Monday, July 20, 2015

xBox One: Watchdogs

Violence. Why are video games so much concerned with vicarious violence? If any aspect of our pop culture confirms we are obsessed with the hurting & killing of each other, it is video games. And this is coming from a guy who has no issues admitting he is attracted to vicarious violence. But why? Why, when we are in a heyday of video game production, when we are capable and aware enough to create non-violent, very innovative and entertaining games, the top sellers continue to be focused on violence. Well, violence and the abstracted violence & machismo of professional sports.

Why do I always download the non-violent games, marvel at how innovative they are, and then never play them again?

Watchdogs has a plot narrowly focused on the violence of the main character -- if not for the violent actions he has taken in the past, his current history would not be now endangering his family. But if he does not take this violence on, head on, he will be left bereft of the remaining family he loves so dearly.

Aiden Pearce is a hacker and fixer, a criminal for hire with a wide range of skills and access to illegal technology. One year previous he got mixed up in something that led to the death of his niece. And he has been hunting down those responsible since. We join the story as he finds the gunman responsible for shooting the tire of his car, that his niece was riding in, that killed her. Aiden is ruthless in his treatment of the gunman, who almost immediately is shown to be a broken man, damaged by the death of an innocent. Aiden doesn't care. He only wants vengeance. But moreso, he wants answers. Who ordered this, why did they, who is at the top?

And thus it begins.

This is Chicago about twenty minutes into the future, but back in 2012. Remember that blackout in 2003? That was caused by hackers trying to show us that the convergence of networks, controlling so many aspects of our lives, was dangerous. Knocking the power out across the eastern seaboard was their idea of a wakeup call.  Almost 10 years later, not much has changed, even worse, interconnected networks have expanded with almost all city functions in Chicago being controlled by a single system called ctOS.

Aiden has access to this network, and all its resources, being able to spy on people from CCT cameras, listen in on their cell phone & TXT conversations, and steal from their bank accounts. He can control city functions, like street lights and drawbridges. He can overload things and causes blackouts. Aiden's not a nice guy so he does a lot of this, solely to benefit himself. But he tries to be a good guy, acting as a vigilante called The Fox, who uses a Person of Interest style monitoring system that tells him when a criminal act is about to happen, and if he so chooses, intervene. Do enough of these and the people will love him, and he might assuage his guilt a little.

Watchdogs is not wink wink, nod nod about the role of the character, like Max Payne 3 was. Aiden doesn't see himself as the ultra violent protagonist, just a man on a mission. Despite his sister begging him to just stop, stop the killing, stop the associations that are leading them all to danger, he just continues. He continues connecting dots and going up against various gangs led by sociopaths and pinnacles of the criminal communities. He goes up against Blume, the technology company responsible for ctOS, and the shady dealings they have. And in in each encounter, he kills lots of people. Until he gets to the end of the story and there is no one left to kill.

As a game, it actually has some fun concepts. The hacking, is basically a time-based puzzler, but the activation of various city functions via cell phone is just fun. Raising a city drawbridge as you are about to launch over it is exciting. The driving, hoping to emulate GTA V, is clunky but gives you the requisite number of vehicles to aspire to. And yes, you can car jack people.

If there was one thing that was frustrating in its emulation of other games, it was the outfits. Most games let you dress your character as you wish, from existing clothes in your closet, and that which you find or buy. Aiden could only buy colour schemes and slight deviations from his trench coat, sweater and ball cap outfit. He always looked the same. So much for trying to be a vigilante nobody would recognize. Dude, changing from a brown coat to a bright blue one, doesn't help much.

The Chicago of the game, was not really much a Chicago of reality, and I don't mean accurately representing real places. It was more like the Liberty City of the GTA series, trying to be New York. It has certain area that mimic real places in Chicago, but skewed left of centre. For example, the big shiny bean, actually called Cloud Gate, is there but doesn't look exactly the same nor does the park it is in. This Chicago has a bunch of islands, separated by canals and river ways, so you would have sufficient paths down which to drive boats or jump cars over. In fact, many places made me think the creators couldn't visualize anything but the city of Montreal. In doubly fact, I felt the game would have benefited from being set in a fictional Montreal. Alas, Americans.

In the end, this is a competent shooter, with some fun hacking sub-structures and plenty of mini-games and side missions, were I am that type of guy. It looks damn good and moves well. I would have changed the clothing options.