In hindsight, I'm not sure why so many of us were so stoked for Watch_Dogs, the latest open-world adventure from Ubisoft. When the game was first unveiled at E3 2012, it stood out largely because of its graphics and for the fact that it was something new. At the time, we were starting to feel the fatigue of having the same set of consoles for a long time and developers were pumping out unnecessary sequels and prequels to tide us over. Watch_Dogs was seen as a much needed breath of fresh air.
However since then, Watch_Dogs suffered from a 6 month delay, which really took the wind out of the sails of the hype boat. Not only that, but when we started to see trailers and gameplay footage closer to the games release, we all noticed that the graphics had received a noticeable downgrade on all platforms. Usually, I wouldn't give too much of a frig about graphics in games but considering that was one of the most impressive things about Watch_Dogs when we first saw it in 2012, it is easy to see why so many of us are disappointed in how the game looks now.
But is Watch_Dogs disappointing overall? Absolutely, but it's a still a reasonable game. While Ubisoft have plenty of experience with creating games within this genre, Watch_Dogs is definitely a more traditional take on the open-world genre. At a glance, it has more in common with Grand Theft Auto than Assassin's Creed or Far Cry. While Watch_Dogs has some mechanics that sound unique and clever on paper, they don't change the fact that the game is a fairly straightforward open-world game, that a lot of us will be very familiar with.
In Watch_Dogs, you play as a guy called Aiden Pearce. Aiden Pearce is one awful protagonist. If it wasn't for that plonker Yaiba -- the titular character in the horrific Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z -- I would have easily said that Aiden is the worst protagonist I have played as in years, but he's far too bland and boring to even win that dubious honour.
He's just a snarly, growly guy who's constantly brooding and murmuring about how he's going to avenge the death of his niece. That ludonarrative dissonance video game journalism term-of-the-generation rears its ugly head again as this character moans about how he's just a decent guy trying to set things straight, yet that doesn't stop him from killing hundreds of people, causing random car crashes and stealing money from those who have terminal illnesses. He's an awful character, and I would be willing to bet that he won't be coming back for a Watch_Dogs sequel. He's that bad.
The plot in Watch_Dogs is similarly dull and lacklustre. Its a revenge saga, wrapped up in shadowy, hacker overtones that are tedious and boring. The game has a "ripped from the headlines" sort of feel. In recent years, there have been many concerns about our privacy when using mobile phones or the internet and Watch_Dogs tries to tap into this, but it doesn't have anything interesting to say about the topic. Instead, you just play as a boring bumhole of a character who moans and groans from one cutscene to the next. I couldn't have cared any less about Watch_Dogs' story. It is atrocious.
At least the actual game is a lot better. Like I mentioned earlier, the game is a traditional open-world game. In between main story missions, you're free to explore the city of Chicago and it's a well-rendered city. I've never been in Chicago before so I can't speak to the authenticity of how it looks here, but it's a large environment with a lot of detail. As you are walking around on the streets, you will appreciate how many unique street musicians and freestyle rappers hanging around the streets. It's hard to surpass the amount of attention of detail that Rockstar pack into the Grand Theft Auto games, but I think Watch_Dogs comes pretty close here. It's also nice how the city is split up into different sections, each of which have their own special feel, so you never get tired of being in Chicago.
Getting around the city is also fairly enjoyable. Watch_Dogs has a vast fleet of vehicles, ranging from many different types of cars, trucks, motorcycles and so on. There are boats, but unfortunately, there are no air vehicles at all. The handling of the vehicles is very forgiving, which works well enough but I personally prefer the heavier and more realistic approach that the last few Grand Theft Auto games have had. Watch_Dogs feels much more like Saints Row or Sleeping Dogs, in that regard.
While the driving in Watch_Dogs is well-executed, there were a few minor things that bugged me slightly. Firstly, you can't shoot from vehicles, which just feels like an oversight, especially how you can still select weapons from inside a vehicle. Secondly, I thought that most of the cars felt very similar to one another. Obviously, there is a noticeable difference between a sports car and a van or something, but when just driving regular cars, there wasn't much of a difference there. It says a lot when your game has a mechanic where you can buy cars, but there's no reason to do that because your average vehicle always does the job.
Along with driving, the other main part of Watch_Dogs' gameplay is combat. This is where you can see past Ubisoft games like Splinter Cell and Far Cry influence the gameplay more directly. I say that because a lot of the encounters remind me of how Far Cry is set-up. Typically, there are a lot of guards hanging around in an area, and it's up to you what way you want to approach that situation, either through stealth or just through sheer violence.
So how is the gunplay then? It's rock solid. Most of the guns feel and sound well, the cover system works as it should and the enemy AI is surprisingly decent for an open-world game. You will hear them talking to each other when they are trying to flush you out and they'll often try to use grenades or flanking manoeuvres to do just that.
There's a large number of guns in Watch_Dogs but in reality, you are only going to use a fraction of them. Every weapon in the game has a star rating associated with it, which just means you will just use the weapons with the highest stars. You won't have the best weapons in the beginning, but money is so easy to come by, it really isn't hard saving up the funds in order to buy those weapons. So whether you are using pistols, assault rifles or grenade launchers, the standard third-person shooting in Watch_Dogs functions well but there isn't anything remarkable about it.
If possible, you should try and approach Watch_Dogs' combat scenarios in a stealthily manner as it is a more interesting and fun way to play the game. Stealth is also where the game feels like Splinter Cell. As you are sneaking around, tagging targets, performing stealth takedowns, it feels a lot like the last couple of Splinter Cell games, which is definitely a good thing. There is no "Mark and Execute" system here but instead, you just have good ol' Bullet Time®, which is handy if you need to comfortably perform a headshot with your silenced pistol.
On top of this, you do have gadgets to use. These range from lures which are used distract guards to a Blackout, which shuts down all of the electricity nearby and will shut off all of the lights. It's a pretty cool effect when it happens. The gadgets are an nice option to have but I hardly ever used them.
What I did use, however, was Aiden Pearce's mobile phone. Indeed, a lot of Watch_Dogs' marketing has revolved around the magical hacker phone, which can be used to steal songs from people's MP3 players to blowing up grenades on the belts of unsuspecting enemies.
On paper, Aiden's phone adds a lot to the game. In combat, you can use it cause parts of the environment to explode or you can cause a heavily armoured guy's headset to malfunction and because the noise in his ear is so awful, he is basically stunned which gives you the opportunity to deliver some serious damage. In reality though, these abilities really aren't that interesting.
When you are playing the game stealthily, that's where some of phone hacking stuff is a bit more enjoyable. It is gratifying the fact it is possible to wipe out an area of enemies without actually being in the area. You can do this by hacking the CCTV cameras that scattered just about everywhere and from there, you can hack various traps and when it all comes together, it is satisfying stuff. While this approach was novel and entertaining for a while, I ended up just blasting most of my opponents because that was more efficient.
Aiden's phone is most useful during the game's many car chase sequences. It is possible to lose pursuers just by driving very fast, but your mobile phones gives you a huge advantage. As you are driving, it is possible to control things like traffic lights, road spikes and bollards. A well-timed button press should completely trash whoever is chasing you, which is fun, especially the first few times you do it. It doesn't take long though to realise that setting off these traps takes very little skill, as the game tells you exactly when to press the X button.
As you are killing enemies, halting vehicles and finishing missions, you earn experience points which allows you to level-up and earn skill points. You can then spend these skill points in several different categories for things like hacking, driving, shooting, and so on. Most of these abilities aren't that remarkable but I would recommend spending a lot of your points on the hacking tree, as it gives you more options, particularly during the chase sequences.
Like in many other open world games, at any point you can just start killing pedestrians and causing havoc. There is no doubt that terrorizing innocents is fun (in video games, that is) but Watch Dogs unfortunately does punish you pretty hard for doing so. The game does have a morality meter, that can swing from being a complete arsehole to being a nice guy.
However, being a good person doesn't have any clear benefit. I guess random bystanders are less likely to phone the police if you hijack a car or something, but it's really not a big deal. When you are considered to be a bad apple, people will start phoning the police, even if they just see you walking around, which is a real pain in the backside.
I guess Ubisoft wanted to give you a reason to play the game like a reasonable person, given the fact that is what Aiden Pearce is supposed to be. However, punishing the players for causing chaos does feel rather restrictive. It also makes no sense how Aiden is able to hack money out of folks' bank accounts without getting punished for it whatsoever.
Watch_Dogs offers a lot to do. There are the main story missions, which are actually one of the weakest aspects of game thanks to the horrendous plot and poor mission design. Like Ubisoft's own Assassin's Creed games, they seem to think that missions where you have to follow a guy for a certain amount of time is fun. They are very wrong. Stop it, please! Aside from that, you will just do the usual driving and shooting sort of stuff.
There are also loads of side missions and random minigames to try out. The side missions again, aren't that interesting. There's a decent amount of variety, but it's nothing you haven't seen before. You'll be clearing out gang hideouts, driving fast cars from point A to B and destroying gang convoys. There is fun to be had here but it gets old after a while as the missions are fairly similar to each other. There are other side missions where you need to hack certain points around the city and while these feel unique to Watch Dogs, that doesn't stop them from being as dull as dishwater.
There are also Digital Trips, which are much crazier side missions that are completely disconnected from the main game. All of these are much more fun in concept than they are in execution. There is a Carmageddon-style game where you are running over demons, and there is another where you are driving around in a massive spider tank, blowing everything up. These are good fun. However, there is also a game which has you bouncing around on flowers and that's no fun at all, because if you mess up, then you need to start from the beginning. There is also a stealth minigame, where you need to avoid robots. It's dung. These Digital Trips add some much needed personality and colour to the game, but they feel so out of place and the fact these games are disconnected from the real world cheapens their appeal.
There is also multiplayer in Watch_Dogs which is influenced by games like Dark Souls and Mindjack. Once you get far enough into the game, it is possible for other players to invade your game. This usually happens just as you are about to start a mission, which is very annoying.
When you are being invaded, usually your goal is to hunt down whoever it is who is hacking your data. Invaders are skinned as a random non-player character, so they can try and blend in with other pedestrians. However, most of the time, invaders just try to find a good hiding spot while the victim is running around like a headless chicken. There is no doubt that fun, memorable moments can happen during these encounters but that is the exception rather than the rule. Most of these invader battles are extremely tedious and lethargic. It is much more fun being the invader rather than the victim.
There are couple of other variations. There is one where the invader has to tail their victim without being spotted, which is a bit more fun overall because the victim doesn't know they've been hacked in this instance, so the tension feels a bit more genuine. There is also a multiplayer mode where you have to race through checkpoints in the city while someone on a tablet or phone are trying to stop you by hacking traffic lights on you and stuff like that. There are also races, which are just a poor imitation of the great Split/Second and of course, they had to have a boring team-based mode where two factions fight over some data.
Watch_Dogs' multiplayer is not much fun at all. I love the idea of players entering other people's games out of the blue but it's not fun here and you will probably end up turning invasions off.
There is no doubt that Watch Dogs is big game though, and if you want it to, it could last you for a long time. The story missions alone would probably take you about 15 hours to finish but there's also the large amount of side missions to finish. I have played about 40 hours of the game and I still haven't done everything. The thing is though, I am not sure how many people would be interested in doing all of the side missions, as they are quite repetitive. Nevertheless, I still think you are most likely to get your money's worth with this game.
Graphically, Watch_Dogs looks good throughout but occasionally, it looks fantastic. When it is night and the rain is on, the game can look remarkable thanks to its lovely rain effects and strong lighting. Aside from that, the game looks sharp with great animation and good looking models used for weapons, cars, people, and so on. But it is hard not to be a bit disappointed after seeing that initial gameplay footage of the game that did look significantly better. Watch_Dogs is a good looking game, but it is not the next big step that we were looking forward to.
The sound effects used in Watch_Dogs are strong throughout. Plenty of beefy explosions and good sounds used for gunfire, though I think some of the weapons do sound a bit underpowered. The voice acting is passable at the best. The guy who plays Aiden Pearce provides a horribly clichéd gruff man voice that just sounds comical. A lot of the other more minor characters have French Canadian accents, which is also just silly. The original soundtrack is largely forgettable and the licensed soundtrack is rife with boring songs by unknown artists.
Overall, Watch Dogs is a slightly above average open world game. All of the core gameplay mechanics are well handled but the game feels very stitched together and incoherent. You could tell that a small army of developers slaved away on this game, and while there are glimpses of something special, the game lacks a singular, clear focus. Watch Dogs will probably entertain you for a reasonable amount of time, but it is only inevitable until that sinking feeling of disappointment sets in.
THREE OUT OF FIVE
(A balanced game that has a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, meaning that it alternates between being good and bad in mostly equal measure.)