Watch Dogs (PS4) Review
- Immense and well realised open world
- Good character animation and texture work
- Superb "cockpit" driving
- Solid enough story and good voice work
- Looks great, especially the environment
Not So Much?
- Mission structures feel tired and at times lacklustre
- Borrows heavily from other Ubi franchises and never becomes a cohesive whole
- Aiden is not a character I could fully empathise with & seemed hell bent on city wide destruction
- Combat can devolve in to a mess very easily
- Side missions are hit and miss and mostly un-engaging after a time
- Limitations show the games' start on previous generation technology
In so many ways Watch Dogs reminds me of Square’s recent foray in to the open world genre, Sleeping Dragons. It takes on a genre dominated by GTA at one end of the spectrum and Saints Row at the other end. Pretty much everyone will be aware of the issues surrounding Watch Dogs’ development. How […]
In so many ways Watch Dogs reminds me of Square’s recent foray in to the open world genre, Sleeping Dragons. It takes on a genre dominated by GTA at one end of the spectrum and Saints Row at the other end.
Pretty much everyone will be aware of the issues surrounding Watch Dogs’ development. How the game was, and still has been, one of the few shining examples of a next generation title – a fleeting glimpse of what is to come over the next 5 – 8 years. Ubisoft, quite rightly, took some extra time to polish and develop the title, pushing It back from its intended holiday season release window alongside the new consoles. Has that paid off though is the question?
In Watch Dogs you play Aiden Pearce, a hacker/thief who, after a failed job leads to the death of his niece, is hell bent on bringing the people who ordered the hit that killed her. Under the new guise of “the vigilante” Pearce works as a “fixer” taking on contracts and working with the hacker group DeadSec to try and locate the killers who executed the bodged hit that killed his niece.
The background to this entire story is a massively connected near-future vision of Chicago. The city has handed over its entire data infrastructure to a company called Blume. They run the city using their advanced AI/OS called ctOS. Aiden, through the course of the games 5 chapters, digs further and further in to a story of murder, corruption and betrayal.
Being a master hacker Aiden can use his pimped out phone to profile any single citizen in the entire city. Each person has a particular “story” be it that they once made adult movies, or they killed someone and walked… to the banal like they like to work out. Small information panels pop up anytime you profile a person. You can then choose to hack some of the phones in use by these people which might reveal a small bit of sub-text about the city, just be a run of the mill conversation or could be some information that leads you to a side-quest.
The whole city is wired to the ctOS system which means, once you’ve upgraded your skills using the in game XP (earned from missions, side quests etc) you can control things like the traffic lights, traffic bollards, crossings, bridges. You can even cause electrical boxes to overload and steam pipes to rupture in the streets. In short you can cause mayhem if you so wish – that would, however, be of a detriment to the wellbeing of the Chicago citizens and cause your popularity to fall – meaning citizens would be quick to report you to the police etc.
The sheer volume of side-missions and incidental quests should keep you going for a very long time indeed. With the main campaign clocking in at well over 20 hours for me, with a completion level of just over 40%. Side missions take many, many forms. From simple FourSquare like “check-ins” at hundreds of locations throughout the city, to stalking a criminal about to strike, ID them, then take them out before they cause harm. There are plenty of things like fruit machines, drinking games, street shell games and even chess to keep you amused too.
Graphically the game looks impressive, whilst still having more than a foot in the previous generation – underpinning the fact the game started, and was release, on previous technology. Texture work is good for the most part and character designs are impressive, even on random (but often repeated) crowds passers-by. The city feels alive and there’s a pleasing amount of foot and road traffic to help realise that. Plenty of variety in the vehicles in-game as well. Talking of the vehicles the game moves at a reasonable and steady pace even when speeding through the city. Only a handful of slowdown to be found throughout and that was mostly attributable to the console saving at the same time I think.
There are some graphical issues here and there though and it’s not just the usual open world jank, which is surprisingly minimal in this titles despite its ambitious nature. Pop-up, or to be more accurate “phasing in” of items in the distance it very evident and especially perplexing on a new console platform. This weirdly wasn’t on very far object but object appearing in the more mid-to-long range area. Cars would suddenly materialise as if through a fog. Same with street lamps and level/world geometry. It’s not something I’d expect to be seeing on the new hardware but perhaps it just shows the more humble origins of Watch Dogs’ development.
Sound is all good with some rousing , deep and basey music for the missions and a large selection of licensed music for the games’ music selection that plays in the car/on your phone. Voice work is for the most part wonderful, with some more than reasonable performances using a well written script. But why music Ubisoft insist on using French-Canadian voice actors to voice people not from that region. Most of the inhabitants of Chicago would appear to be immigrants from the land of the maple leaf. It detracts from some otherwise reasonably engaging dialogue.
Watch Dogs takes a larger number of game mechanics and tries to bend them all to its will. It has some of the parkour/traversal stuff from Assassin’s Creed. It has the stealth mechanics from the more recent Splinter Cell titles. It tries to blend these, along with its hacking “hook” to bring you something a little new. It almost manages it, but the hacking is so woefully undercooked that it makes the whole thing fall short of that initial promise.
Don’t get me wrong, using your hacking skills to raise bollards to dash a police car or raise a bridge so you can jump the gap leaving your pursuers stranded is pretty damn great! Bursting a steam pipe to stop a convoy – great stuff! Yet this all feels like a superfluous gimmick that could have offered so much more than it has.
Missions are for the most part OK. Borrowing very heavily from the mission structures used in the Assassin’s Creed titles means a lot of the frustrations and, to be honest, burn-out, inherent in those titles is relevant criticism here too. For too long now we’ve been trailing someone stealthily through bushes etc only to have some small thing happen and the last ten minutes of trailing goes to waste.
The combat, for the most part, is well done with some great feeling and sounding weapons in play. You have at your disposal a huge arsenal as well as neat tricks like IEDs, comms jammers and blackout pulses.
Each combat scenario usually breaks down in to part stealth and part shoot-out. You take control of cameras around the area, scoping out the enemy patterns, explodeable objects, guards you can jam the coms off and who can call reinforcement. You can then lure them to certain places and set off traps to take them out. Taking out enemies through levels in this way make it feel almost like a puzzle title. You can, if you wish, go wading in, guns blazing. More often than note this ends in almost immediate death – Aiden is a little too fragile for my liking and with no body armour combat is best left to small numbers or one-on-one. You’ll soon realise that a silenced pistol is pretty much all you need – especially backed up with a shotgun if things get up close and personal.
It’s the times that Watch Dogs throws scores of enemies at you that it all falls apart. Aiden is too fragile, the AI too good and overwhelming you. It devolves in to a frustrating mess that has you hurling a controller the 9th time you die in a row.
Driving in the game was something I was unsure of at the start. It felt too much towards the sim-like handling and not enough fun. A few hours in and I switched to the cockpit/dash view and had a totally different experience. Escaping from the cops, in that view, was amazing fun – and I NEVER use cockpit view. Just driving the city like that was a joy and seemed to improve the handling no end.
The online co-op part has been cleverly integrated with you able to take on fixer contracts to take down/hack other players. This involves you entering their game, locating them and then hacking their data until a progress bar reaches 100%. They simply have to find you and stop you. Likewise other payers can “invade” your game too and hack your data. It’s a small intrusion but can break things up and make for a fun diversion at times.
Watch Dogs is a solid game with massive production values. Is it the mile marker for a new generation of games like so many hoped? No. And to be fair it was never reasonable to pile that much pressure/hype on to the game in the first place.
Graphically and sonically the game is great, the story is reasonable and there are masses of things to do. It has some issues with pacing – the first 2 chapters are almost entirely forgettable (about 1/3 of the game’s content but 1/5 of the story). Aiden isn’t a likeable main character either – he’s bitter and is more than happy to expend hundreds of lives (including innocents at times) in his pursuit of vigilante justice.
Ubisoft make some moves to raise privacy concerns and at moments seem to almost move to take a stand or push a narrative but pull back from that – maybe that’s correct or maybe not. The fact the game can dissolve in to out and out carnage also detracts from the real world style and tone.
Combat, when minimal or taken stealthily, is sold enough but as soon as large groups are involved or the police get involved then it all falls apart as it quickly slides in to frustrating death after death – Aiden appears to just be too fragile a character.
Watch Dogs left me feeling a little non-plussed. It wasn’t the game I hoped it would be and it wasn’t the title many had hoped for. It does at least offer a small kernel of hope for something grander going forward and reminds me of when I first played Assassin’s Creed. Some good ideas and some great ideas drowning under some older technology and preconceptions.
Please don’t take this as me not recommending the game to those looking for a good open world title as Watch Dogs has a lot to offer and will be one of the better games you’ll play this year.