Watch_Dogs is something of a divisive game within the GamingExcellence offices. Senior Editor Andrew Sztein has been rather agog over the game since it was first announced and was rather fond of the experience in his recent preview. A few others on staff, notably myself, were far more skeptical. Would it be a revolutionary experience that redefines open world games or was it going to be GTA but with some hacking to it? Would it be an amazing game that broke borders or are we looking at another disappointing open world experience?
Step into the shoes of Aiden Pearce, a man who has lost his niece to an attempt on his life that went awry and now acts as a vigilante in Chicago. You are thrust into what is referred to as a “Smart City”, a city where everything is integrated into one operating system referred to as the ctOS. While it is used to run things like security cameras, banks and city infrastructure Aiden has managed to access it and can use it for a wide variety of effects. The most basic lets him hijack security cameras to scan areas before moving into them but at its most advanced you can turn the city against your foes, bringing up bollards and spike strips to stop pursuers or even blowing up streets via water mains to stop pursuers dead in their tracks. It’s a great idea for a game and puts a unique spin on the open world formula.
I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how Watch_Dog’s story is nothing but an afterthought. This is so far from the truth it isn’t funny. The story might be a bit on the cliche side but its well told and the characters, especially the one’s who aren’t named Aiden, are really interesting. Everyone has their motivations that are understandable, even if they are cartoonishly simple in some cases, but they all feel like actual characters. Honestly Jordi, one of the hackers you align with early in the game, is actually one of my favorite characters out there right now. The guy feels like he’d be right at home in a Saint’s Row game and the more evil he got the more I found myself enjoying him.
From my perspective the main issue with the story itself is a rather... uhh... well I’m not sure how to put it. The best way I can think of is to say that “Woman in the refrigerator syndrome” springs right to mind. There are four main female characters in this story, two are dead before the story even begins and provide motivations for the events of the game. Another spends about 80% of the game kidnapped and the last one is there to act like a main character and then get offed. That last might be a spoiler if it wasn’t blatantly obvious by the way the game plays out. It truly feels like the only reason the game even has females in it is to use them to motivate the men. This, in light of Ubisofts recent statement about female protagonists, paints a grim picture of what’s going on over there.
From a gameplay standpoint a big issue with the story is that most of the game is a giant fetch quest. For example, in one part of the game you want to get the data out of heavily secured building. To do this you’ll end up breaking into the compound, finding out how secured it is and leaving. Then you go through four missions to find a way to plant a bug that will allow a blackmailed gangbanger into a secured room before manually guiding him via security cameras. Oh, then you find out that was for naught and have to charge in guns blazing anyways. The game is full of missions like this. While it might feel realistic in that nothing is immediately simple and you need to prepare for big missions it tends to drag on, slowing the story to a snails pace.
Speaking of gameplay, things tend to be a bit uneven. For every cool thing there is in the game, there’s almost always a “but” just waiting to be applied. You can climb over most objects in the world to make escape easy... but some objects can’t be climbed even when they seem like you should be able to do so. Cover is easy to use and protects you from enemy line of sight as well as bullets.... but sticking to cover can be so fussy that at times you’ll almost certainly die because of it now and again. You have badass hacking abilities that turn the city against pursuers... but you can’t shoot and drive which doesn’t seem like a huge issue early on but it becomes one. The list goes on. It doesn’t really negatively impact the playing experience but it is one of those annoyances that sticks out like a sore thumb.
Police chases, on the other hand, tend to be absolutely atrocious. The city is so big and sprawling that it’s hard to learn the ins and outs of the roads and alleyways. Until you do so it’s nearly impossible to actually navigate the city in any sort of fashion that makes escaping them fun or practical thanks to a city that feels entirely comprised of two lane roads and dead ends. Want to use the alleyways to avoid the cops? Good luck watching your map for one that isn’t just a random dead end or walled-in parking lot while the insanely aggressive cops repeatedly trying to ram you off the road into pedestrians. Want to use the blockers that were shown as a neat way to make pursuers crash? I hope you like running down pedestrians since those seem to be almost exclusively on foot paths connected to streets.
Pursuits work in multiple stages – first you have to flee the cops.You can’t lose them with evasive maneuvers as they avoid other cars and obstacles perfectly even if you create accidents for them. They’re more than happy to overtake you, ram you and force you to run over pedestrians (negatively impacting your Vigilante reputation meter) so your only option is to know where you can lead them to use the hacking to stop them. This frees you from immediate pursuit which you would think would be the end of it. But no, no such luck.
Instead comes what is possibly the most poorly implemented idea in video games since quick-time events – the ctOS Scan. See, the female police dispatcher can apparently activate radar type events in the city and these will appear on your map as yellow circles. If you drive through these they will slowly home in on you until they find you –apparently the cops know which car you’re in because magic. These circles are not static and will grow after appearing even if they don’t find you immediately because magic says that they know that you’re there. Plus remembering that ctOS is magic they will often know what road you’re using and put the yellow spheres right in your path. Even if you dodge them expect a sphere to appear in your face after a few moments and then grow enough that it’s inescapable, which produces yet more cops, a higher wanted level and more effort to escape.
So your only option is to blitz the cops with hacking magic, get away and then speed off like the devil himself is chasing you and praying you don’t crash horribly. Like you almost certainly do. Fantastic.
All of this would probably be fine if not for a few other poor game design decisions. Firstly cars control like crap. They either feel incredibly heavy and thus sluggish or utterly lacking in traction, causing you to slip and slide. In the course of normal driving this feels fine but once you get to high speeds it becomes an utter mess. Secondly there is no way that I’ve found to do anything to interrupt, stop or mess with the ctOS Scan things that they use to find you besides one consumable item you can craft… which the game doesn’t inform you of until you complete one particular story mission that’s introduced well after the driving missions are. Because that makes sense.
There are workarounds for all of these problems though. Motorcycles control wonderfully and are quite easy to use. Stealing a cop car is also a possibility. And while this does sound like a huge issue it isn’t for much of the game. Driving just isn’t a huge focus in this game. With the exception of miserable, miserable side quests that force you to drive a particular car from one location to another you can simply use shenanigans to deal with the issue. It’s not ideal but it’s not the “be all, end all” of misery either. Well it’s not until the game starts throwing driving missions at you in the main storyline which brings all of those flaws right out into the forefront.
Normally it’s not worth complaining about side content, since it’s optional, but Watch_Dogs developers seem to have put an immense amount of effort into giving you a whole lot of crap to do in the city. There are about twenty different types of side missions to engage in and it’s obvious that this is where a whole lot of development time went. Whereas in other games ignoring the side content is an ideal solution if they aren’t any fun, as they often aren’t in open world games, here there’s just too much of it to actually ignore.
Surprise – many of the side quests here aren’t that much fun. The driving missions are repetitive and not fun unless you’re truly desperate to race all over the city on annoyingly short timers or doing yet more annoying police chases. If that’s not up your alley you can engage in the ever exciting shell games or the obligatory texas hold-em match that many open world sandbox games feel obligated to include even though the randomizer for the cards is usually atrocious. There’s also some chess puzzles I enjoyed but most probably won’t and an overly annoying drinking game if really dull yet surprisingly hard analog stick fiddling is fun to you. Stopping Criminal Convoys and infiltrating enemy strongholds are fun to start with but get massively boring and by the time you finish half of them they’ve lost their luster as well since they’re never hard, just time consuming.
There are a few side activities around the city that actually defy your expectations and manage to be the exact opposite of sucking - I think the word is "fun". These missions involve hacking, notably hacking into people’s homes to spy on them or hacking control towers so as to synch with them (exactly like in Assassin’s Creed) and are quite enjoyable. There are also a whole bunch of investigation missions that see you looking to a serial killer or weapons shipments that are each fun in their own way and reward you with unique missions to finish off the mini-storyline each one carries on.
In addition to that there is another set of mini-games that are amazingly fun, known as Digital Trips. These are small devices that are seemingly placed in the ear and cause intense hallucinations that turn the entire world into something else entirely. There are four of these missions and three of them are flat out amazing representing a large amount of the fun that I had with this game.
First is Madness which puts you in the seat of a reinforced car set in what appears to be hell (so still Chicago). You must complete a couple of repeating mission objectives such as racing across the city of harvesting enough souls from the demons running around. It is gloriously stupid but fun until the missions start repeating. Next up is Spider Tank which sees you climbing across a city in a gigantic robotic spider tank armed with missiles and a chain gun as you battle the police. This is one of my favorite things ever – I’d totally play a game just based on this alone.
Alone is quite possibly my favorite part of the entirety of Watch_Dogs. Seeing as how the whole experience of this game is all about the interconnectivity of the world, both in its electronics and people, Alone changes the whole feel of everything by removing all of that. It’s just you trying to find the devices that keep spawning in the creepy robot enemies so they can be hacked, stopping the robots. Since you have few weapon choices, unless you take one of two perks or scavenge them in the world, being spotted is pretty much a death sentence.
The last game is crap and barely worth talking about but what makes these above three so fun is that they play so wildly differently from the experience of the main game. They require skills you’ve learned playing the storyline but to do so in very creative ways. Plus they have skill trees all of their own to really customize your playing experience. They’re really just a whole lot of fun.
It seems like playing online instead of bothering with the single player side activities might be a good idea but that’s even worse. This, admittedly, isn’t due to crappy activities but due to bad game design. All of these online modes are very easy to lose in but should you win you’re rewarded with bonuses that carry over to the single player mode. This is a nice way of incentivizing people to play online and if you really don’t care you can turn off the invasions of other hackers which is the best of both worlds. I’d even say that this is better than Dark Souls II. Unfortunately someone failed to realize that 90% of the people who play online choose to join matches and then quit when they’re losing even without there being a reward to doing so. Telling them that they’ll lose their “hard earned” bonuses by losing the game only makes them feel justified in doing so which makes them quit even more often. Add on the fact that there’s literally no penalty to just dropping out and you’re lucky to ever finish an online match that you’re winning even once.
With that said the online free roam, where you can grab some friends and screw around in Chicago without any of that pesky reputation to worry about is an absolute blast. Getting into absolute mayhem with a buddy, taking on the entire police force with grenade launchers and machine guns and just generally making a mess of the place is hilarious fun. It’s even more fun when you turn on friendly fire and blow your friend right the heck up. Or don’t. Just “accidentally” raise up a blocker in his face and watch him get launched off his motorcycle, bouncing around in high speed like a pinball. Hilarious.
Lastly, the final problem with Watch_Dogs is that it’s let down by the game design itself. For example if someone fires a gun at you but you decide to chase them down to deliver a non-lethal beat down upon them a pedestrian may call the cops. This is realistic. When they arrive, do they go after the gun wielding lunatic who is still shooting? Nope, they shoot at you. If the whole idea of the game is that Aiden is able to scramble ctOS enough that they can’t ID him and he’s off the grid for the most part how do cops know to go right after him? He’s not doing anything but let’s shoot the main character because he’s the main character, argle blargle blar. Either that or they shoot anyone who remotely looks like you. Small problems like this just populate the game and negatively impact the experience.
As this game was played on the Xbox One for the purposes of this review I have to admit that I’m a bit disappointed with the graphics. While I’m not a huge fan of GTA V I expected this game to look better than it, especially as it’s on a more powerful console. But no, that really doesn’t feel like the case at all. The game still looks pretty good mind you and there’s almost no slowdown when you’re in the middle of an intense firefight, explosions happening all around you, while a rain storm pounds down on you and dozens of enemies move around cover. So it feels more like they went for a smoother, more reliable experience as opposed to pushing the consoles. That said there’s almost no complaining to be had about the lip synch and main character facial animations, all of which are top notch.
Another top notch aspect is the voice work. I’m not entirely sure about this voice cast’s identities but every single main character delivers a damn convincing performance. I’ve heard complaints about Aiden sounding like he’s trying to make his voice sound deeper than it is but he honestly sounds fine to me. It’s no abomination like Christian Bale’s lisping, laugh worthy Batman voice. The sound design is honestly only let down by the soundtrack, 90% of which is just fairly lame. It’s just a lot of bands I’ve barely if ever heard of and even when it’s one that I know the song is unfamiliar. As someone who is as big of a music buff as myself this confused the heck out of me. That said, murdering enemies in a mid-game set piece to C.R.E.A.M. by Wu-Tang Clan is just beyond awesome.
Here’s the biggest problem with Watch_Dogs: the hype. Some parts of the video gaming press decided it was the greatest thing since sliced bread when it was revealed. Ubisoft was willing to ride this hype train as far as they could possibly take it which ends up working against the game in this case. What would otherwise be a great first game in a new IP ends up being intensely underwhelming thanks to all of the hype. Because that’s what Watch_Dog’s is: a good game. But as a new IP it is incredibly flawed in a number of ways that can be easily fixed in a sequel and the hype grinds it into the ground.