It’s always refreshing when a developer and a publisher take a chance on a new intellectual property, and even more refreshing when the public get excited for it. ‘Watch Dogs’ from Ubisoft Montreal and Ubisoft was announced at E3 2012, and had been steadily gaining interest since then. Now, after a long wait (made even longer by a delay) Watch Dogs is finally upon us, and while it isn’t quite the open-world messiah we had hoped for, it’s still a fantastic title and a must-have game.
Watch Dogs tells the story of Aiden Pierce, a hacker vigilante who seeks revenge after the accidental death of his niece. Aiden works as a jack-of-all-trades of sorts, and takes on all manner of risky jobs for a variety of clients. I would elaborate on Aiden further, but the fact is, he can be summarised quite briefly as he doesn’t really explore his past or show any growth as a character throughout the duration of the game.
This wouldn’t be a problem if Aiden Pierce was fascinating or even interesting as a character, but the truth is, he isn’t. Thankfully, the missions and side activities make up for his rather cardboard personality.
Gameplay-wise, Watch Dogs is going to feel very familiar to anyone who has played a Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row, Sleeping Dogs or indeed any other open-world game. Controlling the protagonist took some getting used to at first, as Aiden isn’t the most nimble of people, and some things like the driving suffer compared to other gameplay elements like shooting, hacking and the mini-games. For the most part, the gameplay is adequate, but it certainly feels clunky at times.
While I probably shouldn’t compare Watch Dogs to other games (as I’m reviewing it based on its own merits and content), it’s hard not to mention the absence of blind-firing from cover. It’s odd that someone as proficient with weapons as Aiden Pierce wouldn’t take an easy headshot from the safety of cover if he could. The absence of such an easy to implement mechanic means that Aiden is frequently popping up from cover like a human whack-a-mole game, which seems a bit silly (and risky for the character).
Watch Dogs also sees some of the worst driving mechanics I’ve played in an open-world game. Eventually, players will get used to it, but at first they will definitely see their share of accidents and running over pedestrians.
It might also seem like a strange thing to mention, but I swear Watch Dogs’ graphics have actually been scaled back since we saw it’s debut footage some time ago. Graphically, this game does nothing for me and when I saw the first footage from the game after it’s announcement, I could scarcely believe my eyes. Perhaps it was stripped back because of its multi-gen release, maybe the frame rate wasn’t stable, I don’t know. In any case, the game looks fine, but not as detailed as one would expect.
Now, onto the hacking, which is the most unique feature of Watch Dogs, and probably the sole feature that gamers are keen to experience. Unlike the clunky driving and less than nimble protagonist, the hacking is implemented perfectly. Whether you’re in a vehicle or on foot, most of the hacking is as simple as pushing or holding a single button. These single-push hacks are akin to flicking a switch or overloading circuits, and are usually used to switch traffic lights, raise road blockers, explode power transformers or other simple functions. There are of course, more complicated hacks such as compromising networks or navigating from security camera to security camera to access hard-to-reach areas to accomplish mission goals, and these hacks are also achieved by using Aiden’s phone (initially).
Using Aiden’s phone and hacking ability does create some genuine excitement in Watch Dogs, as players will be able to use Aiden’s abilities to take down criminals, armed gangs and even cause massive blackouts in part of Chicago. They can even hack a criminal’s phone, causing it to explode and killing everyone around them. Much like the free-running and stealthy assassinating of Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs absolutely nails its hacking elements.
In terms of missions, mini-games and activities, Watch Dogs offers a ton of content, and well varied content at that. There is of course, the main campaign, where Aiden embarks on a quest for vengeance and upon doing so, stumbles across a far greater plot. Then there’s a plethora of side activities, including augmented-reality phone games (AR games), digital trips (bizarre mini-games caused by altered brainwaves), slot machines, logic puzzles (using Chess pieces), perspective-based QR codes to find, car boosting, and online game modes. The online game modes include car races, tailing, decryption racing (racing to see who can download a file first), online hacking (think hide and seek) and a free roam session.
All the online game modes are fun, but the online hacking also blends into single player, which can frustrate some people if they’re trying to play the main story in Watch Dogs, as they are being interrupted. Speaking of being interrupted, your screen will constantly throw up side missions and activities at you, and there’s no way around it. You might walk past a criminal, intercept an incriminating phone call, or be invited to hack someone online. It happens frequently and it can get quite tiresome.
Watch Dogs is set in Chicago, albeit a very technology-focused Chicago. Every single person has a smartphone on them, and every single neighbourhood is jam-packed with cameras and networking devices which monitor everyone at all times. Aiden of course, takes full advantage of each and every one of these devices, as the player can hack smartphones, bank accounts, surveillance cameras, transformers, data networks and other items to complete his missions (the player can also hack things whenever they want for their own amusement).
I’m of two minds about Watch Dogs’ vision of Chicago. On one hand, the hyper-connected Chicago is a fantastic setting, both plausible and yet slightly-futuristic. I don’t mean futuristic in a Minority Report or Back to the Future Part 2 kinda way, but more in the way I can see cities reflecting that look and behaviour in the very near future. On the other hand, the story doesn’t really explore the parallels between our lives and those of the civilians in Watch Dogs, which is a shame. With real-life topics like social networking, hacktivism, and NSA conspiracy theories, I would have appreciated Ubisoft Montreal exploring these real-life issues in the fictional Chicago they’ve created. It feels like a missed opportunity, as there are inklings of paranoia and privacy invasion throughout the game, they simply aren’t explored. Instead, Ubisoft Montreal have chosen to solely present Aiden Pierce’s story, which is a pretty by-the-numbers affair.
- Huge amount of content
- Hacking is implemented well and a lot of fun
- Main story feels short, uninspired
- Clunky driving and running mechanics
- Lack of standard open-world features
I can see Watch Dogs getting a warm welcome in the games industry, and it does deserve it. While some of the game mechanics are a little underdeveloped or even tired (I’m looking at you, online races) the majority of gameplay is solid, and the game offers a unique experience that hasn’t been offered before. There’s something for everyone in Watch Dogs, even if its story feels a little flat.