There's no sugarcoating it -- the game is just a crushing disappointment
If you have been playing video games for a long time, then you are probably already familiar with the feeling that you will get early on while playing this game – crushing disappointment – that feeling of having high hopes for a game, only to find those hopes dashed when the game that you play ends up being less polished, less beautiful, and less fun than you had hoped. Watch_Dogs is not the worst game that I have ever played, but it is one of the most disappointing. It doesn’t reinvent the open world action game, and I would be fine with that, but it is barely an average entry into the genre. It doesn’t provide a next-gen technological experience and it is bogged down by terrible driving mechanics. The features that are unique to this game are dull and uninteresting. There is no way of sugar coating it – this new IP is just a huge dud.
When a game like this comes out early in a console cycle, I expect one thing above all else – for it to impress me technologically. When it comes to this area, Watch_Dogs fails miserably. It is a mediocre looking game, even by last generation’s standards. It doesn’t even look better than Far Cry 3, which to me, looks incredible. Particularly, the character models and skins are clearly last gen holdovers, and not very good ones at that. The vehicles are GTA IV/Saints Row IV quality, at best. The animations are very good, but probably just borrowed from Ubisoft’s numerous other games. The textures aren’t particularly detailed or impressive. There is no anti-aliasing as far as I can tell and the jagged edges on the vehicles are reminiscent of an XBox 360 game. The interface and all of the menus, especially the city map screen, are dull and ugly. The city of Chicago can be breathtaking in real life, but it is very underwhelming in this game and the skyline is surprisingly bare. The environments are stale and devoid of the little details that make GTA and Saints Row so special. When it comes to visuals, Infamous: Second Son blows this game out of the water completely, both artistically and technically. For that matter, I think that Sleeping Dogs looks just as good. It is easy to imagine Watch_Dogs showing up on the PS3, looking not much worse than this. Given how long this game was in development and given how much more powerful the PS4 is than the PS3, there’s no excuse for a game to come out looking this unimpressive. What in the hell happened to this game?
One other major thing that I want out of a new IP is some new compelling feature – a new way of doing something or a new and refreshing game world. A perfect example of this type of feature is the parkour/platforming that was introduced in the first Assassins Creed game. Even though that game got repetitive and it had its flaws, you could tell that the series was destined for greatness with a few improvements. This potential was realized in Assassins Creed 2. Watch_Dogs completely fails to provide this kind of hook. It’s just a boring game. There is running and hopping over stuff, but it is pretty ordinary and not integral to the game. The differentiating mechanic in Watch_Dogs is hacking, but it is implemented in a boring manner. 95% of hacking is a button push. When you are walking around, a square prompt pops up every time that you can hack something. You hold down the square button for a couple of seconds, and it is hacked. Voila. That’s it. Since you have to do this a lot, I suppose that a hacking minigame would have gotten too tedious, but a simple button press isn’t fun either. In some cases, a square prompt appears above somebody’s head and you hack them for money. Then, you go to the nearest ATM and press a button to retrieve it. It’s that simple. Hacking is put to some interesting uses during chases though, such as when you hack a stoplight or a barrier behind you to thwart pursuers, but the simplified “press square and hold it for a couple of seconds” mechanic always dominates. There is a hacking minigame for major mission objectives, and it is very good, but minigames don’t make the game.
A sister feature to the hacking is “profiling”, which is essentially just walking around with your phone on and invading the privacy of everyone that you pass by on the streets. Thanks to the game’s facial recognition software, the identity of everyone that you see pops up in a little window, along with their annual income and a factoid like “having affair with coworker” or “being evicted by landlord for non-payment of rent”. The game seems to be making a creepy statement about the danger of ubiquitous surveillance and databases, but it never does anything remarkable with the profiling. Almost immediately, everyone’s personal trivia becomes uninteresting noise.
The hand-to-hand combat in Watch_Dogs is similar. To perform a takedown, you press the “O” button when you are prompted to perform a takedown. That’s it. I realize that the combat in Assassins Creed had issues but, Holy Christ, come on, guys. There is cover-based shooting, and at this point cover-based shooting has been in so many games that it’s impossible to get excited about it, even if it works very well. In Watch_Dogs, it works. Yay.
Watch_Dogs is very heavy on stealth, but it handles it somewhat poorly. One of the things that I always loved about the Assassins Creed games (the good ones at least) were how they handled stealth. In general, you blended into a crowd in those games, which made hiding and staying out of sight a lot less tedious. In Watch_Dogs, the stealth has regressed badly to the kind of stealth that we all hate – the kind where if somebody looks in your direction, they instantly detect you and you fail whatever you were doing. Since Watch_Dogs is very heavy on this type of stealth, the game can be a huge chore to play at times. Another reason why Assassins Creed succeeded (and this game fails) is that Assassins Creed had tons of verticality – i.e. you could hide from enemies by being above them. Watch_Dogs has very little of that. It takes place almost entirely at ground level, making line of sight very hard to avoid.
To its credit, Watch_Dogs does give you different assortment of tools for stealth. Most of them revolve around hacking. You can hack cameras to find enemies. You can use lures to get enemies to stand next to a transformer and then blow up the transformer. You can trigger car alarms and you can even blow up a grenade if it’s sitting in somebody’s pocket. These times are when the hacking becomes moderately fun to use. What few high points I experienced while playing this game mostly came from taking out enemies by remotely blowing up stuff or distracting them long enough to knock them out from behind. Unfortunately, there is still a path of far less resistance through most challenges, and that is the path of pulling out a gun and popping everyone in the head. Like most mediocre stealth games, the guns blazing approach is way easier and far less tedious than the stealthy approach.
If I ended the review at this point, then you could conclude that Watch_Dogs is guilty of simply being too average, but that it is probably still worth playing. However, I have yet to get to the game’s absolute worst part – the driving physics. Whereas most of my previous criticism involve the game failing to distinguish itself from last generation experiences, the vehicle handling in the game is nothing short of terrible. Watch_Dogs has some of the worst driving that I have ever experienced in an open world game. The controls are sluggish – there is a noticeable delay between the time that you move the analog stick and when the car responds. Even the best cars feel like tanks driving on ice. Power sliding, an important part of high speed chases in other games like this, is a non factor. Unlike most games of this nature, Watch_Dogs also takes itself very seriously, which means that it penalized you for harming civilians. This is another irritating feature as any remotely challenging driving mission will have you leaving behind a trail of civilian corpses from all of the high speed corners that you have to take. The cops are some of the most aggressive that I have ever seen in an action game and they are pretty much immune to the laws of physics. The only way to shake them is to use your hacking ability to mess with stoplights and raise barriers in the street. Most cop chases boil down to driving around endlessly until you can get a cop to crash into something by using your hacking. It cannot be overstated how badly the driving sucks in this game.
Another major disappointment with Watch_Dogs is with its crummy soundtrack. Usually, the soundtrack for an open world city game set in modern times is a huge part of what makes it enjoyable. Here, Ubisoft chose to put in a forgettable mixture of bland techno music, dull hip-hop, and highly unappealing punk rock. After playing through this game, I can’t remember any music tracks that I liked.
Watch_Dogs could have been redeemed by a great story, but the story in this game suffers somewhat of an identity crisis. It starts off well enough – you play as Aiden Pearce, a hacker vigilante out for revenge against the people who murdered his niece. It feels, at times, like a Christopher Nolan Batman movie, with you playing as the gritty, dark, brooding antihero – a bitter guy whose heart is at least in the right place. But at the same time, you steal cars, get chased by cops, destroy dozens of cop cars, hack people’s bank accounts to steal their money, and shoot soldiers and law enforcement officers in the head. You might as well be the sociopathic protagonist from a GTA game. This is the problem that games have when they try to go “dark” and “serious”. You can’t expect me to get emotionally invested in the “THE BAD GUYS KILLED MY NIECE GRRRRR” story when I am creating a fresh batch of widows in every cop chase and every mission. The line-by-line writing is at least decent and for what it’s worth, the voice acting is top notch for both the important characters and the thousands of pedestrians that you meet. The voice work is the one aspect of the game that lives up to the hype.
I, like many people eagerly anticipating this game, was hoping that it would become this generation’s Assassins Creed – an impressive technical showcase that brings innovative new gameplay elements to the table. It isn’t. I think that it is more like this generation’s Spore – a long hyped, highly anticipated game that shows up and is sorely lacking in compelling game mechanics. The driving physics and graphics could be improved for a sequel, but even if that happens, I don’t see this series ever becoming a great one without a massive redefinition of what it is. You can’t even say that this game is fun for a few hours before it gets repetitive – it simply isn’t fun from the getgo. I take no pleasure in saying this, because we are desperate for good new IPs, and I want to see some that succeed. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to keep waiting.