The hype surrounding Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs after its E3 2012 teaser début was well deserved. Here was a game that looked awesome, in terms of both graphics and gameplay. Here was a title that would show us the difference between what was then current-gen and the hotly anticipated next-gen consoles. The hype was deserved, because if Ubisoft delivered on the promises made by this trailer, we’d have a truly excellent game.
Let me be clear: Watch Dogs is a good game, but it does not live up to such lofty expectations. The game we have today is not the game we pictured when we saw that trailer. Is this Ubisoft’s fault for misleading us, or did the gaming public let their imaginations run wild?
Yes and yes.
Watch Dogs casts you in the role of Aiden Pearce, a freelance hacker-come-thug who quickly attains the ability to control a great many things using his smartphone. The game is set in a near-future Chicago, where everything from laptops to traffic lights, steam pipes to security cameras, are all controlled centrally by a single, massive system. Dubbed “ctOS”, much of your time in Watch Dogs revolves around exploiting weaknesses in this system through various “hacks”. These can be as simple as changing all of the traffic lights at an intersection to green, or as complex as causing a localised blackout.
When he’s not busy using his phone, Aiden is mostly running, jumping, driving or riding around the expansive and detailed free roaming environment Ubisoft has crafted in their interpretation of Chicago. Along the way, he will encounter other hackers – both friend and foe – and shoot a lot of people. Should you ever get tired of this, Ubisoft has made it almost impossible to run out of other things to occupy your time – there are so many side missions and mini-games available, I’ve not even had a chance to try them all before writing this review.
So let’s break this down a little – just what does Watch Dogs do well? Perhaps more importantly, what does it do poorly? Here’s where things get complicated.
I’m going to use a food metaphor here, so bear with me. Consider the following: bacon, sausages and white pudding. Now, if you’re not from the UK, you’re probably not going to know what white pudding is. I am here to tell you that it is horrible and tastes disgusting; one of only a handful of viands I actively detest. Bacon, however, is perhaps the most delicious of all foods.
So we have quite the contrast here. But what about sausages? Sausages, I could take or leave. I don’t particularly like them, but I’ll eat one if they’re on the go. I like them better if they have herbs, spices or other additions, but if they’re bland I might get sick of them a lot quicker. For the purposes of this example, feel free to replace the above foods with three of your own personal love / hate / meh combinations. Done? Good. With that firmly established, the following statement should make more sense.
Watch Dogs is a plate of bacon, with tons of different sausages on top. Some of those sausages are delicious, some are boring… and a few are actually white pudding in disguise.
Let’s start with the white pudding, because it’s much easier to pick something apart. Things that piss you off tend to stick in your mind and I can assure you that Watch Dogs has pissed me off on more than one occasion. Most prevalent for me are the voices in this game. Now in certain games, I have no problem playing with subtitles on; hell, I love JRPGs, which until recently have been walls of text in and of themselves. But in more cinematic and/or action oriented titles, I prefer to listen to the voice acting and concentrate more on what’s being displayed on screen, whether that be a cut-scene or just standard gameplay.
In Watch Dogs, if you turn the subtitles off, you’re going to miss a ton of what’s being said. The voice acting is great, don’t get me wrong – it’s the editing and the stupid fucking effects that ruin everything. Why, in this near-future scenario, do voice playbacks sound like they were recorded using a cassette recorder from the 80’s, in a pipe, from 10 metres away? I have excellent hearing, but when voices have been artificially garbled in this manner for what I can only assume is “artistic effect”, I have no choice but to turn subtitles back on. Even during normal talking scenes, it can be difficult to make out phrases. One of the characters in particular has a bit of a dialect; with the lip syncing in Watch Dogs being less than stellar, it’s one more reason to turn on that text. But the most annoying part? The subtitles often either race ahead or lag behind the spoken word.
On the topic of lip syncing, let’s segway neatly into graphics. I’m going to be blunt here and say that I am disappointed with the graphics in Watch Dogs. They come nowhere close to what was demonstrated in that first trailer. Hell, there are clips floating around YouTube that show just how poor some of the lighting effects can get: car headlights not casting any shadows is a prime example, but the worst has to be window reflections. Really, Ubisoft? A city intersection? Never mind that it’s a fucking bridge behind me. On the PS4 version that I played, there is also pop-in and a fair few frame rate drops.
Compare this to something like inFAMOUS: Second Son and Watch Dogs fails to impress. To be fair, however, Second Son was developed specifically for PS4, whereas Ubisoft have made Watch Dogs for just about every platform. It’s also the beginning of the PS4’s life cycle: graphics aren’t going to be universally amazing just yet.
Cosmetic issues aside, the gameplay can be just as flawed in places. The AI is, by turns, ridiculously stupid and hyper-intelligent (bordering on prescient). More than once during the game, I’ve been surrounded by police or enemies, taking cover to avoid their constant bullets. They shout things like “Don’t you think we know where you are?!” and “We’re not going anywhere!”. Yet by staying put, the police eventually got confused and thought I’d gone. They’d look around, moving as a group, checking the same areas over and over, never finding me. Then they’d wander off.
On other occasions, I’d be running from cover to cover in a building, never letting an enemy see or hear me, only for them to instantly know my location, probably because the plot dictated it. Tied into this complaint is the fact that this game forces you to kill people. I’m not complaining because I have trouble killing bad guys, but because I’d have liked the option to evade or subdue them instead. Again, to be fair, you are given this option some of the time, but with others you are not presented with the choice. Combat in this game is given preference over hacking and subterfuge to too great a degree, in my opinion.
Now hacking and stealth as a whole are bacon and sausages, so I’ll deal with them in detail a bit later. However, even these elements have white pudding dotted amongst them. Some stealth sections are ridiculously unfair, with one or two being instant failures if you get spotted by AI that can sometimes see you a mile off in the pitch black. Aspects of infiltrating buildings can be annoying, especially when you consider that despite all of your technological advances, your hacking attempts can be stymied by a closed door, forcing you to go in the old fashioned way. While the game is thankfully almost completely bereft of QTEs, the “pipe flow” mini-game when hacking into buildings becomes boring, followed quickly by tedious. My last gripe with regards to hacking isn’t specific to just that, but includes it by necessity: all of the various “upgrades” you can obtain via levelling up are completely unnecessary. There’s barely any sense of progression and no sense that you’re becoming “better” at hacking – the tools you have available from the very beginning are more or less the same as those you will have at the end of the game. This feels like a missed opportunity and renders moot the entire RPG-style mechanic.
Other areas of the game are less bothersome. You quickly learn that riding motorcycles is infinitely preferable to cars, since hiding from police is nigh-useless. More importantly, the ability to wend and weave through the omnipresent two-cars-abreast traffic on every road is much more rewarding than trying to squeeze through gaps on four wheels every five seconds. Not that riding bikes will help avoid enemies or police, all of whom will follow you to the ends of the fucking earth, constantly ramming you, never letting up. Only by utilising some of the game’s many hacking abilities will you stand any chance of evading these bastards.
That seems like a lot of criticism, doesn’t it? I’ll be honest, Watch Dogs is flawed in more ways than I’ve listed above. Those are just the failure highlights, if you will. That’s why I call them white pudding, because they represent the worst aspects of the game. But remember that this is a plate of bacon and sausages foremost: there’s much more to like than there is to hate. Those moments when you hack something in just the right way or take down a group of enemies unseen is where Watch Dogs really shines. Ubisoft have shown that they are capable of excellent gameplay design when they put the effort in, since the game is thankfully full of such events.
Take the hacking mechanics. As you’re evading enemies around Chicago, you can hack the environment at just the right moment to send your pursuers flying into the air or crashing to a halt, complete with cinematic slow-mo. On a more mundane level, you can use your hacking abilities to “profile” everyone around you, seeing all of their personal details and potentially benefiting from it. Someone rich? Hack their bank account and withdraw at the nearest ATM. Maybe someone’s in the middle of a conversation – breach their SMS to find the location of a hidden weapons cache or a pending gang meeting.
What’s refreshing is that you’re free to use your powers for good or evil. The game has a reputation meter as opposed to definitive moral ranking, which will vary depending on your chosen actions. In my playthrough, I went out of my way to stop any crime I came across. Sometimes, you’ll encounter it out of the blue – you’ll hear someone scream and exclaim that they’ve been mugged. A red dot appears on your map and the chase is on. Other times, your profiling will acquire data suggesting a crime is about to happen: this is the kind of shit I love. I mentioned in my preview that Watch Dogs reminded me of Person of Interest – the idea of using data to predict crimes that have yet to happen is awesome. You scout an area, find the victim, wait for the aggressor and try to intervene before the crime is committed.
Your reputation affects the way the population react to you. For example, I never once had someone call the police on me during my playthrough, since I was seen as a benevolent vigilante, taking down criminals and protecting the innocent. When I beat someone down with my baton, people knew it was because that was a bad person and I was taking out the trash. News reports indicated that few were willing to co-operate with the police in identifying my whereabouts. Even certain aspects of plot dialogue changed as a result of my actions.
The combat and stealth mechanics also deserve high praise for the most part. Infiltrating an enemy compound without being spotted feels immensely rewarding. Hacking into various cameras dotted around the area, scoping out and marking enemies, disabling their ability to call for reinforcements, distracting them to sneak past or take them out… all of it is amazing. Hell, even when you’re not directly fighting the enemies the game makes it awesome. During certain points in the game, you have to remotely “guide” people around areas infested with enemies, using only surveillance and hacking skill to get them to safety. I felt like Morpheus guiding Neo out of the office building and away from the Agents.
Cover based it may be, but the combat is solid. This is much more than your standard chest-high wall affair. If you’ve scouted out the area beforehand, the profiler provides a sort of augmented reality view of your surroundings. If an enemy is behind thin cover, you can shoot right through it. You can even line up head-shots from the safety of your own cover, then pop out to deal an instant one-shot kill. Environmental elements can be exploited by hacking them – you could raise a set of shutters to attract an enemy’s attention, then blow up a nearby power junction to kill them unseen. The feeling of power and control you get when you move around the battlefield like a ghost, manipulating your enemies into traps and diverting their attention, is one of Watch Dogs’ best features.
By now, you should be noticing that a lot of what is excellent about Watch Dogs is very closely linked to the complaints I had above. Combat can be terrible or great. Stealth is the same. I hesitate to even mention how awesome it is riding around Chicago on a motorcycle (performing actions strangely reminiscent of another scene from The Matrix Trilogy) because it almost goes without saying. The biggest issue I have with Watch Dogs isn’t any specific problem, but the fact that the good and the bad are so closely linked. It’s like walking on the edge of a knife.
And that’s where the sausages come in. To get to all of the delicious bacon underneath, you have to make your way through the sausages. It’s a sort of Schrödinger’s Cat scenario, where you’re not quite sure what the next mouthful will taste like. It could be a good sausage or a bland one, or possibly the dreaded white pud.
Take the plot for example. At its best, it’s engaging and compelling. I want to know what’s happening next; want to progress to the next mission. Most of the time, however, it’s just a device to keep the game moving and I’m happy to come along for the ride. But when it’s bad? Without going into spoiler territory, let’s just say that I had a hard time feeling any empathy, fear or sadness at any point during the storyline. There’s also at least one very blatant deus ex machina moment that had me scratching my head – it was like I’d missed an entire section of the story.
The thing is that this is entirely possible. One of the greatest strengths of Watch Dogs is that there is so much to do. Mini games and side missions are everywhere. You can go on “digital trips” where you become a robot spider and demolish Chicago. You can play poker or chess, take down criminal convoys and much more. But what modern Ubisoft game would be without a ton of collectables? Those warbled voices I mentioned earlier are often speaking about extra plot information on their cassette-quality recordings. You can learn a lot more than the main plot divulges by taking the time to hunt all of these down, potentially offering a much deeper insight into the storyline. I hope, perhaps in a second playthrough, to get all of these and learn all there is to know about the game.
I didn’t have much experience with the multiplayer aspect of the game, bar a few instances where I was hacked by other players. Sometimes (rarely) before starting a mission, I would find that it was “locked”, since I was being hacked by another player. This meant that I would need to track down, identify and then kill the intruder. Invariably, the player gave themselves away, since people are very bad at imitating AI and stand out like a sore thumb. What was amusing was the way people dealt with it.
You see, the player who is hacking you must not harm you in any way. Their job is to avoid being killed in order to steal your data, which becomes useless should they be identified or should you be harmed. The first time I was hacked, I spotted the person right away, but chose not to “profile” them. This meant that they could still potentially “win” the mission, even though we both knew that there was no hiding. So I played around with him, not letting him maintain line of sight. Smashing into him with cars, but not hard enough to kill him. Eventually, he got pissed off and shot at me, instantly disconnecting him and declaring me the winner. Victory through decisively irregular means.
Another time, I technically “lost” because the invading player escaped, though this was probably because I couldn’t stop laughing. He drove past me, very slowly, then stopped. I profiled him immediately, which caused him to panic. He tore off and purposely drove into Lake Michigan, then swam in a zigzag pattern towards the horizon. Try as I might, I couldn’t keep myself from laughing long enough to get a solid shot with my sniper rifle and he escaped. It’s this sort of potential for improvisation and emergent gameplay that gives me high hopes for the rest of Watch Dogs’ multiplayer aspects, ranking it as a bloody decent sausage at worst and bacon at best.
So what’s the final verdict? Like I said at the beginning, this is not the game we were promised and it’s not the game we’d hoped for. But that’s just as much Ubisoft’s fault for over-promising as it is ours for letting our imagination get the better of us. Those trailers painted an unrealistic picture, but the core elements of the gameplay remain almost unaltered. We took the teaser to represent the bare minimum of Aiden Pearce’s arsenal, when it actually represented some of the highlights of the resulting game.
Is Watch Dogs a good game? Fuck yes, it’s a good game. I played it from start to finish, with nary a pause, in as short a time as I could manage without compromising my experience. I know that the game isn’t even nearly finished and that I have many more hours of enjoyment to derive from it. Watch Dogs is a game that everyone can enjoy and that everyone should play, but it’s nowhere near perfect. It’s not the “next-gen” title you’ve been waiting for. Its flaws will have you cursing and its highlights will see you punching the air and chuckling at how awesome you just were, but mostly, you’ll just have an acceptable, enjoyable time. Even if you’re occasionally left with a bad taste in your mouth, bacon and sausages are still awesome.
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A twenty-something gamer from the North-East of Scotland. By day, I’m a Computer Technician at a local IT recycling charity, where I fix and build PCs. Outside of that, most of my time is spent either sleeping or gaming, which I try accomplish in equal amounts.