“In spite of its hacking gimmick and mixed gameplay, Watch Dogs is a pretty good game that suffers from early onset Grand Theft-itus.”
The one thing that many gamers have been begging for since the announcements of the next-gen systems is a defining game that blows away the systems of yesteryear. For nearly the entire lead up to its release, Watch Dogs has been positioned by fans as some next-gen Jesus that will part the heavens and bring forth this new era. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint, but I’d question my faith if given only this game as a herald of things to come. However, it’s still a pretty good game that suffers from early onset Grand Theft-itus.
I could stop the review right here as it seems this was Ubi’s intentions all along: to get a hot slice of that sweet GTA pie. The weird thing is that they’ve kind already done open world gaming with Assassin’s Creed. I suspect one of the major reasons (besides NEW IP! SO FRESH!) is that graduating AC into a modern setting proved a bit too difficult. Instead, we’re given a new take on the genre with a slight dash of hacking action.
At its core, Watch Dogs is a simple revenge tale. You play as Aiden Pearce, who works in the shadows of the city as a “Fixer”: a kind of hacker who occasionally gets his hands dirty. The set up is that a job went south and your niece suffered the consequences intended for you. Now, you’re back in the game on a mission to hunt down her killer. It’s simple enough to drive the plot… and that’s about it. Mr. Pearce doesn’t have much of a personality beyond revenge mode dashed with the occasional bout of mixed feelings about his somewhat reckless methodology.
The other characters are pretty one-dimensional while filling out the checklist of any run-of-the-mill noir/spy story. You have the blackmailing former partner, the darkly humorous assassin guy, and the hacker chic that is pretty much Angelina Jolie’s character from the mid 90’s gem Hackers. There’s also the plot device in the form of your worried sister. Of course, things eventually get blown to hell as the stakes climb higher and higher. I can’t knock it too much as it’s decent enough of an incentive to keep you engaged from point to point.
Let’s clear one thing up now: the big to-do about which version looks the best or whatever is just petty. Watch Dogs is generally a really good-looking game. It’s not going to blow your mind or anything but it’s pretty enough. If you’ve got a console version, I’m sure you won’t even notice unless you’re prepared to set up to TV side by side for comparison. The bad news is that it’s been poorly optimized for the PC. Suffering from stuttering frames and generally sub par performance, the PC version has been a bit of a letdown. But that’s the version I opted for so, it’s my problem.
I’ll admit I’m not running on the bleeding edge of PC specs but my system can handle a good majority of games on ultra and just about anything on high. So when the game became a frame-y, jittering mess I wasn’t sure what was going on. I suspect that Uplay was to blame because you’ll need to pass through their check to run the game. After a good deal of trial and error, I was able to figure out a graphic combination that allowed suitable play. Despite this, it still gets the occasional hitch and anytime enough objects need to be rendered or loaded, the frames drop to single digits. Honestly, you might want to stick to the consoles.
The whole game is set in an iPhone lover’s wet dream future. Everything is operated through you mobile device thanks to this Big Brother system networked throughout the city. Aiden, through some deal of techno-magic, is able to piggyback into the system which allows him some neat abilities. Mostly, this serves as a way the destroy or evade potential threats.
For instance, you can hack into traffic lights or raise bridges to jam up the police for a clean getaway. You can also exploit security cameras, tag enemies, and use other hackable environmental objects to sneak by or blow up your enemies. One skill in particular is my favorite: some baddies have grenades which you can hack. It makes them do a little pee-pee dance of sorts as they freak out while trying to rid themselves of the explosive. It’s very satisfying when they don’t.
Many missions require deft moves and smart tactics to safely navigate the battlefield. However, you’ll need to be equally useful with a gun as shootouts occur often. Shotguns, assault rifles, grenade launchers all exist to perforate your foes. Most of the time though you’ll default to your silenced pistol for simple headshots. You’ll want to remain sneaky because Aiden is practically tissue paper for most of the tougher enemies.
This all reads great on paper but controlling Aiden can be bit cumbersome. Or sticky. It’s tough to describe as the camera can be somewhat finicky and attaching to cover can be just as frustrating. I often found myself trying to struggling to line up a shot or keeping my head down. Navigating from cover to cover is slightly less bothersome as it’s a simple button press to quickly slide over to a new place. Really, the shooting is serviceable and nothing more.
Driving, on the other hand, is hot garbage. Vehicles are unwieldy, fishtailing and spinning all over the road as if driving on ice. I suppose it makes for more intense chases but becomes a real chore during a few of the missions. Doubly so when attempting to escape from the insane police AI.
Beyond the story, beyond the base mission, lies a sizable world to explore. Watch Dogs, if nothing else, it provides tons of sideshow attractions. As with any open world games, you have a plethora of collectibles as well as things to do off-mission. Whether, you want to do them or not is dependent on how much of the game you want to see. Most of them have pretty generic objectives – race from here to there, follow this guy, raid this base, etc. Some are a bit more interesting, like the digital drug missions which become very videogame-y tasking you with bouncing from flower to flower on a psychedelic trip. There’s also one where you have to turn on generators while escaping evil robots. They’re neat and definitely more amusing than the standard gameplay.
And really, that’s what Watch Dogs is… just slightly better than your standard open world game. Ubisoft certainly needs a fresh IP because despite Assassin’s Creed 4‘s superb gameplay and polish, that franchise is quickly getting stale. Watch Dogs makes a solid, if mediocre, debut. With a sequel practically given, their sophomore attempt will hopefully provide more polish and maybe a better grip on the hacking gimmick. It’s not exactly the groundbreaking, next-gen experience that Ubisoft probably wants it to be but if you’re into these types of open world crime games you could do a lot worse. Not the ringing endorsement, I know, but if you’re were already interested then check it out I guess.