Can't Turn You Loose -- The Unexpected Pleasures of Watch_Dogs, and the State of Asymmetrical Multiplayer

Careening down a Chicago alleyway to the sounds of the Blues Brothers, I begin to think that I've made it. The checkpoint is just 100 meters away. The cops are far behind. My car screams out of the alley into traffic, and I put the hammer down. Twenty seconds left, but I'm home free.

Suddenly, a barricade pops up in front of my car. I smash into it at full force. “Shit, shit, SHIT,” I yell, trying to back up and maneuver around the obstacle. It’s too late: a chopper blinds me, police cruisers swarm my car and the red beam of a sniper’s laser lands on my chest.

The words “YOU’RE FINISHED” flash on a nearby freeway sign. My opponent is right -- time’s up.

Dry White Toast

I wouldn't describe Watch_Dogs as a great game. Most of the time I'd say it's “good,” or “alright” -- enjoyable enough, but not distinguishable in a sea of open-world action games. The story ranges from offensive to deeply forgettable, the parkour is sufficient for mobility while not being gripping and the gunplay is mostly generic. There’s just not a lot to it.

But Watch_Dogs has one multiplayer mode that stands out from the rest of its content. In ctOS Mobile Challenge, one player drives through a series of checkpoints in the game’s rendition of Chicago. The other, playing on a mobile tie-in app, has command of a police chopper, patrol units and the city’s myriad networked functions. Traffic lights, barricades, exploding steam pipes and other hazards can be triggered in an attempt to bring the escaping player to a halt. The escaping player can also hack said functions to throw off his pursuers.

ctOS Mobile on iOS
ctOS Mobile on iOS

Driving in Watch_Dogs is one of the game’s best features, and this mode puts it front and center while making effective use of the game’s otherwise flat hacking system. Rounds are fast, losses aren't frustrating and wins are exhilarating. Simply put, ctOS Mobile Challenge isn't just the most fun I've had with Watch_Dogs -- it’s far and away the most fun I've had in a game all year, period.

This minigame is a great example of asymmetrical multiplayer, my most anticipated feature of this generation. This style of play -- where the amount of information and style of game vary between players -- makes for some of the best experiences out there. Yet even though Nintendo's Wii U GamePad, Sony's Vita and Microsoft's SmartGlass app were all touted as means to that end, the best example I’ve found so far is buried away in this otherwise unremarkable AAA title.

So where’s the beef?

We're Getting the Band Back Together

“But Spencer,” you say, “there are plenty of great examples of asymmetrical multiplayer games out right now!” And you'd be right! Left 4 Dead, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Artemis Bridge Simulator and even Rock Band are all asymmetrical to some extent or another. However, my dream hearkens back to the heyday of the GameCube, and its briefly touted connectivity with the Game Boy Advance. I’m referring specifically to Pac-Man Vs. -- perhaps the most unassuming game to utilize a mostly ignored feature.

You may have never heard of Pac-Man Vs., and that’s no surprise. The game wasn't a retail release in its own right. Rather, it was thrown in as an afterthought with copies of the forgettable Pac-Man World 2, or given away for promotions at retail stores. These days, it can be found in shrink-wrapped cardboard envelopes on eBay. Copies upon copies of the game were never distributed, much less played.

For a game so unassuming, Vs. is one of the more brilliant multiplayer games I've ever experienced. The game was designed by none other than Shigeru Miyamoto himself, and is rich with genius befitting its pedigree. In Vs., the connected Game Boy Advance shows the classic Pac-Man maze: its rows of dots, blinking powerups and occasional bonus items are all identical to the arcade version. Meanwhile, the three other players control the ghosts. In their three divided spots on the TV, each player can only see a small segment of the maze.

Pac-Man Vs. GBA and GCN mode — screencap taken from YouTuber tbxx

Pac-Man Vs. GBA and GCN mode — screencap taken from YouTuber tbxx

There are several factors here that make Vs. such a joy to experience -- it’s clever, well-executed, and evokes genuine tension and competitive drive from an otherwise ancient formula. But the secret sauce is the addition of the Game Boy Advance. Four-player splitscreen is one thing, with each player on relatively equal footing in terms of information (and the occasional “screen-looking” to mix things up a bit). Removing the fourth player, and giving them full knowledge of the maze, takes away said equal footing. The ghosts are forced to coordinate and share what little information they have as they try to track down -- or evade -- Pac-Man. Meanwhile, the fourth player has to try and anticipate the tactics of the ghosts, using his view of the maze as his defense.

Unfortunately, Vs. is one of a select few in the asymmetrical multiplayer genre. Games where one player holds the cards are something truly special, but despite their storied history, the current field of titles is sparse at best.

It’s Dark, and We're Wearing Sunglasses

Through the history of gaming there’s been strong examples of asymmetrical multiplayer. Dungeons & Dragons may be the most compelling example. In D&D, one player holds literally all the information on the game, making it up as needed, while the remaining players are relatively in the dark. On the NES, Duck Hunt was perhaps the least-advertised asymmetrical multiplayer game ever -- player one used the Zapper to shoot at ducks controlled by player two. And even Mario Party has a few 1-versus-3 minigames that nicely fit the definition.

There have been occasional stabs at asymmetrical multiplayer in the modern era, but nothing terribly groundbreaking. Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel allowed a second player to collect powerups and provide support to Mario. It was a welcome addition, but the game becomes substantially easier with the backup. Battlefield 4, meanwhile, has a robust Commander app allowing tablet owners to give a tactical edge to troops in the full game. However, few troops are likely to respond to the Commander's orders unless they're friends, which makes the app little more than a battery-draining rhythm game.

Ubisoft's next take on tablet cross-play: The Division
Ubisoft's next take on tablet cross-play: The Division

Tom Clancy's The Division has teased tablet cross-play, allowing mobile users to provide battlefield recon and assistance to their friends in-game. However, The Division isn't slated for release until 2015. What's more, it's only one title. For as much cross-connectivity as we now enjoy between our game consoles, handhelds and mobile devices, very little has come our way in the form of actual asymmetrical multiplayer empowered by connected devices.

This console generation is still young, but E3 doesn't leave me particularly hopeful. Asymmetric games aren't the big push. Rather, the industry is focused on business as usual with manufacturers bolstering their install bases and publishers moving units of yearly franchises. Additionally, arena multiplayer is huge right now. Titles like League of Legends and Counter-Strike -- purely symmetrical games that put each competitor on equal footing -- draw masses of competitors and viewers. The world keeps on turning.

It's a shame, but maybe we'll see some more of this kind of play in the future. Until that time, I’ve got 16 checkpoints to reach, a full tank of gas, mobile players with bones to pick and all of Chicago’s finest at their disposal. It’s dark, and I’m wearing sunglasses.

Hit it.