Critical Review: Watch Dogs - Poorly Optimized, Buggy, Disappointing

By Published June 02, 2014 at 5:49 am
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All this GPU benchmarking, crash fixing, and performance optimizing later, I think it's about time we officially comment on Watch Dogs as more than a benchmarking tool. It is, after all, a vexingly-hyped game leaving a $68 million footprint in Ubisoft's budget. Putting things in perspective, Battlefield 4's budget hit nearly $100 million (and look how that turned out), Destiny's budget is $140 million, but even that is still pennies to GTA V's $265 million budget.

All the millions in the world, though, and I'm not sure Watch Dogs would ever be classifiable as "good" or "playable" for PC gamers.

A screenshot of one of Watch Dogs' bugs, credit to EuanMcCann.

This critical review will cover inexcusable hardware optimization concerns, PC control inadequacies, and major gameplay elements that prevent enjoyment of Watch Dogs.

Watch Dogs Critical Video Review & Gameplay

Starting Hard: Some of the Worst Optimization We've Ever Seen 

Watch Dogs is a good-looking game. It's not this generation's Crysis—not even close—but the graphics technology is impressive and promising. Ubisoft worked within an internal engine, called "Disrupt," and plugged-in Havok for software-accelerated physics. I benchmarked Watch Dogs at launch, whereupon it was discovered that a 780 Ti + 4770K—a setup that'd put you close to $1500-$2000—barely made 50FPS with max settings. The game doesn't look good enough to justify such poor performance, so something was clearly going on under the hood. Further investigation has revealed a myriad of issues that sabotage the PC as a stable platform. For starters, we determined that anti-aliasing of any sort in Watch Dogs produces severe stuttering and even full freezing on some devices (270X, 7870) and significant, disproportionate frame drops on others (780 Ti). The word "disproportionate" is key here, as I've never seen performance halved by going from TSMAA to MSAA 4x in any game before -- ever -- on a 780 Ti. Performance should be impacted, yes, but these are new levels of framerate disparity.

With 5.04 TFLOPS of raw COMPUTE power on 2880 cores, a 3GB framebuffer, and 336GB/s memory bandwidth (384-bit interface / 8 * 1750 clock * 2 for DDR * 2 for GDDR5), dropping to TSMAA shouldn't increase performance from the 50s to the 80-90 range. This is doubly so when considering that a change from Ultra + MSAA 4x to Medium + MSAA 4x saw almost zero performance impact (~10FPS), but dropping from MSAA 4x to TSMAA produced about 30FPS improvement. Something is wrong.

watch-dogs-gpu-bench-1See our benchmark for test methodology.

watch-dogs-gpu-bench-2 watch-dogs-gpu-bench-3

So I thought it'd potentially be a CPU throttle, as I was using a 3570K when performing this test. Switching to the 4770K, which is a generation newer and $100 more expensive, the bench produced one half of one FPS increase. That's within margin of error, so for all intents and purposes, there was 0 difference. It was not a CPU limitation, then.

That's when I started to heavily consider the possibility of absolutely no software-side optimization on part of Ubisoft. This stance was reinforced when testing the performance of an HDD vs. an SSD in gameplay once static assets had been loaded (read: not hitting storage for data much at this point). By switching to an HDD, it became evident that Ubisoft is abusing (or misusing) the pagefile before saturating system memory to any reasonable extent. In fact, Watch Dogs barely utilizes 1.9GB of RAM on max settings. That's even less than Titanfall, a game that's arguably far less graphically-intensive.

And this isn't even getting to the good stuff -- like rampant CTDs, inexcusable BSODs, audio loops, NAT errors, Uplay's inability to stop drooling on itself, random input functionality breaking (enter key), inability to minimize, the "alt" key getting stuck, and more. Years of English classes taught me that "and more" was an excuse not to actually list more; I also worked as a test engineer in a previous life, so doing Ubisoft a favor, I'm going to combine these two experiences and get this out there:  

Steve's Wonderful Experience with Watch Dogs Includes... 

watch-dogs-bluescreen

Blockers (Sev1)

  • CTD: After some time, seemingly at random, Watch Dogs crashes to desktop and stops responding. Suspect this is a memory leak.
  • CTD: When Uplay 'online mode' is enabled, Watch Dogs crashes to desktop sporadically. Issue seems to subside when offline mode is selected.
  • CTD: Sporadic audio loop causes crash to desktop. Unsure of which audio file(s) trigger this.
  • BSOD: Audio loop causes BSOD sporadically. Repro steps not yet pinned-down.
  • BSOD: AMD 14.4 drivers cause blue screen of death with regularity. Validated on 250X, 270X, 290X; validated on 3570K, 4770K.
  • BSOD Save File corruption: If BSOD occurs during a write, the save file is corrupted and irreparable.
  • BSOD: Occurs when using GPUs in SLI. Unsure if SLI GPUs is catalyst or a non-factor.
  • NAT Failure: NAT Negotiation failures occur when attempting to play online.
  • Uplay: Server downtime prevents play.
  • Uplay: Servers fail to synchronize cloud data between multiple PCs -- or even the same PC.
  • Uplay: User is unable to log into Uplay. Must select 'offline mode' and store content locally.

Critical (Sev2)

  • Performance: CrossFire and SLI GPUs do not produce measurable improvements to FPS. Result in microstuttering and frame dropping.
  • Performance: Anti-Aliasing produces disproportionate hits to framerate.
  • Performance: Pagefile is abused. More RAM usage advised. Pagefile abuse can be discovered by entering Steam parameters to disallow pagefile access.
  • Performance: Freezes (upwards of 5s in length) on some AMD devices when using anti-aliasing. Freezes become a non-issue when disabling AA entirely.
  • Input: Enter key stops responding.
  • Input: Alt key gets stuck.
  • Bug: Minimizing requires ctrl+alt+ del to break freeze.
  • Bug: Maximizing requires alt+enter to resume full-screen.

This where I move on, stop doing a QA job for free, and state that my point should be made. These issues are an utter disgrace to the gaming industry and Ubisoft should feel equal levels of shame as EA for allowing BSODs into final build. BSODs are impermissible. Depending on the OS, a BSOD during a WE could cause data corruption not only within Watch Dogs, but outside of it; it can cause data loss of opened background applications, it will damage an SSD's endurance, and it can (and did) cause save game corruption. CTDs are obnoxious, but the Bethesdas of the world have ensured that PC gamers are used to them by now. Unfortunately for Ubisoft, Watch Dogs does not grant users the power of saving their own content, so a CTD goes from being an annoyance to being a catastrophic failure. Auto-saves occur at preset times and locations, so crashing before an auto-save is triggered will set you back far enough to warrant quitting. Crashing during an auto-save ensures the corruption of data. Replaying 10-15 minutes of a mission is annoying. Replaying 10-15 minutes of a mission and having a second crash in the same location is unacceptable.

And the topic of auto-saving brings me into the deeper gameplay elements and draws away from hardware.

Fundamental Design Issues 

I've complained about handholding before, but this is an entirely new level. Watch Dogs does a few things very well: It's got a fairly compelling story, strong central characters with serious, visible flaws, the backdrop as a borderline cyberpunk society, and the multiplayer drop-in/drop-out gameplay as a concept. Unfortunately, these elements are obstructed in numerous ways, making it difficult to enjoy each one to the fullest extent. Watch Dogs gets in the way of its own story.

Let's start with my distaste of the save system, since we just spoke about that above.

failed-sync-uplay2

Here's the problem: Watch Dogs doesn't allow manual saves and will instead dictate when you want your content preserved. This often requires mission completion. Couple this with wanton crashing issues and other defects and we're suddenly faced with the reality of replaying missions numerous times. If the game crashes and you've just spent thirty minutes trying to do the mission stealthily and without casualty, you've got to do it all over again. Too bad.

This also makes it impossible to create branching save game files -- an anarchist and a goody-two-shoes, for instance. Back when Morrowind was the game to be played, I'd often end a play session by going on some sort of rampage out of boredom and desire for a challenge. This would be done on a separate save file with the same character/build, but preserving the reputation of my "real" character. We lose such silliness in Watch Dogs, given its mandatory and oft unpredictable or inconvenient saving. We're playing on PCs. Treat us like it.

But I've got bigger gripes than auto-saving.

Unintuitive Input Dooms a Game to User Abandonment

If a game doesn't have intuitive input and mechanics, it's doomed to collecting (now-digital) dust. This dates back to arcade games. In a discussion with Mark Cerny some years ago—a 30-year industry veteran—it was made clear that arcade games were explicitly designed with a single item in mind: Keep the player playing. They're pumping money in for each play -- so how do you get them to play without inducing rage, but simultaneously bolstering arcade profits? Cerny answered this question with great depth, but short of designing play to last 2-3 minutes for the quarter, he made it explicitly clear that the controls must feel intuitive and make sense. This dates back to Cerny's 1983 "Major Havoc." The veteran designer told us that without intuitive input and mechanics, developers risk creating a situation where the player feels somehow cheated, unable to pinpoint why they'd failed at a certain task. If the on-screen result doesn't match what the player's brain tells them is going to happen, there's a disconnect; that disconnect ultimately causes frustration and abandonment.

Most of you know where this is going.

watch-dogs-rev2

And so we have Watch Dogs, one of a great many console-to-PC ported titles that has brought along its console input. Watch Dogs fundamentally alters mouse functionality beyond any recognition, and it does so on more than one level.

Most immediately noteworthy is the uncontrollably high sensitivity on the main menu. Easy enough -- just turn the DPI down. Then we get dropped into the game, where suddenly the movement is immeasurably slow. Fine, then -- turn DPI back up. Easily done with most modern mice. Then we hack into a camera, or open the menu, or smartphone, or hack into infrastructure, and input speed has once again been altered. The fact that I've got to use all three DPI profiles on my mouse—menu, camera, shooting—is a red flag for usability.

And that's before even getting into the matter of 'acceleration' and mouse smoothing.

Mouse smoothing is an artifact of the beforetimes, when mice had balls and movement was oft choppy and inconsistent or overly sharp. Enable mouse smoothing with an ultra-high precision mouse, like the G502 we looked at, and it will alter input in a way that feels sluggish and as if the mouse is being dragged through a syrup-coated surface. The effect is "smoother" corners and circles when moving the mouse in such patterns, but that effect is entirely undesirable. When I move the mouse, it's done with purpose. Perhaps not always the correct purpose, but always something that I -- as a user -- have done as second nature. I know that moving my mouse at a certain speed and a certain distance will produce a specific result. I want that result. That's why I've moved in that manner. Watch Dogs, however, enables smoothing by default, which results in insufferable inconsistencies when moving a mouse made after 2001.

Smoothing can be disabled through configuration files, but acceleration is there to stay. Acceleration applies in both negative and positive fashions: if the game thinks you're moving too quickly, it'll slow the mouse down to a more uniform speed; too slowly, it'll speed it up. The issue becomes obvious here -- and it's rooted in never being able to aim precisely where desired. The odd bit is that there's also aim assist (of course - it is a port, after all), and so it becomes further difficult to shoot a target in a fashion that disables them. This wouldn't be an issue if disablement and killing weren't separately desirable results in different scenarios, but Watch Dogs encourages one or the other for different targets. This is ignoring the basic fact that aim assist is insulting and disingenuous.

Gameplay: Don't Give Me an Open World and Then Tell Me How to Play

All these complaints and we haven't even delved into the more subjective items, like repetitious gameplay -- go here, hack this, kill that -- and upsetting rules within the realm of the missions. Mission zones, for instance, often provide a restrictive feeling without necessarily feeling justified within the context of the game world. I'd often have enemies chasing me, perhaps a block behind, before having to U-turn to return to some sort of arbitrary, pre-defined zone and prevent mission failure. This prevents my ability to reposition and play in a way that suits my style. Similarly, when a mission was failed, it'd restart me at the beginning. The game didn't continue from the point of failure (Just Cause 2) -- no -- it'd just restart the mission. This violates the nature of an open world, and while mission abandonment is an option, even that will instantly load the most recent auto-save. This is significant because we potentially lose progress in doing so -- vehicles and map positioning, for instance.

And then there are plainly infuriating 'accidents' of gameplay. One of my missions was to incapacitate (not kill) two organ harvesters. After much effort and restarting, I'd finally disabled the first and was going in for the second. Then his ally ran him over, killing the suspect, and forcing a mission failure. Not exactly immersive, but fine, no big deal -- I restarted the mission. This time, before even getting within shooting range of the targets, I received a "mission failed" notification for the same instance of a suspect dying. It happened again after that, and I'd eventually realized that the targets were dying at an intersection of some sort. In my fourth attempt, a couple of civilians were hit in the cross fire, causing cops to show-up on scene. Excited for the potential of a three-faction shoot-out, I took up strategic positioning by moving so that the baddies were between me and the cops. The cops, of course, ended up killing one of the targets in crossfire (or crushed him with a vehicle -- can't remember which). Mission failed.

Regardless, enough frustration gave me cause to abandon the mission and the game session for that night.

But while this particular instance is excusable, other items are not. More than once I'd have a mission fail to start -- it'd tell me it started, but not plant any waypoints. Restarting the mission or dying would normally resolve the issue. Another bug, I suppose.

Not to mention the fact that cops can't chase a player in water. Kind of ruins the fun.

Concluding: Please, Let's Learn from Battlefield and Watch Dogs

watch-dogs-rev3

A challenging game is something we all want -- or most of us, anyway. Watch Dogs is far from a challenge; it's just plain frustrating. Between all the crashing, the bugs, the poor design, the upsettingly bad input, and overall lazy game design standing in the way of a genuinely promising story, it's just too inoperable to recommend purchasing.

Watch Dogs was hyped to oblivion. The game falls short in every aspect of its execution, to the point where I was audibly groaning at the reminder that I'd have to play still more of the atrocity to feel confident from an editorial standpoint. I've never encountered such a horribly optimized mess as Watch Dogs, and I'd strongly urge all PC gamers to avoid the title at all costs.

It just isn't worth it. Find something that works.

- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke. 

Last modified on June 02, 2014 at 5:49 am
Steve Burke

Steve started GamersNexus back when it was just a cool name, and now it's grown into an expansive website with an overwhelming amount of features. He recalls his first difficult decision with GN's direction: "I didn't know whether or not I wanted 'Gamers' to have a possessive apostrophe -- I mean, grammatically it should, but I didn't like it in the name. It was ugly. I also had people who were typing apostrophes into the address bar - sigh. It made sense to just leave it as 'Gamers.'"

First world problems, Steve. First world problems.

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