When it was first announced in 2012, Ubisoft Montreal made the bold claim that Watch Dogs was being designed to “go beyond the limits of today’s open world games.” Their vision of the game would allow players to control an entire city through their trademarked hacking mechanics and manipulate it in inconceivable ways. Running on a brand new game engine and after showcasing impressive gameplay footage, Watch Dogs quickly became one of the most anticipated titles to bridge the transition between console generations. Now that the power to hack the planet is in our hands, it’s time to finally see if Watch Dogs lives up to its full potential or fizzles out as nothing more than a Molyneux-level disappointment.
The story of Watch Dogs centers around Aiden Pearce, a grey hat hacker extraordinaire who is coming to terms with the unintentional murder of his niece by seeking revenge against those responsible for the failed hit on his life. To do this, he hacks into Chicago’s operating system that’s installed in pretty much every digital object in the city. Phones, cars, stop lights, and cameras are just a few of many manipulable objects Pearce can hack.
Watchdogs (PS4 [Reviewed], Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Released: May 27, 2014
In most cases, hacking just involves pressing a button prompt while facing a person or object. During car chases you’ll hit a button to cause the road barriers to pop up in front of your pursuers, cause gas lines to explode to thin enemy ranks, and, well, variants of the aforementioned events. The ‘Press X to Jason’ approach to hacking is oversimplified, but it works well within the confines of the game. Occasionally, you’ll find yourself engaging in more active hacking minigames that involve jumping from camera to camera to find your objective or a version of old Pipe Dream puzzles. While they do become monotonous on their own way, they certainly break up the extremely repetitive nature of the majority of hacking you’ll do. It’s just a shame that the hacking is not nearly as inventive as it could have been. In fact, lack of innovation is Watch Dog’s biggest flaw; it fails to innovate in even the most basic ways, with the few unique things it has going for it put on the sideline.
For instance, early on you get the feeling that Aiden Pierce was destined to become the iconic, original character that the industry is in dire need of – and the one Ubisoft so proudly boasted he would be in the months leading up to release. Instead of being just another dude with ‘tude seeking revenge for his wife and child’s murder, Pearce steers clear of that trope by being all about sisterly love. No, not of the Game of Thrones variety (Although I’m sure some fan fiction will address that.), but as a brother who is willing to protect his sibling and her son at all costs. Sure, it’s not the most original take on things, but it is at least an attempt at trying to make a character a little bit more grounded in reality and somewhat relatable. Just as you develop any form of attachment to Aiden’s guilt and the burden he carries with him, Ubisoft pisses in your swimming pool.
Apparently Ubisoft’s idea of character development was to just slap a baseball cap and bandanna on another gruff-sounding white dude with a personality disorder brought on by poor writing. Any sense of character growth is denied for the sake of keeping him as average as a game character can get. With that said, I can’t imagine I can criticize them too much for playing it safe, considering the amount of suburban-raised youth that’ll rush to Hot Topic to buy Pierce’s hat ’n ‘danna, but his story would have made him worth so much more if the developers side-stepped out of mediocrity. Considering the fact that Ubisoft is responsible for some of the best franchises in the industry, one would expect they’d be able to develop an original story worth a damn. After all, Watch Dogs could be viewed as a ‘greatest hits’ album of Ubisoft talent. While it doesn’t show in the story, it does show during gameplay.
Movement is very fluid and Assassin’s Creed-lite, with Pierce parkouring his way over obstacles when the free-running button is held. The stealth aspects are very (modern) Splinter Cell, with the ability to snap to cover and use items to lure enemies away from the area or directly to where you want them. The driving and gunplay feel like the industry standard for a third-person shooter set in an open world. Throw all of that in the blender with Watch Dog’s hacking aspects and it does blend together into a smooth delicacy.
The problem is that Watch Dogs suffers when all the different gameplay mechanics have to be used independently. When you’re in a shoot-out, you can very well rely on stealth, marksmanship, and the ability to hack the environment to a near flawless degree. This is when Watch Dogs is pure genius. That hybrid of mechanics work so well, I was surprised to see that the same level of care wasn’t applied to driving. When you get in a car, all you can do is drive and wait for button prompts to hack the environment. You can’t shoot at all while driving, but you can still hack. I found the process of hacking while driving to become quite tedious, since the majority of it involves tailing an enemy while waiting for them to line themselves up at the precise moment. As such, the most effective way to deal with vehicular enemies to ram into them until it renders their car inoperable.
As for the multiplayer, the lion’s share feels just as phoned in as you would expect, with all the predictable variants of PVP and car racing. However, the real bread and butter of Watch Dogs’ multiplayer is the Invasion mode, which is basically a cross between Assassin’s Creed’s multiplayer and the PVP invasions that occur in the Dark Souls series. While free-roaming, other players can invade your world and attempt to hack you. On their screen, you show up as a NPC. On yours, you are indicated to identify the invader among the many other lollygagging NPCs before you get hacked. This mode fits the theme of the game and is integrated seamlessly into the main campaign, making the act of invading feel like just another form of the many side modes.
Speaking of which, Watch Dogs has a lot of side missions. I mean, a lot. Not only that, but there are also tons of drastically distinguishable modes and extra features that could go unseen by the average gamer focusing solely on finishing the campaign. Man, are they something different. For instance, there’s Cash Run, which can only be compared to preforming parkour while under the influence of a Mario-themed acid trip. It’s basically an obstacle course you must run through while collecting pixelated gold coins and avoiding skulls. Another has you shooting down aliens in the streets of Chicago, because why not? Both of those are augmented reality versions of the regular gameplay, which are surprisingly deep in their disposition. If you think those modes are crazy enough, then Digital Trips will blow you away.
Digital Trips yank you out of the world and into Pierce’s imagination, which is 100 times more interesting than he presents himself on the surface. In one, you are slung through the air as you bounce on pretty flowers for points. In another, you play as a Spider-Tank, which is exactly what it sounds like. A Spider-Tank. On the streets of Chicago. Also, there’s one that allows you liberate the city from robot invaders. As hard is it is to play favorites with Digital Trips, personal go-to drug is one that involves harvesting souls during the apocalypse. Seriously. This is the Watch Dogs I fell in love.
I can’t help but wonder if Digital Trips were once meant to play a larger role than they actually do. I mean, the care to detail in these trips is astonishing. They even have their own skill trees! And I never stumbled upon them until I was toward the end of the campaign. Sadly there are only four of these Digital Trips, but I’m sure it’s something that will be expanded on through DLC.
Instead of trying to be innovative, Watch Dogs relies on piggybacking off the success of Ubisoft’s other franchises to supply a familiar feeling, but in the process it never acquires a true sense of self. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of fun to had if are able to overlook its glaring faults, but I don’t think the target demographic should have to settle for such a scatterbrained hack job. While it doesn’t reinvent any genres, Watch Dogs just might be a game that has a level of appeal everyone can appreciate, but it’s hidden under a mound of disappointment.