Watch Dogs E3 Mod Comparison Essay

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It's been an interesting week for PC players dedicated to getting the best graphical experience from their copy of Ubisoft's Watch Dogs. That's because of a modder going by handle TheWorse at the Guru3D forums, who late last week released a beta version of a mod that enabled many high-end graphical effects that were not available in the shipped version of the game.

Normally this wouldn't be a huge deal—similar graphical effects mods for games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Skyrim are incredibly popular among PC gamers with high-end rigs. What made the Watch Dogs mod interesting is that many of its "new" graphical effects were apparently already in the game's shipped code and were simply disabled for players who didn't tinker with the game files. Graphical features like fog, bokeh depth of field, and bloom lighting effects were apparently written into the PC version of the game, only to be removed before it shipped. What's more, re-enabling them though the mod doesn't seem to make the game crash.

Much has already been made about how the final shipped version of Watch Dogslooks considerably worse than the version shown in presentations at the last two E3 shows. Those comparisons took on new weight when modders found references in the PC code to settings and animations explicitly meant for "E3" mode. Some have suggested that Ubisoft purposely scaled back the performance of the PC version of the game so it wouldn't outclass the console versions too handily. One comment unearthed from the code lends some credence to this idea, by derisively suggesting that a color setting "is PC only, who cares."

In a statement posted by "The Watch Dogs Team" today, though, the publisher denied these claims, saying that the graphical effects were removed for performance and gameplay issues.

The statement said:

The dev team is completely dedicated to getting the most out of each platform, so the notion that we would actively downgrade quality is contrary to everything we’ve set out to achieve. We test and optimize our games for each platform on which they’re released, striving for the best possible quality. The PC version does indeed contain some old, unused render settings that were deactivated for a variety of reasons, including possible impacts on visual fidelity, stability, performance and overall gameplay quality. Modders are usually creative and passionate players, and while we appreciate their enthusiasm, the mod in question (which uses those old settings) subjectively enhances the game’s visual fidelity in certain situations but also can have various negative impacts. Those could range from performance issues, to difficulty in reading the environment in order to appreciate the gameplay, to potentially making the game less enjoyable or even unstable.

There seems to be something to this explanation. When Rock Paper Shotgun took the mod for a spin earlier this week, it found effects like bokeh depth of field made the game look better in some circumstances but could also obscure enemies in the distance. "If something across the road was shooting at me at this point, I wouldn’t be able to see them. I’m Mr. Magoo," the site wrote of one gameplay situation with the mod.

In any case, Ubisoft released its own patch for the game on Wednesday that "fixed graphical glitches on Low & Medium settings" and included "several performance improvements," suggesting the publisher isn't completely done tweaking the game itself. We're sure the modding community isn't done digging into the code either. It will be interesting to see just how far the game's performance can be pushed by both groups going forward.

Good thing: Watch_Dogs on PC can look nearly as good as the (in)famous 2012 E3 demo that started at all, and it’s not even that hard to do thanks to some hidden graphics files that modders dug up. Bad thing: they were hidden. That certainly doesn’t look good. Ubisoft has an explanation, though.

Ubisoft wrote about why it buried graphics files instead of letting them fly free and dance in the godray forests. They did not, however, go into why they didn’t expect that anybody would crack open their game about hacking.

“The dev team is completely dedicated to getting the most out of each platform, so the notion that we would actively downgrade quality is contrary to everything we’ve set out to achieve. We test and optimize our games for each platform on which they’re released, striving for the best possible quality. The PC version does indeed contain some old, unused render settings that were deactivated for a variety of reasons, including possible impacts on visual fidelity, stability, performance and overall gameplay quality.”

“Modders are usually creative and passionate players, and while we appreciate their enthusiasm, the mod in question (which uses those old settings) subjectively enhances the game’s visual fidelity in certain situations but also can have various negative impacts. Those could range from performance issues, to difficulty in reading the environment in order to appreciate the gameplay, to potentially making the game less enjoyable or even unstable.”

So that’s that, I guess. Graham tried out the buried graphics setting to varying degrees of success, so it’s definitely not perfect. Perhaps Ubisoft could spruce it up and release it officially as a new in-game graphics setting? Somehow I doubt that will happen, but if you give modders something to tinker with, they’ll make tinker-ade. Or every addition to a game you could possibly imagine, as it were. So maybe something more… consistent will come out of all this, somehow. Here’s hoping. And watching. And dogging. And underscoring.

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