Watch Dogs Review
Genre: Open-world Sandbox Action
Release Date: May 27th, 2014
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Platform: PS3, PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC, Wii U
Watch Dogs is an open-world sandbox action game developed by Ubisoft Montreal and published by Ubisoft. Its existence was first made known during Ubisoft’s conference at E3 2012. Thanks to a sea of sequels and nothing interesting filling the rest of the show, Watch Dogs stood out among all the other video games as something that we hadn’t already played a billion times already. People got excited, but that excitement died down with delay after delay.
Finally, on May 27th, 2014, it was released. Did it live up to everyone’s dreams and hopeful expectations?
Well, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news.
In Watch Dogs, you play as Aiden Pierce. He’s an expert hacker who also happens to be an expert marksman, an expert driver, a parkour enthusiast, and an excellent craftsman. After a botched heist results in the death of his young niece, Aiden is set down the path of vigilantism in order to seek revenge.
He’s not particularly interesting, and his constant gravelly voice even in the most mundane of situations doesn’t help. Aiden is hardly explored past his “my niece is dead” angle, though the game has several “memory” triggers that delve into his thoughts. Of course, no one wants to go out of their way to collect these so their purpose is moot.
Assisting Aiden is a small cast of supporting characters. Jordi Chin, an eccentrically murderous “fixer” who patterns his wardrobe after the Dragon of Dojima, does the dirty work for Aiden and acts as an opposite. His actor gives a fun, lively performance despite the character’s personality, and it helps lift Jordi above the rest of the cast and dry script.
Clara Lille is Aiden’s hacking partner who resembles a gross combination of porn star Christy Mack and Lisbeth Salander of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.” Like Aiden, she doesn’t do much but push the story along, but also serves as the obligatory romantic interest. Her actress phones in her lines, and she isn’t explored much beyond what the main plot demands of her.
Starting to notice a pattern here?
Oh, and there’s also a guy named T-Bone. He’s a redneck with long hair who says funny things.
Setting and Story
The action of the game takes place in a recreation of Chicago, Illinois. An all-seeing operating system, called “ctOS,” controls and monitors everything in the city. Civilians are spied on without them knowing, their information is gathered in a massive database, and their command centers are staffed with an army of goons. They’re basically your local cable provider.
The player, as Aiden, embarks on mission to mission to pursue revenge. Plot twists occur, Aiden’s sister gets kidnapped by dime store Beau Bridges, and I think things happen. I say this because, in my honesty as a writer, I have to admit: I did not finish the story.
Nothing in this game drew me in. The narrative of Watch Dogs is so textbook and drab that just playing the game felt like a chore. You wanna know why this review is late? That’s why. Yes, the selling point of a sandbox game is the gameplay, exploration, and activities, but a good story is a great way to keep the player going. Saints Row 2 did this. Sleeping Dogs did this. If you give me a big open world stuffed with side missions and things to do, I need some motivation. Things need to feel fun and fresh. Nothing in Watch Dogs feels fun or fresh.
If Watch Dogs happened to have a really amazing story twist or moment that rivals the death of Jackie Ma, or when Johnny Gat buried Shogo Akuji, then feel free to call me out, but the gameplay of Watch Dogs isn’t good enough to get me to that point.
From a visual standpoint, the city looks good. Small puddles are present on the roads during rainy days, wind makes your coat flutter and tatter, and the weather is varied somewhat.
Watch Dogs looks its best in night and on cloudy days, but still doesn’t stack up to what was shown in previous gameplay demos. Scenes are often drab and flat, streets are sparsely populated, and the lighting is sub-standard. Nothing pops out and makes you go “wow”. On PlayStation 4, the 900p resolution is apparent, as the game looks considerably blurrier than other console counterparts such as Infamous: Second Son.
The PlayStation 4 version performs well enough. The game is locked at 30 frames per second, which isn’t ideal, but is constant most of the time. I ran into a few bugs however, such as one where the game’s framerate dropped to 24 frames per second and screen tearing was abundant, resulting in a restart to remedy the problem. With the awful optimization of the PC version, the PlayStation 4 version of Watch Dogs plays as well as you can get. [Editor’s note: it was recently discovered that making a few tweaks to the PC version’s files can not only improve the game’s visuals, but also its performance in regards to stuttering that many people have experienced.]
Watch Dogs mixes elements of Ubisoft’s past successful franchises, such as Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, with your standard sandbox open-world action game. Players can move on foot or drive a selection of cars, motorcycles, and boats. The vehicle selection is very small, and most (if not all) cars drive alike, aside from garbage trucks and vans.
Gun combat is a big part of Watch Dogs. Players can use a range of pistols, sub-machine guns, assault rifles, shotguns, and sniper rifles. Though there is a decent selection available to purchase, most players will never venture further beyond just a pistol and assault rifle. Spare ammo is so stupidly abundant that you’ll never need to purchase more, and there’s little differences between each gun. There are also very few times that a sniper rifle comes in handy, as the game’s rendition of Chicago hardly ever gives you any high ground to traverse.
Of course, we’re missing the main part. The selling point. The big cheese.
Hacking! Aiden uses a nifty invulnerable smartphone to take control of the city’s omnipresent ctOS system. You can eavesdrop on phone calls and SMS conversations, siphon funds from bank accounts via ATM, activate barriers and bridges, and so on. The novelty of profiling civilians is fun at first, and the variety is impressive to say the least. You’ll hardly ever come across the same person twice.
Once you do this for an hour, however, you’ll probably ignore it. I ended up ignoring these descriptions entirely; I only scouted for civilians who were highlighted blue, which meant they had money or resources for me to yank. Profiling is a good concept, and one I’d love to see fleshed out more, but in Watch Dogs all it amounts to is a quick way to amass funds while on the move.
The best use of the hacking gimmick, shockingly, comes in the form of the game’s multiplayer. Hardly is multiplayer in an open-world sandbox ever good, but in Watch Dogs, it shines. When connected to UPlay (and if Ubisoft is feeling good enough to have their servers work), other players can “invade” your world, similar to From Software’s Souls series.
These invading players are given different missions. One of my favorites is “tailing”, in which the invading player is given the mission of following you around. They are not allowed to damage you; their goal is to tail you until enough “data” is obtained. This gives you a decent sense of paranoia, as you must try to figure out which civilian around you is the invader. It’s a brilliant use of hiding in plain sight as a gameplay mechanic, which is something seldom seen in games.
Being on the invading end of a tailing mission was great fun. I stood in an alley as the player I was invading shopped for new outfits in a clothing store. Before he exited, I began walking down the sidewalk, doing my best to look as much like an inconspicuous non-player character as I could. He departed the store, came in my direction, and didn’t notice me at all. It’s moments like these that Watch Dogs needed more of, and are a much better use of a hacking gimmick than anything else is.
Hacking also comes in handy during combat. Most missions take place in areas such as warehouses, alleyways, or parking garages (take a drink every time you come across either of these) that are abundant in highly explosive piping systems and gas valves. Rather than take on an enemy force head on, Aiden can hop from one security camera to the next and activate these traps to dispatch enemies.
In some areas, this method is very enjoyable to engage in. Luring enemies with car alarms and then triggering explosives provides a good laugh, and lends itself well to the “total control” atmosphere of the game. Many areas, however, have enemies in places where this just can’t be done, which resorts in you having to take them out yourself.
In actual combat, Aiden has two tactics: stealth, or kill everything. A word of advice: never use stealth. The stealth in this game is incredibly brain dead, frustrating, and hollow. Utilizing a cover system, Aiden can hide behind walls and conveniently placed waist-high objects. If you’re behind an object and you’re not in cover, even though Aiden is constantly in a state of stealth crouching, you can be seen.
One poor example of this is if I’m trying to move from one box to another. I can exit cover and crouch walk to the next box manually, but this will make me visible. However, if I use the cover system to simply aim at the other box and press the cover button (X on PS4), I’ll move undetected. It just feels very cheap and poorly implemented.
Oh yeah, there are also stealth missions where getting spotted results in an instant failure, sending you back to the beginning. Doesn’t that sound like fun? [Editor’s note: git gud.]
Takedowns, which are a staple in every action video game ever these days, are also present in Watch Dogs, and provide a non-lethal way to dispatch enemies. Where and when you can perform these takedowns can be a pain. In one example, I hopped into a construction lift to take me up to the top level of a construction site inhabited by enemies. On the other side of the window I came up to was a guard. In most stealth games, such as Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, I’d be able to easily grab that enemy, pull him into the lift, and take him down.
In Watch Dogs, Aiden just stands up like an idiot and gets himself shot. Often times, thanks to sloppy movement and a bizarre control scheme (who thought clicking L3 to reload was a good idea?), Aiden will muck around or detonate an explosion when really I just wanted to activate a sound lure trap.
Moments like these are so prevalent in Watch Dogs, and are a major factor in why I quit as early in the game as I did. They are accompanied by constant glitches and bugs, many of which require a restart of a mission. In one instance, I had to infiltrate a ctOS command center to hack in and gain access to a sector of the city. To be able to hack in, I had to gain the security codes from one of the security guards. Locating him with the security camera, I immediately try to hack the codes from him, but the game does not let me. I am never given a hacking prompt, even after I kill everyone there, and as a result, had to restart and do the mission all over again.
There are so many elements and features that are present in other games that Watch Dogs takes features from that the game just does not have. Why can’t I shoot while in a vehicle? Why can’t I pull an enemy out of his car after stopping him in a traffic jam? Why can’t I climb this very short ledge? Almost every other open-world sandbox game lets me do these, but not Watch Dogs. Other games stick to their guns, like Grand Theft Auto V. Its missions stick with its gameplay formula and never stray into anything else, while Watch Dogs tries to be a stealth game, a shooter, a driving game, a racing game, and a poker game, amongst other things.
In the end, I think that’s a good comparison to what Watch Dogs is: a hodgepodge of elements from other superior games. They’re ingredients that are sloppily thrown in, poorly prepared, and presented on a sort of shiny plate, but once you get in you find that your meal is a far cry (damn I’m clever) from being done.
It’s hard for me to recommend this game to anyone, as I think there’s an audience for most games that exist. Maybe the most casual gamer, who plays every now and then for fun, who is so incredibly bored with their new-gen console that they absolutely need something to play on it, will find enjoyment from Watch Dogs, but for anyone else, especially fans of the open world sandbox genre, you won’t miss out on anything worthwhile.