After over two years being coddled within the loving embrace of the hype machine, WATCH_DOGS is finally among us. Developed by the collective efforts of five of Ubisoft’s development studios, though primarily Ubisoft Montreal, WATCH_DOGS has finally hit the store shelves and the digital warehouses of PS4, Xbox One and PC. Skimming over the ambiguity once more, WATCH_DOGS is a game deserving of all the praise it receives… it’s also deserving of all the criticism it has received. The polls are in and the opinions are, for the most part, unanimous.
WATCH_DOGS puts you in the role of Aiden Pearce, a skilled hacker in a dystopian modern/near future Chicago. With a history of bending the rules and utilising his talent for financial gain in a world that is ever growing more varied and advantageous in his wheelhouse of expertise, one might say it’s the prime of Aiden’s life. When the new iPhone or Android operating system is announced, his last concern is merely that of extended battery life or flash player capabilities, of that there is no doubt.
Interspersed with some tutorial-esque gameplay during the introduction to the storyline we’re given insight into why Aiden is no longer the tech guy for bank jobs, but instead more like Batman with a smartphone in a brief expository cutscene where a failed attempt at his own assassination results in the death of his niece, Lena. Sharing the blame for Lena’s death with that of the shooter, Maurice, Aiden finds himself embroiled in the nefarious underworld of Chicago and opts to follow the lead beyond the shooter to the person who made the call for the hit in the first place; all while shielding his sister, Nicole, and her last remaining child, Jackson, from harm.
In the interest of not dropping spoilers, this is a hotly anticipated game after all – even for those unable to pick it up at launch – I’m going to aim for brevity in regards to story. Perhaps I stand alone in saying this, and perhaps not, but I’d say the story went from strength to strength. Growing more compelling with time and sliding comfortably through the horrific, abhorrent and depraved events one would expect to be occurring behind the veil of conspiracy. While the narrative did a good job with it’s pacing and the characters met along the way were well rounded and interesting, the character of Aiden himself was incredibly flat. He doesn’t so much react to what’s happening around him rather than just go with it until he can start making crazy stuff happen around him… of which he, generally, seems to be largely unimpressed by. Let’s just say he, as a person, is about as interesting as a guy who never stops looking at his phone. *budum tsk*
All in all, it’s a good story, however. Thematically heavy handed at times, for instance he has a ‘Little Sister’ which would make him a…? Yes. That’s right. A ‘Big Brother’. For a time, you will have this pelted in your face, in case you’re too stupid to get it, but once exposition has taken place and mood setting has you possessing a comfortably drab outlook, the organism that is ctOS’s Chicago is your oyster. And boy, is it an interesting oyster at that.
I suppose the visual fidelity concern can’t be glossed over here, so for the interest of disclosure, I played WATCH_DOGS on the PS4 at 900p and with framerate locked at 30. Outside of gameplay footage, mostly from YouTube – which, if I’m not mistaken, is also locked at 30fps, I’ve not seen any of the other systems running the game, but… it looks fine. Good, in fact. Not e3 2012 good, but good. Watch the embedded video in HD to see for yourself. Am I disappointed? Sure, I guess. Can I do anything about it? Nope. Is the game still enjoyable? You better believe it!
I, like many others, hotly anticipated this title and I, like many others, felt an underwhelming sting upon first launching the game and assuming control of iBatman. Those of us able to pick up game at launch in the Codec Moments team shared the sigh of relief as, while the game was not initially what we had expected it to be, it did grow over time into an equally enjoyable experience. I personally put this jarring moment on the gameplay. With all the footage I’ve seen over the past few years, it’s only natural to ‘feel’ like I already have insight into something that has never been done in an open world game before, but when I finally got it in my hands, it was not as simple as that. There’s a small learning curve to the hacking, surprising as that may seem to an admittedly simple “look at it and hold down square” system, but once you’ve got the reins on it, you’re golden. The manipulation of Aiden himself, too, is also not something you might expect. Gameplay feels like an amalgamation of a variety of Ubisoft’s previous titles. Traversal of low fences, walls and cars is fluid ala Assassin’s Creed; Stealth is well honed and, for the most part, cover based ala Splinter Cell; and the sheer variety of things to do is incredibly vast, not unlike Far Cry 3.
None of this is a bad thing in and of itself, the on foot gameplay is immensely fun. While in profiling mode you can learn a little something personal about every single person you see, be they cops, gang members, drunk old men imposing themselves on strangers, or stoic and unyielding businesswomen regurgitating at the bus stop and then convincing themselves that nobody saw that. You can transfer funds from their account to your own, take crafting materials needed for the many gadgets and even weed out potential crimes. While in hostile situations those little tidbits of information can be utilized in your favour. For instance, you need to sneak by a gang member, but there’s no way to do so, you discover he is a hip hop enthusiast. With a little hacking, one of his favourite songs begins playing on his phone distracting him long enough for you to slip by… or even put one between his eyes while he’s not looking. Other strategic benefits including triggering electronic grenades in the enemies pocket, disabling their phones making them unable to call for reinforcements, or even interfering with the communications causing static shocking or deafening them. And this is just a handful of the many possibilities with even more unique results!
Where the game mostly falls short, in my opinion, is in the driving. Not being a driver myself, I have no point of reference for its realism, but GTA V it is not. It’s uncomfortable from the outset and doesn’t get any better the more you do. Once you’ve learned to know what to expect when behind the wheel of the many, many categories of vehicles at your disposal, you’ll know that hanging it round a corner at full speed is probably not the best tactic if the relentless and unforgiving police are hot on your tail. The hacking while driving is, much like when on the ground, a lot of fun and causes for some real moments of “that was awesome!”, and while you’re simply meandering around observing the city or looking for something to do there’s no real cause for concern. However, when you’re being hightailed by a fixer gang or the police, be ready for some serious attention to the situation because they are better than you.
The side activities are, again, extremely broad. You have happenstance crimes occurring in front of you at times, gang hideouts that need to be shut down, conveys of illegal materials that shouldn’t reach their destination, poker (Like Far Cry 3’s poker but with hacking thrown into the mix), Shell Game aka “Where’s the ball?” game, drinking games, digital trips (augmented reality games, complete with unique progression tracking, where you can assume control of a rampaging spider tank, enter a Sci-Fi Bladerunner-esque thriller where you are alone in the world with robots hunting the last man alive, and more), investigations, and I’m missing out a lot of other stuff intentionally. There’s a lot to do and it all serves the purpose that it is fun to simply exist in this fictionalized Chicago.
The sound is something I should probably approach and it’s something that has to be cordoned into three separate areas. Audio, soundtrack and licensed music. The audio is, largely, acceptable with some staticky sounds at times, often intentional, though not always. The soundtrack is provided by Brian Rietzell (and a man I plan to pay closer attention to in the future) is great. The dynamic alterations between a mid-afternoon drive to a tense police hunt and then to an all out police chase are wonderfully fluid, well applied and great sounding. This applies across the board through all areas of gameplay. Finally, the licensed music. Music is largely preferential so I won’t belabour the point, but it’s bad. I found two songs that I like, One Mic by Nas and C.R.E.A.M by Wu Tang Clan. There’s no Metal (I like Metal), but plenty of Vampire Weekend and generally rubbish stuff that seems to bypass the target audience for the sake of the teams own interests. As I say, it’s a matter of preference and you might like it more than me but… that won’t be a stretch.
Last but not least, the multiplayer. There are clearly cues being taken from Assassin’s Creed here, particularly in the 1v1 hacking area – where I have spent the majority of my online time – and I really like it. The feel of casually strolling past the person you’re hacking and them having no idea is an empowering one. I’ve not ventured into the free roaming as yet, nor have I the Decryption mode, but I most assuredly will and if they’re anything like 1v1 hacking, online tailing or the Mobile Challenge mode, I’ll enjoy them just as much.
As I said in the beginning, WATCH_DOGS is as equally deserving of its praise as it is of its criticisms, and I stand by that. The negative connotations that come with such a statement are nothing to fear as the bad outweighs the good here. It’s a great game but not a flawless one. Anyone who decides to buy it is unlikely to feel as though they have made a bad purchase. And for what it’s worth, I see myself playing this one for a long time. While the story adventure is over for me, the city of Chicago needs a lot of work before I can call it a day.