Watch out for spoilers. I tried to avoid them but some slipped through. If you have not played through Watch Dogs‘ story and do not wish to know, finish it then read this article
With Mario Kart 8 and Watch Dogs being released in the same week, I may be a bit late to the party as far as master hackers in Chicago are concerned. But I finally got there, got through it, and have been trying to work out my feelings towards it for the best part of a week. On one hand, Watch Dogs is jam-packed full of content but on the other it fails to tell a coherent story.
I know this will probably cause a sea of face-palms but avid readers will know that narratives in video games are of stark importance to me. Does every single game have to tell a poignant story? Not necessarily. But there has to be something that holds the elements of the game together.
What I’m saying here is that the developers have to acknowledge the lack of a narrative. Watch Dogs tries to tell a story and its failure to do so really hurts the game.
The story itself is a convoluted mess. By the end of the game, I was left bemused. The characters’ motivations are unclear and, as best as I can figure out, often strange.
So eager was Ubisoft to weave the multitude of characters together that every person’s part to play in the events that unfold is lost. Several people are guns for hire who are explained away without a second thought. Lucky Quinn, one of the game’s primary antagonists, is slightly more complicated. It is the other antagonist, Damien, that adds a nonsensical element to the plot. His intentions are never validly explained and the only explanations the Internet has been able to offer have seemed disproportionate.
I want to compare Watch Dogs here to my experience with Infamous: Second Son. I know I’ve written about this at length already but the difference is a perfect demonstration of my point. Infamous created characters that you could easily relate to. The Conduits you encounter – even the major antagonist – have detailed stories and motivations that are easily understood and any lack of clarity is intentional.
Delsin’s transformation from miscreant to superhero is believable and tangible. We can see the impact each decision he makes has on him and the world around him.
Watch Dogs, however, offers up Aiden Pearce. A regretful hacker turned vigilante after the death of his niece. Fuelled by the need for revenge and answers, he seems like the perfect cocktail of emotional turmoil to drive the action of the game. The problem exists because we are supposed to accept that he is the tough-as-nails type from the outset. Which drives a wedge between player and character, and leaves little room for growth.
Despite everything that happens during the course of the game, Aiden ends up precisely where he was at the beginning. He is the rough, everything-washes-over-me type that exists in Call of Duty. Personally, I struggled to find any grounding in the story when the protagonist barely reacts to anything.
I didn’t find Aiden Pearce remotely engaging. Neither the script nor the acting was particularly meaningful. I am expected to accept his feelings surrounding his niece’s death because the game tells us outright what he is feeling. We are told he feels guilty, we are told he feels angry at those responsible, and we are told he feels remorseful. There is, however, no real evidence of any of this. With the exception of one mission that I’ll get into later.
The point is that Aiden started the game as the Vigilante. We never saw his development from rogue cyber-terrorist to vigilante. He is because the game says he is. It is impossibly difficult for an audience to identify with or relate to a character that is not properly explained.
Watch Dogs is very top heavy
Pacing is not only an important part of any narrative but also of games in general. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots epitomises awkward pacing of a game. You play one or two levels for an hour of cutscene exposition. Watch Dogs falls into this trap also.
Aiden’s journey is divided into five acts but the missions are slated towards the first few acts. As a result, the game races through the last two acts. I’m reminded of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs that spent a good deal of time building up to a climax then spent another two hours ending.
All of this would be okay if Watch Dogs didn’t turn a corner around act three. Everything gets into gear and starts moving. Finally the player is hooked. But before you can blink the game is over. Another way this problem is compounded is the sheer pointlessness of something of the missions in the first act.
There are sixteen missions in the first act; one of which involves visiting the aforementioned niece’s grave. Ten minutes driving from one side of Chicago to the other all to be told in a robotic monotone that Aiden regrets his niece’s death.
Watch Dogs also had some semblance of a karmic system that added to its problematic elements. Morality in a game is already a difficult line to tread. Infamous did it somewhat. At the very least Sucker Punch discovered a way to make dichotomous moral choices mean something more than how to access the perks exclusive to the extreme levels of good or bad karma.
Mercifully, Watch Dogs didn’t force players to strive for one extreme on the spectrum.
The result of how the karma system interacts with both missions and free roam is decidedly neutral. Something in the range of 90% of the missions the player can undertake push his or her reputation towards the side of good.
So much as sneezing near a civilian causes a negative shift in the Vigilante’s reputation. In fact, using the ability to explode steam pipes to take down a pursuer can cause their car to slide off the road. If this happens and it clips a group of civilians, the result is a huge drop in reputation without actually doing anything.
Aside from this, some of the pedestrians have death wishes and make concerned efforts to get in your way during a mission. Which basically means that your reputation is going to stay almost exactly on the middle point for the entire game. Either you make a hobby out of slaughtering innocent people to drive your reputation into the floor or you drive like an old age pensioner during high speed chases to keep your status as the Vigilante.
The argument could be made that Watch Dogs’ plot as a whole sends the message about the dangers of such a technologically-linked society. Therefore the events of this particular game are not as of much consequence as its message. It’s a valid sentiment and Watch Dogs does make some valid points on that topic but is that enough to compel an audience to forgive an incoherent plot?
Outside of the worryingly nonsensical plot and nearly useless karma system, there is a lot to do in Watch Dogs. The side missions and online capabilities are decent.
It seems like nitpicking but with such a hyped game taking the time to polish the story they want to tell would have been a good move.