There has been a lot of coverage for Ubisoft’s Watchdogs over the last week or two and I’ve been both slightly surprised and thoroughly depressed by a lot of the coverage it received. The game itself has received more than its fair share of criticism, and for the most part I just don’t see why.
Perhaps my standards are just a bit lower than my fellow journalists, but that seems unlikely, as any who have read or viewed much of my previous offerings over the last two years will attest. Really, I was pre-disposed not to like Watch Dogs, I really was. The game itself is heavily influenced by Ubisoft’s opus Assassin’s Creed, understandably. The thing is, I’ve had no interest in that series since I became mind-numbingly bored with it mid-way through Assassin’s Creed II; a stance that was only further entrenched by a foray into Assassin’s Creed III. A debate on that series is best left for another time, but suffice to say the fact that Watch Dogs was reputed to be heavily reminiscent of the Creed titles was hardly acting as a recommendation in my eyes.
However, I found myself back home at the end of May following some charity work in Zambia and in that familiar position of being between games with nothing jumping out at me to play. We all have our own gaming to-do list, but I found myself looking down at my Xbox One and whether it was feeling the need to justify its purchase or just because I’m a gaming masochist, I thought I ought to give Watch Dogs a go. After all, along with Titanfall it’s the vanguard of the current generation of console gaming, so I should give it a look; for historical note if nothing else.
That, and I have something of a habit of seeking out games I’ll probably dislike and playing them anyway…
So, as I booted up the game, I was hardly anticipating a great experience. To be honest, I expected to be thoroughly bored.
What I actually got was a remarkably engaging and refreshing take on the modern open-world game.
Let me put this out there straight away; I should hate Watch Dogs; it shouldn’t work, but it does and I’ll try and explain why.
The game feels hugely derivative. I’m sorry Ubisoft, but it’s the truth. The game feels like Grand Theft Auto made by the guys who made Assassin’s Creed, which is funny because that’s basically what it is. From the core traditional mechanics to the aesthetics, this is reminiscent of the Creed and GTA titles massively; to the extent that if GTA 4 & 5 didn’t exist this game doesn’t exist in the same way it does now. That’s not really a criticism, as the GTA titles are the benchmark for open world metropolis gaming, it’s just something that would usually annoy me when present to this extent. The Creed games are present in the character movement and the mild parkour movement aspects.
The overall feel of the game is as if Desmond from the Assassin’s Creed series had escaped into modern day Chicago and Ubisoft had made a game about him and his magic phone.
The mechanic themselves work very well, with traversing the game world on foot or on wheels feeling just like Rockstar’s behemoth, if ever so distinctly less refined. In the same way, the combat, when it comes into play is thankfully more GTA than Creed, with the cover mechanics working pretty well all-round. I certainly never had any issues.
That’s it actually; the reason I like the gameplay despite myself. It’s got the fluidity of the Ubisoft series, but replaces the bits I hate about it; the god-awful tedium of combat and the uninspired game design; with much better replacement mechanics. The game’s slightly uninspiring nature as an amalgamation of the two series’ main features has resulted in a single enjoyable game experience.
On top of this is laid the game’s main unique selling point, the mobile connectivity and hacking aspect, which is implemented superbly and quite differently to how I expected. The use is often, but subtle; with a quick hit of the X button creating a desired effect or skipping from camera to camera. Again, it doesn’t sound like it should work, but inexplicably it does. There’s a real satisfaction from parking in a car next to a secure compound, using their security cameras to steal a passcode from a guard then hacking the security main frame then driving off without anyone being the wiser. Hell, it’s even satisfying when it all goes south and you have to bust out the machine guns. Couple that with the vast (and I do mean vast) array of said quests, missions, investigations, races and mini-games and you have a tantalising smorgasbord of choice that should appeal to more or less everyone.
It’s even superbly fun just to wander around the world profiling the public and listening into their conversations and the like. That’s the real measure of an open world game when it’s fun to just exist in the world it creates.
Don’t get me wrong, Watch Dogs has its flaws; the protagonist Aiden Pierce is far too gruff an Emo to be taken hugely seriously and the audio clips do start to repeat from the public relatively quickly. NPC detection and perception do sometimes vary wildly between blindness and extrasensory perception and you can often get stuck unable to climb over what is ostensibly a shin high wall, but the game earns the right to expect you to forgive them. In this sense it’s a bit like Red Dead Redemption; it’s got a lot of rough edges, but you don’t care, you’re immersed and willing to go all in and a few clipping issues aren’t going to spoil it.
While I can see where some of the criticism of Watch Dogs is coming from, the vast majority is massive nit-picking in the extreme. Maybe it’s born from the long delay causing expectation to rise, maybe I should be less surprised at unreasonable expectation in the games industry, but for the most part the game has taken a kicking that I for one don’t think it deserves.
Don’t even get me started on the whole ‘the graphics aren’t noticeably better than the last gen’ nonsense. People need to start to get beyond front and centre graphics and look at behind the scenes mechanical improvements.
While I fear Watch Dogs is destined to be one of the early console also-rans when the history of this generation is written, it really has more to offer than that. The real star of the show is the game world itself and if you let yourself get swept up in it and avoid stumbling over the rough edges here and there, there are far, far worse games out right now to spend your money on.
Oh, and the online stuff is actually quite good to, believe it or not, though the guy who turned his console off because he couldn’t find me in the time allowed can go to hell.
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Paul Izod is a lifelong gamer. Since he was old enough to tap at his Dad's PC's keyboard he's been a gamer. Dedicated and often opinionated, you can be sure he'll always have something interesting to say about the subject at hand. Find him on Twitter at @PaulIzod or @FaultyPixelUK or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org