One of the most anticipated games of the year is Ubisoft’s ambitious open world title Watch Dogs. Previously expected last November to coincide with the launch of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it was pushed back to early 2014. The delay only amplified the ballooning hype surrounding the game even further. As more time passed, people expected Watch Dogs to be a serious game changer across various platforms.
Now that the long-awaited title is finally out, we must ask ourselves, does it meet or fall short from the hype?
Watch Dogs is set in a fictionalized version of Chicago wherein the entire city is controlled through a singular operating system called ctOS, Central Operating System. One OS controls every mobile phone, computer, laptop, and every other electronic device in the city. Perfect on the surface, there’s always a dystopia hiding beneath every seemingly obvious utopia.
The game follows skilled hacker and former thug Aiden Pearce on his quest for revenge after a botched job led to the death of his young niece. His journey towards retribution becomes intertwined with a grand conspiracy involving Chicago’s mob, gangs, and greedy corporations.
While storytelling generally isn’t the primary focus for open world sandbox titles, neither does that grant developers a free pass to neglect story and characterization. Pearce isn’t some nameless and voiceless character, but he may as well be. The game obviously expects us to sympathize with him, but it’s hard to do so especially when his backstory is so generic and his personality is flat. One of the reasons why it took so long for me to finish the game is because I wasn’t invested in his mission to protect his family. It doesn’t help that his family members are merely reduced to damsel roles. You’ll find more personality in your allies, foes, and even the random people you snoop on. They are the real stars of Watch Dogs and you’ll only appreciate them even more once you listen to the audio logs.
The main narrative of the game was also a let down. I always enjoyed the stories Ubisoft creates in the Assassin’s Creed games, so I was expecting Watch Dogs to be equally compelling. I felt like the game had an incredible opportunity to become a dark tale about technology and morality, especially since there’s a huge focus on the former. Unfortunately, the game only scratches the surface when it comes to exploring the moral conundrum of society’s use of technology. It doesn’t come near digging deep enough to prompt players to question their beliefs, like in (the perhaps spiritual forefather) Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
If Ubisoft decides to make a sequel, they should learn from British TV anthology series Black Mirror. It explores the dark side of technology, a theme that should be further explored in Watch Dogs. The game is sadly more of a revenge fantasy that comes off more like the film Taken. It only remembers to be a technology-driven story during some parts of the game.
However, while the story feels like a let down, I still enjoyed the rest of the game because the open world had much more to offer.
In making a quality open-world video game, Ubisoft is largely successful. I probably could have finished the single-player campaign much faster than I did, but I was ultimately distracted by the side-missions and diversions available around Chicago. You can prevent crimes by playing vigilante, place bets, peep in people’s apartments, compete in drinking games, and do other tons of stuff. There are also a lot of whacky augmented reality games you can play to add humor to your game. It’s not a revolutionary sandbox video game, but it does the job quite well. I won’t be surprised if statistics show that majority of players never actually beat it.
You also learn a lot by just walking around the city with your smartphone on. A person is summarized through lines of description like “recently divorced” or “writes a sex advice blog.” For some people, it makes the pedestrians more human since there are people who have mundane or sympathetic descriptions. This worked on to me some degree, but I felt like the game is ultimately without consequence. The player is told their actions affect how people and the media perceive them, but this importance is not emphasized.
It doesn’t help that most players probably won’t care what happens to Aiden. A friend who played the game in advance told me that those little descriptors influenced whom he killed. Personally,I thought they were interesting, but they weren’t enough for me to actually feel something for the characters. I could empathize more with these people by listening in on their phone calls or hacking into cameras in their apartments. You actually get to see who they are instead of reading lines of summary that’ll reduce them to caricatures.
In tandem, these work well together in creating people players can care about in an open world video game. We often kill pedestrians in these kinds of games and not care. While it’s impossible to make players care about all of the NPCs, it’s interesting to see Ubisoft add elements that make them at least matter and appear human. We might not want to die for them, but it’s a start.
You can also shop for clothes, crafting items, food, and weapons around Chicago. I was quite annoyed with the clothing stores because the only thing you can really change about Aiden’s fashion is his coat. They cost a lot of money too so I’ve never spent a dime changing how he looks. A large chunk of the cash I stole from people went to buying weapons and crafting items. I would have liked the option to further customize the protagonist’s appearance. If we are going to have a bland main character, might as well give players the chance to make him their own. Let me change the protagonist’s whole attire, hairstyle, and maybe the option to have tattoos in the future.
There isn’t an option to buy property. The alternative is that there are already a good number of safe houses spread out Chicago that are available to you. It’s not a huge deal breaker, but it would have been nice. You can buy cars in the game and some can be quite expensive. Having different tiers of safe houses and garages at various prices would give players more incentive to earn money.
The most enjoyable thing in Watch Dogs for me is the driving aspect. It was like Need for Speed: Most Wanted meets Grand Theft Auto. I was frustrated early on in the game because you can’t do drive-by shooting. However, it turned out to be something I didn’t need because all you needed were your hacking abilities. I eventually was glad that I didn’t have to rely on the former method because I remembered how frustrating it could be in other open world games. You can “take down” other vehicles in different ways: hack into blockers or traffic lights to manipulate your foes into a car crash that’ll total their vehicles. The animation is gratifying to watch. You can also plant bombs along their route and take them out without being detected. I actually enjoyed being chased by my enemies and the police. There are some minor flaws however (like the fact that no one can go after you if you hop a boat or (if I’m not mistaken, take the subway), and it takes away the thrill and excitement to a certain degree.
I was expecting to have radio stations in Watch Dogs. However, the only music provided is a playlist. In my opinion, the tracks aren’t as good as the line-up Grand Theft Auto, Sleeping Dogs, or Saints Row. It would have made up for the absence of radio stations. A commentary channel would have been a nice contribution in bringing Chicago to life. The good thing about it though is that you don’t need to be in a vehicle to listen to music. As for the score itself, it’s nothing special. I guess it’s appropriate but I didn’t hear anything that would really stick in my head.
Let’s talk about the game’s most anticipated feature: hacking. I was surprised at how well they integrated it into the gameplay, requiring the player execute a combination of button holding and the occasional timed mini game. However, that’s not the real challenge of missions. Watch Dogs challenges the player to use hacking abilities strategically by taking down, distracting, and luring foes. There are a variety of ways a mission can be approached. There were times when I lured almost all my foes with distracting sounds to somewhere near explosives and triggered a fuse afterwards. The rest I picked off with a sniper rifle. Direct combat is not always necessary. There were missions where I distracted and subdued my enemies instead of killing them. Other times, I went completely Rambo. One downside is that there doesn’t seem to be any consequence for favoring one method over the other. I remember how I tried so hard not to kill anyone in the video game Dishonored, knowing that how you play the game actually had ramifications. And that wasn’t even a choice driven game. It would have been nice to see that element in Watch Dogs.
I do have qualms about the weapon wheel in the game. I feel like that there are a lot of buttons I have to press just to equip the weapon I want. It’s not efficient or easy to use so there were moments when using it would cause my death. I think it’s unnecessary to let a player carry all of their weapons if the process will be that time consuming. On the bright side, the cover and aiming systems are pretty good so direct confrontations aren’t really a problem.
Improving your skills and learning abilities is pretty simple. The skill tree is categorized into five sections: Hacking, Combat, Crafted Items, Driving, and Notoriety. The skill points you earn throughout the game are used to purchase new abilities in the first four segments. Notoriety skills are only unlockable through your notoriety score though. It’s pretty simple to navigate and straight forward enough for players to understand.
I honestly didn’t dabble too much with the multiplayer and online features. However, you can request to be matched up with other players and choose one of the six online modes currently available. Some of them are reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto Online but with a twist of Watch Dogs gameplay. Other players can enter your game too as competing fixers. You can fight one another or simply roam around Chicago with real people. There are also online races available with pre-generated routes. Interestingly, your avatar will always be Aiden Pearce while everyone else will look like a generic NPC (for continuity reasons and vice versa). You can opt out of the online experience though so being connected is not required. Sadly, you won’t be able to see who became the mayors of various hot spots in Chicago. You can still check-in places though using an app similar to Foursquare on your smartphone while playing offline.
There’s also the chance to have another player with you in the game via an Android and iOS mobile devie. It doesn’t matter if your friend is beside you or halfway around the world. Different platforms aren’t a barrier either. The only thing needed is Internet connection. I didn’t get to use much of it since it only came out during release day, but it’s a decent experience. You can race with a friend using a tablet or thwart the console/PC player by triggering obstacles using the mobile device.
The online modes don’t outweigh the single player campaign, but they complement it well. It’s another aspect of the game that’ll keep players in the city of Chicago.
I played the game on the PC and I’ve ran it in Ultra and High graphic quality settings for most of the game. It looks beautiful for an open world video game. While it would be nice to have motion-captured characters, I can hardly complain about how they look. I’ve encountered a few bugs here and there, but it’s nothing a future patch won’t fix.
Watch Dogs is a great video game and a worthy sandbox title. It got a lot of the fundamentals right and added a few new things to spice things up a bit. However, it failed to meet the overwhelming hype that followed the game until its release. It’s not the game changer everyone thought it was going to be. The good news is that they are off to a good and solid start. It might not be the game we entirely wanted, but it’s certainly enough to make people look forward to a sequel that’ll hopefully be the title to blow our minds.
Watch Dogs was developed and published by Ubisoft. It is now available on Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Xbox 360, and Xbox One.