What I love most about my job is that I get to test out everything in its final, ready to deliver form, free of the binds of hype. For what feels like half my lifetime, Ubisoft has been trying to convince us that Watch Dogs will change everything. It doesn't.
If you come in expecting a polished high-budget venture on par with the Grand Theft Auto series, you're going to be disappointed. But if you think of it like a more arcadey take on the open world genre, you'll have a lot more fun.
Oh, and you can totally become a giant Spider-Tank and blow people up.
Watch Dogs (PC, PS3, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release: May 27, 2014 / TBA 2014 (Wii U)
If you couldn't surmise the basic gist from the trailers Ubisoft has been pumping practically every week since its 2012 announcement, Watch Dogs centers around a near-future Chicago controlled by advanced technology, mainly the citywide ctOS operating system. You experience the world as Aiden Pearce, a local hacker who finds himself knee-deep in cover-ups and conspiracies after a botched hack.
The story opens up with our hero losing his niece in a car crash -- a hit ordered by parties unknown in retaliation for a job gone wrong. What starts off as a micro tale of revenge ends up becoming a macro cloak and dagger narrative, fueled by tenuous alliances, lots of phone conversations, and shadowy figures in high places. While I'm not going to ruin anything specific plot-wise, it's safe to say that I really didn't care what happened throughout the course of the campaign.
Not only is every event fairly predictable and cliched, but the characters are so lifeless that I couldn't care less what happened to them. While it's easy to feel empathy for Pearce at the start, it's a fleeting sense of emotion, buried underneath all of the generic dialog, paint-by-number characters, and scruffy one dimensional voiceovers.
Ubisoft has gone so far as to call Aiden "iconic" before the game even launched, which is laughable after actually getting a chance to know him. Rockstar has shown us that it's entirely possible to craft deep and memorable characters (John Marston immediately comes to mind) in an open world game, but that's not what happened here. If there's a sequel I hope Ubisoft goes back to the drawing board character-wise.
Watch Dogs also doesn't look nearly as good as it did during that famous E3 demonstration, even on a current-gen console. There isn't a whole lot of detail in the game's environments, many models look plain (pop-in is also a thing), and in some instances, it looks worse than the last-gen Grand Theft Auto V. That's not to say that it isn't playable, though, as I rarely had any technical issues preventing me from enjoying myself. Ubisoft hasn't provided a PC version for testing at this time, but we'll try to provide impressions if possible.
Their virtual rendition of Chicago is great though, offering up multiple themes (downtown, suburbia, and rural areas), all of which are packed with secrets and detail. While the engine itself doesn't really do the city justice, a lot of work went into crafting every NPC, which seemingly all have their place in the world. Scanning random citizens will inform you of their salary, as well as a tiny tidbit about their life (like if they're involved in an affair, or what their career is). It doesn't really have any impact on anything, but it's a novel departure from the faceless crowds in other games.
While the story is disappointing, as we all know, open world games and their massive sense of scale aren't just about the 10-15 hour campaigns -- there's so much more in store for those who love roaming around looking for trouble. Aiden's tale may not have been worth the wait, but with Watch Dogs Ubisoft has crafted something unexpectedly unique, because by god, the gameplay is fun. Think of a "middle ground" between the over-the-top zaniness of Saints Row IV and the realism of Grand Theft Auto V game and you'll have a good idea of what to expect.
Hacking isn't nearly as revolutionary as Ubisoft Montreal wants us to think it is, but it's fun to use nonetheless -- in other words, it's less of a game changer and more like a really cool set of super powers. Using the power of Aiden's phone, you'll be able to manipulate the environment (and NPCs) in a lot of different ways all of which are fun. Once you unlock everything, the world is your oyster. If you're caught up in a high-speed chase and want to raise a bridge manually to escape -- you can do that. If you want to change traffic signs, billboards, or raise road blocks to smash unsuspecting victims, you can do that too.
You'll also be able to overcharge certain devices to enact explosions while on foot, hack security cameras for different points of view, and even use more rounded powers like bullet time. There's a full skill tree for every facet of the game -- combat, driving, hacking, and crafting -- all of which have a ton of powers to sift through and choose. Gunplay is about on par with most modern action games these days (I have no complaints), and as you may have guessed, hacking comes with a certain degree of puzzle elements. Thankfully, Ubisoft Montreal did right by them.
My personal favorite brain teasers involve hacking the hub towers, that function similarly to the Viewpoints in the Assassin's Creed games. You'll have to use your phone to move from security camera to security camera, leaping viewpoints and locating different objects to hack into. Sometimes you'll have to lower forklifts for instance to widen your field of view, and be on the lookout for anything that will lead you to the security door's switch. Typical hacking minigames are also a thing, and they're just as fun as the aforementioned camera puzzles, functioning as a very simplistic version of the age-old "pipeline" puzzles.
You can also use your phone as a means to call upon vehicles, which can be unlocked by hacking NPC's phone records or by simply getting into a stolen car. It's a hell of a lot more fun than going back to a garage every time to get a specific ride you like, and fast travel hubs make getting around even more convenient on top of that. The car radio soundtrack consists of about 50 songs (ranging from Nas, to Alkaine Trio, to Alice Cooper, so there's a good amount of variety here, and you can customize a playlist).
Driving is a bit weird though, mostly because of how wonky the physics are. Watch Dogs prides itself on being a fairly serious game, but the allure immediately fades when you start breaking literally everything with a small car. It's fun in a way, that almost nothing will stop you, but the switch from conventional open world game with boundaries to an arcade racer can be jarring. Like the visual limitations I'd chalk it up to a lack of polish, as not all of it feels intentional.
Multiplayer is available, consisting of a number of typical "versus" game modes and a bigger "Invasion" concept. While the former are more of your standard fare (PVP, racing), Invasions are a much cooler, seamless way to integrate multiplayer while keeping the hacking theme intact. Much like a Souls game, players can invade your playthrough (you'll show up as an NPC on their screen) and choose to "hack you" for fun and profit.
The victim will then have to find and identify the invader alongside of all the innocent NPCs before the hack is complete, which makes for some interesting gameplay reminiscent of Assassin's Creed multiplayer modes. This can lead to a ton of really cool shootouts or chases, and the intimate one-on-one nature leads to some fun moments.
Although my access to multiplayer was limited, I did get a chance to test out a few of the standard gametypes. Although they were fun enough, they don't really add or subtract anything as they mostly feel ancillary. As a side note, disabling in-game invasions will reset your multiplayer skill rank to zero -- it's a clever way of forcing people to "deal" with online play, but I know that a lot of solo-minded players will hate it.
Where Watch Dogs really blew me away though is the emphasis on extra content. As I already mentioned the campaign is just the tip of the iceberg, as there's a whole lot more to do in the city of Chicago. There are tons of minigames to find (like Chess), collectibles like QR codes to hunt for, and a ton of well-crafted arcade games that feel like they could legitimately sell piecemeal on a digital storefront.
What's really crazy is that Ubisoft Montreal built a full Foursquare-like "check-in" system into Watch Dogs, letting people go up to certain landmarks and compare their visits to other players. If you check-in a certain amount of times you become the "Mayor," (just like the real thing) which basically functions as bragging rights. A lot of people will probably skip this feature, but it's really cool nonetheless -- and that's one of the less significant extras.
Simply put, the actual videogames hidden in Watch Dogs are probably my favorite part of the entire package. Two of them allow you to play them in the open world in an augmented reality type fashion, which is a really cool take on minigames in general as it isn't done very often. One has you shooting down virtual space aliens as you roam the streets, and another is a Mario-like coin race called Cash Run, where you run through real life obstacle courses and collect "digital" coins while you avoid skull holograms.
Like the aforementioned activities these two virtual romps are really deep, and have multiple levels and items involved. Cash Run even allows you to create and share your own setups and races online. I'm not joking when I say that I've played these two games for hours on end alone. But the real icing on the cake are the four fully-fledged "Digital Trips," which take you out of the open world and into your imagination.
One of them lets you go on a psychedelic trip and jump on flowers for points, flinging you through the air like a super-hero on crack. Another turns you into a Grim Reaper of sorts, driving around a hot rod to harvest souls during the apocalypse (think Carmageddon). Another features a far-future setting where robots patrol the streets with an emphasis on stealth, that allows you to slowly free the fictional city one power node at a time.
My personal favorite though is Spider-Tank, which is just as ridiculous as it sounds. Like any good monster movie it gives you the keys to a giant crawling tank, complete with machine guns, missiles, melee attacks, and the power to walk on walls and jump between skyscrapers. Your objective here is to just kill as many people as possible and complete light missions, like a reverse EDF. It's amazing.
These games are all crafted with more care than the actual storyline, and come complete with their own skill trees and upgrades. If I ever got bored with anything from the core game I found myself getting distracted by these for hours on end. Even if you don't play open world games, it's worth giving Watch Dogs a try just to get your hands on these experiences.
Despite the fact that Watch Dogs hasn't made any meaningful impact on the genre, I found myself having a ton of fun with it. Between the deep levels of customization and the sheer breadth of content, there's no shortage of things to do. If Ubisoft can take the game's core fun factor and marry it with an actual "next-gen" experience the next time around, they'll have something truly special.