Watch_Dogs (PC) Review
Watch_Dogs is set in present day, but alternate universe, Chicago where the city has become a testing ground for a new city-wide computer network called ctOS which connects everything and everyone. Enter Aiden Pearce, hacker extraordinaire. Due to some poor choices in his past he becomes a target for retribution and his family ends up paying the price. Months after the incident shown in the introduction, players assume control of Aiden as he takes his hacking skills, and his supercharged cell phone, out on the street in search of revenge.
If this story sounds cliché, that’s because it is. The story, the characters, and the overall plot – at least through the first two and a half “acts” of the game – are all full of sci-fi/fantasy tropes and pop culture “hacker” stereotypes. Think of Watch_Dogs as two parts “Person of Interest”, one part “Hackers” (yes, the 1995 movie), and a dash of "The Big Bang Theory" put in a blender and mixed up into one package.
Beyond the cliché story, Aiden Pearce is just a very bland protagonist. The game takes every opportunity to convey why players should feel bad for Aiden and tries with almost every campaign mission to portray Aiden’s anger and exasperation. Despite this, I find myself completely apathetic towards him. Aiden is a plain white fellow with a major five o’clock shadow and dead eyes who speaks with a monotone, gravelly voice that sounds skeptical of everything and everyone. His quest for revenge feels fleeting and unimportant. His quest to take down the network, for good or ill, also seems equally contrived.
The secondary characters that assist throughout the game, while diverse, aren't much better than Aiden in terms of backstory. Starting with Jordi Chin, all of the secondary characters in Watch_Dogs are thrown at the player with very little initial story or consequence. Like everything else in the campaign, character stories are told through the standard flashbacks and/or audio logs. Some of the secondary characters are more interesting than Aiden, but that isn't saying much.
Thankfully, as Aiden points out after the first mission, there are plenty of distractions to be found within the city. There are active side missions such as stopping crimes in progress or infiltrating gang hideouts and passive collection style quests such as investigations or seeking out craftily painted QR codes. Finding these missions involves unlocking territories … err, I mean ctOS towers and hacking random pedestrian phones for information. This highlights one of my major letdowns with the game: Watch_Dogs was advertised as an alternative to games like Grand Theft Auto where hacking, not being a gun toting maniac, is the foundation of the game. In the finished product, however, hacking is little more than a “special power” with limited functionality, even after unlocking all three of the highest tiers of hacking skills in the available skill trees.
That isn’t to say the game doesn’t give you choice. In fact, where Watch_Dogs shines is in allowing players the choice of how to approach missions and side-quests. You can go full action hero and simply complete everything by force or you can take a stealthy, Splinter Cell style, approach and opt to sneak and hack. You can choose to be a modern day Robin Hood – well, you don’t really give to the poor but you sure do take a lot of money – or you can be a complete maniac who doesn’t care about the general public. Your choices will, over time, affect how the public interacts with you. I’m currently playing as a full vigilante so the public treats me somewhere between a hero and an urban legend. Unfortunately, the choices become somewhat meaningless later on because the “going in guns blazing” route ends up as the easiest and fastest way to deal with missions, even as a full vigilante.
The game also offers side distractions in the form of “augmented reality” Digital Trips, which are mini-games Ubisoft added during the game’s delay. Blasting aliens, running over mutated zombies in a demon car, and destroying the city in a spider tank are a few of the options on tap. Completing these Digital Trips gives minor progression boosts in the game and the mini-games themselves also have skill trees to increase replay value. Watch_Dogs also offers a few, more traditional, mini-games such as gambling (poker, slot machines, shell game), chess, and drinking games. Like the Digital Trips, completing these will unlock various progression rewards.
Along with hacking, Ubisoft heavily marketed the online, connected world gameplay as a major selling point. Online multiplayer comes in a variety of forms, including a mobile app-to-game challenge where someone playing on a tablet or cell phone can interact with a player in the full game, but most people will be familiar with the Online Invasion mode. While playing, unless you chose to block them, other players can randomly infiltrate your game and begin hacking you. Before you can do anything else, you need to find them and kill them or they’ll make off with your cash and other assorted goods. While this is fun at first, after hacking (and being hacked) a few times, the novelty wears off, especially with how easy certain issues and spots can be exploited. Online Decryption is similar to small team capture the flag with hacked files instead of, well, a flag. Online Races are just races but, unfortunately, because the driving mechanics in Watch_Dogs are so poor they’re just not that enjoyable. Finally, there’s a free roam option for friends to join up and privately roam the host’s city of Chicago. Online Decryption is my favorite mode since I’ve grown weary of people invading my game.
There are a couple of points to be made regarding multiplayer. First, from what I’ve been told the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions do not include Online Decryption or Free Roam mode. Secondly, the PC version of the game requires being connected to Ubisoft’s uPlay service which, once again, cannot handle the stress of a major title launch. For the first three days of the game’s launch, uPlay has been down more than it’s been up and at time of typing this (Friday of release week), uPlay for PC is still very hit or miss. As they did with Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed 4, Ubisoft swears they’re working on the stability issues. Personally, I’m not holding my breath and fellow PC players should take into account that buying on PC might mean losing out on the multiplayer functions during peak playing hours.
In conclusion, Watch_Dogs is a series with a lot of untapped potential with the ability to span multiple cities over multiple years, but Ubisoft really needs to weave a tighter story, diversify the hacking mechanics, improve the driving system, and give a bit more depth to the skill system in future iterations. The end version of Watch_Dogs feels like the developers really didn’t know what they wanted the game to be. Modern Grand Theft Auto, for example, has become the "serious" story teller, Saints Row is the over-the-top, everything goes free roamer, while Crackdown was the equivalent of a Saturday morning cartoon superhero game (complete with memorably cheesy narrator). Watch_Dogs tries to be a serious story teller like GTA with over the top moments and it just doesn't come together very well.
I enjoy Watch_Dogs because it offers a lot to do; however, I can’t help but feel that, in a few months’ time, people will reflect upon Watch_Dogs and remember the side quests and mini-games rather than the campaign. That may not be a bad thing, though. Many people remember all the side distractions in GTA: San Andreas yet barely remember CJ and why he was on his journey in the first place while openly proclaiming that title to be one of the best in the GTA franchise.
There’s enough here to justify playing the game at least once – twice if you’re a completionist who pays attention to in-game morality meters – and a solid enough foundation for future sequels in the franchise. Is it enough to spend $60 on? That’s debatable. At the least, it's worth picking up on sale later (or renting, if playing on a console).
Score: 4 out of 5 (or three Acid Burns and a Zero Cool).
Available for: PC, PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360
I didn’t touch on the topic of graphics because I didn’t want to open that Pandora’s Box. How the game looks and performs is the subject of much debate and hand-wringing. While I feel content with how the game looks and performs (no, it's not truly next gen and, yes, there could be some improvements), I feel compelled to share system information for reference:
I run an Intel Core i7-3770, PNY GTX 660 2GB GPU (latest nVidia Drivers [337.88, at time of typing]), with 16GB of low latency DDR3 system ram on Windows 7 x64 and my system struggled to maintain consistent frame rates on the default-recognized high preset at 1920x1080. I eventually settled for high textures, high rate of detail, and everything else on medium, with HBAO+ Low ambient occlusion and FXAA anti-aliasing for best consistent performance. This is a game where the player will need to do a lot of tweaking to find their own preferred graphical "sweet spot".