Watch_Dogs – Review

Title   Watch_Dogs - Review
Developer  Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher  Ubisoft
Platform  Windows PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U
Genre  Action-adventure
Release Date  May 27, 2014

I’m not one for buying into hype, but when Watch_Dogs was unveiled at E3 a couple of years ago, it clearly stole the whole show. Since then, it has been on my radar and was one of the reasons I decided to plunge for a PS4 last month. Sure, it’s multi-format, and indeed multi-generational, but the PS4 looked like the lead format for it. So, yeah. I was up for this one. Of course, with great hype comes great mediocrity but with the might of the entire Ubisoft machine behind it, hopes have remained high for Watch_Dogs. So does it live up to the hype?

No, not really. Watch_Dogs‘ main issue is that, ironically, it keeps trying to steal every other game’s identity and by trying to borrow from so many, it ultimately dilutes itself to where it feels like a covers band playing mediocre indie hits in a pub. The mediocrity starts with the story. Your man, Aiden Pearce, is a guy who has two things: a family and a very powerful phone. His family, a sister and her two kids, has been ripped apart because of his powerful phone that he uses to hack into every single thing on the planet it seems. Basically a bank job goes awry and his niece ends up dead.

Straight from the off, everything is wrong with that. His sister seemingly holds little or no animosity towards him for the most part. She has a little quarrel with him early on in the game when she tells him to stop fucking hacking shit and putting her in danger. But even that moment is lost when she ends up on the phone to him, as a kidnap victim, and instead of giving him any real information just jokes about what a twat he is. The rest of the story is based around other people who are also very good at hacking and their attempts to either kill him or coerce him into hacking other things.

It’s no GTA V. Where that had an almost HBO-quality script that was full of shock moments and big laughs, this is very much a second-tier kind of story but even then it suffers in comparison to the big story beats of, say, Sleeping Dogs (that fucking wedding mission, man!) or the huge setpieces of The Saboteur. Here’s the problem. Those games weren’t really that celebrated and are filed away in the ‘lemons that Richie won’t shut the fuck up about‘ pile.

Every open-world game has an angle and Watch_Dogs‘ is obviously the hacking thing. This presents itself in a few ways. Most of the time it just means that you press a button and something in the world moves, opens or explodes. During car chases, of which there are plenty, hitting the square button usually makes something bad happen to your pursuers. There’s a QTE element to it but it’s so quick that I just randomly tap the button and wait to get lucky.

Civilians and enemies alike can be pried on a little and ‘hacked’ for their bank details as well as nicking cars (which is pointless as stealing cars has no penalty when you upgrade your thieving ability) and stealing songs for the game’s disappointingly inconsistent soundtrack. Hacking security systems is Watch_Dogs‘ main thing. If you can see a camera, you can hack into it. Then you can hack anything it sees – other cameras, stationary equipment, and even the grenades on enemy utility belts. There’s a puzzle element to this as you try to figure out how to get eyes on your latest objective. Usually the most important hacks involve a basic mini-game that’s a little bit like BioShock‘s ‘Pipemania’ hack but these are usually pretty easy to figure out.

That’s really it for the hacking. In situations that require stealth, it is pretty satisfying to detonate an underground vent to kill or distract enemy guards and get to your objective but compared to Ubisoft’s own Splinter Cell: Blacklist, which I really liked, this isn’t really in the same league.

As an open world game, Watch_Dogs combines a core list of story missions with a heap of side objectives for you to tackle as you wish. These is the usual mix of stealth and action sequences that are just there to bulk out the gameplay although the game does try to lighten the mood with the Digital Trip and VR missions which attempt to inject some much-needed Saints Row-style levity into the proceedings.

As a city, Chicago lacks the variety of, say, a San Andreas or Los Santos, but it is still a nice environment to be in. Graphically everything looks fine, but the game’s multi-generational roots mean this isn’t the PS4 title to blow out your retinas with. Of course as an Ubisoft game, there’s already going to be a ton of floating text to cope with and that’s even more of an issue thanks to the hacking elements of the game. Also, this horrible trend of making the text in PS4 games tiny has got to fucking go.

During the first three hours of the game, I really wasn’t feeling it. It was just another open world action game that was coming off second best to most of the games it was borrowing its ideas from and the hacking element seemed a little bit undercooked. However, when you start to focus on the action, the game does warm up a bit. The gunplay is pretty ordinary with a selection of standard weapons and a mandatory focus/bullet-time mechanic.

You’ve not got the destructive options of a Saints Row or the stylised action of Sleeping Dogs, nor does it do ‘conventional’ combat as well as, say, Far Cry 3, but when you’re cornered and have to blast your way out, the mix of setting off booby traps with your phone and gunning down identikit henchmen is satisfying enough. The difficulty (on ‘normal’) is pitched just right with everything being nicely challenging but doable.

Melee combat however is limited to a solitary ‘takedown’ button that neutralises your target without killing them. That works just fine when played as a stealth game but given that takedowns work in general combat as well, it’s a shame that Watch_Dogs doesn’t give you a few more options.

Getting around the city usually involves stealing a vehicle (walk up, press the triangle button – you know the drill) and is limited to road vehicles and the occasional boat. A few more options may have been nice, especially given how stiff the driving controls are. It’s not awful but it could have been a bit more enjoyable, especially given how much time you spend driving away from enemies.

Once you get past the nitty gritty of the presentation, gameplay and everything else, the fact is that for all the games you can compare to, the truth is that the obvious comparison here is Ubisoft’s recent catalogue. The template is all there, you reveal events on the map by breaking into buildings and hacking a terminal. It’s not much different to scaling towers in Assassin’s Creed or liberating outposts in Far Cry 3. The game flings a ton of visual information at you at all times just like Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon: Future Soldier but ultimately it’s all a bit of smoke and mirrors to distract you from the fact that this is merely a competent action game, but certainly nothing more.

Carrying the hopes for PS4 and Xbox One owners everywhere that finally the new consoles are getting some triple-A treats, people will no doubt lap up Watch_Dogs‘ daft hacking story and solid-yet-unremarkable action to proclaim it the greatest thing ever but, as I’ve been comparing the game to others throughout, let me leave you with this unpopular nugget of truth: Watch_Dogs lets you hack into other people’s games and here’s the thing – Mindjack did that better.

  • The story is quite good
  • The presentation is quite good
  • The controls are quite good
  • The hacking is quite good
  • Lacks identity
  • Isn't special in any department
  • I'm not sure hacking works this way
  • Just another repetitive open world action game

For a while there, I hated Watch_Dogs but once you get past all the visual fussiness, endless menus and sub-menus, overly-complex skill trees, and all those hacking opportunities, the game settles down and becomes an enjoyable action game that uses the 'hacking' nonsense to puff out its chest. But at heart it's just another third-person shooter that wants you to drive a bit in between missions.

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One Comment

  1. JC says:

    It’s expectations vs reality surely.

    Graphics: On par with GTAV depending on the platform. Compared to the E3 2012 video it’s nowhere near as good even on pc master race ultra settings. Lag can be unplayable on some missions forcing you to restart the game.

    Before you ask…yes I have a rig that meets the recommended.

    Gameplay: Again, if you’ve played GTA then you’ve played this. The car handling is on par with Sleeping Dogs which isn’t saying much however the hand to hand/melee combat is just press B/O button to win. I would have liked to have seen Sleeping Dogs Kung Fu element brought in. I do like the Stealth aspects as you rightly mention are similar though not as good as splinter cell but again it’s “wait until enemy walks close to something explosive and press a button” until you can take the last baddie out with a melee button. Very simplistic. Where’s the combos?????

    Story: I agree. Although I can allow myself to buy into what’s going on I can’t help but feel the sister (SPOILER) is far too happy with being kidnapped and not knowing where her son is. Plus there’s an element of…

    I need NPC to tell me something> NPC wants something in exchange and presents a problem>Need to hack something that an NPC claims is “unhackable”> Drive somewhere>Kill all the baddies> Press a button and hack anyway>Deal with next wave of baddies>Drive away.

    But as I said it’s expectation vs reality. I was expecting the E3 2012 game which blew my socks off. Instead what I got was a game that is like GTAV: Chicago Haxxors DLC for £46. Which also didn’t work on my 6990 or any other dual GPU cards for the first week until some genius on the Ubisoft boards fixed it before any of the mods could get a response from a developer.

    Poor show…but it kills 30 hours and I get to pretend that “hacking” is more fun than staring at a load of code.

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