Game worlds have always been magical places to escape from reality for a while and blow off steam and the majority feel real. From the lands of Tamriel in The Elder Scrolls series to the urban metropolis of Los Santos in Grand Theft Auto V. All give you the feeling they could exist somewhere out there. Los Santos, as we know, would be Los Angeles and as for Tamriel… somewhere in New Zealand maybe? Yet with Watch Dogs’ Chicago you don’t get that feeling, more to the point you feel no connection to it at all. Why not? What is making this real World location feel so, unreal?
In Watch Dogs you play as Aiden Pearce, a man who is out seeking justice and revenge for his accidentally killed niece Lena. Usually this sort of backstory gives you a reason to like the protagonist but in this case I felt nothing, even hating him would have been an improvement, at least then he would have had an impact on me.
The opening mission didn’t connect me with Aiden at all and things only got worse as I ended the mission and took to the streets for the first time. I immediately ran up to the nearest parked car, smashed the window and hopped in, true GTA style. This lead me to the first thing that disconnects you from Chicago, the vehicle handling. Now Ubisoft haven’t got the best track record with handling, Far Cry 3 felt more like flying than driving but the amount of time you spent in cars, or lack thereof, meant you still felt connected to the World since most of the time you were on foot. Watch Dogs on the other hand is set in a city full of vehicles and to not address the handling feels cheap. This is the first step in understanding why Chicago doesn’t feel legit.
Watch Dogs’ Chicago is recreated beautifully, from iconic landmarks to bustling streets. As I’ve never been to Chicago I can’t tell you how accurate the road network is but it does at least feel like it fits. The problems for the environment itself start when you take a moment to walk through the street. When you walk slow enough you notice Aiden put his hands in his jacket yet if you follow someone, turn away for a split second and turn back they will have disappeared with no explanation. Then you’ll turn back around and the once empty street behind you will be full. Now as I said I haven’t been to Chicago but I’m not sure streets populate instantly and humans vanish from right in front of you. Whilst I’ll admit this has happened once or twice in GTAV the majority of the time if you follow someone and they round a corner, when you round the corner you will see them again and the same applies to vehicles. It’s a small thing that adds a lot to the feel of a game.
Another thing that doesn’t help is the size. Now Chicago might not be the largest place in the World but I’m sure it should take me more than 4 minutes to go from countryside through the heart of the city and back out into the industrial areas during the day. To go from east to west in the same sort of car (a generic sedan) in GTAV would take at least 10 minutes, if not more. Especially if you had to pass through the heart of downtown on the journey. Making Watch Dogs so small feels like a huge disappointment.
Then we come onto the biggest issue I have, the sound. To create a realistic game World you have to get the ambient sound perfect. Games like The Forest (which is currently in alpha over on Steam) have beautiful visuals backed up with amazing sound design, from whoops and howls from enemy patrols to the ocean hitting the shore, all of it fades realistically and makes the game that much more real (and terrifying). In Watch Dogs you don’t get that feeling. It’s as if they have taken a step backwards to the old PlayStation 2 days where we had static ambient sound files for each area, classical music would play in snobby areas. Games like Grand Theft Auto create that realistic, fluid ambient sound by flying in sections of audio from parts of the game and fading them realistically. Just like the dynamic score they added, the same applies to ambient sound, a random horn here, some chatter there, gun shots and a car radio blaring as it roars past you. Watch Dogs ambient sound is just like the old days, you get what seems like a set sound file in one area then you cross a bridge and wouldn’t you know it the sound changes. It makes it feel old and outdated.
Some people may argue that comparing it to Grand Theft Auto V is not fair but remember, both are open world action games set in large cities with additional countryside along with a wide range of vehicles, a selection of weapons and pedestrians you can run over. Most importantly both were released towards the end of the last generation of consoles. Watch Dogs going one further being released on the PS4 and Xbox One on its launch. For the record my experiences with Watch Dogs are on the PS3 so if I get it on a new console and it’s amazing then I’ll come and update this but as it stands I very much doubt that will happen.
I just feel let down by Ubisoft, this isn’t the game I was promised. The cover system was great, it worked, most of the time. The supporting characters are (mostly) entertaining and make you want to keep playing and the hacking is brilliant, the way it flows into the gameplay is amazingly smooth. It’s a mechanic that has room to grow but I’m not sure that Aiden Pearce or the version of Chicago we have currently in Watch Dogs is the place for that. If in the future Ubisoft decide to make another open world game that involves a lot of vehicle use can you please outsource it. Just that part, Ubisoft can do a lot of things well but vehicle design and handling are not the strong points. Also scale up the World, I know that means more work for you but the fact you will be making something that is actually fun and has replay value should be enough. Finally make sure when creating ambient sounds you make it fluid, even if it just changes every block at least it will sound more dynamic than it does at the minute.
With that I’m going back to as game so beautiful you wish it was real every time you play it, The Forest. Please let me know what you think of Watch Dogs Chicago and some other game worlds that you get lost in either by using the comment box below or over on Twitter where I’m @PaulMurday