we move onto audio, where I finally get to explain my Batman joke from the title! While none of the voice acting is particularly good, Aiden’s ‘vigilante voice’ is particularly laughable as he basically spends the entire game doing his Batman impression. Well, I guess Batman is the ultimate Vigilante: but Aiden has few of the moves, little of the tech, none of the money, and his parents weren’t killed (as far as we know).

    With the exception of the game’s actual score (a blend of electronic, dubstep, and occasional rock elements), which sounds almost completely interchangeable with the latest Assassin’s Creed and Splinter Cell scores, most of the music is… an odd choice for the game. It is clearly Ubisoft’s first time incorporating licensed music (32 songs, to be specific) into one of its games, because it just lacks the… sense of place, so to speak, that Rockstar accomplishes in Grand Theft Auto. In other words, most of the music seems like it’s there for the sake of it, not because it really fits into the game’s world.

    Other than those two things, which I felt were worth mentioning, the game’s audio is a pretty standard affair. Guns go bang, explosives go boom, and irritatingly loud messages from DedSec and WKZTV News play frequently over the abundance of loudspeakers in the game –– yes, even in the middle of the night when most people would be sleeping. (Nope, it doesn’t make any sense to me, either.)

    Finally, I would like to talk about the multiplayer. For me, this was a bit of a mixed bag and I’ll get into the reasons why.

    First, the Invasion aspect is brilliant. It’s innovative, it’s fresh, and it works well. Going into someone else’s game to tail them or hack their phone is clever: after all, invasion of privacy is one of the pillars of the game’s plot. The only thing that gets a little irritating is when you’re about to reach a mission marker (either for the campaign or a side mission) and you suddenly see the warning that you’re being hacked: I get that it adds to the feeling that you’re never safe (well, not until your Xbox Live subscription runs out), but it can be frustrating. Sure, you can turn off online, but that prevents you from gaining a few extra (and useful) abilities, and it stops you from joining Decryption matches or Free Roam sessions as well. Maybe Ubisoft could program the game in such a way that if you’ve set a waypoint to a mission/quest marker and you’re within one hundred meters of it, you can’t be hacked or tailed? That’s something the developer could experiment with in the future.

    Racing, however, is a slightly different story. I’ve already stated my thoughts about the driving above, so I will try not to repeat myself too much here. Basically, because Watch Dogs‘ driving is slippery and arcade-like, online races often feel more like an old Xbox game than a next-gen title. That’s not to say, of course, that you won’t enjoy racing: after all, this review is only my opinion.

    But the biggest problem I have with the races is that it just isn’t even slightly fun. Everyone has the exact same car (or motorbike), except they have different color paintjobs. Nothing is customizable: not your choice of car, not your engine or your exhaust, not even your rims. There’s just no challenge: the only way to move up the field is for your opponents to make mistakes. Oh, and getting the nitro boost skill: that gives you a head start at the beginning of a race. After that, if you’re in first, you can activate all of the traps to distract your opponents behind: if you’re in second or third, you’ll probably be staying there through most of the race.

    I’m not joking when I say this: if this is Ubisoft’s idea of "next-gen racing" –– and let’s not forget that Watch Dogs‘ engine was originally intended for use in a Driver game –– then I don’t think The Crew will be a very successful game.

    Online Decryption is what really baffles me, though. Ubisoft has only two lobbies, which are "public match" and "private match." If you choose public match, you’re thrown into a lobby: but for some reason, Ubisoft don’t let you choose between free-for-all and team-based modes. Personally, I hate free-for-alls: eight people all vying for the same objective is just too chaotic for me. But if I want to play a team match, I either have to sit through one, or even several, free-for-all matches (and inevitably lose a bunch of online notoriety points), or keep backing out of lobbies until I do eventually find a team decryption game.

    And remember that awesome multiplayer demo we were shown, where four teammates coordinated to raise barriers to cover each other, jumped in the back of a truck to take down the other team that was chasing them, and stuck together through an intense firefight to boost the speed with which the player decrypted the file?

    Well, good luck experiencing anything even remotely close to that "gameplay" video. To start, you’re often lucky to be in a lobby with more than six people in total: and I can assure you that three-on-three isn’t a particularly exciting experience given the size of the maps. Secondly, most of the maps just stink: there are very few locations where you have the ability to "lock down" an area with barriers to take cover behind: in fact, almost every game degenerates into the player with the file jumping into a sports car and skirting around the outskirts of the gameplay area while the other players try to keep up. And when two out of three matches are free-for-all, there’s really not much incentive to work with your teammates during the few matches that are team-based.

    The final multiplayer mode is Free Roam. Unfortunately, during Watch Dogs‘ extended development, Ubisoft apparently learned nothing from Grand Theft Auto Online. The latter was sometimes criticized for not having much to do. Well, you could create your online avatar, buy clothes and accessories, buy and customize cars, buy apartments, complete missions online with your friends, go head-to-head in team deathmatches, free-for-alls, races, capture modes, etc. and face off against hordes of increasingly difficult enemies. In Watch Dogs‘ free roam, you can walk and drive around… and that’s it. There are no co-op missions, no regular deathmatches or other staples of online gaming… and you’re always Aiden Pearce on your screen –– even when you appear as a middle-aged woman to everyone else on the server, so you can’t even customize your online avatar. What’s even worse is that you can’t even launch a decryption game mode from Free Roam. "Oh, you know what cool? If you could launch a decryption match with everyone on your free roam server." "Nah! Who would ever want to do something like that?"

    In other words, Free Roam is basically pointless.

    Overall, beyond the intrustion-modes, the shoddy local-hosted servers (Really, Ubisoft? No dedicated servers?) and general lack of things to do –– despite Ubisoft having plenty of prior experience with multiplayer game modes in Far Cry, Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon, and Splinter Cell, to name just a few –– all points toward actual multiplayer being a complete afterthought.

    QUICK SUMMARY:
    Story: 6.5/10 – Watch Dogs starts off slow, but if you can make it to the middle of Act II, it picks up quite quickly… it doesn’t all make sense, though, and Aiden’s actions are often questionable.
    Gameplay: 7.5/10 – Hacking is a well-implemented feature, even if it does basically just involve holding down "X." Otherwise, it feels like an amalgam of Ubisoft’s previous work.
    Replayability: 7/10 – There’s a lot to do in Watch Dogs, but after a while, the "go here — hack this — chase target" mission structure becomes quite repetitive. For the brief time that it is novel, however, it does offer something refreshingly different from the standard mission structure of most open world games.
    Graphics: 7.5/10 – A general sense of unpolished graphics, frequent pop-in, abysmal draw distance, and a dull-looking daytime city make it clear this was never originally built as a next-gen title.
    Audio: 6.5/10 – While the game’s audio in general is good, it is let down by an unfitting soundtrack and inconsistent voice acting.
    Multiplayer: 6.5/10 – Online hacking and tailing can provide for a very good challenge, but the lack of things to do in free roam coupled with the lack of variety in multiplayer and the inability to choose between free-for-all and team-based decryption modes prevents this section from being scored higher.

    OVERALL: 6.9/10 (rounded up to 7/10)

    The Bottom Line:
    Much like Assassin’s Creed before it, Watch Dogs is a potentially great franchise locked behind a fairly "meh" first entry into the series. While its individual parts work well, the game overall really just feels like parts of Ubisoft’s other games were cut and pasted together; it was clearly built for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 and subsequently ported to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, with only marginally better graphics and an unremarkable multiplayer mode tacked on.

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