Overall Score: 9.1
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Genre: Open World Action Adventure
Released: May 2014
Played on: PS4
Play time: 50+ hours
There is something special about seeing that first next gen game in action. This generation Watch Dogs had the distinction of being the first next gen game shown at E3 and it blew most our minds with its incredible graphics and interesting gameplay ideas. In the years that followed Watch Dogs was mired in controversy mostly over the clearly fake graphics that ubisoft were using to show off the game. The downgrades kept coming, then a delay and all of a sudden that first next gen title was not even a launch game and did not look next gen at all. Given the history of first attempts at new hardware usually being a simplistic take, Watch Dogs lost much of its luster. Against all odds though the final product turns out to be the best first game attempt in a new franchise Ubisoft has had in years. To me this is one of the best open world games I have ever played.
Watch Dogs takes place in modern day Chicago where the entire city is under the surveillance of a security company with a system called the CToS. You play as Aiden Pierce, a man whose motives are never really explained to start with we just know he is a hacker who does jobs to make money. Something goes wrong, he pisses off the wrong people and his niece ends up dead when an attempt at his life goes wrong. Now Aiden becomes the Vigilante; he fights crime and tries to figure out who killed his niece. It all sounds way more exciting than it actually is as the story is one of the weakest aspects of the game. All the elements for a good drama are there but the characters are sort of flat, the writing is plain and it never goes past general cliches. ))
The hook for Watch Dogs is the hacking mechanic which allows Aiden to hack into cameras, alarms, power generators, street lights, trains, even blackout the entire city. If this gameplay mechanic did not work the entire game would have failed, but Ubisoft was able to create an open world game that revolves around this idea of being a hacker and because of that Watch Dogs carves itself a unique chunk of the open world game market. Hacking is accomplished with the push of one button, you simply aim at the desired hackable object, press hack and the action occurs.
Hacking comes into play in nearly every aspect of play, but the core uses come when in combat or driving. The combat scenarios allow the player to either go in shooting or take the much more interesting and fun stealth approach. Most of the time you enter a restricted area with armed guards on lookout, you may then scout the area by hacking cameras and scanning the enemies. This works like Far Cry where once tagged you can see the enemies through walls. One new feature of scanning is that it allows you to hack any enemy that has a hackable object like a grenade which you may arm from a distance which leads to a hilarious moment where the guard frantically tries to save his own life. Some guards have communications which you may block so they can’t call in reinforcements. My favorite thing to do is to use the many explodable objects around to nearly clear an area before I even take one step. You can lure guards to certain traps, or distract them to easy get the jump on them. Of course you can just shoot everyone but then you would be missing out on all the hacking fun.
Eventually you will need to shoot someone in the face so in comes the very generic shooting mechanics. If you played any shooter in the last five years you know the drill. Watch Dogs even comes with the new favorite shooting mechanic, the slow down effect. There is the obvious collection of gun types but I mostly stuck to silenced weapons to stay stealthy. The actual guns themselves do not have the punch that guns from say GTAV had. When shooting, bullets don’t cause the same level of destruction as in GTA, there is also a total lack of blood making it feel like you are inside a PG-13 action movie. The gunplay is serviceable but not in upper echelon of shooters which is why I almost always stayed in stealth and used silenced weapons to move about.
Driving is the other pillar of a modern day open world day and the hacking adds some great new gameplay moments. I feel the way car chases play out offsets the sloppy driving controls which feels like all of chicago is covered in ice. GTAV this is not (see a pattern here), trying to stay on the road can be a mission on itself but in kind of works. Chases are ridiculous in part cause you slip and slide all over leading to some epic collisions, escapes, and random city destruction. As you drive hackable objects flash all over, if being chased an indication will appear on screen as to when your pursuers are right over a trap, just hit the hack button no need to look back as you do. If successful you will see a slow motion replay of your enemies crashing/exploding. Chases are thrilling as it is not just about evasion but smart use of the city infrastructure. Once again hacking proves to be a great new gameplay addition.
My personal favorite use of hacking doesn’t occur during the main action moments but during the exploration based side missions. Cameras are used like puzzle props requiring you to ride the cameras to a certain electronic panel that may unlock a gate for instance. Some side missions show a giant QR code spread across buildings and you need to discover which camera will provide the angle to scan the code. I love exploring and one of my favorite things about the Assassin’s Creed games is that exploring is a semi-platforming experience. Getting around and reaching hard to reach areas was an experience on its own. Watch Dogs retains this element but instead of being able to climb up every building you use cameras or hackable objects to explore. There are inspired moments of puzzle solving like one where you need to lower a entire open shipping container, drive a car inside of it, raise the platform up and then drive off of it to land on a roof so you can crash through a gate. There are a few moments like that, having puzzle elements all over is a huge plus for me and sets it apart from the GTAs.
Unlike the first Assassin’s Creed which felt empty, felt like a game that was still under construction, Watch Dogs comes packed with content. Almost too much content and many of it is totally unexpected. There are digital trips which lead to world altering mini games like having a full stealth game where you need to hide from robots. A carmaggedon-like game where you try to run over as many mutants as possible. The spider tank game where you control a spider tank obviously. All these games are not quick simple games, each has levels, leaderboards and upgrades to earn . I enjoy being surprised in a video game, when a game has elements of other genres it excites me. Not knowing what kind of gameplay awaits me helps me to become enthralled in your world. Though if you happen to be the kind of person who enjoys solid structure and a set theme that fits the game then these elements would drive you mad. There is absolutely no reason for a flower jumping platform mini game to be included into Watch Dogs campaign, the only reason it needs from me is that it is fun.
More traditional side content litters the game world at every turn. There are missions that involve a car chase, stopping a convoy of vehicles, and my favorite taking over a gang hideout which is basically an open base with one or more enemies you must physically take down, not kill, which leads to a completely free form approach. There are drinking mini games which are skill based button press challenges, a chess mini game, AR alien shooting game, a platformer like AR obstacle course, and hacking mini games. Some side missions lead to hacking into certain apartments where you will see a variety of scenes, from funny ones too depressing suicide attempts. At least it is interesting, it just never feels like the world is as interesting or alive as GTA. That said the side missions themselves I found to be more interesting as a whole in comparison, I would say I spent way more time on side missions than I did the actual missions. Just note that side missions don’t really add to the story or flesh out the game world in the way GTA missions do.
The main missions maybe the weakest aspect of Watch Dogs, not because they are poor missions, they just feel like more elaborate versions of the side missions you have already been doing. You will enter larger bases, or get into city wide car chases. There will be forced gunfights, forced escapes and of course in true Ubisoft fashion trailing missions! A handful of missions stand out, most involving this guy named T-Bone who created a giant mechanical traps shaped like dinosaurs which in one mission you can hack to kill enemies as they invade. If one sticks to the main story missions you maybe able to finish the game in under 15 hours and I would bet they would be underwhelmed. This is a game where you get out what you put in, if you just want to see missions and get out you will miss most of what makes this game special. Also of note is that the crime leading to a police chase mechanic is very poor in this game, some of the best moments in GTAs come from simply messing around in the world, any time out of a mission in Watch Dogs I felt bored.
The way online is integrated into Watch Dogs is another area I fell in love with. This game takes the Dark Souls approach of invasions, but they are very unobtrusive and almost optional. When someone enters your game their goal is to observe you and then start a hack where they must hide in a certain area and hope the host never spots and kills them. As the host you can totally ignore the invasion if you want, if you are not into the online aspects you may turn them off entirely. Personally I loved the hell out of this mechanic, it wasn’t about the shooting that macho I want to kill you bull of most online games. Instead it was about outsmarting your opponent. One mode ties into a mobile app where someone on the app controls the police and hacks the city to try to stop you from driving through all the checkpoints, this is a fantastic mode for both parties. There are the more traditional modes as well like a capture the hack mode and racing, though sometimes these suffer from poor net codes leading to lag and general chaos (skip to 2:05 for lol). Hoping in and out of the online to the campaign is seamless. The mode may not be as ambitious as GTA Online fit into the campaign in a way that GTA does not.
As mentioned before the graphics in Watch Dogs are not impressive. In many ways GTAV is the better looking game even though Watch Dogs does run smoother on the next gen systems. It is not butt ugly but nothing compared to what was shown years ago. I was pleasantly surprised to see the game be relatively glitch free, this feels like a very polished sequel then a first attempt at a new franchise. One major negative for me was the music which to me plays a big part in open world games. There are no radio stations only an ipod like playlist filled with music most people have never heard of. The mix in genres feels random, there are no major hits, and because there is no radio it completely loses that world immersion aspect.
Watch Dogs has quickly become my favorite game of this early new generation. It maybe more of a cross gen game than anything but at least it is a new experience because of the hacking mechanics. It never reaches highs of a GTA but it has this spirit of random play that I feel the last few GTAs have been lacking. As a big fan of this genre I found Watch Dogs to be a great breath of fresh air. Depending on what you look for in an open world game you may agree or greatly disagree with my review, if you are in it for that playground effect of random fun this game is for you.
Overall Score: - 9/10
Depending on what you look for in an open world game you may agree or greatly disagree with my review, if you are in it for that playground effect of random fun this game is for you.