Interesting, unique and thought-provoking concept. Genuinely fun at times.
Awkward story and characters. Overall lack of identity.
It’s getting dark and I’ve been chasing this guy for almost 10 minutes now. 5 minutes ago I was pissed off and now I’m absolutely furious. My car stereo is blaring but I’m too focused on the pursuit to notice. As we weave through the Downtown Chicago traffic, I finally see the opportunity I’ve been waiting for.
As he primes to charge through a busy intersection, I raise the traffic bollards with one click of a button and he smashes straight into them. I quickly arrive at the wreckage to find him lying unconscious on the ground after sailing through his car windshield. I seize this opportunity to change vehicles and, to the horror of a flock of shrieking bystanders, proceed to drive over him using his own car. This pursuit is at an end and I want to make sure that the bastard is dead.
Moments like this arrive often in Watch Dogs. An open-world saga where everyone in this virtualised vision of Chicago appears to be either a thug, a criminal or a sexual deviant. After two years of tantalising demo footage, Ubisoft have finally fully introduced their beloved Aiden Pearce to the world.
In the world of Watch Dogs, Aiden is a hacker and a fixer. Someone the dark forces turn to when they don’t feel like getting their hands dirty themselves. After one final heist goes awry, Aiden is left to save his estranged family and himself from the city’s criminal underworld who used to be his employers but now only seek to do him harm. From the start, this gets confusing as Aiden’s intentions and true personality are never completely revealed.
Perhaps a metaphor for modern day digital Robin Hoods, Aiden is a character who seems just as content stealing from people as he is saving the city. In essence, his openness to pickpocketing innocent bystanders doesn’t make him too far removed from the protagonists of Assassin’s Creed but the modern day backdrop of Watch Dogs makes his actions seem far more sinister.
Indeed, it’s much easier to sympathise with someone who has just had their bank account details stolen from a mobile phone than a faceless resident of renaissance Florence who suddenly finds themselves sans-wallet and the fact that Watch Dogs highly publicised UI profiles every NPC by name, occupation, financial and social status doesn’t help. I have played some dark games in my time but Watch Dogs is the first one that has knowingly enabled me to hijack the life savings of a cancer patient. That was a low point.
Almost everything in Chicago is controlled by the CtOS, a single database that is responsible for controlling all from the traffic lights to the police force. It is Aiden’s unauthorised access to the CtOS that truly empowers him and makes up the majority of the uniqueness and appeal that has made Watch Dogs such an anticipated title for the last two years.
The CtOS is an extremely capable tool and allows for some truly inventive use of strategy however Ubisoft Montreal have also been clever not to overly force it on the player. In the right hands, an assault rifle is just as likely to get you out of a jam as device hacking however being able to inflict some real misery with just a simple touch of a button remains appealing throughout the game is likely going to be the route that most players take.
Visually, Watch Dogs manages to be both awe inspiring and dull at the same time. At night the city of Chicago gleams and looks particularly spectacular on high end PC’s and next gen consoles however the sections of the game that take place during daylight are not especially impressive and many of the character models and textures reveal that developer attention may not have always been equally divided.
Where Watch Dogs suffers the most is in it’s obvious requirement to meet the ageing specification of last generation consoles. For the most part, this feels like a game that was created for the Xbox 360 and then upscaled later to add fancy features for newer and more powerful hardware. Other than a slightly more vibrant city landscape and an increased number of multiplayer features, next gen early adopters are unlikely to find anything here that to fully justify for their investment. On every platform the game still just feels mostly like a homage to Grand Theft Auto V.
It has to be said that the amount of obvious inspiration that this game takes from GTA V cannot be understated. Mechanically it feels very much like a Rockstar game whilst retaining an Ubisoft visual style. Vehicles handle very much like those in Los Santos however where Watch Dogs fails compared with GTA is in it’s characterisation. Aiden’s partner-in-crime Clara Lille is your typical one-dimensional ‘sexy hacker chick’ and could easily be mistaken for a Franco version of the part Angelina Jolie played in 1995. Likewise, the game’s main antagonist is the most obvious and clichéd sadistic old bad guy that I’ve seen in quite some time.
It’s always nice to see a game that takes an interesting approach to multi-player though and Watch Dogs follows Assassin’s Creed by including more than just a run of the mill and entirely inappropriate online death match mode. The most popular 1-on-1 option offers players the ability to hack to each other and perform cyber attacks during single player sessions. An unwilling recipient then needs to find and eliminate the hacker before the upload is 100% complete and ever narrowing GPS tracker and a block on multiplayer hacking during missions prevents any possibility of griefing.
Ubisoft’s now trademark system of distracting you with side quests and collectibles is also ever present but somehow actually manages to be fun in this game. At any time, you can be tempted to stop a crime in progress or raid a local meth factory and the ingenious possibilities to complete such missions using CtOS really open up. I managed to take down one high-profile target by using street cameras and a hacked police radio to cause an all out war between a gang and some of Chicago’s finest. It was just a case of taking out the ring leader myself before standing idly by to watch the police do the rest of the work and burn the place to the ground.
Incidentally, PC users should keep in mind that a lot of technical issues have emerged regarding the PC version of this game game and it’s overall performance and lack of optimisation, especially on AMD hardware. Those who are interested in playing the PC version but haven’t pre-ordered may want to look around and ensure that the game will work to a decent standard on their rig before parting with any cash. There have been reports of huge frame rate drops and weak results even on high-end gaming PC’s.
Watch Dogs is perhaps best described as a hybrid between Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto. It’s a game without any real identity of it’s own and one that seems to miss the impossibly high mark that Ubisoft’s marketing team created for it. That’s not to say that it isn’t a fun game however, because it is and it’s one that I’m likely to keep on playing for quite some time. Those who go in looking for the next revelation in gaming are unlikely to find what they’re looking for but many of the game’s technical flaws are clearly due to the limits of last gen hardware and Watch Dogs remains an interesting and thought provoking IP that will hopefully move closer to finding it’s feet with the inevitable sequel.