[As Read on GIO.]
Ubisoft has tried their hand at crafting their fair share of open-world romps within the past few years- most recently Far Cry 3 among them, and has performed fairly well. As you’ll soon gather from my review here, Watch Dogs isn’t the greatest game out there to do it, nor the best looking next-gen title, however it more than adequately gets the job done. We’ve seen more than our fair share of demo videos for the game since two E3s ago, and the final product lives up to some promises and falls down on others, a result often found in today’s industry as developers find themselves pressured more and more to get more done than they originally intended, and end up either axing content or crafting sub-par content in specific areas here and there. On the whole, Watch Dogs is a fairly impressive new IP as well as a potential future money-maker for Ubisoft should they get their act more together and craft a truly quality sequel worth of this new generation and the hardware it offers up. The delay of the game’s initial release- postponed until May 27th of this year, did not add or detract much from the game’s final product and ultimately skeptics may have been the more correct of the two areas of thought in the format of the released product, it being slightly worse for wear than what was initially showed off.
It should come as no surprise that players take up the trench coat, phone carrying cowl of hacker and disgruntled wayfarer Aiden Pearce in this particular Ubisoft revenge tale. In fact, despite the vast differences, there could be many parallels drawn between Watch Dogs’ and Assassin’s Creed II’s revenge stories. Utilizing the citywide operating system that Chicago now runs on, Pearce is able to systematically hijack and take down many digital systems in order to rid himself of pursuers, kill foes in innovative new ways, and generally cause mayhem in his quest for vengeance and retribution for his deceased niece. Of course, when all else fails, he’s more than able to pick up a gun and use that to his advantage as well, even in combination with his hacking expertise. The story itself may seem like something out of one of those movie cliches, as it deals with an obviously corrupt corporation with far-reaching powers and influence. Pearce is pitted against said company which apparently had his niece murdered, and after many twists and turns throughout the decent story, he finally comes out on top…well sort of I guess, but that’s for another day. Also, let’s talk for a minute about who thought it was a good idea to put the entire city on one operating system- that’s pretty outlandish, but of course completely created for the purpose of this particular story, as otherwise it would’ve been a lot harder for Pearce to accomplish all he does. That’s beside the point however.
Watch Dogs is a pretty well designed open-world romp, even if it doesn’t feature the best of stories or specific gameplay elements. It is very strong in some areas and particularly weak in others, but its too late to really avoid that right now of course. Your time is split locomotion wise pretty evenly between traversing the environment on foot and in the variety of vehicles available for hijacking- including cars, boats, and motorcycles. As Watch Dogs isn’t a racing game, the vehicle controls could be much better, but they are far from terrible. I particularly enjoy the cars in Rockstar titles such as GTA and LA Noire, but Watch Dogs’ work as well for what you’re given. The other good thing about the way that the vehicles do handle is the fact that you can smash through just about any breakable environmental object and not have to deal with getting thrown out of or off of whatever it is you’re driving- like in GTA (the infamous no-enter poles and beams) or other open-world titles such as Mercenaries. In this respect, one could easily compare the level of possible environmental destruction to something out of a car crushing game such as Burnout or Full Auto or something of a similar sort, which is never a bad thing in my book. Of course, bear in mind that your foes have similarly god-like abilities in vehicles and will definitely use this to their advantage. Also, unlike GTA, you cannot equip weapons whilst driving- you can however hack environmental objects to cause mayhem, which may be even more fun.
Now, if you choose to approach things from an on-foot perspective, which is completely viable in most instances, you’re privy to quite a few more enjoyable hacking features than you may encounter the use or need for in vehicular segments. Hacking, being an integral part of the game of course, is also integral in combat and general locomotion and encounters. You can watch foes on camera in order to get the drop on them or give them the slip. You can use your hacking abilities to activate environmental traps and cause mayhem and you can also change the environment as well- much like you can in vehicular chases, by raising or lowering items and performing other helpful tasks. Watch Dogs is by no means an FPS or TPS but the shooting mechanics shine when they are employed as well, although to anybody playing I would heartily recommend a more cautious, stealthy approach to combat if it can’t be avoided, as it feels much more meaningful and is more fun that way. Sort of like something out of FEAR, but not to that particular extent (but think BulletTime), you can temporarily slow time and use it to either avoid bad guys, hide, or line up the perfect shot and take out a few foes. Thus, combat feels satisfying and is quite effective both in all-out shootouts and stealth approaches in the game, making for a fun open-world experience as well as a down-to-earth shooter when the occasion calls.
Talking more about the matter of hacking in-game, there are plenty of opportunities to do so, as well as to implement the new hacking abilities and upgrades you are constantly learning as you advance through the game. The classic approaches as shown in the tutorial and demo videos are always viable and versatile options- from overloading steam pipes to raising guard posts, however there are also several other abilities to be learned such as changing traffic signals, hacking into characters’ phones, and causing citywide sirens and alarms to distract essential personnel and cause general chaos to cover an escape or infiltration. The city is your weapon, here more literally than in any other game that has promised it. Hacking during car chases works well, but it is much more limited than on-foot hacking in that you must actually pass the hackable objects and you must begin the hack as the game prompts you to, otherwise you’re liable to have to circle around and start over again. Also, as you must level up your hacks and learn new ways to hack into systems, not all of these objects will initially be open to you. This can be frustrating, however it also translates well into adding to the feeling of steady progression of skills throughout the game, and pays off well later.
I’ve given you a glimpse at some of the general gameplay of the title- focusing of course of hacking and hijacking systems and vehicles, but lets go to a broader, graphical glimpse of the game and see how it shapes up as well. Depending largely on what system you get it on, Watch Dogs can look pretty good or pretty average. Obviously it looks the best on the new-generation consoles, specifically the Play Station 4. However, it doesn’t look too terribly different on PC or the previous console generation. This having been said, don’t expect the visual hype at least to live up to the grand expectations presented several E3s ago, as the game looks good, but no better than a lot of titles we’ve already seen before. It has its moments and doesn’t look bad, but particular textures can be muddied and torn at times which is never a good sign. For this reason, it is easily noticeable that Watch Dogs is indeed a cross-generation title and not a truly next-generation one alone, because it was built to conform to current standards and not so much to utilize the entirety of the potential tech available on new platforms. On the bright side however, Chicago is represented as an excellent open-world hub, the interactions with the environment and new areas that you travel to are seamless about ninety-five percent of the time, and on the whole- despite some degrading moments, the game looks and feels great and flows well.
For the most part, Ubisoft does a great job of making interesting campaign missions and side activities, giving characters a variety of ways to complete tasks and to broaden their play styles as well. As with any open-world title, there are plenty of repetitive aspects to be found in Watch Dogs’ content, however there are also several unconventional missions and encounters that will stick with you- from busting up your enemies’ “parties” to guiding NPCs that actually, surprisingly take orders well and don’t completely screw things up every chance they get. All of these encounters come off as fast-paced and fresh thanks in most part also to your skills as a hacker, and not necessarily because of your shooting prowess, although that doesn’t hurt either. Don’t think you’ll blow through the game in one sitting however, because despite some of the repetitive action, there is plenty to be found in the way of collectibles and experienced a la side content similar to that of Grand Theft Auto V. Heck, Ubisoft even managed to incorporate some interesting multiplayer elements into the main game itself, as other players can spawn in-game and hack you, chase you around and terrorize you, or even sort of assist you from the shadows. Of course, it’s even more fun to turn the table on an unsuspecting victim of yours as well, and it certainly beats preying on the completely oblivious AI as well, so going after truly human targets is much more of a challenge and thrill ride.
I’ve talked (mostly) about what Watch Dogs does well or at least marginally well at, so now it is only fair that I talk some more about the areas that the game could realize use some work on- for one reason or another. As previously mentioned, repetitive mission structure is a large issue, and many times missions that start off interestingly boil down to the same chase scenes and hacking tutorials, which can really put a damper on the overall experience. There are several cheap opportunities to extend the gameplay so to speak which Ubisoft also takes, opting to produce foes with an insane amount of padding to make fights more drawn out, as well as scripted tailing and pursuing missions that generally just aren’t fun at all in most cases. Ubisoft also bounces around the board as far as a story goes and doesn’t really convey it as meaningfully as they could or should have, leaving me not really caring about many of the characters and simply wanting to enjoy the sandbox open-world moments presented- which is fine, thankfully in a game such as this. Aiden Pearce’s character doesn’t have the greatest set-up, but it works, as you’re able to really make what you want out of him and craft the experience as you wish- one of the finer points of the title, despite the general failings in the character department elsewhere. Talking more about the story, the vast majority of it- while not necessarily forgettable, is often stupid, sardonic, and crass to say the least. I get that other games like GTA do this as well, but at least they can pull it off and the tone fits- here, it just didn’t click quite as well as I would’ve liked.
Now, despite its numerous failings in both story and at times graphics and overall visuals, as well as its failure to deliver on several early promises, Watch Dogs is far from a bad game. It is a really enjoyable and replayable experience, even if it is a highly flawed one as well. As with many similarly flawed titles of its genre and caliber, the main attraction and the main thing that works the most in Watch Dogs is in fact its open-world setting and the relative freedom players are allowed in deciding what they want to do or where they want to go, as well as when and why or why not. Choice and hacking capabilities alone make this a worthwhile title to play, even if it isn’t quite the hit they were looking for. I for one certainly enjoyed my time with this game, as well as the fact that it retained similarities to their other recent titles- such as Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, without going overboard into those territories at all. If there’s one thing that can be said about it, it’s that Watch Dogs is certainly one of a kind- even if it isn’t because it’s sailed into uncharted territory, and is only because there hasn’t really yet been a game quite like it in conceptual terms. If they do choose to make it a series, which seems viable considering it sold pretty well, I’d be interested to see the hopefully improved sequel and to compare its rights and wrongs to those of this title as well.
Concept: Explore open-world Chicago as the revenge-seeking, trenchcoat and ballcap clad hacker Aiden Pearce. Enjoy some cheap thrills and spills, laugh at the mostly overdone story moments, and torment the people of the city with environmental chaos and hijacking of the citywide OS employed by a corrupt corporation.
Graphics: The game looks good on most consoles and devices, however there are times when it is visually muddied, and it doesn’t like up to the frame rate or overall graphical awareness originally promised as well.
Sound: There are several tunes in-game that work and several that don’t. The accompanying score works in most instances where the licensed content doesn’t.
Playability: With the exception of the odder than not vehicle controls, the other mechanics handle fantastically. Naturally, because of the vehicle controls, pretty much any of these mechanics being used during chases are more frustrating than not.
Entertainment: It’s in its own class and genre thanks to the exceptional hacking abilities afforded to your character, and overall it’s quite an enjoyable experience. Also, there are some doge jokes to be made about and in the game. I kid you not. Seriously.
Replay Value: High.
Overall Score: 8.0