On May 27th, 2014, my most anticipated game of the last two years will finally hit shelves nationwide. I could not be more excited.
It feels as though I'm one of the few.
When Watch Dogs was unveiled at E3 2012, then an out-of-nowhere surprise reveal for unannounced next-gen consoles, it took the convention by storm. Hailed as a fascinating new IP from Ubisoft that seemed to be innovating as far as graphics design and gameplay mechanics were concerned, it seemed to be a sign of brilliant things to come from the gaming industry. Revealed eight months before Sony announced the PS4 and Microsoft unveiled the Xbox One, Watch Dogs could almost be considered an early warning shot in the proverbial firefight that would come to be known as the 2013 Console Wars. Boasting gameplay centered around a mixture of GTA-esque open-world gameplay with the ability to hack and control any object in the city of Chicago, Watch Dogs seemed to be a breath of fresh air coming at the end of a console generation marked by sequel fatigue and a lack of innovation towards the end of its life cycle.
If you've been following the game recently, however, you'll likely have noticed a change in tone across the internet. What was once excitement has now become jaded disappointment. What was once elation at the newly shifting nature of the gaming industry is now criticism of a game appearing, at least to some people, to be nothing more than a "GTA Clone". I didn't understand it at first; in my eyes, the game still looks brilliant, and appears to be on track to be one of the hallmarks of the early Eighth Console Generation. At first, I blamed the change in tone on the aftermath of last year's uprising of "trolls" during the build-up to the release of the new consoles, and the universal law it taught me: On the internet, you'll always find more people willing to speak out and complain about something than you will people who are willing to put in the effort to defend it.
But lately, as I've explored the topic on a more in-depth level, I think I've begun to see some of the deeper reasoning behind the backlash and loss of hype towards Ubisoft's latest new IP, and it all comes down to a few developments in the last year (some minor, a few major) that have served to work against this game's favor.
1. The Delay
This is the obvious one, of course. Watch Dogs was initially supposed to be a launch title for both next-gen consoles in November of last year, one of the few that would actually be a new IP as opposed to a cross-gen sequel to an existing series. In the months leading up to the initial release date, it seemed that the excitement had never been stronger- E3 2013 featured a strong showing from Watch Dogs, highlighting the open world gameplay mechanics while teasing integrated multiplayer functionality that raised eyebrows. A new hack was revealed that allowed Aiden Pearce, the game's protagonist, to cause a city-wide blackout in order to evade enemies. There was still much we didn't know about the game, as well: not only did we not have an iota of a clue as to how or to what extent the aforementioned multiplayer would be integrated, but we also weren't aware of several gameplay aspects that have now become part of Ubisoft's quintessential Watch Dogs selling points: Digital Trips, the breadth of side missions, and, of course, the very plot of the game itself. All of this helped maintain an aura of mystery around Watch Dogs which only served to increase excitement leading up to the game's release.
Which, of course, led to widespread disappointment when Ubisoft announced Watch Dogs' delay in October of 2013, less than a month away from the game's launch. One of the most promising games in the eighth console generation's launch lineup was ripped from the release schedule and pushed back to an indeterminate date in Ubisoft's next fiscal year, beginning in April of 2014. (We now, of course, know that Watch Dogs releases next Tuesday, May 27th.) It was a crushing blow for those who had been awaiting the chance to play Ubisoft's promising title since the E3 2012 reveal- a blow so powerful that, just when the anticipation for the game had reached its zenith, it came plummeting down through the hype stratosphere to an undeniable halt. Soon, comment boards across the gaming sphere of the internet were rife with concerns that the game wasn't going to live up to expectations, and the "trolls" that had been so eagerly chipping away at the new consoles turned their attention to Ubisoft. (Ubi"late" has become a rather prevalent name noticed across IGN comments over the past few Watch Dogs articles.) Obviously, a delay always risks affecting fans' excitement for an impending release, especially one that hit Watch Dogs so close to launch. Just look at Duke Nukem Forever or the infamous Half-Life 2: Episode 3, both of which were announced years prior to their intended release dates. Duke Nukem hit shelves after fifteen years in development and was quickly considered a critical and commercial failure, and after almost seven years, gamers have seen no sign of Half-Life 2: Episode 3- a game that was initially supposed to be released in the fall of 2008.
Yet, in the months following the delay, Watch Dogs' detractors seemed much more vitriolic than necessary- but that might be because, for a while, it seemed as though Ubisoft was giving them a reason to be.
2. The Marketing
A few months after Watch Dogs' initial delay, concern as to the game's quality skyrocketed following the release of several new trailers that seemed to suggest a drastic graphical downgrade compared to the famous E3 2012 demo. For reference, here's said demo:
And here's the recently released "Story Trailer" that sparked the outrage:
The graphical downgrade is apparent, to be sure- of course, games at E3 tend to run on high-end PC rigs rather than the consoles that they're intended to be released on, so this really shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. For some gamers, however, mainly those who value graphics and resolution as two of the highest indicators of a game's overall quality, this blatant adjustment of the game's graphics was a betrayal of the highest order, and the discussion as to whether the next-gen versions of Watch Dogs would feature graphics on par with a PS3 or 360 build began to rage across forums everywhere.
However, perhaps a bigger issue with the way Ubisoft has been marketing Watch Dogs lies in an uncomfortable trend prevalent in most video game marketing campaigns- a tendency to focus on what sells games and not what makes them unique. Recently, every successive trailer for Watch Dogs has placed a greater emphasis on the game's GTA-esque gunplay mechanics, and less on the revolutionary hacking concept that made the game so enticing in the first place. Kotaku recently published an article titled "The Disappointment of Video Game Guns" that taps into some of the larger issues of this emphasis, but boiled down to a simple fact, the problem is this: In emphasizing everything in Watch Dogs that gamers have seen before in games such as GTA and Saints Row, Ubisoft is only hurting itself.
It's awesome that you're a badass, Person Of Interest-esque vigilante who can control cities with a phone in one hand and aim a gun with precision accuracy using the other. That's one of the reasons I'm most excited for this game, but the more appealing facet of the game's mechanics is definitively the hacking. You can stop subway trains in their tracks. You can manipulate traffic lights and cause a car wreck. You can cause a city-wide blackout. This is a game where the selling point is the fact that your smartphone can turn you into a god. It isn't the all-too-mortal use of cover mechanics and assault rifles. Sure, you can have whatever backup arsenal you want, but the city is your weapon. Ubisoft's current weakness in getting non-committed gamers on board isn't because they're not building a unique new IP- it's because they're not showing what makes Watch Dogs special. It's a little late to offer suggestions now, but a smarter tactic would have been to play up the hacking, the multiplayer and the cyberpunk atmosphere and let the guns speak for themselves come time for the release.
However, perhaps all of these issues, and the way they relate to the vastly divisive internet response, stem from a more universal issue gamers will be facing this year.
3. The New Console Generation
We are now six months into the era of the Xbox One, PS4 and Wii U. Arguably, the era of the 360, PS3 and Wii hasn't even ended yet. Games are still being developed cross-generationally, save for the rare exceptions such as Batman: Arkham Knight, and because of that, the first year and a half of games for these new consoles aren't exactly going to be revolutionary. Look at the first Assassin's Creed, Ubisoft's last grand franchise-starter, for a prime example. Assassin's Creed was a flawed game. The mechanics were shabby, the world wasn't exactly replete with vibrancy, and the graphics were subpar (revolutionary for their time, but in the grand scheme of the seventh console generation, subpar). Then Assassin's Creed II hit shelves two years later and blew gamers away with a fully realized vision of what the series was meant to be. Watch Dogs is going to be a similar case.
There are going to be delays because the new technology powering the eighth console generation is nowhere near close to being mastered, and Ubisoft needs to release the highest-quality product currently possible. The graphics are going to be below your expectations because Ubisoft needs to sell games, and in order to do that, they need to be able to sell to the majority of gamers- thus the cross-generational release. The marketing is going to be off because human beings are inherently attracted to explosions and murder in their games (hey, I won't deny that I love a good explosion every now and again), and these are things that we know the previous generation is capable of. Despite the fact that PC gaming exists, and is exploding thanks to outlets like Steam and Origin, this is still very much a console-driven industry. As time goes on, the old consoles will be phased out, and the new ones will become standard, and then we'll start seeing their true brilliance revealed: we'll be seeing the next "Mass Effect", or the next "Bioshock"-esque revelation that defines a series of consoles.
Essentially what it comes down to is that expectations at this point should be tempered. Will Watch Dogs be a great game? From my perspective, it's looking that way. From yours, it could be different. Riding the "Hype Train" is difficult at this time because the gaming industry is still in a state of massive transition, its landscape ever changing. Watch Dogs is a stepping stone, one of many on the way to maximizing the new generation's potential. There will be hiccups- there always are with launch games. What we can do is hope that the delay gave Ubisoft time to polish the game as much as possible, and that the final product mostly lives up to the standards set back during E3 2012. Provided that Watch Dogs isn't a huge disaster, Duke Nukem-style, if history serves, the game is going to be great...
And then Watch Dogs 2 will be phenomenal.
You know it's gonna happen.