REVIEW – “One computer system to rule them all!” This could be one of the catch-lines of Ubisoft’s much anticipated open world game, Watch Dogs, where in a hyper-connected world, Chicago has the country’s most advanced computer system – one which controls almost every piece of city technology and holds key information on all of the city’s residents. You play as Aiden Pearce, a mastermind hacker, who became a bitter vigilante because of a violent family tragedy which he feels responsible. Swearing vengeance Aiden is on the hunt for those who have hurt his family while he still tries to protect those dear to him. The whole city of Chicago, with its interconnected systems becomes his ultimate weapon as he monitors and hacks all the people and every electrical systems which surrounds him. The main question is still whether Watch Dogs itself delivers on the extreme amount of hype which it generated?
It’s hard to make a killer open world game nowadays. While constructing a whole city which convincingly breathes and lives around you, adding an interesting setting and story, and a cool character with whom we identify ourselves, the game still needs something extra to stand out in today’s flow of similar titles. Breathtaking graphics are nice and all, but it’s not enough anymore if you want to motivate your future buyers. Recent open world titles managed quite well with the “extra” bit: in Grand Theft Auto V we could switch instantly between the three extremely likeable and well-shaped main characters, Assassin’s Creed IV made the pirating part very well, and inFamous: Second Son dazzled us with its multiple super powers. Watch Dogs major selling point is the hacking part so we were curious whether it is interesting and well executed enough to hold the game together? Yes and no…
Steve Jobs always liked to give the user extremely simple interface in every products, so Watch Dogs hacking system would showcase his vision perfectly. Yes, this means that you can hack everything with one button: the smartphones of people passing by, any doors, gates in your way, electrical grids, traffic lights, everything. It’s a bit like the one-button mashing in the combat system of the first Assassin’s Creed game. It’s good and bad at the same time: while it’s nice to progress and fast and really feels like you are an all-powerful god of hacking, it over-simplifies the gameplay a bit.
On the other hand the game has still its own challenges: finding the perfect security camera from which you can hack systems easily while hiding from the guards sometimes isn’t easy at all. There are also hacking mini-games, which are way more entertaining, than the stupid Frogger-style ones in the modern part of the otherwise excellent Assassin’s Creed IV or any other hacking sub-games in other titles for that matter. Since intrusions in computer systems is the main premise here, making it tiresome would be a major issue. Fortunately it’s rather fun.
Still sometimes hacking part feels great first, but gets a bit tiresome later. While being chased by cars for example the “look Ma! I can hack traffic lights to stop pursuers!” effect dissipates after a while – especially because this tactic hardly works anyway.
The need for speed
With the car chases we have reached one of the more problematic parts of Watch Dogs: the driving itself. Whether to use realistic driving or a fun, arcade-like experience was always the main question for Rockstar in the Grand Theft Auto games: while they used the former in GTA IV, they have switched to the latter in GTA V and we had an extremely polished experience in both games. The real problem with Watch Dogs is that that being behind wheels is neither realistic a la GTA IV nor arcade fun like the one in GTA V and it’s sure isn’t polished either.
The physics of the vehicles are average at best and while driving some sport cars feels really good driving the others is pretty dire. For example heavier vehicles are really a chore, I tried to drive a big camion for a short session and I quickly abandoned it because it was such a bad experience. I understand that the game is generally about hacking stuff and getting away fast or chasing other hackers but it would have been nice if just mucking around in Chicago would be really fun but sadly that isn’t the case.
Al Capone’s home
On the other hand Chicago is very well represented. There are lots of people in the city walking in the streets, talking on their phones or to each other or doing other mundane, everyday tasks. Almost everybody looks different, and I didn’t spotted the same conversation twice (and there are a lots of them!). The city itself is huge with diverse and very true-to-life looking streets, buildings, shops, cafés and more. I have never been in Chicago but because of Watch Dogs I would like to visit it once.
Also the graphics of the game are very good even if the resolution is only 900p and the framerate is limited to 30 FPS. With such a limitation however one wonders about the enthusiastic statement of Ubisoft’s graphics designer Colin Graham who said that the “PlayStation 4 affords developers almost an unlimited memory budget, allowing them to create richly detailed and immersive worlds”. If this is indeed true and not pure marketing BS, then why on Earth couldn’t the game have 1080p resolution and 60 FPS as it was first shown on Sony’s website, then changed to 900p and 30 FPS some days later?
That said Watch Dogs is sure a looker, with nice day and night lighting, rain and water effects, nicely detailed buildings and cars reflecting their surroundings. Make no mistake: it’s still pretty far from inFamous: Second Son’s Seattle and the overall graphical prowess the Sucker Punch’s game but it’s certainly an upgrade from Grand Theft Auto V’s PS3 visuals even if not an enormous one.
Most of the characters are also rather well shaped, while others still looks like they were made on previous generation consoles.
24 meets William Gibson?
Storywise the game is rather interesting if not particularly exciting. With a bit bland and boring start it gets better and more interesting as the game goes on. In the first act the main motivation of our hero is to a) get revenge for the death of his niece b) to protect his sister and his nephew and we are told about both by himself ad nauseam. In the second act however the story gets appealing with more and more remarkable characters appearing, end some exciting events added to the show. Once again make no mistake: it’s not on par with a Grand Theft Auto story, neither using such rich characters, amusing conversations or funny situations like in any of Rockstar’s games.
Aidan Pearce himself is a sympathetic but a little bland main character. As the story progresses he becomes more interesting but unfortunately he still lacks the charisma of former Ubisoft main characters like Edward Kenway, Ezzio Auditore or Sam Fisher. Noam Jenkins wasn’t the best choice for his voice either: during conversations he’s okay, but when he is narrating the story, his monotonous, bored, sleepy voice lacks any kind of credible emotion or motivation.
Call the police!
“Motivation” however is the key word for the police or bad guys in Watch Dogs. Enemy AI is extremely aggressive in the game: they want to get you, whatever the cost. It also means that they are kind of blinded because of their own goal: it was hilarious to see police cars drive through and kill hapless bystanders just because they wanted to catch me. Yes, we are talking about the police which is sworn to protect human life at all cost. So during car chases police and bad guy AI is basically the same as in Driver and earlier GTA games: hard, extremely aggressive and not very realistic. Not having the possibility to shot from the car is bit of a bummer as well. Still there are some nice touches, like the ability to hide in the car while waiting still.
On the other hand the AI during combat afoot is pretty accurate and convincing. Guards will always inspect incidents and they get alarmed rather fast if they see you. If they already spotted you and you try to hide then they try to corner you, and they also call reinforcements. Well, maybe self-preservation isn’t their strongest suit, but it’s hard to find any games nowadays in which the AI is good at preserving itself.
Watch Dogs also has a vanilla cover system which is rather good when you are hiding but kind of lacking while in combat. You cannot really hide from bullets completely nor can have tricks like pulling the enemy from the back of the cover. Overall the cover systems is missing features compared to other games like GTA IV and V or the Uncharted series.
Overall Watch Dogs may be the victim of its own hype. It’s undeniably a good open world game with some nice hacking features, a decent story and pleasant graphics. Still it’s lacking the grandeur and polish of Rockstar Games and it’s not even in the same league with Grand Theft Auto V no matter, how hard the marketing buzz surrounding Watch Dogs wanted convince you otherwise. It’s most certainly worth to play but first forget all its hype. I know, it won’t be easy.
+ Hacking concept is interesting
+ Living, breathing Chicago with pleasant graphics
+ Story picks up after a while
– Driving part could have been done better
– Hacking is just a one button affair
– Police AI chasing after you way too aggressive
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Genres: Open world, third person, driving, action-adventure
Published: May 27