Discussion Review: Watch Dogs

Review written by Matt Litten & Stephen Byers.

Watch_Dogs

Stephen: Watch Dogs, E3 of 2012’s darling and one-time launch title for the latest generations of systems, has finally surfaced after six months of fixing and/or making room for Assassin’s Creed IV to sell in an uncanibalized fashion. When it was first revealed this new game seemed overly ambitious. It showed a city with crowds likened to the aforementioned Templar murder simulator set in a modern era with moving cars and dynamic pieces of cover. The character showcased was able to use some electronic means to look at everyone in the crowd and know intimate details about their life. Using this same power he was able to alter the way electronics operated and could hack utilities to devastating effect, as he was able to turn the city’s infrastructure against his enemies. I thought that there was no way they would be able to deliver what they were showing in a seamless fashion which could be implemented meaningfully. Well shut my mouth because despite weak storytelling and superfluous online modes, Ubisoft has shipped a polished open world game with a unique twist that creates new ways to solve old problems.

Aiden Pearce is a new kind of versatile mercenary called a fixer. Players assume the role of this all-in-one driver/assassin/hacker/thief who will take contracts from various nefarious persons to make money, protect the ones he loves and learn more about his off-center version of Chicago, IL. The game takes place in a city where cameras line the streets and all utilities, emergency response personnel, internet access and banking are controlled and monitored by the Blume corporation’s ctOS. Or, if you follow the not so subtle message of many of the characters in the game – itself made by a company whose last reported annual income was well over a billion Euros  – the Blume CORPORATION (Fictional legal entities created to limit made-up personal liabilities!  Beware!). On the plus side citizens of Nigh-Town have near constant access to the internet and can rest assured that their lives are more secure as watchful electronic eyes constantly scan for crime.  In addition to sacrificing any expectations of privacy for this benefit, a common operating system for an all-connected digital society means that fixers and other people with the means to hack the system can steal with no consequences and largely avoid any form of law enforcement. 

Pearce’s path in this world is a revenge tale to discover the identity of the people who ordered a hitman to take him out but instead killed a beloved family member after a big job gone wrong. It is an interesting setting, unfortunately the people in it fall flat. The main character is difficult to get excited about because he never gets excited about anything. He also only seems to be able to talk with affection of a disinterested and sulking teenager or growl like Christian Bale’s interpretation of the Dark Knight (also set in a town inspired by Chicago’s architected). The writing and plot never made me want to see what was going to happen and as a result the side content felt just as compelling as the main game. It is a shame that the story and characters are not better incentives to push forward the compelling gameplay.

The simplest way to describe this game is that it is an open world crime simulator with an extra hackable layer on top. At its core, Aiden will spend his time driving from A to B in an open city and will sometimes get out of that car to use it or other things as cover to shoot people.  Virtually every car that can be seen can be driven either by hacking the lock on it (represented only by the unlocking chirp and Aiden touching his phone) or opening a door and dragging the driver out. It is possible to approach many situations either stealthily with knocking guards out from behind and using silenced weapons to kill guards located further away or to rampage in and use a grenade launcher as an opening move. Unless the mission type calls for stealth or not killing anyone, there never seemed to be any incentive to not kill every enemy. I personally felt it was more rewarding to ghost my way through missions, but there was no actual incentive to do so.  A few are instant Game Over’s if he is detected, however many objectives allow for success if Aiden can escape the scene undetected or elects to murder all opposition instead – which is sort of like escaping, only from common humanity and decency, not the scene.  Like in most open world shooter games Aiden can carry dozens of guns at once and never seems to be at a loss for ammunition.  Grenades have to be crafted, or rarely can be found, but bullets flow through Chicago like water.

From a core mechanics perspective, the only thing that distinguishes this game from Grand Theft Auto is a smarter cover system. One button will pop our hacker hero into cover and he can move along that piece of cover or it is possible to indicate another cover point with the right stick and press another button, and he will dash to that second point or move around a corner, keeping his head down on the way. It feels like a more precise Gears of War system as it automates the execution of the cover-to-cover roadie runs. The only problem I had is that sometimes the game was slow to recognize my wanting to pull off of the cover when I got flanked.  It did not happen many times, but it happened enough so that it was clear that some refinement was in order.  The cars handle fairly well and have little arcade feel, as emergency brake turns are far harder to execute than simply slowing down slightly before taking a corner. Peeling around corners at sixty miles an hour is not the norm and it is very possible to spin out at low speeds when a car is given too much gas. The driving is fun and the cars handle differently like one would expect when the wheels are shot out underneath of them.

The hacking portion of the game is largely used to gather information and to tactically exploit things connected to ctOS on the fly. At any point Aiden can pull out his smartphone, which generates a dull, white light source as a nice touch, to profile people.  For every citizen there is a profile, as all of their lives are connected to the system.  This will reveal their name, occupation, estimated annual income and some secret about them.  These run the gambit from the mundane (“Owes alimony”) to the perverse (“Clown fetishist”) to the noble (“Volunteers at orphanage”) to the oddly included (“Canadian”), and only serve to add flavor to the world and help the civilians seem like real people.  Some saps have vulnerable phones and they can be hacked – accomplished by holding down the hack button – to steal money from their bank account or eavesdrop on their conversations and texts, which can lead to hidden gear for crafting one-time use items or side missions.

Dotted around the city are cameras seemingly covering every visible angle.  Fixers can hack these to temporarily take control of them to look around the environment.  Controlling cameras is nothing new, but here it is more useful as the Profiling and exploit aspect of Aiden’s hacking prowess can be used remotely as long as the camera can see the hacking targets.  Even better, cameras can be chained together. Aiden can hack one high camera and use the new vantage point to zoom in on another and hack into it and then use this second perspective to find another camera to find another and another.  Depending on the layout of a building, it is possible to go through it entirely as a virtual presence chaining from camera to camera to gather enemy locations or to trigger exploits remotely.  Many of the environments are given enough camera coverage so that this is possible.  It is very rewarding to reach a goal undetected having identified and avoided all of the threats by being prepared.  Any good fixer should never be surprised by a guard.

The hacking is not limited to cameras and people’s digital profiles, it can also be used to exploit ctOS’s control over the city’s utilities.  At its simplest, traffic lights can be hacked to sometimes trigger accidents as Aiden blasts through a green light and then turns it to red so that the flow of traffic crashes into some unlucky pursuers. If a criminal is fleeing the scene on foot, a burst steam pipe can knock him down.  For some reason grenades have ctOS chips in them and can be triggered on surprised enemies in the middle of a firefight. The system itself can be brought down by overloading a transformer, triggering a temporary blackout which makes it easier for desperate fixers to get away, and prevent others from exploiting the system. There are dozens of these exploits that can be used to great effect.

Probably the coolest one works like it does in one of the trailers, the ability to control the trains. For a long time open world games have had subways and above ground trolleys as a way of getting around.  They are sort of like an in-engine fast travel system that you would not use in a game that has instant fast travel to hideouts (like this one does).  When available they can be very useful in Watch Dogs as Aiden can control them.  Say you just beat the snot out of a meth cook and ran from the premises with ten guys with machine guns in pursuit.  It happens, and in Watch Dogs even using cover and exploits this may very well be a fight that is unwinnable.  Evading a group of enemies or the police is possible after a prolonged chase, though it can be very difficult with that many enemies, as they will call for more guys with machine guns after thirty seconds.  Borrowing a car, Aiden can speed through intersections and start taking out cars by slamming them into obstacles or blocking them with exploits, but if he happens to drive near a train station and a train is nearby, he can hack it to stop its movement.  Then, avoiding fire, run into the station, get on the train with the bad guys on his heels and activate the train just before they can get him.  He’ll ride off into his silvery chariot of freedom while they squawk on their radios about losing him.  When the circumstances work the exploits can make you feel like a digital wizard in a realized digitally dependent city.  When the circumstances don’t work out–for example when there is no train in the station–it is a good-looking open world crime game.

It bears mentioning that there is also a hacking minigame, because you can’t have a game with hacking without an abstract, neon light-themed puzzle element.  There must be an FCC regulation or federal statute to that effect, because if there is not I have no idea why there was any need to include a tired, uninteresting and predictable minigame. There are too many of these easy puzzle boxes clogging the flow of the game. The sole bright side is that they have nothing to do with the tactical exploits or camera play.

It is a little unclear from the way the game is presented, but in consulting with the Internet, Watch Dogs apparently takes place in an alternate version of 2013 where their Internet is more sinister.  I had thought that given the prevalence of smart screens and omnipresent internet access that hackable Chicago was five or ten years in the future.  Advanced enough that communications access is better and there is more processing power in smaller devices, but not so far in the future that there are robots or flying cars.  Sort of like 2014 vs 2004, many Americans now have smartphones and it is far easier to get streaming content online, but things are largely the same in the big picture.  In 2014 there are still gasoline chugging cars on the roads, there are roads, solar and winds farms don’t cover everything, people still go to jobs where there might not be a computer, and uninteractive television is still the most popular form of entertainment for most folks.  That Aiden Pearce is able to hack so much of ctOS with his unbranded iPhone leads me to believe that this was the near future, because it is hard to believe that he could profile and steal people’s money seamlessly with a [not] iPhone 5.  I can’t even play Angry Birds Rio and watch GI Joe on Netflix, that I might “Go, Rio!,” but he can change the traffic lights at a specific intersection and hack an individual grenade near him within two seconds.

Similarly, the government in Watch Dogs has invested a significant amount of money into an information system to monitor people and regulate utility systems, a more useful version of the NSA’s PRISM program, but it really stretches the imagination that Pearce has access to all this computer goodness virtually all of the time. In the boonies, driving through a tunnel, hiding from guards in the basement of a concrete and steel building, this guy’s got five bars. Also, I don’t remember seeing a charger in this game once, and my phone dies after two or three hours of websurfing. This might seem like nitpicking, but I basically have this hacker’s phone. I cannot believe that it could do all of the things he can even with constant wifi access, a warranty-voiding jailbreak and a hackable system. The “magic phone” in Watch Dogs would have been easier to buy if it was set in 2018, but as it is it can strain believability in a game where Ubisoft clearly wanted things to be realistic.

Another thing I don’t see in this bold future of 2013 are the Digital Trips. These can be accessed by talking to shady corner dealers or simply accessing the appropriate app on the ingame phone. In order to trip, Pearce inserts a special earbud that will cause his brain to hallucinate interactive realities with high-frequency sounds, sort of like an artificial lucid dream. Complete balderdash or no, I loved these side mission types far more than the other side content and in some cases more than the main game. Two are more visual displays with shallow gameplay. Psychedelic is a mode where Aiden will bounce high in the air from one flower to the next, and in Madness he drives a hotrod from hell into burning skulled souls milling about the city’s streets, trying to kill as many as possible, both taking place in and above the city streets. These look very nice and are far more colorful than reality, but they are little more than distractions.

On the other hand, the other two are great. Spider-Tank is as crazy as most of the missions in a Saints Row game as trippers pilot a giant mechanized spider that can slowly climb on the buildings of Chicago and destroy vehicles and helicopters with a pair of cannons and giant spider legs. Alone is a dark version of the city that is devoid of human life except for Aiden.  It is up to him to hack beacons to turn blocks of the city from night into day.  The unfreed blocks are infested with androids who search for the human trying to destroy them.  Unlike the NRA wet dream that is his personal weapon’s cache in reality, in the game-in-a-game he is limited to a few bullets scattered around town, but mostly can only knock enemies out by sneaking up on them.  The gameplay in these sections is fun as it forces players to be stealthy, in contrast to the always temping AK-47 option in the main game, and it has a great look.  The robots’ cone of vision is a literal beacon of light that shows exactly where they can see and will change color depending on whether they suspect the last man on Earth in their vicinity.  These Trips are a lot of fun and I wish there were more of them than side missions of the “go here and knock out and/or kill this guy, then escape” or the “drive really fast through these checkpoints” varieties.

Trips or no, how did you feel about cyberpunk Grand Theft Auto?  I am not sure what the “punk” part applies as the protagonist is in his forties, but it is a game where the extraordinary element is hacking. I also haven’t talked about the online modes. Did you have any fun mixing and fixing?

Matt: Assassin’s Creed + Grand Theft Auto + Splinter Cell + Hacking = Watch Dogs. I know that’s an oversimplification of things, but that equation really does sum up what this game has to offer. It has the open world crime action of GTA, the stealth and third-person gunplay of Splinter Cell, the mission/map structure and light parkour elements from Assassin’s Creed, and a really cool, if somewhat over-simplified, hacking mechanic that changes the open-world game in a lot of very good ways.

You won’t hear any arguments from me about the storyline. It’s not terrible or anything, just incredibly dull and lacking a spark to make you truly care about what’s happening in Ubisoft’s alternate vision of Chi-Town. As you already eluded to, Stephen, the characters all fall completely flat. Aiden Pearce is as plain vanilla as video game protagonists come, and his characterization is literally all over the map. He’s basically the cyberpunk vigilante hacker equivalent of Batman, as he uses his control over ctOS to track down the bad guys ruling the city as well as clean up common criminals attempting to rob businesses or attack victims in back alleyways. At the same time, Aiden has no problem killing people, hacking civilian bank accounts, tapping into the ctOS boxes outside of buildings to snoop into people’s houses and watch their odd personal behaviors, stealing cars and causing citywide damage. There’s never really any sense that he’s good or bad. He’s just kind of there, his twin-tailed trench coat and mask the only distinguishable thing about him. A reputation system goes up or down based on Aiden’s actions, but I never saw that it had any impact on the game beyond hearing news reports providing commentary on how Aiden’s viewed in the world. Sometimes when I had lower reputation it seemed like maybe civilians were quicker to dial the cops if I had Aiden doing illegal things in plain sight, but that was about it. Perhaps if I went all John Rambo on the innocent people of the city and swayed the reputation all the way to negative things might have gone differently, but unless you go out of your way to run over civilians it’s difficult to earn a bad reputation. Because no one knows its happening, stealing from bank accounts and hacking things has no influence over how Aiden is perceived by the public at large.

Ubisoft’s storytellers managed to do even worse at developing the rest of the game’s characters. All throughout the game it seems like you encounter a new character, play through a couple missions they are involved in, and then they either run their course or vanish for a littler while only to appear later on with no real consequence or impact. All of the characters are just so shallowly developed that it’s impossible to care about anything that happens to or around them. Many moments in the game, particularly during the final stretch, were obviously written to leave an emotional impact on the player, but they never do. So and so character dies. So and so character betrays Aiden. Whatever. I barely knew them anyway, and I barely feel like I even know Aiden, so I don’t care.

It’s a shame, too, because in terms of gameplay the campaign missions are generally well designed and a lot of fun. The final mission drove me bonkers, as did the occasional insta-fail stealth mission, but overall the story offers a diverse mix of guns blazing action, clever hacking-based stealth and thrilling car chases. The game as a whole might not be the “next-gen” revolution it was hyped up to be, but there are moments that occur that show glimpses at the type of emergent gameplay that will hopefully become more and more possible as developers tap into the power of the new age consoles. One particular moment stands out for me. There’s a mission where Aiden has to track a guy to a car dealership, sneak in the heavily guarded building and take out the target. I began the mission by casing the interior layout and guard placement from the outside by looking through the big glass windows. (I wholeheartedly agree with your point about how satisfying it is to use hacking to recon and execute a plan to perfection.) I also placed some remote IEDs around the perimeter of the building just in case. I then proceeded to attempt a stealthy approach, but quickly I was detected and the target decided to hop into one of the dealership cars and crash through the windows to escape. I was mentally preparing to find a nearby car to pursue it in what I assumed was going to be a car chase, but the bad guy just so happened to drive toward where I placed a bomb, so I quickly stopped and waited for his car to be directly over the IED as it came crashing airborne through the glass before using Aiden’s magical smartphone to remote detonate the bomb and eliminate the target in a way that felt like it was some perfectly choreographed Hollywood action movie stunt. That’s the type of free-form approach to completing missions I want to see more of. This game has a lot of them.

The side missions are far less dynamic, but there are a buttload of them, and for the most part they are enjoyable as well. The Digital Trips clearly are the standouts, particularly the Spider-Tank mission, which I could play for hours on end and never get bored. In similar virtual reality fashion, Aiden’s smartphone can also be used to activate augmented reality mini-games, including Cash Run, which is a speedrun challenge to follow a trail of golden coins while avoiding the red skulls that surround them, and a sort of Space Invaders turned third-person shooter wave survival game called NVZM. These games are fun because they overlay their pixelated neon graphics on top of the city surroundings, so as Aiden is collecting coins and shooting virtual aliens real-world citizens can still be seen living out their daily lives. Other mini-games, like Texas Hold ‘Em poker, slot machines, street shell games, bar drinking games and chess run the gamut in quality from pretty good to downright awful, so overall they just seem needlessly tacked-on to add extra gameplay hours for OCD completionists.

Some of the collectibles are pretty clever though. Like all of Ubisoft’s open world games, towers scattered across the city need to be climbed up to and hacked to unlock ctOS access in certain areas and reveal sections of the map. You’ve got audio logs and city hotspots to find. There are QR codes broken up into sections and displayed on different buildings, and you have to hack cameras in order to find the perfect vantage point that aligns the segments into the scannable code. They are sort of similar to some of the Riddler challenges in the Batman: Arkham games, so yeah, they’re a neat side attraction to kill time on. Strictly for their humor, the most fun collectible hunts are the privacy invasions which allow you to hack household cameras to snoop on the odd lives of Chicago’s citizens. These privacy invasions often contain some sort of Easter egg or funny pop culture reference, like one that involves snooping in on the conversation between a botanist cancer patient and his wife with a baby on the way, obviously referencing Breaking Bad. Other times you will spy on people having sex, masturbating to internet porn, angrily planning to murder their spouse, sitting down on the couch talking to a mannequin like a real person, and all manner of scenarios that are either disturbing or hilarious (or sometimes both).

The more normal side missions aren’t largely filler content, but they do at least serve their purpose of filling out the world with value-extending optional gameplay. You can sneak into gang hideouts to non-lethally take down marked targets, ambush criminal convoys along marked routes, deliver stolen vehicles within a time limit, race through checkpoints while avoiding cop detection, rescue civilians from everyday street crimes like assault and robbery, and so on. The objectives within each mission type all seem to play out the exact same way (except for the criminal convoys since you have greater freedom to set up ambushes by creating roadblocks, placing roadside IED traps, deploying environment hacks or using all-out brute force), so after a while they sort of blur together and feel more like padding than actual fun. The way side missions are unlocked also seems completely arbitrary. For example, I completed all of the gang hideouts up to there being one left, only that one remaining hideout was nowhere to be found on the map. Not until I wandered around the city, completed other side missions and profiled an uncountable number of pedestrians did the game finally decide to make the final gang hideout mission available. I was annoyed to say the least.

As for online play, I honestly don’t have much to say. I’m not a PlayStation Plus subscriber, but I did use the 2-day free trial that came with the game to play around with the other Aiden Pearces of the Watch Dogs online community. While I enjoyed the multiplayer car races and the team-based and every man for himself decryption battles (steal a file and then play keep away from the other players to earn points as the file decrypts, sort of like DM/TDM mixed with hacking-style king of the hill), two days was all I needed to know that the modes are superfluous and in no way incited me to want to extend the PS+ trial with a full membership to continue playing. Online invasions, similar in nature to the PvP world invasions in Dark Souls, work without requiring a PS+ subscription, and they can be a lot of fun as the invading player attempts to hack the defending player’s world unnoticed while the defending player uses the profiler to track the location of the invader and then chase him down before he escapes. Unfortunately, in my experience player invasions always happened at the worst possible times, breaking my momentum of playing through a series of story missions or forcing me to continue playing when I was just getting ready to quit the game after a long session. But at least the game comes with the option to turn invasions off, which I quickly did after three inopportune invasions interrupted my progress.

Do you have any deeper thoughts to share about the online content, Stephen? Did you get to try the multiplayer free roam mode or the ctOS mobile app which has the PC/console player outrunning the police controlled by another player on an Android or iOS device? Also, what did you make of the money, skill trees and reputation system? Did you find them as useless as I did?

Stephen: The money is almost completely useless after a certain point and this is nothing new to open world games.  It is largely used to buy new guns and one time hacks or explosives. This sounds great, but I found a set of guns that I liked and stuck with them until the end of the game, and the materials to make explosives tend to be easy to find.  Sort of like Saints Row, Pearce can call for someone to deliver a car for him outside of missions (it will spawn somewhere off camera as though someone just drove it up) and new cars will often have to be purchased.  Since most of the vehicles are not radically different mechanically, there is no reason to unlock them other than a way to relieve some of the need for completeness.

You must have had a better time getting people with a good connection than I did with the racing, as I found it to be poor to say the least. Ignoring the fact that the driving is not refined enough to the point where you would want to play this game if that was all there is, the main problem is what happens when there is any lag. If someone is connected and their online speed is bad, the game grinds to a slideshow.  I think this has to be related to individual players and proximity as there were a few times that I drove near the same player and the game slowed down, only to have it speed back as I passed him, for it to then slow down again as I had to brake to take a turn. This issue repeated over different matches with different players. Sometimes the racing takes place where everyone has a motorcycle, and this quickly devolves into a game of watching people fly as the motorcycles in Watch Dogs can get snagged on little things, as well as moving things like other motorcycles, with disastrous results. This can happen in the single player game, in multiplayer it is complete chaos.

Like a lot of the other “second screen” experiences, the iPad vs. real game player mode does not function very well and is only a neat idea.  In concept one player runs around trying to escape the police like he normally would in the main game while the other player controls “the system” and its resources.  I don’t know if it’s because the ctOS player does not have enough resources to stop fixers or if it is a lag issue but it always seemed like the player with a controller would win handily all of the time. The grownup hide and seek mode, which is the free segment of the multiplayer, is the most fun. A popular strategy that I have seen a lot of people use is to initiate a hack, profile and target the invaded player, and then get into a car and turn off the engine to hide within the car.  In the main game this allows Aiden to keep a low profile from police and enemies to allow him to effectively disappear from their radar until they come within touching distance of his car. This also makes it very difficult for players defending an invasion to find him as the profiler function of the phone will often glance right over them. More than a few times I had my victim run right past the car I was parked in as his data was becoming my data. Anyone wise to this trick will know to search all parked cars thoroughly.

The invasions can be turned off, but this will remove any accumulated notoriety. These points are used to grant perks like new guns or ways to make you better at defending invasions, so if they are off it is usually no big loss.  Whether they are online only perks or ones gained through the skill tree, all of these unlock-abilities are only things that Aiden would naturally get through playing. By that I mean that he could have started the game with the ability to temporarily shutdown ctOS, but he didn’t, you have to unlock it. They give a sense of progression as skills are gained and spent, but they do not serve as a reason to play through the game again. Many games with skill trees have them so that one member of a character class will play differently from another.  In Watch Dogs, there is no reason to not be able to acquire the majority of the skills, removing any chance to be encouraged to replay the game as either a “stealth” or “tech” Aiden. The skills also did not feel essential to the game, as there were several points where I had to remind myself to spend all of the skill points I kept getting. He runs, he guns, he hacks, he drives and the skill points do not change any of that significantly.

Besides a complete inability to handle online lag, the most negative thing about it is the way mission briefings are handled. Most of the time these are telephone calls where it is possible to run around and drive.  As a consequence while he is talking to someone about some gangbanger that needs to be dealt with, it is very possible to get to a mission marker to start the mission and interrupt the story.  I guess he can talk on his phone when he is driving, just not when he is on a mission. The bad part is that when the mission is over, the call that he was having beforehand will resume at the start.  Some of these calls can be a few minutes long and there is no way to skip them.  As a result, they can get mighty tiresome to hear the second time around.

Inevitably this game is going to draw comparisons to other games like it, probably to the relatively recent Grand Theft Auto 5. Even if the resolutions are upgraded for the upcoming rerelease, I do not think that Rockstar’s last game is going to look anywhere near as nice as Watch Dogs. It certainly is not going to have as many moving parts on screen at once nor the wide range of options available in solving problems.  I remember that dealership scenario; I handled it a little differently. I used cameras to discover that there was no way into the little room the target was in and that there were guards on every entrance. So I shotgun blasted my way through a side door and ran after the target.  He managed to escape the scene in a fancy showroom floor model, so I snuffed the guards in the way and stole a nearby car on the street to chase down the target, run his car off the road and then crush him under wheel as he tried to flee on foot. GTA5 does not have that kind of versatility. What it does have is a sense of self, interesting, well-acted characters and a reason to complete missions beyond the hope of a unique problem to solve. Put another way, if someone making the all but confirmed Watch Dogs 2 (Ubisoft recently stated that this is a franchise title) was able to headhunt GTA5‘s writers, they might be able to make the best open world crime game of all time. But since they plainly did not do that for this initial offering, what they have produced is a very solid game and nothing else. It is not a good story or cinematic experience, Watch Dogs is “only” a great game. It is just disappointing to think that it could have been more.

Stephen-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Wide range of ways to approach most situations
+ Hacking affects the world in useful ways
+ Offline the game looks sharp and has no performance issues

Cons:
– Online play has significant performance issues
– Bland story and characters

Matt: I wouldn’t necessarily call Watch Dogs a great game. I think it has a lot of great elements to it, but all of those great things are trapped in a game that is largely aimless and emotionally vapid. The inconsistencies in quality from moment to moment really wore on me the longer I played. At times the gameplay is so dynamic, with sneaky bits, car chases and gun battles that truly give the feeling that you are in control of the action rather than playing through missions scripted out by a group of game designers and coders. And yet at other times the gameplay can feel strangely antiquated, with mission objectives that restrict freedom and force you into completing objectives in a very rigid way, or else you will be greeted by an instant game over. The world itself is huge and well designed and has a ton of activities. It’s just too bad many of the latter side missions are locked away behind random unlock requirements that limit your ability to simply play through a full line of missions. This is especially annoying in post-story free play, where I have consistently spent time trying to complete all of a particular side mission type only to reach the end of the line and find that the last two or three mission icons have not appeared on the map yet, which means roaming around doing other things until the waypoints magically appear.

One of the more impressive aspects of the game that neither of us has talked about so far is the weather, which believably shifts from blustery winds blowing through trees, grass and Aiden’s trench coat, to thunderstorms with torrential downpour, to clear, sunny skies with wet pavement and puddled water showing signs of the passed storm. And yet as gorgeous as all of this looks in motion, little details like seeing Aiden walk or drive cars through water and not have the puddles displace or show any reaction are more noticeable than they would have been in the last generation of gaming.

After zipping through the campaign (the main mission series only lasts maybe half a dozen hours or so) and spending way more time than intended on collectibles and side missions, I find myself at odds over how much I actually like the game. To me playing Watch Dogs has been a frustrating experience. Not because it is poorly made or lacking innovation–on the contrary the core play mechanics and world structure are fantastic (I would say far superior to any GTA or other sandbox game before it). It’s because there are so many flashes of brilliance, and yet the experience as a whole feels like an incomplete thought, a bold, forward-looking idea that Ubisoft couldn’t figure out how to maximize to its utmost potential. I suppose that was always to be expected from an overly ambitious first game in a brand new franchise designed to accommodate both new and old technology, but as much as I enjoyed my time in Watch Dogs‘ city of fixers I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was playing in the solid yet hollow foundation of a virtual video game world that will one day achieve true greatness as future installments are built. But that day has not yet arrived.

If you like open world games with tons of collectibles and optional content offering pure bang for your buck value in the form of countless gameplay hours required to see and do everything, you will enjoy Watch Dogs a great deal. However, if you like your games to have purpose and a compelling narrative reason to hold your attention, the game’s frequently dynamic and exciting gameplay will probably just seem wasted on such bland storytelling and poor characterization.

Matt-TryIt

Pros:
+ Unexpectedly awesome digital trips and AR phone mini-games
+ Hacking mechanic makes for dynamic car chases and street side shootouts
+ Impressive open world design, especially the authentic Chicago weather
+ Clean, intuitive smartphone and map UI

Cons:
– Shallow, forgettable characters including the protagonist most of all
– Story tries for impactful moments but falls flat at every attempt
– Standard side missions are mostly dull busywork filler
– Meaningless cash and reputation system

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS4, also available for PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: 5/27/2014
Genre: Open World Action-Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1, 2-8 online
Source: Review copy provided by publisher. Second copy purchased by reviewer.

[nggallery id=2946]

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!