Watch Dogs has finally arrived off the back of a lorryload of hype the likes we haven’t seen in years. Ubisoft has promised the world for its open-world title, which niftily makes use of hacking abilities in an attempt to set it apart from the legions of similar titles.
The premise is simple, You’re Aiden Pierce, a hacker in Chicago. While hacking you hack someone off. In return they kill off your niece. Cue revenge. Aiden’s got a voice like he gargles glass for a living, unkempt facial hair, and a thirst for vengeance...
As a protagonist Aiden Pierce is nothing short of predictable, thankfully supported by a cast of bizarre miscreants and ne’er-do-wells. He’s a weak link in an otherwise grander cast, performing in a tale of corruption at the highest levels, of shady officials, and of murderous subterfuge.
What sets Watch Dogs apart from the dozens of other games of its ilk is Aiden’s phone. This little gadget is capable of hacking electronics with the tap of a button. Capable of blowing up steam vents, hacking bank accounts, listening in on phone calls, raising bollards in the road, even prying into citizen’s bios, it’s every nosey gamer’s dream come true.
The key differentiator here is that this near-future Chicago has become a hub of constant surveillance, with Aiden poised to take advantage of this information overload. Everything electronic in the world (within reason) is connected, allowing you to leap from point to point to hack as you see fit The trouble with this phone is just that it’s uses are so limited, offering only basic interactions that lose their novelty pretty early on. Everything pretty much boils down to hitting Q or waiting for a prompt. tapping the hack button to instantly have it your way, save for the occasional hacking minigames that revolve around the pipe switching puzzles we’ve seen countless times before. It’s an extremely simplistic approach to hacking that feels unrewarding.
For those of you who’ve played other recent Ubisoft titles such as Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, you already know exactly what to expect from Watch Dogs’ structure. It follows the basic open-world mission-based game type, with you progressing from event to event throughout the city, performing various story missions. To mix things up there’s the usual glut of side content and collectibles, as well as ctOS towers that can be hacked to uncover the map in various areas, just like Assassin’s Creed’s viewpoints or Far Cry 3’s radio towers. The similarities with Assassin’s Creed are startling; Ubisoft could’ve turned this into an Assassin’s Creed title with the bare minimum of effort. The pacing, missions, and structure of Watch Dogs feel almost identical, to the point that just a couple of hours in I felt like I’d seen it all before.
The main story missions in Watch Dogs is where the bulk of the entertainment lies, these are for the most part a lot more impressive and varied than copy + paste tailing missions seen in the Assassin’s Creed. It’s here where the hacking abilities are expanded beyond the norm, allowed to stretch their legs and mix things up. While the story is at times hackneyed and cliched, it’s a pretty entertaining tale all said and done.
Watch Dogs' story throws up some great scenarios despite a low-quality script, and it's during the game's many infiltration segments that it's undoubtedly at its best. You can hack and daisy-chain between CCTV cameras, sussing the scene and determining your best course of action. It's the one thing that helps it stand out from the crowd, and surprisingly enough these stealth moments are stronger and more involved than Assassin's Creed itself.
From your CCTV perch you can blow fuses, hack their phone calls, steal pin codes, even detonate grenades on guard's belts. It can be deliciously entertaining when it works, it's just a shame that this level of tactical nous is for the most part restricted to the main story missions. It does beg the question as to whether Watch Dogs would have been better as a linear title, but the joy of the driving does an admirable job of dismissing this thought. It's worth pointing out though that the driving in Watch Dogs benefits in particular from using a controller; I used a PS4 controller for the most part and found it a great experience.
Blasting through the story missions for their 20-hour or so run time would be pretty great, but Watch Dogs of course hides swathes of unlockables behind a torrent of side content.
Content is most definitely not king
If you want to get a bit more juice out of Watch Dogs you could burn through all these side missions and you’d most definitely get your money’s worth, particularly if you don’t put any value on your own time. I did it myself in Black Flag and I believe it took around 40-50 hours so I’d expect it to be around the same judging from my completion percentage at the end.
My problem with these is that while there’s a lot of it, most of it really isn’t that great. I’ve only done 12 of the 40 available fixer missions, but there’s only so many times you want to drive a car from point A to point B before it grows wearying. The car chase missions are probably the best though, with the rest going downhill like a lemming off a cliff. Home intrusions go down in history as some of the most interminably dull side content ever witnessed, usually equating to nothing more than following a digital ‘line’ from its source to a hack point. Content is king is an adage that doesn’t apply here; quality content is the real king. Watch Dogs could have been a far friendlier experience with more streamlined content that would have injected a greater sense of pace or urgency.
Save from a 5-minute sequence during the start, you’re pretty much left to own devices in this gigantic and minutely realised open world. Watch Dogs owes GTA a debt, for it’s the open-world master that it undoubtedly riffs off the most, dropping you in a freeform city with dozens of distractions at your fingertips, literally. Hacking is the crutch of Watch Dogs, but a crutch that is nowhere near as freeform as it initially seemed. The majority of it essentially boils down to press Q to hack, so while in a car chase you can hack the traffic lights to turn green, or raise the bollards behind you. It’s the exact uses we saw at that E3 reveal and nothing much else, soon enough just becoming another tool to avoid cops in a police chase.
Those chases though, are pretty damn spectacular. While it’s nothing new for open-world games to feature car chases, the few hacking functions you have at your disposal can lead to some intense pyrotechnics. Changing the lights to green as you’re ploughing through a junction to smash the cop cars behind you is a joy, while manipulating the environments in the criminal convoy missions is a must to stop them reaching their destinations. The presence of gangs, combined with the ever-lurking spectre of the police, means your wits need to be about you.
As a spin-off from Watch Dogs' console the dreaded checkpoint save makes a return, with no option to manually save whatever. Combined with the option for only any one profile to be loaded and it can be a bit of nuisance which shouldn't really be an issue on PC at all by now. While it might seem bearable, once you've failed a few times on a mission right before an unavoidable and lengthy phone, you'll have built up quite the degree of bitterness.
Cat and mouse
Watch Dogs online integration is pretty unusual , allowing players to engage in cat and mouse antics in order to steal money from one another, all happening in a Dark Souls-esque invasion mode that plays out within your single-player experience. It’s quite unusual and is a welcome diversion from slogging through the side-content, even if at times it can inadvertently happen at inopportune moments.
The invasion mode throws up some unique moments though, and as the timer ticks down on hacks it can get pretty tense as you hunt them down. The hacking field where the intruder can be found gets shrunk down over time, giving them less and less room to hide in. One particularly memorable moment occurred in a fast food car park as I caught sight of a crouched enemy on the move a couple of times before losing sight of them, spotting them led down in the front seat of a car with just 2% hacking to go. Executing them through the front window with a silenced pistol felt a little mean, but Aiden Pierce seems to be a man of questionable morals.
Critically a game like Watch Dogs was always going to be in a bad position. However you spin it, a game like Watch Dogs will be a disappointment to many. Ubisoft made the decision to hype it to hell and back, raising gamer’s expectations to unobtainable levels.
The E3 2012 reveal had it all, offering up a glimpse at gameplay that has never been possible before, couple with sumptuous visuals and an incredible open-world. When you get your hands on Watch Dogs reality finally hits home; it’s just an open-world action game like dozens before it.
That’s in no way indicative that Watch Dogs is a bad game, but it’s not the second coming of Grand Theft Auto III either. Where Watch Dogs promised the world it merely delivers reconstituted greatness, a boiling broth of proven gameplay mechanics that can be pretty damn fun despite a nagging feeling in the back of your mind that you’ve seen it all before.
What Watch Dogs does hint at is bright idea with an even brighter future. Once the shackles of the previous-gen have been wrenched free the potential is there to make a truly groundbreaking title.
Watch Dogs is undoubtedly a pretty game, but it's by no means one of the best looking games ever. The massive system requirements indicate some poor optimisation going on under the hood. For my review I played Watch Dogs on the GD Machine 2014 at 1080p with a mixture of High/Ultra settings and 2x MSAA. For its part Watch Dogs' frame rate stayed very solid no matter what was going on on screen, averaging just of 40 FPS for a very playable experience.
For those looking for more detailed benchmarks of the GD Machine 2014's performance in Watch Dogs, be sure to check out the official GD Machine 2014 GeForce GTX 750 Ti Watch Dogs benchmarks.