One of the most anticipated games of 2014 was released this week. A solid, open-world game that in the end just doesn’t make itself any different then all the other games of its type.
Since Ubisoft Entertainment announced the release of Watch Dogs, it has been one of the most talked about games for the new generation consoles. Being one of the first “big” games released on the PlayStation and Xbox One, the hype has been antagonizing and the game has been on the top of everyone’s must play list. But when it finally released and we cracked the seals and popped the disc in to our console, we were brought to the grueling realization that Watch Dogs isn’t anything special. Instead of feeling like an introduction to a new era of gaming, we’re instead taken back to the past as Ubisoft retreads many of the mechanics seen in titles like Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed.
Available for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and Windows PC, Ubisoft really wanted to be able to reach out to players of every console with the game they said would be a breath of fresh air and a new kick to the open-world genre. Unfortunately, they’ve failed to deliver on those promises, providing a title which is solid enough, but feels tired. Sure, Watch Dogs has a wonderful premise, promising players the ability to tap into an entire city’s network of systems and raid people’s bank accounts for funds; but in the end, it’s still the same old experience of running from police, stealing cars and running over pedestrians that we’ve seen so many times before.
Watch Dogs looks beautiful on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and its weather effects consistently impress, but if you want to play it on PC, be prepared to have a current, top of the line machine available to be able to get the most out of the visuals. There’s a stable frame rate, a good view distance and smooth edges, and it provides a decent amount of eye candy. But nothing in Watch Dogs stands out and screams “Revolutionary”, and on current-gen machines, a poor draw distance and bad case of the jaggies sometimes makes it feel as though it would have benefited from skipping the last generation entirely, as those who do pick it up on older platforms are only seeing a pale reflection of what it’s capable of on more modern technology. But even then, as pretty as it can be, all Watch Dogs has going for it is higher fidelity. Pearce isn’t that interesting; the story makes you pay more attention to the supporting characters then the actual storyline, and you can’t help but feel as though you’ve played this game time and time before. Watch Dogs tries to show us what the world would be like if we allowed electronics to control it, and sadly the world is already controlled by such things.
There’s at least a wealth of content to work through. The main narrative will take around 20-30 hours to to complete, and consists both of missions which progress the story and change the world around you; the side missions back up the main storyline, giving you no small amount of optional tasks to complete. But it’s all very standard. Hunt someone down and kill them, then run from the cops. Courier items between characters, and run from the cops. Infiltrate heavily-guarded buildings, and run from the cops. While these frequent escape from city officials are often thrilling, they quickly become rote, and over-familiarity soon sets in.
Of course, there are also missions where you’re told to tail someone undetected, and they’re as poorly executed here as they were in any of the Assassin’s Creed games. There’s still some fun to be found during these missions, but we’ve done the same thing so many times in the past that it’s becoming lackluster and repetitive, and you’ll find yourself sighing after been told that, yet again, you need to follow a lead back to their hideout, or eavesdrop on a rendezvous with a co-conspirator.
If all of this sounds overly negative, then take some relief from the knowledge that while Watch Dogs‘ gameplay is overly familiar, it still manages to be a worthwhile and largely enjoyable exercise, with occasional flashes of the early promise demonstrated at Ubisoft’s initial E3 unveiling. But what we were promised in Watch Dogs that would set it apart from any other game of it’s type – the hacking of systems that was supposed to play such a prominent role and empower players – just doesn’t make enough of an impact to feel as though it’s an integral and innovative part of the core experience.
You roam the the city of Chicago as the vigilante hacker, Aiden Pearce. If Chicago is anything like what they made it out to be in Watch Dogs, then we never want to go there. Almost every person you pass is either a victim of crime, a criminal themselves, or some sort of delinquent. You’ll travel through the city on a mission to right what is wrong and turn wrong what is right. You are neither good, nor bad; you fight for your own cause, and you do it by hacking in to citizens’ smartphones and listening in on their conversations. You even tap in to their computers and see them as they enjoy things in what is supposed to be the privacy of their own home. You’ll find criminals and masturbators, and there’s even a few cannibals here and there – all of them seemingly normal people, until they think they’re alone.
It’s a game which revels in voyeurism then, but rarely does it have anything interesting to say about the encroaching culture of government surveillance that inspired it. Instead, you often feel as though Aiden is just as exploitative and corrupt as the adversaries he’s trying to bring down, and as a result it’s difficult to empathize with him or care about the unfolding story.
Combat in Watch Dogs is set up more like a series of carefully-orchestrated puzzles than anything else: you’ll hide in a corner or behind a soda machine, and decide between tearing through enemies with firepower and grenades, or trying to distract every single foe and sneaking to your destination. You can use a silencer to quickly shoot the enemies in the head and hope no one notices – or even sneak up from behind and hit them over the head with your extendable whacking stick – but we usually just went for the run in, all-guns-blazing tactic. In a choice between long, drawn-out tedium and fast, efficient progress, efficiency wins every time – and the game rarely takes the time to punish your lack of adherence to its desired template, such is its desperation to appeal to as wide a playerbase as possible.
Dispatching enemies is at least fun, however, with a number of different tactics you can employ to wreak havoc. Whichever approach you choose to go with, you’re probably going to explode a person or two or at least mess with their heads. What could be more fun then hacking the grenades a guard is carrying and watching them desperately running around trying to free themselves from a ticking time bomb, before detonating in a glorious, gooey mess? It’s fun, it’s hilarious, and it never gets old.
We’re happy to admit that the way the environment and the citizens react to your actions are sometimes hugely rewarding. Watching a mass of people scatter from half a block of buildings exploding around them, and knowing you’re responsible, often makes you feel like a complete bad-ass, and there are plenty of other opportunities to cause mayhem throughout the game.
Watch Dogs will occasionally make you wonder about some issues that are of wide public concern. What is the price for complete freedom and privacy? Are we ever really alone? But those questions quickly depart your mind when you hack a billboard and it displays the all too familiar meme ‘Dat Ass’ in bright, bold letters. It sometimes feels as though Ubisoft made is making fun of a real life problem that we face today. You may find yourself eavesdropping on a man talking about how he couldn’t ejaculate because his bladder was full one moment, and then listening to a woman begging for her husband to come home, knowing he is having an affair the next. The tonal shifts are immense and diverse, and it puts players on a roller-coaster of emotions constantly.
But they also cause you to question what you’re even doing, or why you’re doing it. Aside from Aiden seeking vengeance on the man who killed his niece, and his sister begging him to stop, Aiden really does look like a power-hungry, money-driven fool who just doesn’t care about anything or anyone but himself – and the story never develops in a direction where manages (or even seeks) redemption, or acknowledges his responsibilities. He makes promises to his family that he just doesn’t keep; he constantly puts his sister and nephew in danger, knowing that someone is watching him and continuing to do what they killed his niece for in the first place. Perhaps Aiden is addicted to the underground world of hacking, allowing that small smartphone screen to control his life; that would at least have provided an opportunity for Ubisoft Montreal to provide an interesting commentary on the contradictory impact of an evermore connected society making people even more isolated from each other. Either way though, Aiden appears to be oblivious to the world around him and what he’s really doing.
The beginning of the story is a little slow. We were easily distracted quite a few times by the simple push of a button, hacking phones and stealing bank accounts. Hell, we sat at a light for ten minutes just waiting for traffic to come through so we could hit a button and watch all the cars proceed in crashing in to one another. But once the story progressed to the point where we were putting together our own team of hackers and began to see a clearer picture of what was really going on, things do start to pick up and while it never rises to set new standards, it does at least start to become engaging. Watch Dogs reminds us a lot of a Tom Clancy novel, with plenty of technobabble and a cliché revenge-driven character. We weren’t so much playing for Aiden’s storyline after a while, but for Clara and T-Bone – two of the prominent members of your supporting cast. Clara puts up with so much of Aiden’s bullshit that at times you’ll wonder how she manages it, and she shows so much empathy towards him that we wanted to know more about her and why she was so patient with his stubbornness.
Outside of the story, one thing that sets Watch Dogs apart from the other open-world games is its online modes. Sure, it still has the standard race and take-and-hold game variants that every open-world game seems to have these days, but when everything gels just so, it can also provide some of the most amazing games of cat-and-mouse you’re likely to see in a major title this year, though sometimes they irritate as much as they entertain. During the single-player game, you may find yourself invaded by another player and fall victim to them stealing something from you undetected, in a fresh rift on Dark Souls‘ online modes. Once the victim of a hack, you’re alerted to the intrusion and you have to deal with the other player before you can do anything else. While this can be thrilling, it can also feel like an unwelcome interruption when you simply want to relax and progress through the story, and the rewards for success – or punishments for failure – rarely make them feel worthwhile engaging in, on either side of the equation. Ubisoft Montreal has some great ideas, but ultimately many of them feel poorly implemented and you may well find yourself disabling other players’ ability to enter your game entirely, so you can continue your playthrough unmolested by malcontents.
Unfortunately, while you can disable the online invasion at any point in the game, doing so prevents you from earning a handful of bonus perks – such as the useful ability to have your bullets inflict more damage to cars. And if you disable this ability halfway through the game, it will reset the points that you’ve earned online back to zero. At least the perks you get aren’t too important, and are mostly based on online play – so it doesn’t make this downfall too serious. There are many different modes that players can engage in from the menu, and Watch Dogs doesn’t miss the opportunity remind you constantly about the various online different competitive modes you’re missing out on by not taking part. It can become quite annoying at times.
Decryption matches are great fun though. Two teams of four are confined to a section of the city and seek to get their hands on a piece of sensitive data, and keep a hold on it. Anarchy at it’s finest. Much like a game of capture-the-flag, there are a few things that set this game of decryption apart from what you’re probably used to. To steal the data from a player, you only have to be in the proximity of that person for a set amount of time. There is no need to run up and take it. Just linger around a corner and it’s yours. Data can easily be passed around even when you’re in a vehicle or to a team mate on the rooftop above you. Action is constant and nonstop in this mode, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the moment.
Aiden’s phone has a built-in media player, giving players access to a playlist crammed full of different kinds of music that they can listen to while driving or whenever. But the playlist is rather… Dull. And there were things about it we didn’t quite understand. Like if we’re listening to our playlist, how does an emergency news report just randomly interrupt? And how does the playlist know exactly what song is fitting for certain missions, not allowing us to change it? The playlist feature can really set the mood in a game like this and be an outstanding addition to gameplay, but in Watch Dogs, it felt more forced on us then anything.
One feature that we just can’t help but to mention is the digital trip minigames. There are four digital trips in all, and they provide an entertaining and surreal departure from the standard gameplay. In one, you bounce from giant flower to giant flower, trying to stay in the air as long as you possibly can. In another, you take control of a giant robotic spider, and destroy police cars and jump up the sides of buildings while firing rockets at helicopters and shooting machine-guns at onlookers. The other two digital trips are just as fun: one riffs on Carmageddon, placing you to speed through the streets and mow down zombies, while the last has you racing across rooftops attempting to collect coins against the clock. They’re great fun, a welcome distraction from the sometimes staid main gameplay, and one of the strongest aspects of the game.
Watch Dogs is a solid game then, but at times the story can be weak and it does little to distinguish itself from an increasingly large crowd of similar titles. But we still enjoyed the game and what it had to offer us, and there are flashes of brilliance which hint at potential the franchise has yet to realize. Even though it may be a little rough around the edges, taken in isolation it’s a perfectly enjoyable – and occasionally hugely entertaining – slice of open-world action. But don’t expect it to be anything new or marvelous, because you may be let down terribly.