Post Script

Why the open-world genre’s big­gest suc­cess story is also its own worst en­emy


We’ll ad­mit we were sur­prised. Un­til a cou­ple of weeks be­fore re­lease, noth­ing Ubisoft had shown of Watch Dogs, ei­ther be­fore or af­ter the de­lay, con­tained any­thing to sug­gest it would ship with a glut of sid­e­quests, minigames and busy­work.

In ret­ro­spect, we should have ex­pected noth­ing else from the com­pany be­hind As­sas­sin’s Creed and Far Cry 3; Ubisoft spent the PS3/360 gen­er­a­tion fi­ness­ing an ef­fec­tive tem­plate for open-world games, and it was al­ways go­ing to carry that over to Xbox One and PS4. As­sas­sin’s Creed’s view­points in­formed Far Cry 3’ s ra­dio tow­ers, and now Watch Dogs’ CTOS con­trol sta­tions. Ezio Au­di­tore’s trea­sure chests have mor­phed into Ja­son Brody’s loot con­tain­ers and then the smart­phones car­ried by Ai­den Pearce’s fel­low Chicagoans. But what’s dis­ap­point­ing is the ex­tent to which Watch Dogs bor­rows from Rock­star. De­spite all the ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy, de­vel­op­ment prac­tices and bud­gets in the 12-and-a-half years since it was born, the 3D Grand Theft Auto re­mains the set text for stu­dios mak­ing open-world games. And Ubisoft doesn’t so much take a leaf out of it as lift a cou­ple of chap­ters.

It’s why Pearce spends a de­cent chunk of Watch Dogs’ five-act cam­paign do­ing dirty work for nasty people, a fun­da­men­tal flaw in any game fol­low­ing the Rock­star style that stars a sup­pos­edly no­ble pro­tag­o­nist. Here it is more el­e­gantly han­dled at least; Pearce has no choice but to do his mas­ter’s bid­ding af­ter the kid­nap of a fam­ily mem­ber. But even that riffs on a Rock­star con­cept: the plight of John Marston in Red Dead Re­demp­tion. Open-world games of all stripes have long strug­gled to rec­on­cile their good-hearted main char­ac­ters with a genre that af­fords the player such tremen­dous scope for car­nage. An­other ques­tion that open-world games have strug­gled to an­swer is how to en­sure play­ers don’t miss out on any of the as­sorted sid­e­quests, col­lectibles and sundry dis­trac­tions that lit­ter their land­scapes. In GTAIV, Rock­star pestered the player with a seem­ingly end­less suc­ces­sion of phone calls from as­so­ciates want­ing to hang out; in Red Dead Re­demp­tion and GTAV, the sid­e­quest-giver phys­i­cally meets the player to ask for help. In Watch Dogs, Ubisoft doesn’t seek to im­prove on that, ex­plor­ing in­stead how to present it in a game in which the su­per­hero is a smart­phone. The re­sult is a HUD popup that of­fers to mark a side-mis­sion way­point on the map with a sin­gle but­ton press. It’s far from a per­fect so­lu­tion, but at least it’s eas­ily ig­nored, and it’s a prefer­able op­tion to the Saints Row tac­tic of sur­fac­ing ac­tiv­i­ties as mis­sions in the main cam­paign.

Such it­er­a­tive tweaks to the Rock­star for­mula should, how­ever, be a Rock­star job, not that of a

Watch Dogs’ ad­her­ence to the Grand Theft Auto for­mula is far from slav­ish, but it is very of­ten bla­tant

dif­fer­ent com­pany bankrolling a five-year project – a game whose end­ing, and the thou­sand-plus names in its cred­its, make it clear that this is the first in a lon­grun­ning se­ries. Watch Dogs’ ad­her­ence to the Grand Theft Auto for­mula is far from slav­ish, but it is very of­ten bla­tant – most ob­vi­ous in, of all things, Texas Hold ’Em, which of­fers the same sin­gle-but­ton skip to your next turn as Red Dead Re­demp­tion. If Ubisoft, one of the few com­pa­nies on the planet that can match Rock­star for team size, timescale and budget, can’t cast off all the old genre bag­gage, which com­pany can?

At the heart of the prob­lem lies a fun­da­men­tal mis­un­der­stand­ing of how to ef­fec­tively use all that space. Do play­ers re­ally want a map lit­tered with sid­e­quests and dis­trac­tions? Does that make for a more be­liev­able world? Clearly, there’s a mar­ket re­search paper out there some­where that claims that it does, and the re­cep­tion met by games such as LA Noire and Mafia II – games whose open cities housed a lin­ear cam­paign and lit­tle else – sug­gest that some an­cil­lary con­tent is prefer­able to none, what­ever it is. Yet those two games got some­thing right: the pop­u­la­tion of real-world me­trop­o­lises tends to go from A to B, ig­nor­ing the morass of dis­trac­tions that sur­round them. When you set off for work in the morn­ing, you’ll stop for petrol or cof­fee, but never turn up late be­cause you couldn’t re­sist a street-cor­ner game of chess. People that live in big cities don’t re­ally see very much of them.

Ubisoft Mon­treal claims the late de­lay to Watch Dogs was nec­es­sary be­cause its core sys­tems weren’t play­ing nicely to­gether, im­ply­ing that work was al­ready com­plete on the sun­dries. Had the stu­dio fo­cused only on cre­at­ing con­tent that served the core me­chan­ics as ef­fec­tively as its cam­paign mis­sions do, not only might it have got the game out ear­lier, but it would have felt a good deal more co­her­ent. Pad­ding serves no one. Imag­ine be­ing the ju­nior de­vel­oper who thought they’d got the job of a life­time mak­ing a next-gen­er­a­tion open­world game, and then spent three months mak­ing chess.

In Ubisoft Mon­treal’s de­fence, the need to make a game that runs not only on new con­soles and high-end PCs but also 360 and PS3 has surely limited its am­bi­tion. Given that As­sas­sin’s Creed Unity is leav­ing the old gen­er­a­tion be­hind, it seems safe to as­sume that the next Watch Dogs will do the same. Minigames and their ilk are, like 360 and PS3, rather show­ing their age. Do we re­ally need them any more? Here’s hop­ing that the greater pro­cess­ing power of new con­sole hard­ware isn’t go­ing to be solely de­voted to mak­ing shinier, big­ger ver­sions of the games we’ve al­ready played, and that fu­ture Watch Dogs games will en­sure ev­ery playable fea­ture will be as flex­i­ble, emer­gent and novel as the sys­tems at its core.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.