Thursday, July 31, 2014

Midsummer '14 Day 30 & Watch Dogs Revew: Rise Against - Help is on the Way

Not late so much as delayed, I was writing this thing and the deadline slipped by.

This song is by Nickelback-clone Rise Against. Rise Against is not a particularly good or bad band - they are at best competent and at worst trite and dull. This song is among their competent ones.

So if they're insignificant, why do we care? Because it's also one of the only interesting songs on the Watch Dogs soundtrack.

Watch Dogs is a Ubisoft cross-generation video game that came out in May. It was met with great anticipation after solid showings from trailer footage and pre-release hype. Of course this is all a wind-up for the punchline:
The game sucks.

Okay, that's not precisely what I mean. Instead, the game passes every basic competence test while failing every single test for excellence. The game is thoroughly and universally mediocre.

Let's start with the all-important plot. I didn't get all that far, through the middle of Act 2 before returning my rental copy, so I won't judge it based on the ending but based mostly on the impressions the game gives to a new user.
You are Aiden Pierce. You were a dude who has a criminal past, but you've tried to put that behind you. Then all of a sudden your beloved niece is the victim of seemingly random violence in a car attack that you managed to live through. You get involved with the underworld again to try and hunt down the culprit, despite the ubiquitous surveillance.
Did I mention the surveillance? The setting is a near-future Chicago in which a single system controls watches every part of Chicago, maintaining a rigorous database of every single person in Chicago. Aside from the fact that even in the growing surveillance-state nature of the states, this would not be the route taken (as it provides the same weakness the game preys on - a single exploit would unlock the whole thing), it's aware to an almost silly level. In fact, scanning every single person in the city, the only one who comes up "unknown" is, well, Aiden Pierce. Even though his absence is kind of conspicuous - every single cop should immediately know to stop him if he's in view of any camera.
Aiden is a hacker (though a rather poor one if I do say so, in spite of how great we're told he is), and has gained access to the system that now controls literally everything in Chicago. The system, dubbed CTOS, controls every single digital interface in the city, and Aiden has cracked it. Hooray.

To hunt his niece's killers, we're opened into the game with him beating and terrorizing a man who ultimately doesn't know much of anything, hanging out with a renowned fixer. He seems to spout some kind of "I'd rather not kill" philosophy, which is immediately thrown away. In this game, you will kill hundred of people - ordinary gang members, agency workers, security forces, cops (an infinite supply of cops), anything. The game's tagline is "Hacking is your weapon" but it's not, your collapsible baton and  your silenced pistol and your sniper rifle and your grenade launcher and your automatic shotgun and your grenades are your weapons.
Does that sound like a lot of high-grade guns for later in the game? Nope. I had 'em three missions in, because everything opens up immediately. No, wait, actually things open up halfway through Act I, then there's literally nothing that seems to be locked off. You can do all the side missions, unlock everything, get every weapon and car, reveal the whole city, do literally everything that isn't directly a story mission. There's no real sense of the game pacing things out.
And if things seem like they're expensive, well, no problem! One of Aiden's tricks is that he can drain the bank accounts of the people he meets on the street! Not everyone though. Only some people can be drained, and they're usually the people with, like, one or two hundred in their account at most. You're taking the poor for what they have. And since you get a little blurb of insight into the life and occupation and income of every single person you see, you feel bad for people. Especially when I'm told that I'm robbing people in situations like "Taking out a second mortgage" and "Recently laid off" and "coming from family's funeral." Maybe its just me, but when I was playing this with friends, there was a trend toward the people you can steal from already being down on their luck.
And this isn't just something you the player know - Aiden knows it too. So what do we have so far? Aiden is a murdering vigilante using the mass surveillance but not breaking it down, robbing ordinary people down on their luck to fuel his crusade against what at first could only have seemed like random violence.
So he acts like he's doing this to bring peace to his niece's mother and brother, the latter of which has PTSD as a result of the loss. Oh, but he's doing it against his sister's wishes, who just wants him to let it go so they can heal and try and move their lives forward. Instead he gets them caught up in it and makes targets out of them.
And Dead Cell! Dead Cell is fictional Anonymous, hacktivists against the surveillance state. Oh except these guys actually seem to be behind virtual (and perhaps physical) terrorism.

So okay. Aiden is a vigilante, willing to kill anyone and everyone in his way to get vengeance for a single murder, falling in with virtual terrorists while taking advantage of the surveillance state they are also fighting, working with criminals who are mostly killers themselves, robbing average civilians to buy automatic weapons and fancy sport cars, and putting on a batman voice and pretending to be in the right this whole time.
And this is the protagonist.

Aiden is not a likable character by any stretch of the word. He doesn't even have that lovable charm of most anti-heroes and he's an asshole to his former friends (he has no current friends). In any other game, this is the man you're stopping!
The game tries to wrap itself in an anti-surveillance-state PRISM-is-bad message, and while I didn't see the end myself, I'm told it kinda handles it ham-handedly.

So what about the gameplay? Is it fun at least? Not particularly. Lots of driving everywhere, except the driving's not particularly fun. The controls are loose and the for a seemingly-realistic traffic flow, the lack of turn signals alone kinda screws with the flow. Turning is a bear, even with the best-handling tightest-turning motorcycles. I stopped using cars fairly quick and relied on just motorcycles - much easier, plus you can just ignore the traffic and blaze your own path through the streets. Hell, getting hit isn't even that bad, you just get thrown from the bike.
You can hijack every single car in sight, but because the game wants you to use the phone's Cars On Demand app that orders a vehicle to near your location (for free at least) there aren't very many parking spots let alone cars parked in them. Chicago is apparently a city of people driving but never parking. And because the Cars On Demand app always puts it somewhere in a lot or on the street near you but not right AT you, it's often a hassle.

The stealth gameplay wasn't that bad, but not exceptional. I'd play, well, any other cover-based stealth game as soon as Watch Dogs. Even The Last Of Us, which while I loved its plot and characters found its gameplay slow and unsmooth, was far more effective. I personally made it a bit harder on myself because I didn't like killing people in Watch Dogs (I interpret the melee takedown as nonlethal), but even if I wanted to use my guns there's only one silenced pistol as well as a silenced uzi that's hidden behind a pretty extensive unlock requirement.
And god help you if the cops find you. They're everywhere, spawn from everywhere, are fast and smart and call in helicopters pretty quick, and it is literally impossible to fight your way out, as they spawn infinitely until you hide and they give up.

The soundtrack is varied, but none of it is particularly noteworthy. Passable, but not exceptional. None of the voice acting is awful, though Aiden's gravelly grumbling is just, like, whatever.

The graphics are okay, though the debacle with the PC version's graphics is just ridiculous. Even on next-gen they're really not the revolution they'd been talking about, but they're still good.

So the plot's early game sucks, the protagonist is supremely unlikable and hard to root for, the driving sucks, the stealth sucks, the guns are whatever, the soundtrack is whatever, the graphics are good but not exceptional, is there anything I really like about the game?

Yes. The minigames.
Now, none of the minigames are killer apps that make the game worth its price tag, but they're nice pieces to mitigate the boredom. A decent shooting minigame, but that one's only okay. The highlights are:
* The poker minigame. It's basically a complete 4-person poker simulator. It's fairly robust, and while there are some tricks to abuse it into making your odds slightly better it's a decent model for someone who just wants to spend some time playing poker. I played it all the way through twice, the second time winning, in order to get its unlock, the best motorcycle in the game.
It is rather lengthy though, and some of the required animations are annoyingly long.
* The chess minigame. Unlike the poker game, it's not just a chess simulator. It's instead a series of chess puzzles, working within a situation and making best moves. It's pretty fun actually, a good puzzle.
* The hacking minigame! In general, the game's use of hacking is superficial - making distractions, looking through cameras, moving some cover around. The main minigame itself though is a pretty involved puzzle that takes some real thinking, especially the more you go through. A full puzzle game for 3DS that expands upon the concept and explores it fully and finds the extent of its challenges would be really interesting, or a low-cost Steam release. I'd buy it. As an occasional and only slightly-explored diversion to the main slog, it's fun but not a selling point.

So yes. Watch Dogs has points of occasional quality that shine through the dull mediocrity, but they're far too few and far-between. Overall, I can't warrant the game at its current price, or even half the price really. A $20 game? Maybe. It'd make a good timekiller. Really though you'd be much better off buying GTAV or Saint's Row or Assassin's Creed or any of the other comparable-but-better alternatives to the game.

There's my opinion. Later folks, see you later today in the final installment of Midsummer Songaday!
End Recording,

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