Two years ago at E3, Ubisoft took the gaming world by storm after revealing a gorgeously action-packed demo which showed gamers what to expect from the next generation of games. Originally scheduled to launch with the PS4 and Xbox One, Watch Dogs was delayed another several months, leaving gamers rabid for the new IP. After a long wait and a ton of hype backing it, this open-world adventure is finally here, but sadly falls short of expectations.
From the first moment you gain control of protagonist Aiden Pierce, you'll realize that it is visually inferior to the initial demo. The environment looks dull and lifeless, just like the pedestrians that inhabit it. The game is texturally unimpressive, resulting in a city with a flat landscape and buildings that aren't as detailed and beautiful as their real life counterparts. If this game were released three years ago, the visuals would be acceptable, but the fact that it was advertised as a new gen game and looks worse than old gen games like GTA 5, The Last of Us and God of War 3 makes its graphical ineptitude hard to swallow. The only redeemable quality of the presentation is that it's not riddled with bugs and long load screens, minus the tremendously lengthy initial one.
Graphics aren't a deal breaker with any game, however, especially one that has a great ability to keep you entertained. Despite a shallow revenge plot that tries too hard to be complex and falls short of mediocrity, supporting characters remain fresh and amusing, offering a wide range of personalities from enthusiastic to quirky. If only the main character could be as interesting as the others. Aiden has the personality of a broomstick, making it hard to care about him or his quest for vengeance. Also, the studio misses a golden opportunity to provide relevant commentary on data mining and Internet privacy. The narrative doesn't even hint at the issue and instead focuses on duller themes.
The real entertainment lies within the gameplay itself. Combat mechanics are well designed, making for exciting shootouts that leave you satisfied when you blast away a convoy of thugs. With a full arsenal of weapons ranging from silenced pistols to grenade launchers, creating chaos manages to stay interesting and fun as you wreak havoc in the windy city, Chicago. The cover system is fluid, useful and reminiscent of the one used in the Splinter Cell series. The only thing missing is a full-fledged melee system. Sure, Aiden can perform takedowns using his ASP, but it would be more satisfying if the game allowed you to perform hand-to-hand combinations on your opponents.
Hack Your Heart Out
Perhaps the brightest aspect of Watch Dogs is its one-button hacking. Once tapped into the ctOS, Aiden is free to hack any electronic or electronically controlled device with the push of one button. At its simplest, this can be used to tap into phone/text conversations to discover potential crimes, or withdraw from a civilian's bank account. It really shines when being used in combat, allowing you to use the environment to take down your foes. Whether you use it to blow up a fuse box and take down a group of enemies, or change the traffic lights and force a hostile vehicle into a collision, hacking maintains its unique appeal throughout the course of the game. Ubisoft even threw in a mini-game that is both challenging and enjoyable, managing to not overdo it by only requiring players to perform the task every so often.
Unlike many open-world games, there is a huge emphasis on stealth. Although Aiden is equipped with enough firepower to wipe out half the globe, he prefers to take a quieter approach which is evident after seeing how many missions automatically fail you for being detected. There's nothing wrong with a good sneak, but sandbox games are meant to encourage exploration, even in play styles. It wouldn't be so annoying if a few missions were like this, but instead a few too many are. The coolest aspect of the mandatory stealth missions are the hacking puzzles that require you to strategically hack the cameras of moving guards in order to reach terminals that can open doors in order to progress the mission.
Driving is atrocious and feels more like a chore than anything. Cars handle unrealistically, allowing you to turn on a dime at full speed. Collisions have no impact, enabling you to plow through any obstacle as if you were driving a tank. Objects in the environment have no weight and seem to crumble like paper at the slightest nudge from a vehicle. Worst of all, you aren't able to shoot outside of your window, making car chases less exciting than they already are. In these scenarios, the game forces you to use hacking to lose pursuing, almost making a truly innovative mechanic seem old after being forced to use it over and over again.
Despite the city itself being boring and undesirable for exploration, there are a ton of activities riddled throughout it. Sometimes simply walking around and listening to civilian banter can be entertaining, despite the crudeness and immaturity of the humor. Profiling offers an innovative new touch to the open world genre, allowing players access to a pedestrian's information such as job, income and hobbies. Random street crimes start to become tedious, so thankfully there is a multitude of creative mini-games ranging from poker to gang hideout infiltrations that can combat repetition. Digital trips are essentially acid for technophiles, opening up an array of trippy games that are more addictive than drugs themselves. Activities like these offer a refreshing dose of humor, but like the cartoony driving, feel out of place in a game with an extremely serious tone.
Although the multiplayer seems like a blatant rip-off of Dark Souls, it manages to be the most engaging aspect of the game. It's indubitably more fun entering a player's world, stalking, hacking and hiding from them while trying to attain their information, than participating in any single player event. Even being invaded adds a sense of stimulation and urgency that can't be found in the campaign or side activities. Watch Dogs also offers a few other game modes that allow you to race against your friends or participate in an entertaining capture-the-flag like game called Decryption.
Other nuances that keep the game intriguing are the skill tree that allows you to unlock skills and capabilities and the side activity progression chart that allows you to unlock new weapons and cars from doing a finite number of missions. Collecting materials and crafting various projectile objects such as grenades and jammers is simple, yet enjoyable.
It's unfortunate when a game receives so much hype and falls this short of expectations. You will absolutely have fun playing Watch Dogs because it has a ton to offer, just be ready for disappointment. For a title that was marketed to be a statement for the next generation of gaming, it fails to do anything groundbreaking. Sure, the hacking mechanics are unique and engaging, but other than that, it fails to reinvent the sandbox genre, biting heavily off other games released in recent years.
This game was reviewed PlayStation 4
Images courtesy of Ubisoft.