Publisher: Ubisoft | Developer: Ubisoft Montreal | Out Now
Information is everything in Watch Dogs. The super-skilled, cardigan-loving hacker Aiden Pearce spends much of the game volleying between computer terminals, accessing mobile phones and spying on civilians via security cameras dotted across Chicago in the near-future. Bank details, personal information and the city’s deepest secrets spill out of these interconnected devices as the city’s inhabitants pass by on the street. This is Watch Dogs’ USP: wealth, disorder and control can be seized by players across a sprawling digital frontier, all accessible (in Ubisoft’s inimitable fashion) at the touch of a button.
But look between the digits raining down from the screen and what you’ll see is a machine humming along by the power of familiar components: Assassin’s Creed, the most obvious, for its approach to exploration and impressive parkour animations; Grand Theft Auto’s for its car-jacking and vehicular mayhem; Far Cry 3’s enemy outposts as means to unlock points of interest; its underlining subtext sharing InFamous: Second Son’s rebellious outlook on oppressive government surveillance. It’s ironic that a game pondering the meaning of identity in an increasingly connected world finds so little time to establish its own.
What Watch Dogs does bring to the table is hacking, but it fails to act as the empowering gameplay device that you might expect. Instead, much of what is required is just pushing a button to make something happen. Whether that’s changing the traffic lights to cause a multi-car pile-up, or accessing someone’s text messages, there’s no real sense that you’re actually achieving anything other than answering an on-screen prompt. That’s not to say that the results aren’t enjoyable – there’s an undeniable thrill in reversing the camera to see several cop cars collide into traffic after you’ve switched the junction’s lights, or triggering an enemy’s grenade to detonate on his belt – it’s just that after a couple of missions, none of these actions feel anything but routine.
Where hacking gets deeper is when you’re tasked with infiltrating a system, but even here it opts for Pipemania-stye puzzles (again, traceable from another, albeit less memorable, Ubisoft title, Lost: Via Domus) where you have to guide the power through wires to unlock access points. It’s no surprise then that hacking can feel like it’s playing second fiddle to more familiar gameplay mechanics.
Most missions are broken down into surveillance, tracking and combat, and it’s the last two areas that the game feels more comfortable. Of the five acts that the campaign is set across, many of missions feel especially short , meaning that a significant amount of time is spent driving across the city from point-to-point, either tailing or trying to reach the next mission marker. It wouldn’t be such a chore if Chicago wasn’t such a bland location. While it’s admirable that we’ve seen developers recently cast the net wider when it comes to open world settings (there’s only so many times you can run through Times Square and it still be exciting) there’s nothing about the Windy City that particular stands out, apart from the weather (the rain really does look spectacular). The world possesses a huge amount of detail and spreads out from its metropolitan hub into more rural districts on the outskirts, but there are no standout landmarks to admire or architectural feats that just demand to be climbed. It just lacks a sense of fun that makes it an engaging setting, rather than just a series of roads.
In combat the game is more playful in nature. There’s a balance here between stealth and straight-up gunplay that for the most part works exceptionally well. First off you can achieve an easy advantage just by moving between security cameras, scoping out the area and picking off guards using the environment before you’ve even had to draw you gun from the holster.
You also have various craftable gadgets at your disposal, including IEDs, communication jammers, lures and a blackout trigger that can bathe the entire area in complete darkness. The options available make it easy enough to manipulate a gunfight to your advantage without relying too heavily on the firepower that you’re wielding.
It’s for this reason that we found it slightly odd that you’re given access to such a wide choice of firearms so early in the game’s campaign. About an hour into the story you’re handed a grenade launcher with a healthy supply of ammunition, which makes easy work of many of the bigger enemy skirmishes we came across. It’s almost as if Ubisoft doesn’t trust players to make intelligent use of its non-lethal tools and just pandered to a different type of gamer completely.
Watch Dogs works best when it brings together all of its separate parts, rather than relying on individual pieces. Play beyond the glacial opening hours full of po-faced drama, showy visual motifs of raw data streams and compressed video, and after a hard drive’s worth of tutorials (all of which zips along the pace of a stalling 56k modem), the game finds a comfortable rhythm that it maintains for the rest of the game.
Getting to that point isn’t easy, though. With a torrent of systems to get to grips with and an uninspiring story, the first few hours drag along. Aiden is a one-note gravel-voiced antihero on a revenge trip, out to uncover the truth behind the murder of his niece several months earlier. In the interim he has started taking the law into his own hands (earning him the inspired nickname The Vigilante) and has achieved enough to attract the unwanted attention of the criminal underworld. Other characters fail to leave a lasting impression on either the plot or the player. Also, given that Aiden is using the same shady invasive tactics as the same people he’s hunting, there’s some questionable moral ambiguity that is just outright ignored.
If you’re expecting a world populated with similarly immoral hackers invading your story and fighting over the same scraps of digital information in a manner first teased in Ubisoft’s E3 conference a few years back, then you’ll also find yourself disappointed. Alongside other multiplayer modes, players can be invaded by others during the campaign, but this cat-and-mouse versus mode isn’t anything we haven’t seen before in Assassin’s Creed and feels too disjointed from the single-player.
Using your mobile phone, you’re able to access other multiplayer modes. These include free-roaming, companion app material and a couple of straightforward objective-based competitive scenarios, but there’s nothing here that is particularly worthy of drawing you out of the campaign. Again, it’s a case of hacking taking a backseat to more established gameplay mechanics, which is a missed opportunity to showcase the inherent potential of the concept.
Side-quests and other extras are more engaging. Once you’re done with the main story there’s plenty left to do. There are a few story-based missions that involve murders, arms dealers and other seedy wrongdoings, fetch-quests and other simple tasks. Elsewhere you’ll find a delightful crop of AR games pop up on the map, involving jumping across giant flowers, collecting coins on the streets and evading maniacal robots – a rare display of humour in a game that takes itself much too seriously.
It’s not that the game is particularly lacking when it come to content, but when it comes to heart there’s plenty of room to fill. Watch Dogs is a game that fills the requirements of an open-world action game, without trying to add anything new to the mix, or excelling particularly when it comes to adapting existing ideas.
It’s not helped that Grand Theft Auto V raised the bar so high in the genre – on an older generation of hardware, no less. We can’t help but think that Watch Dogs should have lead the way in demonstrating what a next-gen open world can offer, but the result is a game that plays like a greatest hits compilation. Perhaps Watch Dogs should’ve kept a closer eye on itself rather than watching what everyone else was doing.