Thursday, November 23, 2017

Missed Opportunities: Watch Dogs 2 Should Be Hacker Batman

Watch Dogs 2 is an open world game in which you play a young activist hacker trying to expose the corrupt dealings of mega corporations that are selling people's private data to get even richer. It's not exactly new territory, but Watch Dogs tries to liven things up with a young cast who values having a good time just as much as making the world a better place. The game has this juvenile, Rage Against the Machine, down with the system vibe punctuated by neon greens and fluorescent purples. While not really my aesthetic of choice, I can at least admire how much the developers leaned in to it. They really went for it, going past the bounds of the expected, past even tacky until they broke all the through to a pulpy hacker tale wrapped in a cloak of hashtags, spray paint and memes.

A  photographic summary of this game's style.

Throughout the game the player steals cars, hacks cameras, pilots drones and causes all kinds of mayhem in the name of sticking it to the man and pulling the wool off of people's eyes. Overall, it paints a picture of  the fun, carefree revolutions of the young who don't have to worry about logistics or the impact of the consequences of their actions. While not exactly realistic, it works for the game. It takes an average young black man and turns him into what amounts to a superhero all thanks to a cell phone and a few hundred lines of code.

The biggest issue I've had with the game so far comes not from its campy attitude or instance on packing a pop culture reference into nearly every line of dialogue, but from the combat. The mechanics are typical open world fair. You have guns, a stun gun for those wishing to go non-lethal, and a bare bones cover system to help when you're in a tight spot. Additionally, thanks to your hacker skills, you have additional options like sabotaging power boxes or making gas pipes explode. This is largely what the industry has come to expect from this style of open world game, from Game Theft Auto to Mafia III and even Infamous, battles often devolve into combat arenas full of goons with bad A.I. to slow you down from reaching your objective.

In Grand Theft Auto or Mafia III, the thought of gunning your way through mobs of enemies fits in with the overall themes of those games. In Grand Theft Auto you're a criminal, either currently or previously, so the thought of killing people should come as no shock. In Mafia III, you play a mafia underling turned special forces veteran who's out for revenge, closer in sensibilities to the Punisher rather than Batman. In Watch Dogs 2 however, you're supposed to be a good guy, not really an anti-hero. Your idea of braking the law is more stealing a car or breaking an entering and less cold blooded murder.

Watch Dogs 2's combat leave you little options. Sure, the game gives you a stun gun, and a variety of tools to hack your way into and out of situations, but even a slight misstep will result in your death. See, the guards in Watch Dogs 2 don't really make sense. Mixed in with the average pistol armed rent a cops are guys with military rifles and automatic shotguns, not to mention the guys in head to toe ballistic armor. And this isn't in super secret installations either, regular street thugs and paid by the hour security guards walk around with fully automatic shotguns. Even crazier, when seeing a trespasser, their opening move is to fire at will. See a suspicious person? Don't bother asking them to leave, just mow them down with a military grade weapon for no reason.

This encourages a lethal play style, of which the game is all to ready to push you toward. While it starts you off with a non-lethal stun gun, ever other weapon in the game that you can either buy or pick up is a fully lethal gun of some variety. The blood thirsty guards add to this by opening fire with little in the way of warning. A slight misstep in the game's limited stealth mechanics means two or three guards will begin opening fire with their guns while a fourth calls for reinforcements. This game is ready at any moment's notice to drop a dozen heavily armed goons on your for simply being seen in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's more than bad A.I. and bad level design, it undermines a lot of what the game is going for.

When I first started the game I thought I would go non-lethal. Between the aforementioned stun gun and the game's melee attacks, I figured I'd have a good time sneaking through the shadows, hacking terminals and being this "for the masses" hacktivist the game wanted to make me. Unfortunately, within two missions I was facing fully armed swat teams that were best taken out by the tried and true method of finding the biggest gun in the place and slinging lead like I was auditioning to be the next Rambo.

It's an even bigger shame when the game so clearly demonstrates that it's capable of so much more. In one mission, I was tasked with infiltrating this warehouse along the docks, getting an access code and then stealing a truck full of electronics. The place was patrolled by over a dozen guards armed with pistols, shot guns and rifles, and stealth wasn't getting it done. Instead, I solved the problem by remotely hacking my way between cameras in order to get line of site on the truck. Having already acquired the access code to the gate, I used an upgrade ability to remote pilot the truck through the docks and out of the warehouse. While the guards were running around trying to figure out what was happening, my character was standing smoothly across the street, using a tablet to drive the stolen truck to a perfect stop inches from where he was standing. And that's where the missed opportunity comes in, that's where the game missed its chance to be more than your average third person, open world, mass murder simulator. What the game should have done was make you Batman.

The Rocksteady Arkham games have become well known for their combat. It's become a colloquialism to say it has "Batman" combat. The Assassin Creed style, protagonist surrounded by bad guys with an attack, dodge and counter to help you jump from enemy to enemy and chain up large combos. That's not the part of Batman that Watch Dogs 2 needed. Watch Dogs 2 need the other part of what made those games so enjoyable.

This part.

The Rocksteady Arkham games were at their best when forcing you to think like the bat. You have a room full of six guys. Two with electric batons, two with shields and one with an automatic rifle. The combat encounters were not just battles, but puzzles. Get the gun guy first, swooping down from a gargoyle to tie him up. Then get rid of those annoying baton guys with a swish of the cape. Flip over the shield guys and hit them from behind. Take out the last guy with a reflexively thrown batarang. Those games gave you a host of different abilities and then forced you into situations in which you needed to use them effectivly in order to come out unscathed. Watch Dogs 2 feels like they started to go down this road, with electric panels placed around the environments that can shock enemies,  and abilities focused on luring opponents, but then never does anything interesting with them.

Back in the PS2/XBOX days, it was common to have a game in which the only way to solve a problem through combat was in giving the hero a gun and letting them kill as many folks as possible. And make no mistake, I love my fair share of running and gunning video games, but in the modern era, gamers expect something more. They expect the thematic elements to resonate with one another. Watch Dogs 2 either doesn't get this, or willfully disregards it in the name of  presenting the player with a false choice of non-lethal or lethal, while pushing them into a world of blood thirsty murders.

I think the game would have been far more powerful, and the engagements far more enjoyable if instead of presenting the player with killing fields full of a few stealth elements, they approached the game more like one of the Batman games by giving the player gadgets and choices that allowed them to control the battlefield in ways that didn't feel like one off magic tricks or electrifying gimmicks. At the very least, a different approach to the guard's A.I. would have made a non-leathal, or at least less lethal path more viable. Look at Hitman, where when caught trespassing guards ask you to leave before moving into combat. Even when moving into combat, they always attempt an arrest before going into murder mode. Both of these would have done a great deal to helping the guards in Watch Dogs 2 feel more like people and less like brainwashed drones who need a blood fix.

The story would have also benefited. The carefree attitude and pop culture obsessed nature of the characters starts off  making them endearing. It makes them seem like real people, young people, up against impossible odds. But after a few instances of walking into an innocent movie studio and gunning down a few dozen people, or killing the hundrth security guard that was just doing their job, it no longer feels so carefree. Instead it feels rather blind to the people they claim they are trying to save. It ends up with this dude-bro culture of refusing to acknowledge consequences, much like Ubisoft's other big open world hit, Far Cry 3. The whole thing comes off as tone deaf, as blind to its own message when it could have been so much more.

The thought of young hackers, of people trying their best to make the world better through their skills and ingenuity, rather than their marksmanship or willingness to kill as many as it takes is a message modern video games could benefit by exploring. The creators of Watch Dogs 2 had a real opportunity to take a young, black protagonist and make him someone that refused to kill even when met with lethal force, much in the same way as Batman. Through gadgets and cleverness, the protagonist of Watch Dogs 2 could have come across as an upcoming, amateur vigilante that was trying to save people, to make the world a better place. Instead, he comes across as a childish sociopath who goes on murder sprees in-between stealing cars and making youtube videos with his friends.

In the end, I was left wishing Ubisoft had made the protagonist of Watch Dogs 2 something a little more Nightwing, and a little less Jason Todd.

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