Since it was first introduced at E3 two years ago, Watch Dogs has been one of the most anticipated games of the new console generation.
Boasting a graphically gorgeous open world Chicago in which the protagonist, Aiden Pearce, is able to hack into and manipulate the networked city to his benefit; the announcement of Watch Dogs carried a lot of promise – and expectations – as a brand new IP from developer Ubisoft, who also created the popular Assassin’s Creed franchise.
Originally slated as a launch title for both the PS4 and XBox One back in 2013, Watch Dogs was delayed until 2014 and subsequently received criticism over reports of downgraded graphics (from the more polished graphics originally presented at E3) and the need to make additional gameplay improvements.
Watch Dogs has finally been released and the question is… was it worth the wait?
Note: This is a non-spoiler review
Watch Dogs: The Clone Wars
I’ll spare you any feigned suspense. Watch Dogs is an interesting, compelling, fun and beautiful new IP that successfully attempts to straddle tried-and-true open world gameplay, while also introducing some new and innovative elements in order to establish its own identity as something more than simply a ‘GTA clone.’
I bring up Grand Theft Auto because from the moment you start to play Watch Dogs, the comparisons are going to be inevitable. Just like GTA, Watch Dogs follows the exact same formula of:
Drive to mission marker -> Launch mission -> Complete mission -> Collect reward
…rinse and repeat.
In between activating the main storyline missions, you are also presented with a ridiculous amount of side content and missions (too many in my opinion, to the point of distraction), allowing you to fully explore the open world city of Chicago and progressing through the main story at your own pace.
As much as I have enjoyed the GTA series over the years, I think I may have outgrown it and this is where Watch Dogs separates itself in my book.
Whereas GTA has gotten to the point in which it sounds like it was scripted by a team of 14-year old’s trying to win a bet for how many times they can stuff a variation of the word “fuck” into one sentence, Watch Dogs feels a bit smarter and intended for a more mature audience.
I have zero issue with profanity – and Watch Dogs employs it a’plenty – but when an average line of dialogue in your game (GTA) is, “I will fucking beat the fucking smile off your fucking fucky face, you fucking stupid fuck,” it gets old quickly and lacks any originality… but I digress.
It’s The Graphics, Stupid
I am the first to admit that I am a graphics whore, and a dirty one at that. I expect my next-gen games to take advantage of the processing power of my next-gen console.
A lot was made of the fact that Ubisoft appears to have downgraded the graphics on Watch Dogs since it first showed off footage of the game at E3 two years ago, along with having it only run at 30 FPS on both the PS4 and XBox One – when games like Infamous: Second Son can easily run at 60 FPS on the PS4, and at a native resolution of 1080p.
At times, Watch Dogs can graphically look like a ‘last gen’ game, especially when viewing textures up close. This isn’t a surprise, considering that the game is also available on the PS3 and XBox 360. However, so was Tomb Raider and developer Crystal Dynamics was able to release a sizable and absolutely gorgeous graphical improvement for next-gen consoles with their ‘Definitive Edition.’ So it’s a little disappointing that Ubisoft didn’t do the same.
But overall, the graphics look beautiful and I doubt anyone’s gameplay experience will be negatively affected by any thoughts that the game doesn’t look good enough, because it most certainly does. It just lacks the same polish as Infamous: Second Son did, or that Batman Arkham Knight (to be released later this year) undoubtedly will… two titles developed from the ground up exclusively for next-gen systems… the latter, of which, gives me a graphical boner just thinking about it.
So fear not, this game looks great… it just probably could have looked better, especially when compared to games like Second Son and Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition. This contrast and unfortunate comparison is most evident during certain (not all) cut-scenes, in which the character’s emotions and animation can appear lifeless and a tad flat.
Gameplay, Story & Characters
In the game, you play as Aiden Pearce, a hacker whose niece is killed when a job goes wrong and everything that follows is in the service of finding out who / what is responsible. As a character, Aiden is relatively boring and the voice acting falls pretty flat (think Christian Bale’s Batman…on a combination of Valium and NyQuil).
In fact, at no point during the game did I feel particularly moved or compelled by his motivations and story… it just gets the job done, as I focused on completing more interesting objectives and enjoying the game’s many well-done mechanics. For context, my current standard for measuring exemplary storytelling and character development is, The Last of Us.
What really helps this game to stand out is the hacking component, cover and fight system and the cast of interesting supporting characters (allies and enemies) that you are introduced to throughout the game via cut scenes and mission objectives. Additionally, the opening mission is a stellar introduction to the game.
Chicago is a completely networked city under ctOS, which is able to see, hear, record and access all electronic devices, cameras, construction equipment (?!) and the city’s transportation system (i.e. traffic lights, bridges etc). As Aiden, you are able to hack into ctOS towers throughout the city, which unlocks and gives you access to the personal information and devices of the many citizens that populate and bring life to the city of Chicago in the game, as well as control over much of the city’s infrastructure.
Aiden’s hacking ability is the main gameplay element in Watch Dogs that tries something new and innovative – of which the entire premise of the game rests – and it wildly succeeds in my opinion. As you travel around the city, you are able to access the personal information – including bank accounts (woot!) – of the citizens that you encounter.
This personal information is literally available for every NPC that you come across (although many phone and text conversations will repeat themselves) and really adds a very cool dynamic to the game. Not all citizen’s can be hacked however, only the ones who have vulnerable devices… but you will never be at a loss for phones to hack – and bank accounts to clear when you need some extra cash money dolla dolla bills ‘yall – as well as discovering (and preventing, should you choose) crimes about to occur, which can affect your reputation in the game.
In addition to hacking devices, you are also able to control the city’s surveillance system, bridges, traffic lights and many other elements to help you to complete an objective or to lose a pursuer, whether it be the police or an enemy faction.
No matter how many times I do it, it’s still immensely satisfying when I am to shake a pursuer by raising a bridge or lifting up street blockers that completely obliterate the vehicles chasing me. However, I will say that the police chases are kind of a pain in the ass and seem to take forever… not to mention the fact that the driving mechanic leaves a lot to be desired and can feel like you’re driving on glass.
Additionally, although you are able to hack items around the city to aid in your escape, you are sometimes traveling too fast to effectively make use of them. This problem is mitigated by the ability to use “focus,” which slows down time so that you can more accurately use traffic hacks, along with getting cleaner head-shots in combat.
In terms of mission objectives, hacking is also used to more effectively survey an area by using the city or a building’s security cameras, along with hacking into computer terminals and unlocking doors. This system requires line-of-sight, meaning you may need to hack one camera that is within your view, in order to locate another (perhaps hidden) camera that eventually leads you to being able to access the terminal that you need to hack. This system of hacking into cameras also provides you with valuable Intel about security forces and their movements, so that you can better plan your approach.
In one example early on in the game, it appeared that I might have to go in ‘guns blazing’ in order to meet my objective of infiltrating a building filled with security personnel in order to hack information from a computer within the same building. However, after some careful hacking, I was able to complete the mission without ever setting foot in the building or being seen by the guards.
Which brings me to another aspect that I love about Watch Dogs:
Combat, Cover & Stealth
Just about every objective in the game can be accomplished without firing a single bullet; this is thanks to the game’s great cover and stealth mechanics. Through the ability to craft items on-the-go like ‘lures,’ you are able to better move through an area by creating distractions or knocking out NPC’s quietly. In addition, moving from cover to cover is as easy as pointing to where you want to go and tapping a button.
I like this system a lot, as I get tired of games that seem to run on a rail in which you are constantly activating swarms of enemies or having to take a run-and-gun approach to everything. In fact, most of the fun for me was in figuring out how many enemy NPC’s I could take out without ever setting foot in a location, simply by bouncing from camera to camera and hacking into and overloading electrical boxes and other items in the environment that I can control to either distract or kill with.
The same goes for the combat system in which a non-lethal take down can be performed with the simple push of a button, along with aiming and firing controls that feel smooth and satisfying during those times that I need to get medieval on a mother fuc…erm, ‘bad guy.’
By the way, although many people will likely say that they love the grenade launcher to take baddies out, my personal favorite is still the silenced Spec Ops pistol. There’s just something appealing about being silent and deadly that has always stuck with me since my Splinter Cell days. 😉
I like having the choice of either using stealth or complete and utter bloodshed… it makes me feel more in control of my strategy and gameplay, as opposed to following a completely linear experience that has been laid out for me.
A Quick Note About Side Missions
As a mentioned earlier in the review, there is a LARGE assortment of side missions that you can do in-between main story missions… like a lot, too many probably. I have tried each of them and although most are pretty fun, they can be a major time suck with little reward.
This includes everything from mini-games, playing poker or chess, checking in to sites around Chicago (ala Foursquare), accepting “fixer” contracts, taking down gang hideouts and intercepting criminal convoys. You can also embark on “digital trips” which are definitely a unique experience worth trying.
There is certainly nothing wrong with having plenty of side content to keep you occupied (pls see: Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag), but in Watch Dogs it is used almost to a fault. This is because the game also constantly alerts you of crimes occurring nearby, along with other objectives, and I often wished there was a way to turn those alerts and notifications off.
One really interesting and innovative addition to the game is the ability to have your single-player experience “hacked” by another (real world) player. This sets off a timed cat-and-mouse chase in which you have to locate the intruder before they successfully infiltrate your phone or the other way around. Players who hack into your game – or you into theirs – have to blend in with the NPCs within the game’s environment in order to not draw attention to themselves or be caught. I have been hacked twice so far… one hacker was successful, the other ended up underneath my car where he belonged.
However, once a hacking occurrence by another player begins, you pretty much have no choice but to participate; therefore if you find it distracting, you can always turn this setting off.
But I will say that the ability for another player to infiltrate your single player game is pretty innovative and makes for some very unique and anxiety-filled side content. This, along with the ctOS mobile app for both iOS and Android, allows you to remotely hack into other player’s SP games from around the world.
Watch Dogs is a very promising, admirable and enjoyable first entry into what is clearly going to become a new franchise for Ubisoft. It is already the fastest selling game in the developer’s history, eclipsing both of their Assassins’s Creed and Far Cry franchises. Not too shabby.
Despite a relatively flat story and vocal performance, the real star of the game is the hacking mechanism that gives the player a real sense of power and control throughout their experience. For me, the game got a lot better the further I progressed into the story and I’m really enjoying it. Although I do not feel emotionally tied to the main character, there is enough exposition and context for me to feel motivated to complete the objectives, solve the game’s interesting puzzles, serve up some sweet revenge to the bad guys and unlock the many skill points required to level up my abilities as a hacker and fighter.
I also love the cover, combat and stealth mechanics. So, if you are a fan of open world games and/or the idea of hacking an entire city and bending it to your will sounds appealing, then I have zero qualms with highly recommending Watch Dogs. Ubisoft created a compelling world that is well worth your money and 30+ hours of your time.
Review System: PS4
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