Watchdogs - Xbox One, PS4, PC, Xbox 360, PS3 - Ubisoft
When Watch Dogs arrived in May 2014, it had a tumultuous reception. There was a big uproar about how the hype was false, how the videos shown at E3 didn't reflect the final state of the game, and that customers were lied to. Then there were complaints of technical issues with the game (which were supposedly patched later). Then there were complaints that the game just wasn't very good. Some liked the game, but for others, the game left a poor taste in their mouths, whether affected by the hype or not, it was unclear.
I was interested enough that I kept the game on my radar, but I was in no hurry to check it out. Over a year later I picked it up for the price of $10. I went into it with a fairly open mind, knowing it wasn't going to be a great game, but also expecting that many had reviled it based on broken expectations and the negativity hype. Unfortunately, I didn't find a sleeper hit or an unappreciated game. Yet it wasn't completely terrible game either. I want to share thoughts on Watch Dogs over some of the better games I've played just because it's interesting how it has so much potential to be better and just keeps missing the target.
The first thing you notice when you play is that it's more like Grand Theft Auto than you expected. We all knew it was open world in a modern city from videos, but coming from Ubisoft, the makers of open world Assassin's Creed games, I didn't expect it to be so much like GTA. I, like others, expected more like Assassin's Creed in the modern day, some climbing, infiltration, etc. No, you can't climb more than in a few spots. Getting around and doing stuff is just like GTA, except a little worse. Driving is not nearly as polished as you want. Shooting is fine for the most part. The city of Chicago looks great, but it feels empty. It has as many people as most GTA games, but for the actual city of Chicago, it's a ghost town. The biggest thing the game lacks compared to a comparable GTA or Saints Row is that Watch Dog lacks the fun and personality they have, but I'll get to that in a bit.
Gameplay-wise, the whole point of playing Watch Dogs is the hacking mechanic. Using the protagonist's phone, you can tap into the citywide ctOS system that has been installed in this fictional Chicago. This allows you to see information on any person around you, steal from their bank accounts, disable alarms, and hack systems. You can tap into any camera and then scan people or find other hacking opportunities. For whatever fictional reasoning, this requires line of sight, so often you need to hack a camera, from that camera look around so you have line of sight to hack another camera, and so on until you find the thing you want to hack. This often happens with security doors, where you'll get a highlighted path for the circuit and need to track it back to the switch. Once you get upgrades, hacking also allows you to raise and lower bridges, explode steam pipes under cars, raise road spikes, and other things to help you in car chases. Hacking also allows an alternative in most violent situations. Many times in the game you'll need to enter a secure area where enemies attack you on sight. Often you can hack cameras before stepping into the area. This allows you to scout the area... and cause mayhem. You can change the environment and distract the guards, but with the right upgrades, you can kill too. Watching through the cameras, you can hack circuits to explode and kill guards near them, you can set off grenades in guards' pockets, and more. Often you can soften up the guards or even kill them all through hacking. In some cases you can achieve your objective without ever stepping into the restricted area. Depending on how you do it, it can take longer than a frontal assault, but it sure is fun. When it is working, hacking is a fun part of Watch Dogs.
Which is disappointing, because that fun hacking mechanic is the top shelf feature in a game that really isn't very fun. With an interesting mechanic and a passable GTA-style open world, it's unfortunate that they made such a boring game. The story of Watch Dogs is a lesson in how to make the player not care. Set in present day Chicago, players take on the role of GravellyVoice McBadChoices (actually Aiden Pearce, but you're not going to remember that) as he tries to correct his past and we struggle to care. Aiden is a hacker-slash-thug who has been also moonlighting in town as The Vigilante (I think? It's more mentioned over and over in passing than really explained). Sometime before the start of the game, he did a job that went bad, and as retribution an assassin was sent after his sister's family and his niece was killed. GravellyVoice blames himself, so he's tracking them down to get revenge, even though his sister - the girl's mother - and pretty much everyone else says not to do it, it's not worth it, and they don't even want him to do it. But GravellyVoice McBadChoices ignores them and explores vengeance for all of, like, two missions before he's pulled into something nobody gives a damn about (not even GravellyVoice!) and his family is in danger. In a world where only gravelly-voiced protagonists can do anything, he must do what he can to save them, which means going on missions because he was told to. At least in GTA and Saints Row we get colorful characters that are amusing when telling us to do bitch work, sometimes even parodying it, but Watch Dog plays it completely serious even when ridiculous and uninspired. Eventually it makes its way back around to the vengeance angle and dips its hands into some interesting topics, but revenge takes a back seat for a long time to make you do other stuff first.
When I saw videos and marketing for Watch Dogs, I thought it would be a darker crime thriller focusing on privacy issues, corporate overreach, and information age issues. Those issues are sort of in the game, more in the late game, but for a good chunk of the game, those are setup for another plot. Instead of the cyberage concerns, I found myself dealing with low income area gangsters, sex trafficking, and occasionally stopping petty crimes for no reason. Yes, you have the option of stopping petty crimes you are alerted to on the map, but there's few explanations why you, the player, or why the character, GravellyVoice McBadChoices, would want to do them. In fact, you can "mess them up" by making the criminal run away, but the game counts this as a failure, only rewarding you for waiting until the criminal does the crime (sometimes killing the victim) and then taking them down. I would think chasing off the criminal would be a win too. Overall, these petty crimes are rarely fun. There's a meter for how good or bad a reputation GravellyVoice has, and stopping crime raises it (and running over pedestrians decreases it), but other than telling me it exists, the game never really explained what it did, and it never had any effect on my game experience.
Watch Dogs is full of side content and systems, but many of them are either poorly explained or of no consequence. In that respect, it feels much like Assassin's Creed 3, also by Ubisoft: it feels like a bunch of development teams worked on this, each doing a different system and content line, so there's a bunch of stuff in the game, but none of it feels very deep. There are half a dozen different collectibles, maybe half a dozen investigations (which are like collectibles but slightly different), ctOS towers to unlock (like Assassin's Creed viewpoints but more hacking, less climbing), lots of violence related side missions (gang headquarters, fixer assignments, driving activities), two VR games (shooting, and 8-bit style gold collection), city activities (poker, drinking games, etc) and four side game activities called Digital Trips with their own areas, rules, and skill trees (which are actually more fun than the main game). If you're a person who only buys a game every few months and plays the crap out of it, then this game has much to occupy you. Likewise if you're a completionist that must do everything, there's a ton to do. But like I said, it's not all fun. The game does reward you well for completing side content - you unlock guns, cars, and outfits. I appreciate that, except for the fact that most guns, cars, and outfits are not useful. The game lacks versatility in its assets, so once you've unlocked the best of something, you don't need the others. I never needed thirty guns across five equipped categories - I needed two guns, a silenced pistol and an assault rifle, which even reduced to one when they inexplicably gave me a silenced assault rifle (which is magic, by the way). I used a sniper rifle maybe three times and a grenade launcher for a single difficult hallway battle, but both of those times the assault rifle would have worked well too.
The game is not without its control and design issues. I really disliked weapon switching. In Watch Dogs, you don't pick which guns you carry with you, you have them all with you. You hold left bumper to bring up the weapon wheel, which has one of every gun type (pistol, assault rifle, shotgun, etc). If you want to select a different assault rifle, you hold left bumper, use right thumbstick to highlight the gun (which felt oversensitive, as half the time when you let go of the thumbstick it switched to something else) and then you use the D-pad to cycle through guns. This was a frustrating set of hand movements for me. The game doesn't pause when you do this either, so changing a gun in a firefight can be frustrating. Also, cycling through/switching your equipped gun automatically takes it out. And unlike some other games, pedestrians immediately react. So if you're at a weapon shop and want to equip some of the guns you just bought, you cycle through the weapons and equip the weapon. The customers and weapon store owner freak out like you're robbing the place. Cops are called and you can't buy anymore guns... just because I equipped the gun he just sold me.
It can be frustrating due to difficult design or just inconsistencies. With ctOS, you can track people across town, hack their phones from afar, etc. But you still have a mission where you need to tail someone via car and not be seen, even though you already have hacked their phone - why is the GPS suddenly not working? Then he gets out of the car and you need to follow him on foot, but now the distance you have to keep is suddenly much smaller than the car. Watch Dogs also has more than a few instafail stealth mission - getting seen means the mission immediately ends, no chance to kill the dude before he tells someone, no chance to fight your way through. Just over immediately, restart. It also has one of the most frustrating boss fights I have experienced in recent memory. They put you in a cramped area with various pieces of cover. Once you enter the area you are given no new objective. The villain monologues a minute or so, you get attacked by three dudes. Kill them, and the villain monologues another minute or two. Then one of the biggest elites of the game just appears in this cramped area and you need to kill him and someone else in the scant seconds before you are ripped to shreds. Needless to say you will die the first time. You restart and guess what? You have to listen to the same villain monologues without a word changed. And the action won't start until he finishes, and you can't skip the dialog. The fight is still frustratingly hard, so you might hear this monologue eight, nine, more times. And it wasn't even a very good monologue the first time.
The car radios in the game have a selection of tracks you can listen to as you drive. You can steal them from certain pedestrians' phones. The tracks would be nice, except I've rarely listened to more than the first minute and a half of a song. You have hideouts you can fast travel to which keep you from long trips. When you're on a story mission which is the only time you can't use fast travel, the game plays its own mood music, keeping the track/radio music muted. When you are in a car and wanting to listen to music, it still gets interrupted by alerts of new missions, news broadcasts, or random story phone calls. After you finish each story mission, there are some very lengthy phone calls. Usually only one or two and right after another. But occasionally they have more once you get closer to the next story mission icon. I remember getting in my car, switching through twenty tracks, putting on a favorite Weezer song I was glad to see in the game, driving toward a side mission to waste time with, and then having this bitch call me on the phone and then talk through the whole damn song. Add to this the fact that music stops when you get out of the car, and you never really get to enjoy the music. Why was it put in? Probably because it was on a checklist rather than it made sense. There's a lot more design issues/bugs like this, but I think you get the picture.
At this point, you might be wondering why I spent the time to write this up or why I'm kicking a dead franchise horse. It comes down to seeing what they did right in this game that makes me want to see something else. I'm actually curious to see a Watch Dogs 2. Let's draw a parallel between Watch Dogs and Assassin's Creed - not completely unreasonable, since they are both by the same publisher, but I have no idea if the same dev team. Assassin's Creed 1 was full of promise and good ideas, but its execution left us with a game with some good mechanics but lots of boring gameplay and story. From that meager, almost tech demoish game came Assassin's Creed 2, a sequel that far exceeded its predecessor, taking the original game and making it into a well-done, polished game that corrected nearly every flaw of the first. Watch Dogs 2 could be that. Rather than being a first stab in the dark at something new, Watch Dogs 2 could be built on this foundation, correcting design issues and retuning to a better direction for the franchise.
Of course, I think the biggest missed opportunity of this game is plot and setting. As a present day game, Watch Dogs just doesn't work. Its blend of the familiar and unfamiliar comes off in a bad way, jarring and uninteresting. But look at the mechanics it has to work with - this would make a great CYBERPUNK game. Set it 100 years in the future, in a setting along the lines of Deus Ex or Shadowrun. All of its best parts - hacking, a gun system, crime, a big city - would fit perfectly. Instead of Watch Dogs' plot, put Blade Runner, Judge Dredd, and PsychoPass into a blender, then attach that output to Watch Dogs' hacking, shooting, and open world mechanics. That is the game I want to play. It was the specter that haunted me through my entire Watch Dogs experience.
Ultimately, Watch Dogs is a hard game to recommend if you just want to play a good game I wouldn't spend more than $10-15 on it, no matter what reason you have. If you want one game you can do stuff with over weeks/months, it's not a bad game. If you want to check out a fun hacking mechanic as a player, a game archeologist, or a game developer, then it's worth you to give the game a try. But I can't recommend it just for the game itself. Once you walk away from the game, you're never going to remember the story of GravellyVoice McBadChoices, and if you are, it's going to be for his nonsensical choices or his confusing sociopathic epilogue monologue. If you're just looking for a game to play for solid story and gameplay, you should find something else.
Watch Dogs on Amazon
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