Since its unveiling at E3 2012, Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs has been one of the most anticipated games for any console, particularly this new generation of systems. The spawn of what seems to be a three-way between Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto and Infamous, Watch Dogs puts you in control of Aiden Pearce, a hacker-cum-vigilante in search of bloody retribution for the death of his niece. Delayed several times, this once launch title has finally graced American shelves. Did the delay produce a better game or simply postpone the inevitable disappointment which often accompanies a hype-beast such as this? It’s 696 miles to Chicago, we’ve got $60, a quarter tank of gas, a six pack of Red Bull, it’s night, and we’re wearing sunglasses…let’s punch it.
It’s obvious upon booting up the game that Watch Dogs is the spiritual successor to the Assassin’s Creed series. Anyone even remotely familiar with the series will feel right at home while taking control of Pearce. Wandering around Chicago is a bit like traversing the Caribbean, though cars, motorcycles and the L Train make getting from point to point much quicker than sailing the seas in the Jackdaw. It’s a good thing too, because there’s a lot to do here beyond the basic quest for vengeance.
One of my complaints as an Attention Deficit Disorder gamer, was that Assassin’s Creed IV had so many side quests that it was easy to get distracted from the main mis…SQUIRREL!!!! The distractions in Watch Dogs are even more plentiful, and many a times getting to the next section of the game was delayed by something shiny like a crime in progress or a gang convoy to take out. Many times, going from point A to point B was interrupted by half a dozen interesting events, making the first act of the game take over five hours to complete. Don’t get me wrong, these side missions are challenging and a blast to play, it’s just easy to forget your true purpose in the game.
Rather than trying to adapt current engines to include the unique hacking aspects of Watch Dogs, Ubisoft took the long road and created their own engine that integrates hacking with an excellent combat system very similar to Grand Theft Auto. The combat can be frustratingly difficult at times, but not because of the engine or controls, but rather the fact that Aiden Pearce is a middle-aged everyman rather than a superhuman parkour master. While health regenerates over time, it can take just a handful of bullets to take Aiden down. It’s his hacking skills that turn the tides in his favor, and battles that are one-sided in numbers are quickly made more even with a few creative hacking kills. I won’t spoil the fun as these kills are some of the most gratifying in gaming, but almost every aspect of the cityscape can be used as a weapon.
There are a good variety of missions ranging from straight up combat to courier operations, and with the addition of side quests, you’ll not likely be repeating the same type of scenario often. Some of the gameplay lacks, particularly the driving sections, and some mission parameters can be downright frustrating (kill a gang but just beat up their leader), but for the most part the game plays well and is downright fun. Combat isn’t the only nature of the game though, as more complex systems require you to solve puzzles slightly reminiscent of the classic game Pipe Dreams, in which you have to divert the flow of energy to a series of locks. It’s entertaining though not particularly challenging, and feels like it would have been more at home on the Wii U rather than Sony and Microsoft consoles. In fact, much of the game feels like it would have benefitted from the unique touch screen controls of the Wii U, and hopefully the delayed version of Watch Dogs for Nintendo’s flagship will incorporate this. The game isn’t without its glitches, particularly visual, but for the most part they don’t detract from the game.
The graphics on the Playstation 4 version were a mixed bag, but for the most part good. The depiction of Chicago is phenomenal, particularly at night time when the glow of city and street lights show off a level of gritty charm and beauty. The effects are just as good in the daytime, especially lens flares that would blow J.J. Abrams’ mind, but they just seem to stand out more in the dark. The characters are more hit and miss, particularly during cut scenes when Aiden seems about as wooden as the actor playing his voice. The character graphics aren’t bad, but seem to lack when compared to Assassin’s Creed IV.
While the first half of act one starts off rather slowly, the plot becomes fast and furious soon after, and while sluggish at times, it’s quick to pull you back in just before boredom sets in. That being said, I must criticize the dialogue, particularly for the Tarantino-level use of the word “fuck”. Apparently in Chicago of the future, it’s the only intensifier in the English language. With as much detail that went into the game, surely someone could have spent a few minutes with a thesaurus and come up with some variety. Additionally, the character of Aiden Pearce, while not reprehensible, is certainly unlikable. I won’t spoil the story and go into details, but I found it rather hard to relate to a character who’s on a roaring rampage of revenge over consequences to his own actions, all while the most sympathetic character in the game begs him to stop. Let’s face it, Pearce is kind of a douche, and for the better part of forty hours, you get to fill his shoes.
If Assassin’s Creed IV’s plot line regarding the Observatory is the G.I. Joe PSA of Edward Snowden allegories, Watch Dogs is an ABC Afterschool Special. Between the hacking of devices, the myriad camera throughout the city, and the intimate details shared when you scan and profile citizens. The concept is eerie, and likely close to the truth.
The soundtrack is typical of what you would find in any Grand Theft Auto game, with different cars playing different genres of music. Missing however is GTA’s radio chatter; the only time you’ll hear spoken voice on the radio is during news updates. Personally, I would have reached out to some of the signature radio jocks of the Chicago area to add some banter and extra authenticity, but perhaps we’ll get that in the inevitable sequel. Regardless of the absence of jocks, the soundtrack selections are all for the most part good and fit in well. More than once I caught myself mouthing the words to Rise Against’s “Help is on the Way” as it blared from my TV speakers while I drove to save a potential crime victim.
The score is much more subtle than the rock, rap and EDM anthems, reminding me of games of the past like EA’s ill-fated Majestic or a more low-key version of the Deus Ex: Human Revolution score. It’s very fitting, and while not particularly memorable, it serves its purpose well.
The way Watch Dogs truly stands out is in its integration of multiplayer into the main quest. The game stays connected at all times and invites you to play multiplayer modes periodically. If that wasn’t enough, the boundaries between single and multiplayer are crossed when occasionally an online player will attempt to hack you for information. It seems to happen at random with absolutely no warning, and requires you to track down the hacker and stop him. Thus far, it seems to happen only periodically, and doesn’t really interfere with the gameplay experience. If it happened more often, it would become quite annoying, but at the frequency it occurs, it adds a little extra spice in more mundane sections of the game. Other more traditional multiplayer modes include a very fun variation on Capture the Flag, and a road race that seems to be custom made for trolls (you can hack the environment to impede your opponents).
While Assassin’s Creed IV introduced us to the concept of the companion app, Ubisoft has taken an enormous leap forward in terms of interactivity on the go. The Watch Dogs ctOS Mobile app allows you to interact online by taking the role of the police. Online console players try to drive through multiple checkpoints, while you troll them from the sky, using your hacking skills to close routes, dispatch police cruisers, and track them via helicopter. Victories in the mobile app add abilities to your in-game character, and it’s a fun way to kill five minutes, that is, so long as the damn thing works. In the almost 48 hours the app has been online, I’ve only been able to use it successfully twice thanks to network issues. Once resolved though, it will be a welcome addition for players.
With so many companies (Ubisoft included) resorting to selling the “flavor of the year” editions of their top selling tent pole games, it’s nice to see the large scale amount of effort necessary to bring a new potential franchise into fruition. While it’s not a perfect game by any means, it breathes new life into the “open world” style adventure game, particularly for those turned off by the wanton debauchery that comes with Grand Theft Auto titles. If indeed the plan is for Watch Dogs to become a new franchise, I believe we can expect bigger and better things moving forward as we’ve seen with other Ubisoft franchises. Watch Dogs is a unique adventure that throws caution to the wind and breaks conventions with just a few stumbles along the way. While nowhere near perfect, the compelling story, intense and creative gameplay, and incredible world make up for a lackluster protagonist, weak dialogue and spotty graphics.
EDITORS NOTE: This review was written by Jason Helton. He is the creator and host of the now defunct Iron Otaku radio program from WHFC and XM Satellite Radio. He has covered “nerd-culture” for both radio and print for over a decade, most recently writing for websites including DenofGeek.com and ToplessRobot.com. An eternal nerd with an unhealthy obsession for pinball, Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica, he can be followed on Twitter @Razgriz1138, or on PSN: Razgriz1138