Review: Watch Dogs

Back in 2012, Ubisoft released this trailer during that years E3. It was the first time the world had seen Watch Dogs and it looked amazing. At a time when the PS4, Xbox One and Wii U were all basically just rumors, this new game seemed to offer a glimpse of what the next-generation would offer gamers.

Originally a launch game for the PS4 and Xbox One, Watch Dogs suffered a delay of six months so Ubisoft could make it all they wanted it to be. Having now played the final product, I shudder to think how bad Watch Dogs could have been had it released without the extra six months of development. Because as it stands now, Watch Dogs is a highly average game. It aims for greatness, and succeeds in some respects, but more often than not it’s boring at best and frustrating at worst.

Watch Dogs is an open world, sandbox game that mimics Grand Theft Auto V and its predecessors, drawing notable influence from Ubisoft’s own Assassins Creed series. You play as Aiden Peirce, a hacker who wants revenge on the people who killed his niece. To do this, you hack your way through the city of Chicago, using your in-game smartphone to hack everything from closed circuit cameras, ATMs, traffic lights and even power generators.

It’s clear that Watch Dogs wants so badly to be GTAV, but it never manages to reach those lofty heights. Grand Theft Auto V managed to build a world where the characters were outrageous (almost comic, to a degree) yet their actions seemed totally believable within the context of their world. While you could understand Aiden wanting revenge on those who had hurt his family, using his unique skills to do so, more often than not I found myself questioning why I was doing what the campaign was asking me to do. The writing in this game varies from the clichéd (the by-the-numbers revenge plot, most obviously) to the bad (Aiden and his sister have an argument that seems more at home between lovers, not siblings). At times Aiden comes off as bipolar, laughing about the actions of one of his associates, before brooding about the death of his niece a minute later.  If the intention was to make us think he actually is bipolar, mission accomplished. But I’m actually quite sure it was not intentional. When you look up who wrote the game (Kevin Shortt) and see he was the mind behind atrocities such as Lost: Via Domus and Avatar: The Game, you start to understand how bad the writing in this game actually is.

Side missions pop up regularly, and often give you little explanation as to why you want to do any of this. At one point I’m told a crime is about to happen in a given area. I’m sorry, but how does my phone know this? And why do I want to get involved? I’m trying to track down my neice’s killer; I’m not trying to be Batman. At one point I apparently initiated a side mission where I had to deliver a car to a specific point in the map for a cash reward. While the motivation made sense, the mission particulars didn’t. I had 2 minutes to get the car to Location A. When I got there, I had to deliver a second car to Location B. Why? No one was there to pick up either car. And why did it have to be within a time frame. The answer is “Because it’s a game”, of course. But it breaks the immersion. That kind of feeling is death to an open world game.

Watch Dogs tries to differentiate itself from other games in the genre with a genuinely interesting new feature called hacking. But again, the implementation of this falls flat. Hacking shouldn’t be a line of sight feature; real world hackers don’t need to be able to see a computer that they want to hack to actually hack it. But that’s how it works in Watch Dogs. If you can see it, you can hack it. This leads to interesting mechanics, like jumping from closed-circuit camera to closed-circuit camera to find their power source, but more often than not it just feels gamey, taking me out of the game itself. Again, that kind of feeling is death to an open world game.

The game starts a year after your niece’s death, and Aiden already has a media profile with the inspired name of “The Vigilante.” With the way the game builds up your apparent notoriety, you’d assume Aiden is at the height of his hacking powers. But your skill tree is empty, meaning you have a lot of leveling up to do before you get access to the coolest abilities. It’s another example of the poor writing blended with poor implementation of a mechanic that is core to the game.

A lot has been said of Watch Dogs’ graphics, mostly because the final product didn’t deliver on the promise of the 2012 E3 demo. That demo, we now know, was based on a high end PC build. PCs are always going to be more powerful than consoles, even the PS4 and Xbox One, so it makes sense that the graphics had to be downgraded somewhat to match. But in making sure Watch Dogs ran well on current consoles, it seems like they may have gone a little too far. Playing on a Playstation 4, I couldn’t help but think that these graphics looked only marginally better than Grand Theft Auto V did on the Playstation 3. In some respects, it looked worse. Faces on some characters (most notably for me, Aiden’s sister) often look more store-mannequin than they do human.

Sometimes the graphics do deliver. Driving through the city at speed, or while out in the country, or taking in the world at night, the game can be remarkably pretty. But stand still, and buildings can look bland. Walking past a window, you might marvel at the reflection of the streetscape, until you realize it’s not actually reflecting the streetscape. It’s always that same straight road. It’s disappointing, especially when Infamous: Second Son, released a few months ago, has already shown us the promise of next gen visuals.

Controls are very much the same sort of set up you would expect in an open world game. Like the Assassins Creed series, the game will even tell you what button to push to interact with objects. There is a cover system, which is par for the course in an open world game these days, but it doesn’t always work as well as it should. In the opening mission, I found myself covering behind a desk in full view of onlookers, who didn’t say a word about me being there ‘hiding’, even though the situation probably should have called for it. Hacking is done at the push of a button (holding down Square), which makes it feel less of a game element unique to Watch Dogs and more of a gun that doesn’t have a trigger. I’m not a hacker, but I figure actual hacking should be easier than this. It seems like the makers of ctOS need to release a patch, pronto.

Driving in this game is serviceable, at best. It works, but it doesn’t work as well. The gold standard here is GTAV, which made driving a pleasure. In this game, it feels far more arcadey. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; indeed, some may love it. I could take it or leave it.

There’s a lot of other stuff which you could point to as an example of why Watch Dogs just isn’t that great. It has poor voice acting, particularly from the lead character. Long load screens are a problem too; I encountered a one minute load screen at one point. But overall, the game isn’t bad. It’s just not great. If you can look past the bad writing, the occasionally bad controls and the last-gen graphics, you can probably have a good time in Watch Dogs. But for me, it wasn’t worth the effort, which is disappointing for such a high profile release. Watch Dogs has apparently set some impressive sales records for Ubisoft, which means a sequel is likely. Hopefully Watch Dogs 2 can learn from this game’s mistakes, and deliver on the promise that even now seems so maddeningly close.

Final Score: 6.5 out of 10.

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