The wait is over and watch_dogs is finally here, bringing with it all of its technology, intrigue as well as a lot of expectation. Does watch_dogs seek to revolutionise the sandbox genre, or is it one to be left in the dog house?
Watch_dogs follows the story of Aiden Pierce, a grey hat hacker who, after a job goes wrong, inadvertently causes the death of his niece as mobsters target his family to get revenge. This causes Aiden to swear revenge on those who were involved in his niece’s death and sets him on a path which will have him contend with most of Chicago’s criminal underworld. The story is your standard revenge thriller fare, with Aiden using his ability to manipulate ctOS, Chicago’s city-wide information network, in order to track down his enemies whilst also acquiring new allies, discovering his initial revenge plot leads him into a bigger criminal underworld.
The main problem I have with the story is that it is just uninspiring. The hook for Aiden’s revenge is not that emotive or original, the story only starts to gain speed in the second act and Aiden himself is just dull. He is a gruff bloke with a magic phone. He has no real charisma, besides making a ‘look I’m so droll’ quip every so often, so I was not very invested in what happened to him during the course of the game. The supporting cast isn’t much better, with the exception of Jordi who brings some much needed humour and enthusiasm to every scene he’s in, while the game’s villains just seem cartoonish and not at all threatening. The story eventually picks up speed about midway through act 2 and you’ll want to see it to the end but you won’t remember it 3 months from now. It tries to tackle some interesting topics like human trafficking and government surveillance, but the mediocre script stop the game’s story from being at all memorable.
The gameplay however, fares much better. By manipulating ctOS, Aiden’s magic phone performs all sorts of actions like hacking into cameras, blowing up steam pipes, stopping trains, changing traffic lights and much more. You definitely feel like you are the master of the city when you are hacking and it feels incredibly satisfying to pull up bollards just at the right time to make an enemy crash during a car chase, or blow up a transformer to send gunmen flying during a firefight. The camera hopping mechanic I found especially fun, as you feel incredibly smart when you are able to hack into a server room without disturbing a single guard or being spotted by an enemy.
You always feel satisfied when you finally find the optimum solution to a camera puzzle.
Unfortunately, the hacking feels fairly limited after you’ve played for about 5 hours. Once you’ve done a couple of missions with a camera puzzle or escaped a few car chases by raising a bridge at the right time, there isn’t much else to offer. Most of the hacks are variations on ‘make something explode’ and the novelty starts to wear off when you have to do yet another mission where you have to jump from camera to camera to hack a junction box. Don’t get me wrong, the game does some really interesting things with the hacking, like one mission where you have to guide someone out of a firefight by jumping between cameras in order to scout where enemies are, but these a few and far between as the game goes on. Also, the Profiler mechanic, which reveals information about peoples’ lives, bank accounts and so on, starts to repeat itself after a while. I ran in to 3 people in a row who made chainmail and have heard the same phone conversation about 4 times but it does not really detract from the mechanic, which is quite fun.
The gunplay is functional, with Aiden being able to use ‘Focus’, which allows him to slow down time in order to shoot out enemies or weave between cars at high speed. The cover system works well, with Aiden being able to pop out of cover to shoot at enemies or carefully sneak between cover in order get past guards undetected. This is one great element of watch_dogs, as it allows almost any encounter to be completed by either going in all guns blazing or carefully sneaking around guards. Some of Aiden’s hacks, like the Blackout tool, really help in stealth and make you feel like you are in control of the situation, especially when you sneak past a whole room of guards to hack a computer, then escape undetected.
The only problem I have is that the guns don’t really have a weight to them, making them all feel very similar and that the game does force you into an incredibly annoying boss fight, where you are forced to use explosives and have to contend with randomly spawning armoured enemies, with you having to listen to the boss’ boring monologue every time you die. It feels incredibly jarring and feels at odds with the rest of the game. Also, the lack of an ability to shoot and drive at the same time is incredibly odd, as you see an enemy do it in the opening cutscene. I suppose it is to make you use the hacks in car chases but it seems more of an annoyance to me.
There is a certain voyeuristic pleasure to profiling people on the street, even if flavour text does repeat itself.
You cannot criticise watch_dogs for skimping on content. There is loads to do in this game, be it doing optional Fixer missions, finding hidden QR codes, playing poker or discovering hidden weapon caches, you will not run out of things to do in watch_dogs quickly. An obligatory hacking minigame comes up, similar to the one in Bioshock, but they are fairly sparse and never last that long. Watch_dogs does have some humorous additions, like the Privacy Invasion missions which have you hacking into someone’s house to spy on them, involving some kind of gag like two friends playing Kinect and looking like morons. The problem with this density of content, is that many of the additions seem like throwaway objectives added in by committee. The ‘Digital Trips’ are the key offenders here; Saints Row-like missions which have Aiden jumping between psychedelic flowers or piloting a robotic Spider Tank to cause havoc in the city. These missions seem like Ubisoft are trying to have the silliness of a game like Saints Row as well as the usual side stuff you’d find in a game like Grand Theft Auto and it just doesn’t work.
Another problem is that, besides the hacking, watch_dogs doesn’t really have its own identity. It feels more like Ubisoft’s greatest hits, all rolled into one to create a veritable smorgasbord of unoriginal, but still fairly enjoyable content. The shooting feels straight out of Splinter Cell, the map layout and the search for ctOS towers is ripped from Assassin’s Creed (complete with very limited parkour) and the variety of side objectives feels very much like Far Cry. The game adds some of its own twists to these tried and true sandbox staples, like the ability to hack a camera during poker to check an opposing player’s hand, but way more could be done to make the game feel really unique. Again, it is not necessarily bad, but it makes the game feel more like a homogenised sandbox like any other, rather than innovating this genre which the game seems to market itself as doing. If more time was spent on making each individual mission utilise the hacking mechanics really well, instead of bundling in loads of cookie cutter activities, the game would have felt a lot more of its own, rather than an amalgamation of loads of others.
While the game’s presentation looks nowhere near as good as it does when it was first announced back at E3 2012, it still looks very impressive. Chicago really feels alive when compared to other sandboxes, the city is full of NPCs talking and interacting with each other, rather than simply following pre-set patterns. The weather and lighting also add a lot of atmosphere, with Chicago feeling really dreary when a storm rolls in or vibrant when the sun is rising. The original soundtrack for watch_dogs is very effecting too, punctuating missions and key scenes very effectively, with its heavily electronic sound. The music selection in the game however is a bit lacking, with many tracks being pretty forgettable and lacking some obvious additions. The exclusion of songs like ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ baffles me.
While Chicago may not be the most iconic city, it certainly feels like a bustling one.
As for the online component, I appreciate their efforts but it didn’t engross me. While it is incredibly well integrated into the single player game, with you being able to join online sessions whenever you profile a purple, I either found them fairly boring or weighted towards one side. The ‘invasions’ (Dark Souls much?) which have players randomly come into your game to hack you, seemed intriguing at first but annoyed me after being invaded a few times. I had about 4 instances where I was just about to start a story mission, when the game told me I was being invaded and I had to wait until it was over.
The problem is that the person being hacked is at a major disadvantage as you have to run around like a headless chicken, frantically searching for the hacker while they, more often than not, camp out in a dark bush or really odd hiding spot until they’ve hacked you. Most of the times, sessions for me descended into waiting until the hacker had reached 80% and the circle indicated where they were became super small, pulling out my gun and randomly firing into the crowd hoping to get the person. Luckily, you only lose Notoriety Points which are exclusively for online interaction when you get hacked, but I still found them an annoyance. The other features are fairly standard, with you being able to free roam, race, play a form of capture the flag where you have to protect a file from the enemy team, or a mode where you have to race against a person playing on a tablet. Again, this could have been fun but as with the invasions, the advantage is given mostly to the person hacking abilities.