Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4,
Xbox 360, Xbox One
Release Date: May 27, 2014
Rating: M (for Mature)
After having played hours upon hours of Ubisoft's flagship open-world techno-thriller, I can assure you of one thing—Watch_Dogs has nothing to do with watching dogs. Rather, it's about the struggles of a Punisher-esque vigilante dealing with the murder of his niece, the growing technological advancements in monitoring technology, and his own anti-establishment sentiments. What it all boils down to, really, is creatively figuring out ways to blow up bad guys with cell-phone hacks and various tools of destruction. Chicago is an open playground for you to experiment with and take revenge as need be. Are you the hero to end the shady ctOS program's control on the city, or the violent, take-no-prisoners vigilante with nothing to lose?
The game opens with protagonist Aiden Pearce botching a job. He's supposed to assist a brilliant hacker with stealing a mysterious file but things go sideways. After Aiden barely escapes with his tail between his legs, he finds his family threatened by the mysterious forces in control of the file he was after. Whatever he downloaded gets his niece killed in an accidental hit, turning Aiden into a growling rage-monster of questionable moral fiber. He claims he's a family man, but after playing the campaign's 10-odd hours, I get the feeling Aiden just loves to watch the world burn. Sound familiar?
On your quest for vengeance you'll first acquire the hacking smart phone, which can paralyze the entire city of Chicago with the press of a button. Streetlights, steam pipes, bridges, and more can all be hacked... if you've unlocked the abilities to do so. The more missions and side-quests Aiden completes, the more his phone becomes the instrument of survival. Hacking is crucial to evading cops, enemy fixers (re: gangsters), hitmen, and guards. Find yourself tailed by a speeding column of police? Blow the steam pipe when the prompt tells you to and you might knock a cop cruiser out of commission. Other situations might call for raising draw bridges or tripping traffic lights to cause chaos. The hacking isn't terribly deep stuff but it's absolutely necessary for getting out of more than a few sticky situations.
As much as Watch_Dogs preaches about the complex nature of surveillance and our increasingly tech-reliant society, I could have given less of a whiff about the plot. The initial overtones of government over-reach and political corruption under the guise of the helpful ctOS give way to a generic revenge story. The narrative dissonance between Aiden's motivations to help his family and his actual selfish actions that endanger his family is jarring. I suppose that's the point, but it feels out of place in a game that's supposed to make you a hacking hero of the people.
Speaking of being a hero, Watch_Dogs is fairly heavy-handed on those who are agents of chaos. Killing civilians, intentionally or no, incurs a heavy shift to the left on the karma scale. As a guy who didn't want to get arrested by the police anytime I walked by civilians with phones, it got frustrating when my positive karmic gains were immediately decimated by a rogue bullet or car swerve. If they can tweak the penalties to be a tad more forgiving, I'd greatly appreciate it. As it is, Watch_Dogs wants to discourage anyone trying to play the game like it's Grand Theft Auto.
Story missions are relatively straightforward, whether it's tailing a gang member you need to coerce or protecting one of your hacker buddies as he's trying to steal rival tech. Some of your allies, like T-Bone and Clara, offer in-mission support and feed you bits of plot exposition as the game progresses along. Sadly, I didn't catch anything all that interesting from the side characters and none of them remained in the picture long enough for me to get attached to them. While Clara is the most constant presence throughout your hacking escapades, she's always at a distance, making the campaign a largely solo affair. It would have been nice if my compatriots had taken a larger role in the narrative game world, but it wasn't a huge issue.
Despite a ho-hum plot and some less-than-stellar characters, everything about Watch_Dogs's action is well done. The gunplay feels relatively tight and focused. The implemented cover mechanic is usually reliable, opting to offer general (but not complete) protection of major body parts. All weapons are incredibly lethal on unarmored targets and the explosives blow up the surroundings nicely. Hacking adds a fun layer of experimentation during combat, even if your hackable options are limited. Raising a ramp for cover was always useful when I found myself badly wounded and in need of a reprieve.
The driving mechanics are solid, if a bit too loose. Cars tend to careen around the gameworld like pinballs, though incurred damage is mostly cosmetic. The handling is arcade-like and caters to those who don't mind smashing expensive sports cars into walls. In the online race modes, it can be incredibly amusing to see other players attempt to corner around intersections before plowing into a crowd of bystanders. Again, the driving is serviceable, but relatively unremarkable. When compared with how well GTA V's cars performed, I'm a little surprised Ubisoft didn't do more to make the driving enjoyable.
If you get tired of driving round and shooting things in the story mode, side jobs allow you to shoot more things. My personal favorites were the gang base raids, where you had to capture a gang leader alive, and the criminal convoy missions, which involved wiping out a whole mess of criminals. While both mission types generally devolved to killing guys as quickly and quietly as possible, they provided a decent enough distraction from the linear story missions. Other pursuits include tacking down a serial killer, identifying gun crates, and picking out human traffickers. Completing these earns experience to upgrade any of Aiden's currently available abilities, as well as special weapons and locked abilities. There's usually something new to grab, like the awesome Destructor sniper rifle or improved weapons handling.
Digital trips provide even stranger side games, some of it better than anything in the campaign. The Spider Tank rampage missions were the absolute best, pitting you against wave after wave of cops. The fake AR shooting minigames were also fun, especially when NPCs made small comments as you drunkenly walked by blasting aliens. The digital trips all have to be initiated at trip retailers, shady fellas standing on street sides that resemble drug hovels. It's a tad illicit, it would seem, but without the harmful effects of crack or heroin (...I think).
If any of this still isn't doing it for you, multiplayer offers a small suite of fun diversions that challenge teams of players to race, infiltrate, hack, and steal all sorts of files in competitive matches. The most common mode I played was Invasion, where I could sneak into another player's game and steal his or her information. The other player would attempt to ID me and, if successful, try to blow me sky high before I got away. Likewise, I also got invaded and had to play the part of the hunter, scouring crowds of civilians with my phone to find the one person that didn't fit. It's thrilling stuff, especially when you get to the team-based modes in encryption battles where one team will attempt to steal data while the other team has to kill the link. As mentioned earlier, some races are available if you're feeling ambitious. Of course, you can disable all of the multiplayer stuff if playing solo is more your style.
Switching off the game's online functionality does have one major hitch; any online Notoriety (experience) you gained is reset. It's stupid and a silly way to force online play, but I get why the devs implemented it. Watch_Dogs is all about the interconnected nature of technology, and what better way to ensure players stay online than to penalize them? Still, it's aggravating to sacrifice progress in the name of wanting to play the game on your own terms. I just wish I didn't feel like the game was yelling at me for wanting to do my own thing and stay solo.
I played Watch_Dogs on PC and, after all is said and done, this game is still unoptimized, even with the latest patch. The original review version I received ran atrociously with different assets like Vsync and AA enabled. I also ran into random bugs, including a few CTDs that frustrated my efforts. After the most recent patch, a lot of the bugs and stuttering issues have largely faded away. What still isn't implemented, however, are the visuals Ubisoft showed us in 2012. Watch_Dogs is a decent-looking game, no doubt, but that beautiful presentation we were shown isn't on display here.
In fact, the audio is better than the visuals, though some of the voice acting leaves something to be desired. Aiden's vocals sound like he's trying to grit and grind out every little line, from "Happy birthday" to "I'm going to stuff your body in a dumpster." Remarkably, it all sounds the same. The musical selections, which can be played anywhere thanks to the in-game smartphone, is relatively diverse. Not as sweeping as Grand Theft Auto's score, but a good line-up nonetheless. You can even hack songs from citizens if you so please.
The general gist I got from the presentation is that Ubisoft played it too conservatively with Watch_Dogs; the PC version doesn't have the graphical prowess of the older demos and the plot feels like a generic revenge story.....with some hacking. While most of the action is entertaining and many of the side activities are well put together, you get the sense that this was a dry run for Ubisoft. It dabbles in ideas of police states and over-stepped boundaries, but never fully explores or analyzes them either. It is, in a sense, a simplified look at surveillance states in layman's terms.
At the end of the day, technical issues notwithstanding, Watch_Dogs is a decent open-world experience. There's a good variety of activities to do when the mediocre story gets boring. Though some missions tend to get repetitive, the inventive digital trips and entertaining multiplayer modes offer a store of content that shouldn't be overlooked. This first entry in Ubisoft's new franchise is rough around the edges but shows a lot of promise. If the hacking is expanded, the commentary bolder, and the protagonist better developed, Ubisoft might finally have the modern open-world blockbuster they've been clamoring for.
+ Good combat and cover systems
+ Hacking adds a fun layer to the action
+ Solid multiplayer and side diversions
- Visual and technical skeletons aren't up to par
- Aiden is dull as bricks
- Plot isn't inventive enough to be engrossing
Overall Score: 6.5 (out of 10)
Watch_Dogs is a solid first effort from Ubisoft, but it needs a lot of polish to make the experience truly memorable.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Steam code provided by the publisher.