Reviews

Watch Dogs Review – Can’t Hack The Hype Machine

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Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4 and Wii U
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Yes

In Watch Dogs we find yet another horrible example of the artificially bloated hype that both the media and publishers like to squash their games with, creating expectations so grand they can never truly be met. Shown at E3 back in 2012 the media has made Watch Dogs the poster child for the beginning of the next-gen, the first true game to make everyone realise why they need to own an Xbox One or PS4. Underneath all this hype lies a brand new IP that simply needed to be allowed to flourish on its own, but instead it has been crushed to death, countless people voicing their disappointment over a phantom game that does not truly exist.

So let’s shove away all the nonsense PR bullshit, not only because such tactics seemingly work, with Watch Dogs performing incredibly well in terms of its sales and cementing its continue existence as a franchise. No, let’s shove away expectation because they color a review unfairly, just as they do the opinion of the average gamer. Watch Dogs needs to be judged by its own merits, not those created during the hype trains long journey. This is an open-world adventure, one which plays it very safe while introducing one truly new idea; hacking. It’s not a revolutionary game, but it does everything so damn well that you won’t care.

Hacking. The mere word has become rather warped these days, but it does bring to mind complexity. However, those hoping for in-depth hacking systems need to go into Watch Dogs knowing that all your hacking needs are handled by a single, context sensitive button. It might be a little bit of a let-down, but in truth going this way makes sense as hacking needs to be done on the fly, during gunfights, car-chases and intense moments. All of this is allowed through ctOS, a massive connected system that governs just about everything electrical in the city of Chicago, and naturally run by a massive corporation. Because that always ends well.

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The biggest problem open-world games of this nature tend to suffer from is individually weak mechanics, especially in terms of gunplay, which proved to be the downfall of even Rockstar’s mighty GTA V.  However, Watch Dogs successfully bucks this trend with surprisingly accomplished combat systems. While the guns don’t quite pack the level of wallop required to make them feel truly awesome, aiming and shooting feels slick and the cover system feels like it has been ripped straight out of Splinter Cell: Blacklist – simply point at the piece of cover you want to move to, and tap A to send Aiden running over to it. Layered on top of that is a simple yet effective set of stealth mechanics which also make good use of the cover system and fluid controls. Bad guys obey most of the cliché stealth game rules, but judging when they can and cannot see you is easy, and thus it’s satisfying to slink through an entire base either avoiding, killing or incapacitating everything that moves. Much like the Assassin’s Creed series the right trigger is held down  to make Aiden run, while holding down the B button at the same time makes him slide, vault and clamber over anything in the way. In comparison to the Assassin’s Aiden’s parkour skills are far more limited, but still make getting around a breeze. Once you layer that over the combat and stealth systems, you’ve got a pretty robust set of mechanics to work with that simply feel good. Each individual element still isn’t as strong as one would expect to find in a game focused toward guns or stealth, but Watch Dogs still manages to surpass most other games in this genre.

Furthermore you’re often given the choice to go in guns blazing or stealthy during the primary missions, although you will find yourself hemmed into specific styles quite a bit as well. It’s for this reason that the otherwise unremarkable Gang Hideouts are actually something of a highlight of the game. In these side-missions you’re merely tasked with taking out a specific target located inside a heavily guarded area, and are given free reign to tackle the situation how you see fit. For the ultimate in ninja badassery you could evade every single guard and only take out the target before fading back into the night like a budget Batman, or you could crash a jeep packed with IEDs through the gates and detonate them at your leisure. They might be basic in design, but Gang Hideouts are fun little mini-sandboxes in their own right, and experimenting is a joy.

They’re also perhaps the best showcases of how hacking can be used to augment your arsenal. Before you even enter the enemy territory physically you can hack into a camera system and proceed to hope from lens to lens, marking bad guys as you go, disabling the ability to call in reinforcements by frying comms and generally scoping out the opposition. For the more stealthy approach car alarms can be triggered to cause diversions while phones can be activated to grab the attention of a passing guard. Even something as simple as opening a gate or activated a barrier can give you the opportunity to slip past. For the more assault minded gamers fuseboxes can be hacked and blown up, while grenades on guard’s belts can be activated. This is all on top of your own physical arsenal, such as the Blackout which kills out electricity in an entire city block for a certain amount of time, perfect for a deadly assault or for sneaking through enemy lines, as well as just being really freaking cool. In fact, it’s entirely possible to kill or disable almost every enemy in an area without stepping foot in it yourself, although it will require timing, skill and a chunk of luck to pull it off.

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Personally, though, I find hacking lends itself most to playing stealthily. There’s just something deeply satisfying about passing through enemy territory with minimal fuss, whipping out a smartphone to distract enemies. Furthermore, if you allow yourself to sink into the game and its setup using your handy smartphone, which presents a snippet of a persons life via text, can bring an interesting dynamic to tackling things like the Gang Hideouts. Maybe you’ve got no problem with taking out a paid mercenary, but what about a person that your phone registers as having recently become the father of two? The profiling mechanic brings a layer of humanity to shooting and stealthing not present in other games, and while it is a thin layer, players who like to become immersed may find it to be one of the more intriguing aspects of the entire game.

Even the driving mechanics hold up surprisingly well. This being an open-world game set in Chicago you’re free to steal any car or bike from the side of the street or even yank a civilian out of their vehicle whenever you like. Be warned, though, choosing to hijack a car with a person inside may result in said person deciding to phone the cops, at which point you can either high-tail it or get out and point your gun in the person’s face to make them hang-up, although pulling a gun in this manner can often cause another bystander to ring the cops as well. It’s almost worth letting the fuzz arrive, though, because while the handling of cars is naturally quite arcadey they do have a decent sense of weight and with some practice can be flung and slid around with ease, making police chases a blast. The bike’s are considerably less impressive, however, failing to even remotely resemble how an actual motorcycle behaves. Still, they’re good fun for leaping off of cliffs and driving up stairs in order to get into the tram lines. Once again being able to hack into the ctOS circuit permeates the game, allowing you to activate traffic lights while driving to cause a pile-up, detonate steam pipes, raise blockers and more. Here the rule of needing to have a direct line-0f-sight to the thing you want to hack is largely done away with, and thus during chases you can activate things like lights or barriers once you’ve passed them, a handy blue-box telling you when to do so for maximum effect.

Outside of the Gang Hideouts and primary missions there’s a vast amount of content to keep you amused, and while each example tends to get very repetitive, the sheer wealth of stuff means you can at least constantly switch between activities in order to keep yourself entertained. Criminal Convoys stand alongside Gang Hideouts as the best of the bunch, challenging you with taking down a few vehicles laden with baddies in whatever manner you see fit. Like the Hideouts these are fun because they just let you approach them how you like. You could grab a big ass truck and ram the target, or sit back with a high-power sniper rifle. You could patiently wait near a steam pipe or set up an ambush on a bridge. During little missions like these it’s all about how the systems work together, and Watch Dog’s systems work together well.

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Packed on top of that is a load of Fixer missions which focus on driving and are a blast, plus Privacy Invasions which have you hack into a small box via a basic pipe-laying hacking mini-game – which pops up quite a bit and can pop right back damn down – and invade someones home through a camera in their laptop, TV or even Kinect. Not only does this usually give you a chance to hack into their bank accounts, but it also provides a brief glimpse into the decidedly strange population of Chicago. A variety of small investigations are included, although these are extremely basic and have utterly disappointing resolutions, especially in regards to the human trafficking missions. There’s also quite a selection of virtual reality missions. These feel out of place and seemingly attempt to replicate Saints Row’s unique brand of madness far too much, but they do feature the utterly brilliant Spider-Tank missions, which let you loose in a giant mechanical spider that can climb buildings and is armed with a powerful cannon. Yeah, it’s as awesome as it sounds. Rounding out the selection are random street crimes where you must find the potential victim and then wait for the criminal, leaping out in the nick of time to save the day, and ctOS boxes, which are Far Cry’s radio towers in all but name. On the smaller scale there’s chess, poker and more to indulge in.

Sadly Watch Dogs is yet another  Ubisoft open-world game that is incapable of allowing players to explore and discover its many diversions on their own, instead almost every piece of content is simply handed to you on a silver platter, removing any need to ever set out on your own. The wonder of something like Skyrim is that you can simply pick a direction and set off, discovering a myriad of wonderful things along the way. In Watch Dogs you merely hack into a ctOS tower, at which point the map springs to life with icons. The game even goes so far as to pester you with notifications on the top right of the screen, helpfully informing you of a Fixer Contract or Gang Hideout while asking if you would like to press the D-pad in order to be guided straight toward it. What is the point of having an open-world ripe for exploration, if you refuse to ever give players a reason to explore it? For heaven’s sake, even the collectibles are clearly marked.

It’s truly a shame because Watch Dogs largely succeeds in creating a world which feels alive. The AI that populate the city of Chicago are still a fairly idiotic bunch, having a strange tendency to call the cops when you pull a gun but not when you run a dozen people over in a car or freaking out completely when you slowly reverse into a parking space ten feet away, but  when left to their own devices they manage to create a sense of life. People can be found dancing, having rap battles, playing chess, practicing boxing and so much more. Meanwhile if you bring out your phone it automatically profiles the surrounding people, presenting you with their occupation, income and a small snippet of randomized text which provides a sneak peek into their life. Maybe they are recently divorced, suffering from cancer, aspiring musician, went on holiday or are Canadian. I kid you not. Play for long enough and you’ll see things repeat, but it took me a long time before I actually noticed the same things starting to pop up.

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Once again your ability to hack also comes into play here. Provided a person has a phone in their hand you can hack straight into their bank account, and then withdraw the money from an ATM. Crimes can also be detected in this manner, while new songs can also be stolen and added to the rather lackluster in-game radio, although I must say that the game’ score is quite impressive at times.

The game begins with our lead character and hacker Aiden Pearce attempting to pull off a job at the Merlaut with his partner Damien which involves siphoning a hell of a lot of money. Something goes horribly wrong when a mysterious third hacker also gets involved, completely ruining the job and resulting in Aiden managing to piss off the wrong people. In order to send a message  to Aiden that he’s not welcome the mystery bad guys order up some intimidation. In the process Aiden’s young niece is sadly killed, setting the stage for Pearce to become the vigilante and discover the identity of those involved.

Creating an anti-hero is no easy task, but one thing they all have in common is charisma, something which Aiden Pearce is woefully lacking in. Ubisoft never take the time to fully flesh his personality out, creating a one-note gruff, generic anti-hero that’s hard to like or empathise with past his desire for revenge for his niece’s death. Indeed, it’s all the more disappointing when you consider that the story’s initial setup is very promising; here is a flawed man in Aiden Pearce whose questionable actions result in the death of his small niece, setting him on a path of revenge and shattering him emotionally. This is a solid groundwork for the character and for the player to become completely invested, yet past the initial event it’s poorly handled. No time is given to delve into Aiden Pearce as a human being.

Take his early hacking days, for example; was he merely a thief intent on making money through his actions, or did he have a deeper reason? Why was he the way he was? What kind of man is Aiden Pearce? We’ll never know, nor do we ever discover what sort of person Aiden is outside of his thirst for revenge, because that’s his sole personality trait. The man tasked with giving him a voice does the best he can with the mediocre character development available, but ultimately Watch Dogs is lacking a good main character, one who is constantly out-shone by the people that surround him. Jordi is a manic, barmy and downright brilliant criminal for hire who immediately dominates any scene he’s in, while T-Bone is a legendary hacker with clever writing and affable personality. Soldier turned criminal/hacker Iraq makes for a solid bad-guy in one of the smaller story arcs that is once again well-written and played, a man whose motivations make sense.

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But Aiden…well, Aiden is just a generic goon, a perfect living embodiment of wide-spread problem within videogames, the problem of cookie-cutter “anti-heroes” who all act the same, talk the same and sound the same. Hell, Aiden even sports the most bland visual design I’ve seen in a lead character for some time. A baseball cap and strange trench coat? It doesn’t even make him blend in when you consider nobody else seems to be wearing that style of outfit. As a final insult, the few times I did begin to vaguely give a toss about Aiden was ruined by a far greater amount of times when he acted like an utter twat.

The lack of a main character drags the story down. Without a solid lead character and better use of the initially brilliant setup, it’s harder to become invested in anything that’s going on. The banter between Aiden and his sister is a rare highlight, but she barely gets any time on-screen, nor does the relationship between Aiden and his nephew. This is shocking when you consider that the loving yet damaged relationship between Aiden and his family is the emotional groundwork. This presents a major flaw when the central premise of the story is that Aiden’s sister is used captured and used as blackmail, forcing him to follow the instructions of a person from his past. Again, it’s hard to become involved in the story and care about Aiden and his family when we get so little time with them.

Somehow, though, the story manages to be enjoyable. The cast of character’s surrounding Aiden manage to pull of the quite lengthy five-act script, making Aiden a serviceable avatar for the player. Along the way the five-act structure is used to portray some well-written story arcs that kept me intrigued from start to finish. The emotional core may not be entirely there and the lead character may be dull, but  a good script keep things fun and manages to wrap itself up in a satisfying conclusion. It’s not a strong narrative, but it’s decent.

Furthermore, Ubisoft have used the game’s core mechanics to craft a compelling singleplayer campaign filled with a variety of very well paced missions. One minute you’re using cameras to locate and hack a server in an entire apartment complex full of goons, and the next you’re battling mercs using crazy home-brew traps in a construction site. There’s a section where you get yourself arrested and sneak through a prison, and another where you follow a helicopter across town on a bike before parking up and trying to take out a couple of high-value targets. There’s only a couple of misfires along the way, such as the use of insta-fail stealth or some awkward tailing which feels like it was paying way too much attention to Assassin’s Creed’s diary when idly leafing through it. Stealth, all-out action and car chases are all combined and mixed with the hacking mechanics to create arguably one of the best selections of campaign missions seen in a game of this nature, perhaps even surpassing the design of Grand Theft Auto V’s narrative missions in terms of gameplay. In fact, I’d happily argue that purely in terms of gameplay Watch Dog’s surpasses Rockstar’s epic, only failing to better GTA V in its story and characters.

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The online elements are something of a mixed bag, exhibiting some great ideas and quite a few clear problems. Online invasions are the absolute highlight, seemingly taking inspiration from Dark Souls. In these another player can invade your world and attempt to hack into your phone to steal important data. Once they begin hacking you’ve got a limited time to try to profile them within a given area, forcing you to frantically dart from person to person, from parked car to parked car, all in a desperate bid to discover the culprit and save face. Successfully discover the intruder and you have to kill them before they can make a getaway. It’s thrillingly tense stuff, and failing to catch the perpetrator is one of the most humiliating, rage inducing things I’ve felt in a long time. However, one the flipside catching and killing the bastard feels…gratifying. Likewise, being the one doing the invading is a whole lot of fun as you watch the victim dart back and forth.

Having said that, I did have a couple of frustrating moments. If the person hunting you is sitting in a good sports car, then even if you find them there’s a good chance they’ll get away if no comparable car just happens to be around for you to grab. I also encountered a couple of matches where my profiler seemingly failed to register a player, and another instance where I was left unable to hack my target. Even being killed or killing my intended victim merely respawned us, and there was no way to exit, leaving us both in limbo until I yanked the Ethernet cable out of the back of the console.

It should be noted that Invasions can be turned off completely in case you don’t want your otherwise singleplayer game constantly interrupted by players storming into your world. However, I would have liked a way to accept Invasions on a case by case basis. The reason for this is that generally I like to have Invasions on, but sometimes just as I decide to engage in a side-mission a block or two away an Invasion will occur, stopping me in my tracks. Rather than having to go through menus to turn the whole thing off for a few minutes, it would be nice to be able to tap the D-Pad and simply refuse that single instance.

Another mode let’s you try to outrun the cops which are being controlled by another player with a tablet, which is a neat concept. The player with the tablet can also do the same hacking tricks you can, such as raising bridges and barriers. Races are also thing, and pretty quickly just become mayhem as hacking is once again allowed. If one driver gets just a little bit of a lead, though, it’s really too easy for them to abuse hacking opportunities and make it damn near impossible for those behind to catch up. Topping all that off is a mode where two-teams go head to head, trying to capture data. While it does involve getting shot in the back a lot, the fact that teams can leap in vehicles, hack things and otherwise cause mayhem makes it a riot.

In short the multiplayer is a surprisingly solid offering in a game which I full expected to have tacked on, awkward online play. Expect to get at least a few happy hours of enjoyment out of it.

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And now let’s talk about the thorny topic of graphics. It seems clear that Watch Dogs has had a graphical downgrade since its initial unveiling, however this has been blown completely out of proportion. After all, graphical tweaks and changes, be they upgrades or downgrades, are completely expected in a games developmental cycle, and the debut gameplay was before the developers even had the Xbox One or PS4 specifications to hand. They also explained that systems weren’t playing together, and rather than lose them they simply downgraded the graphics in order to keep things running nicely. The demo presented was what the developers clearly hoped they could have the final product looking like, but was by no means a promise or a lie, except in the eyes of people who love to leap to conclusions and make pointless accusations. The game’s industry does a lot of stupid crap, so let’s focus on that rather than a standard development practice that exists for a good reason.

By no stretch of the imagination does Watch Dogs look horrible, but nor is it very impressive. It’s simply a good-looking game, one that doesn’t manage to display anywhere near the level of graphical power either console, or PC, for that matter, is capable of delivering, but that still looks good in general and manages to deliver a couple of great visual moments. In the daylight the city of Chicago has a slightly flat look created by iffy lighting, but animations are very detailed and look great in motion, especially during cutscenes. On a technical level a glance at the textures and shapes shows a solid game that is not a huge leap over what Rockstar managed to do with GTA V on the previous generation of consoles. However, once the sun descends the game looks considerably better, especially in the rain. Indeed, water effects in general are actually quite lovely.

While the game may not manage to live up the vast, artificially bloated expectations laid upon its shoulders, it largely delivers on its own promise. A graphical downgrade since its debut is clear, but in its gameplay Watch Dogs mostly succeeds in creating a great open-world experience, one that can proudly stand alongside the best in the genre. Only its story and lead character ultimately let the package down.

And as a brand new IP, this is a promising, impressive start.

The Good:
+ Hacking everything!
+ Surprisingly good combat.
+ Plenty to do.
+ Multiplayer is solid.

The Bad:
– Aiden Pearce.
– Side-mission quality is mixed.
– So-so plot.
– Hacking does lack much depth.

The Verdict: 4/5 – Great
Watch Dogs follows Ubisoft’s template for creating an open-world title faithfully, but manages to introduce a fun new mechanic into the mix, too, while also getting the rest of the gameplay right.

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