June 9, 2014 by Paul Curtin
Ubisoft shocked everyone two years ago when they revealed Watch Dogs and teased the potential of “next-gen” games that were on the way before the either the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One were announced. If not for The Last of Us debuting gameplay at the same time, Watch Dogs would have easily won E3 2012… and some may argue that its debut still did steal the show.
Since then, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us has come and gone and lived up to the hype by becoming 2013’s Game of the Year. Now, it’s Ubisoft’s turn to prove that their E3 demo was also more than just smoke & mirrors. Unfortunately, just as Watch Dogs‘ opening cinematic refers to hackers as modern-day magicians, the same can be said about Ubisoft. Watch Dogs is a great game, but it’s not the GTA-killer many had hoped it would be and certainly not the same game that was teased at E3 2012.
In Watch Dogs, grey hat hacker Aiden Pierce is out for revenge after an unsuccessful hit on him resulted in the death of his niece. Now on a mission to find out who is responsible for the hit, Aiden must hack his way through the city of Chicago using his own personal mobile device and backdoors through the city’s central operating system (CTOS) in order to get justice.
Aiden himself is a bit dull, and the story starts off slow, but with each mission completed, new characters show up and help make things more interesting. The character animation and voice-acting for each character is solid, but it’s surprising how bad that lip-syncing is considering how great the rest of the game looks. Still, like other open world games, the characters themselves aren’t the real stars, and it’s the open world that help brings everything to life.
Set in a very realistic version of Chicago, Watch Dogs looks amazing almost everywhere you go when playing on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. There are some iconic landmarks like the Cloud Gate Bean that don’t look anywhere close to how they do in real life, but from the crowded city streets to the lush and more secluded suburbs, overall, Ubisoft has done a great job capturing the true look and feel of the Windy City. While the game without question does not look as good as it did when first teased back in 2012, it has still lived up to the hype of being one of the best looking open world games on the market.
Going back and playing other recent open world games really shows how much of an improvement Watch Dogs is on the genre. Heavily populated streets give a much denser feeling to the open world, and there’s always something to do. It’s easy to waste hours outside of the main story taking part in random activities scattered throughout the city such as poker, chess, augmented reality games, and much much more. Without giving too many surprises away, one mission type in particular allows for the controlling of a giant spider bot that really breaks free from the game’s standard mechanics and focuses more on just having fun.
With Aiden being a hacker, the game primary focuses on hacking devices to manipulate the world around him. Just by pressing one button, Aiden can gain access into security cameras and infiltrate areas of the game without ever having to physically be there. Some enemies can call in reinforcements that Aiden in turn can counter by disabling their com systems, while other enemies carry grenades that can be armed and make for very random outcomes when they frantically try to find and throw the grenade away.
Like Ubisoft’s other franchise Splinter Cell, Watch Dogs emphasizes stealth techniques combined with hacking objects to trick and kill enemies in more rewarding ways rather than simply running and gunning. But don’t worry, if you’re not into stealth gameplay, most missions allow you to still shoot your way through with a pretty large assortment of weapons. However, there are some purely stealth missions that limit freedom and can be annoying when repetitively failing.
Aiden can also hack into the phones of citizens to find out their dirty little secrets or steal money from them. Whether you want to spy on people and steal their money is up to you… You can also play the role of hero by eavesdropping in on conversations to profile people and prevent crimes in progress. In most cases, preventing a crime or clearing out a gang hideout will result in an intense chase by car or foot that really takes advantage of the open world.
Aside from not being able to shoot while driving, there are many options at your disposal to take down foes and prevent crime. Objects like traffic lights and bridges can be switched on or off to create massive accidents for criminals to get into or road blocks to help Aiden get away from pursuers. With smooth driving controls and realistic damage to cars and destructible environments, driving is just as enjoyable as any racing game. I even found myself using the in-car view most of the game just because of how realistic driving through the city in first-person felt.
Chasing a criminal down on foot usually produces even more intense chases as enemies shoot back while being chased, alerting everyone around, and sending people on the streets into a state of panic that Aiden must push his way through. Sometimes people will even call the cops, which can lead to even wilder chases. Of course, the beauty of Watch Dogs is the freedom of choice that allows tactical decisions to be made in the moment, such as using the ability to kill phone calls and prevent the cops from ever showing up or shutting down the entire power grid to escape from the pursuing officers in total darkness.
These moments of pure chaos are when Watch Dogs is at its best. Just simply enjoying the authentic world that Ubisoft has created and watching how every little change can affect the destructible environments is amazing. But as amazing as it is, you can’t help but be reminded of how much better it was promised to be. This was the developer’s chance to blow everyone away with jaw-dropping visuals and yet “next-gen” systems are locked in at 30fps using 790p and 900p, and even super-powered PCs can’t even hold a solid 60fps at 1080p.
What’s worse than the visual downgrade is the various technical issues the game has. Random objects can occasional pop up on screen, frame rate can drop hard in chaotic situations, and some PCs on AMD processors can’t even play the game. For a game that was supposed to be originally developed for PC, these issues all seem very odd and the only answer is that the game has been poorly ported and optimized for PC. Ubisoft’s cross-gen development process has undoubtedly held Watch Dogs back from what it could have been, and hopefully they’ll leave the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 behind in order to deliver true next-gen visuals in the sequel.
With how little has been said about multiplayer, it was surprising to find so many modes offered when jumping in to play… and to find that these modes are all actually very exciting to play was even more surprising. When previewing Watch Dogs over the years, Ubisoft spent a lot of time presenting the 1 vs. 1 hacking multiplayer where players could enter others’ games and try to hack them to steal their data, similar to Dark Souls. While Intrusion’s game of cat and mouse does make for some intense moments, it’s the other modes that help keep you coming back for more.
The Free Roam allows you to get with seven other friends and cause all sorts of chaos together without any set missions. Car and bike races are as good as what you would come to expect in standalone racing games, with each map allowing for multiple shortcuts to be taken and some to even be activated on the fly. However, it’s the 4 vs. 4 Decryption mode that is the most fun to play and fits into the typical competitive multiplayer format the best. Decryption doesn’t really do anything new by playing like an always moving game of Capture the Flag and Keep Away, but by taking advantage of everything the city has to offer, it’s able to create moments of pure chaos in the busy city streets that at times are so out of control that you can’t help but laugh.
The “hacking” might be overly simplistic, but Watch Dogs is at its best when just simply enjoying the authentic world that the developers have created. It’s disappointing that Ubisoft didn’t fully deliver on their E3 2012 promises and that the game has so many technical issues, but in the end, they were able to make a gorgeous open world game that brings some new tricks to the genre and that makes open world games fun to play again. The plethora of things to do in the city combined with the solid story and multiplayer are more than enough to make any fan of open world games happy and keep you busy all summer. Watch Dogs gets 4 out of 5 stars (Great).
- One of the best open world games ever
- Hacking adds a new dynamic to open world gameplay
- Great stealth and shooting mechanics
- Solid story with plenty of interesting characters
- Tons of things to do in the city to keep you busy
- Multiplayer modes keep you coming back for more
- Obvious visual downgrades from what was originally teased
- Technical issues on all platforms, especially PC
- Poor lip-syncing ruins cutscenes
- No shooting while driving
- Some stealth missions can be annoying