Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: 5/7/2014
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Watch Dogs is supposed to be the next Grand Theft Auto III! The next-gen revolutionary open world game! Well, there’s one big flaw in all that hype. Watch Dogs was developed for last-gen consoles. We will never get a truly next-gen experience until a game is made specifically for next-gen consoles and is no longer ported to last-gen or has those consoles in mind. With that said, Watch Dogs is a solid open world game, but it feels limited due to the scope that it tried to create.
You are Aiden Pearce. A vigilante hacker who is trying to exact revenge on his niece’s death. You get involved in a huge blackmail hacking/drug ring while operating Chicago’s own connected grid. This online grid is called CTOS or Citizen Operating System. Chicago has cameras everywhere (even in places they aren’t supposed to) and is storing all the data on servers. Hacker groups are battling for the data while some have blackmail on city officials. It makes for a pretty twisty story, but that falls flat due to the story being dragged out for too long. One thing that an open world needs are strong characters and Watch Dogs is lacking that. Each character has potential but they are missing that certain something to makes them more than generic or they don’t get enough screen time.
Outside of the so-so story is the so-so gameplay. Now the gunplay is solid with a great cover mechanic and weapon wheel. You also get the electronics on your side such as the gimmicky “camera hopping” ability. You can hack cameras around an area to stealthily blow up stuff and distract enemies. It kind of felt like something similar to the Batman Arkham games. Some enemies have grenades that you can explode remotely that are on them, disrupt their comms, disable reinforcements etc. This stealthy way of combat is actually pretty fun, but gets old in the end because it becomes predictable and almost to easy. Gunning it all the way is tough because you die so quickly. A few shots and you’re dead.
Most GTA like games have wanted levels and cops that come after you. Watch Dogs does something rather unique in a sense that you can use the city against the cops. With the push of a button, you can raise bridges, activate blockers, blow up underground pipes, change traffic lights to block intersections etc. I just found that the cops can find you way too easily. You are able to craft gadgets to stop enemies. One such item is the Jam Comms. This is used when police are trying to find you. When this happens yellow circles will appear on your map and you much avoid them until the search is called off. I only ever avoided this once in the whole game. My only option was to be found and then escape the police.
Another gameplay element that open world games have are mini-games. Watch Dogs is full of them but neither of them is interesting, including the side missions. Being able to prevent crimes, AR time trials, online contract hunts etc. These are all interesting the first time, but after that, I lost interest. I have yet to talk about what caused Watch Dogs to get such hype and that is the profiler. When you pull out your phone every citizen’s info is displayed. Their job, income, what they currently do/dark secret, and sometimes you can hack their phone conversations or steal money from them. Now this may seem like a big deal but it’s all randomized and after a few minutes exploring this you just won’t care anymore.
That’s the main problem with Watch Dogs at the end of the day. You just stop caring about more and more things as you play. When you start off you’re completely confused on how to use this new hacking/profiling ability. It all seems overwhelming. Once you play for a few hours you start checking off what’s interesting and what’s not in your head. That’s usually not a good thing for a game. Watch Dogs brings a lot to the table but none of it is outstanding or memorable. The graphics are also decent, but even for PC and next-gen consoles there are some ugly spots, the character models are dated, and it all just feels like a last-gen game with a next-gen coating of polish slapped on top.
The Good: Tight gunplay, a strong cast of characters (mostly), hacking is occasionally satisfying and done well, stealth is great, tons of upgrades, clever and fun online modes, open world driving is fun, gang-hideout side quests are tricky and enjoyable, phone apps are entertaining, graphics look pretty good
The Bad: At other times hacking feels forced and gimmicky, not much creativity in puzzle solutions, forced stealth and forced gunplay sections, pointless and annoying reputation system, most side quests are repetitive, the difficulty is random
Watch_Dogs feels tremendously like another one of Ubisoft’s games, the first Assassin’s Creed, in that it sets up the fundamentals and roots of a franchise but it is still incredibly flawed. This time around it’s a lot more inexcusable however because Ubisoft has had a ton of experience with open world games. Nevertheless, it is still a fun and meaty game which I enjoyed for the most part.
It tells the story of Aiden Pearce (otherwise known as “The Vigilante”, possibly the most unoriginal name ever), a hacker who lost his niece Lena Pearce in a car accident staged by a hitman. It’s a revenge story, with Aiden setting out to discover who called for his death and why. Aiden is, for the most part, the typical grumbly mostly-emotionless remorseful killer supposed “badass” protagonist that has been far overused in this medium, but he still has his moments and his journey to seek out revenge is certainly endearing. It’s mostly the side characters which carry the story out in this game, particularly Clara Lille and T-Bone, who both seem to have more depth to them than Aiden himself. There are also standout characters like “Bedbug”, an oddly likable and friendly gangster, and Lucky Quinn, an incredibly unnerving villain.
The story starts off pretty slowly, but picks up by the middle and was overall pretty entertaining. It wasn’t fantastic or super memorable or anything, but it did do a good enough job at progressing the game while still engaging me. The gameplay is Watch_Dog‘s real meat, and it is a mixed bag. Hacking was fun at first, but eventually, the novelty wore off and I came to realize it felt all too scripted and didn’t actually allow for as much freedom as it pretends to. Using hacking to escape from the cops felt pointless once I discovered that if I got into the water I was practically safe because the police have no watercraft, and using hacks during missions didn’t feel like I was coming up with my own solution but instead choosing through a few predetermined ones the developers left for me. In fact, in a majority of the missions, it’d probably be easier and quicker to play without using hacks, whether playing stealthily or guns blazing. The only missions which feel like they take full advantage of hacking are the gang hideout sidequests, which allow you to play through any style that you want, however, these eventually run thin as well because of how similar they all are.
The gunplay feels good (unlike another well-known open-world franchise) but isn’t all too original. The worst missions in this game force you to play a certain style. Having stealth forced makes it a hell of a lot less satisfying, and when gunplay is forced it can get too difficult for someone who had played the rest of the game stealthily. Throughout the game, you’ll get skill points to upgrade your hacking, weapons, driving, and more. However, I unlocked pretty much all the important upgrades early on in the game due to how many skill points you get (both from sidequests and missions).
Driving, like much else in the game, is a mixed bag. Driving controls are more arcade-y than realistic, and you can easily create your own shortcut to destinations by smashing through fences and phone lines. At the same time though, tailing missions and online races control poorly and aren’t fun at all. Also, it’s pretty jarring to smash through a humongous pole just to inexplicably be stopped by a bush you can’t drive through. Motorcycles control poorly, with it being too easy to be flung out of them. Also, NPC’s inexplicably are never ever on motorcycles, you can only find parked ones. And that is just an example of what I find to be ones of Watch_Dogs biggest issues: it’s missing out on the small details.
No, I don’t mean in terms of graphics, or at least the quality of the graphics- the game looks pretty enough (however nowhere near as good as its first E3 demo). What I mean is that unlike GTA V (which is a much better game), Watch_Dogs struggles to create a believable setting and environment. It replicates Chicago well enough, keeping its major landmarks, but doesn’t have any spirit or passion or incredible detail to it unlike, say, Los Santos (and by detail, I don’t mean accuracy to the real-life version). Just like the whole game itself, it feels unsure of what it wants to represent; is it a modern-day version of Chicago, a semi-cyberpunk version of Chicago, or a satire of Chicago? And it’d be okay (maybe even great) if the game could masterfully combine these three different takes on Chicago but it fails at that and instead feels like three different creative directions were taken with designing the setting and feeling of this game.
The water, despite being beautiful, doesn’t react at all if you shoot a bullet at it. Building window’s reflections are fake. And most importantly, NPC’s rarely do anything of interest (and their AI is terrible). The text and phone conversations which are supposed to give them personality repeat far too often, and the name and trait system which are intended to make us care for them instead comes off as a shoddy way to try an inject personality in those characters when in reality the traits change absolutely nothing about them and are merely cosmetic. It’d be better if it was trying to teach us a lesson or make a point (for example, if we could use those traits to say, blackmail them) about the dangers of technology and our online lives, but the game is too confused about what type of message it wants to send out. For example, Aiden is presented as a good guy (and I could tell the game wanted me to believe that), but he consistently does horrible things both inside of gameplay and as part of the story. In many ways, Watch_Dogs feels like it is a game going through its teenage years, unsure of what it wants to be.
On a positive note, the online in this game is pretty great ignoring online races. Hacking other player’s games is an exhilarating and nerve-wracking experience, hampered only by the fact that should your opponent choose to exit the game you are the one punished for it AND if you leave the game on pause to go get a drink or have a snack you may still get hacked which really sucks. Decryption is a fun competitive mode which gets better the more people who play it in which you must work as a team (or individually) to hold a hacking point for a certain amount of time. It, like the gang hideout missions, is one of the few examples of the hacking and gunplay coming together to form a cohesive and fun whole.
Also fun is the somewhat out of place yet hilarious AR games. Everyone should at the very least give the Spider-Tank game a try once. The soundtrack is fine, with only a few standout tracks (particularly the one that plays on the skill tree upgrade menu), but the in-game radio is awful. I put it on mute most of the time, the songs that play are mostly crap.
So, what do I have to say about Watch_Dogs as a whole? It’s fun, sure, but it also feels like it is trying to appeal to far too many audiences without nailing down any single one in particular. It’s a game that has been dragged down by its corporate influences and was hyped to an extreme amount. Yes, it ultimately is an enjoyable and well-crafted experience but it doesn’t have much heart nor soul behind it. However, I’m excited about what Ubisoft has in mind with the sequel that will inevitably come because there is so much potential for this franchise. Just keep in mind most of it hasn’t been met yet, this game is just the baby steps.