If there ever is a game that shows just how powerful pre-release marketing really is, Watch Dogs is certainly it. The teaser trailers had gamers drooling over the open-world shoot-and-hack premise and the gorgeous next-gen HD graphics. It then got delayed from late 2013 to mid 2014, and succeeding trailers showed less detailed graphics that started to cast doubts on the game’s development. But it’s now here, and it has been more about criticizing the hype than the game itself.
Watch Dogs is an open world action adventure game developed by Ubisoft Montreal and published by Ubisoft, which makes it sound like Assassin’s Creed in real life with guns and hacking. However, it’s a whole new IP set in Chicago, with a nei-cyberpunk feel to it with the much-publicized hacking capability that lets you make stuff happen around you like you’re some kind of remote control god. With a sidearm in one hand and a hack-o-matic in the other, you’re an urban warrior like a decker in Shadowrun.
You play as a trench coat-clad man named Aiden Pearce, a skilled grey hat hacker who is well-versed in cracking into the CtOS system that the whole city runs on, enabling him to get information on just about anyone and anything with just his highly-modified smartphone. He can then use these skills to either work for the law or against it, which gives it a hint of inFamous, another open world game with such a mechanic. You can either help citizens in need throughout the city or hack into bank accounts and steal their money.
His motivations are that of revenge. After a botched job, he was targeted by those who are on a lookout for hackers like him, and they had their contractor get to his family in order to get to him. It results in tragedy as Aiden’s niece Lena got killed, and he found out who did it and chased him down. After an interrogation that results in no names, he must now track down the masterminds responsible for the killing.
Despite his situation, he still has relatives to be wary and protective of, especially since he doesn’t want anyone else to die because of him. Most of the characters in the game and the plot itself is compelling enough, but the one who matters the most isn’t that interesting. Aiden Pearce is yet another emotionless protagonist that seems to happen often in a lot of media, so people who are more into interesting characters will find him to be rather blasé.
Perhaps Aiden can be whoever the player wants him to be, but this seemed to be the same case with Alex Mercer from Prototype and Altair from the first Assassin’s Creed. Maybe if Ubisoft plans to have a sequel to this game, they’ll give Aiden a bit more of a personality like they did with Altair in the Assassin’s Creed II series.
The graphics delivers as much as it could on the promise of next-gen, despite issues during its development. As expected, there are obvious differences between each version of the game. The graphics in the PC and next-gen versions are more well-defined than those for the PS3 and Xbox 360, but it doesn’t mean that the latter two are vastly inferior as Ubisoft Montreal seems to have done well in bringing as much of the visual appeal as they can to 720p. Compared to its counterparts though, there isn’t a lot of difference as good graphics are just good graphics these days.
As for its presentation style, it has good use of iconography and graphic design for the interfaces and use of augmented reality, as well as intentional artifacts to give it that glitchy look that fits the hacking theme. While the graphics are what most people talk about, it’s the visual presentation that makes the aesthetics of the game truly stick, like that of other games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mirror’s Edge. In this case though, it’s a bit more subtle with a bit less use of bright colors, relying more on smooth lines and wire frames to look distinct.
Perhaps the biggest strength of this game is in the variety of things you can do in the game aside from just following the main storyline, which is a quality that’s shared by the best open world games like Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto V, Sleeping Dogs, and FarCry 3. As mentioned, you can either become a neighborhood hero or a thieving scumbag with your freerunning and hacking abilities. It’s kind of like Mirror’s Edge or Assassin’s Creed with additional options aside from unnecessary combat.
With your hacking skills, you can tune into nearby cameras and bypass security systems, hack other people’s bank accounts, turn traffic lights from red to green, make various things explode, cause blackouts, and so on to further your cause. This makes up most of the cool parts of the game as it does add a lot of dimension to the open world mechanics. Being able to traverse the terrain like in Assassin’s Creed may be old for a lot of gamers by now, but being able to make things burst and explode along the way to deter pursuers brings new life to it.
There is also driving, as is usual with most urban sandbox games. Perhaps it’s because it was supposed to be a Driver game before becoming a separate IP in itself. Some may feel that driving is not preferable in this game as it makes you miss a lot of the hackable stuff in the way, but it’s still cool to turn red lights to green and change electric signboards while speeding along. As for car chases, they’re so-so as they’re a lot like that of GTA5, but the addition of hacking while driving is still quite neat.
The only problem is that while on the road, while the draw distancing of the graphics is alright, objects load up just as you’re about to reach them, which is both a performance and gameplay issue. It’s easy to run into other cars due to this, making for a chaotic driving experience. Maybe you’ll get used to this, or it may just annoy you indefinitely, which can discourage players from driving. You could drive more slowly and cautiously, or you can tweak graphics settings around to see if you can get this fixed on the PC version.
Aside from the main storyline, you have side missions that you can unlock and partake in. They are as expected from the makers of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, which means they tend to be similar and can feel repetitive after some time. But they still provide meaningful enough distractions to let you soak in more of the in-game world. You can then gain more points for skills through your skill tree, which lets you gain abilities to hack into more systems, have more options in combat, be able to drive cars better, and craft more items like lures, scanners, explosives, and so on.
The online modes are quite fun as well, letting you run through missions with other players and get more replay value out of it. There are some elements in the game that don’t seem to mean as much in the long run though, such as money and reputation that seem to become arbitrary as you go along. As long as you’re completing each mission, they seem to not matter as much and you don’t have to make too much effort in gathering more of them. Perhaps reputation is still important in the storyline, and you can become either a criminal or a vigilante, but Aiden still does either way as a jerk, killing and stealing along the way.
As with a lot of hyped-up AAA releases, Watch Dogs was beset by some launch problems, mainly with the PC version. Since the game requires online authentication through uPlay in order to play, many PC gamers who bought the game were unable to play due to issues with logging into the service. The uPlay DRM has always been a source of consternation for players of Ubisoft games, and it seems that it’s doing more now to bite them in the behind. There are also reports that it has affected the next-gen console versions as well, which makes it even worse. Once the problem is fixed, a big portion of the market could be dissuaded from getting this game.
There were also a lot of technical problems, which were illustrated by online gaming communities in forums and message boards. GIFs and WebM’s of various glitches were posted as soon as the very first day, which meant that a lot of faults passed through Ubisoft’s quality assurance. The PC version, which most gamers would see as the “superior version”, seems to be quite prone to crashing and slowdowns even at the lowest graphics settings. This still was a source of much consternation after such a long pre-release period and the shifting of the launch date from coinciding with the next-gen consoles’ launch to as far back as late 2014 before it had gone gold on May 14.
But the main gripe that most people have with Watch Dogs is that the next-gen graphics that looked so good in the teaser trailers turned out to not be as such in the actual release. The PS3 and Xbox 360 versions are already a given, but the PS4 and Xbox One version also show the struggles, with 900p on the former and 792p on the latter, which is far from the 1080p HD graphics that was first promised. There has also been quite a bit of screen-tearing and low-res shadows in the PC and Xbox One versions, as well as some frame rate issues during action-heavy segments, despite dynamic V-Sync that was supposedly implemented to prevent this from happening.
However, despite all of these maladies, the game is not as bad as most detractors purport. It still plays quite well, with most of the features promised in the pre-release making the game feel different from other sandbox games. It does feel quite a bit like Grand Theft Auto V with hacking bits, but that’s like saying it’s bad to have League of Legends be DotA without denies. Besides, plenty of other AAA titles that have undergone similar pre-release marketing hype that turned out to not be as good as it was first teased to be.
Whether it’s a viable Game of the Year candidate or not after all of the stumbles and controversy, Watch Dogs is still a pretty cool game that puts another big gear in the open world action adventure machinery, which may result in more awesome games in the future. Perhaps they’ll expand on this new intellectual property as well, coming up with a Watch Dogs 2 that is much better than this one. From what we’ve seen from Ubisoft in recent years, that’s quite likely.
Tested in PC. Final Score: 8/10