If ever there was a game to be nervous about it’d be Watch Dogs. The first publisher to do what is now the annoyingly normal practice of delaying your new-gen game release, Ubisoft upset the entire internet when it struck Watch Dogs from the day-one lists for the Xbox One and PS4.
Masters of the Triple-A crowd pleaser, it must have taken some bottle for the veteran publisher to delay the shiny new IP that they’d been hyping the pants off.
Then there was the screenshot issue.
With the game’s new release date settled, the Ubisoft began releasing gameplay videos that were of a considerably lower graphical fidelity to that which they’d shown off previously. It looked very much as if the developers were struggling to get the game to run on the new console hardware.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t too bothered by any of that. I’d sooner have a game running at a solid frame-rate than be presented with a fancy-looking, stuttering slideshow. I was more concerned with the concept and the fact that it was another Ubisoft game.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Ubisoft. I like their games. I love Assassin’s Creed. But in recent years I wouldn’t really call Ubisoft innovators when it comes to gameplay.
A few years ago the company discovered a set of game mechanics that really worked for them. These mechanics created interesting gameplay situations that engaged and excited gamers. Almost a winning formula.
Unfortunately, Ubisoft have been employing these same gameplay elements in each of their games, making the experience very similar across franchises. Now, I don’t expect them to reimagine the Assassin’s Creed gameplay, nor do I expect them to do the same for Far Cry; but with a new IP like Watch Dogs I just wish they could have pushed the boat out a little.
To be frank, Ubisoft’s open-world franchises are so similar to play that they could be DLC for each other.
In Watch Dogs you take on the role of the morally ambiguous Aiden Pearce- a hacker who bit off a bit too much leading to the death of a family member. The game basically follows his journey of revenge and he’ll stop at nothing to achieve it.
Is was a perfect opportunity to sculpt a protagonist in the lovable rogue mould: a Han Solo or a Malcolm Reynolds. But no, instead we get a rather generic former asshole, that’s only a former asshole because somebody caught him and sorted him out.
Looking at it another way, Aiden is an anti-establishment freedom fighter striking back at a totalitarian surveillance society. Being a bit of a privacy advocate myself, and originally hailing from the most observed country in the world, the United Kingdom, I can identify with that.
This doesn’t stop Aiden Pearce from being a bit of a flat character. His intriguingly sociopathic compatriot, Jordi Chin, a far more interesting character doesn’t help. This is game where the supporting cast have more depth than the one that you are supposed to care about.
Aiden’s other colleague Badboy17, AKA Clara Lille, looks like she’s just stepped out of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, proving that all female hackers look like scary goth punk chicks. How original.
And that’s the thing. Originality.
As someone that plays far too many games, I’m unlikely to come across anything really innovative or actually new. The likes of Minecraft only come along once in a while. Watch Dogs is a Ubisoft game through and though. They’ve picked parts from other games and stuck them all together, thrown them in a city and written a plot to seal it all up.
You know all those repetitive game-extending bits in the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, well they are all here. The viewpoints and radio masts of those games are here in Watch Dogs as CtOS towers. Hack the towers by climbing up to their location and you unlock that part of the map- sound familiar?
The same does with the innate side missions. In order to get the most out of their Level design, they allow you to do the same thing again and again.
So Watch Dogs = not very original. But is it any good?
Damn them at Ubisoft, yes it is. It may be generic Ubisoft franchise number X, but it is covered in enough of their intoxicating secret source to make the game a lot of fun to play.
Whilst the plot may utilise a 1990’s Hollywood-inspired hacking McGuffin, it is very well written. Aiden Pearce’s dialogue is a bit monotonous, but the rest of the narrative picks up the slack.
Aiden Pearce is a former fixer – a hacker for hire. When his shady occupation catches up with him a hit meant for him ends up killing his niece. Now he is a man on a mission of revenge, getting caught up in a something a lot bigger than just a squabble amongst criminals.
I’ve no intention of spoiling the story, which is an integral part of the Watch Dogs experience, but I will say that is it a multi-layered affair that keeps you begging for more.
The main tool of Aiden’s trade is a mobile phone which he uses to hack things. By pulling out the phone and targeting other phone users, cars and city infrastructure, Aiden can hack it. This can be as simple as profiling another citizen (i.e. hacking their phone) and getting their bank details or listening to their call, to raising a bridge.
Hacking infrastructure is a bit of fun with bridges, gates, retractable bollards and power transformers among other all ripe targets for causing a bit of trouble. As well as these dynamic hacks in the city, Aiden will also have to carry out more complex hacks to gain further access to the city-wide operating system, ctOS.
The game’s network-based puzzle mechanic is OK but will require any player with an ounce of technical savvy to suspend belief all the way back to the 90s.
Cue the iffy visual representation of hacking. Hacking in the world of Watch Dogs involves a high-tech game of Pipeline, where “data” must be re-routed through the network by rotating connection points. Some connections must be unlocked by hooking them up with data (or whatever it is). Some of these locked components activate a timer, adding an extra bit of excitement. But they are not hard and considerably easier and less boring than actual hacking. Thankfully.
Those visuals that everyone was so worried about are not at all bad, especially considering that this is a cross-generational game. On the PS4 the game runs at a very consistent frame-rate and at times looks almost photo-real.
The game features a full day/night cycle- with some of the lighting really hitting the mark. There’s also rain and thunderstorms adding to the atmosphere.
The Windy City (that’s Chicago) is beautifully realised, complete with its waterways and its alleys. It’s big enough to get lost in and offers a variety of locations in which to carry out your nefarious hacking.
And the Chicago of Watch Dogs is a very hackable place. The city’s infrastructure is controlled by a central system called CtOS. As you progress though the game you can exchange experience points for abilities that unlock the city; allowing you to raise and lower bridges, activate raising bollards, blow the power etc. Whilst this is great for upsetting your pursuers, it never really felt like I was able to cause enough carnage to really be satisfied, but I’ve been spoilt by GTAV.
Getting about the city is best achieved using one of the game’s many vehicles.
Sure, you can jack one in the street, but someone is likely to call the cops and things will go downhill from there. The best bet is to steal a parked car or bike. If you are feeling a little more nautical, you’ll find plenty of boats – from water taxis to speedboats – moored on the waterfront; great for losing the most persistent of pursuers. The anoraks out there may get some enjoyment from taking a train ride around the city; which also doubles as fast travel system.
The game has quite an in-depth skill tree, with upgradable attributes split between hacking, driving, crafting and combat. By upgrading skills Aiden unlocks abilities allowing him better control over city infrastructure, such as blowing steam vents and causing blackouts. Better combat skill grants players with faster reloading and longer focus time.
Focus basically slows time kind of like bullet time in Max Payne or The Matrix movies. Activating focus, in theory, makes it easier to activate traps to stop pursuers and take out opponents. In practice it never seemed to gel with me, even after I’d maxed the skill out.
In true Ubisoft fashion, as well as the main story, Watch Dogs has loads to do. In fact, it’s almost overwhelming.
The revenge fueled Aiden Pearce is also a self-style vigilante. As you navigate the city you will receive many notifications to coax you off of the main missions and on to a side quest. The most common of these is a warning that a crime is about to be committed.
In order to successfully deal with a crime Aiden must, using his phone, profile both the victim and the antagonist without alerting the criminal of your presence. As the crime takes place you can incapacitate the criminal – you get a better reputation if you don’t kill him. You need to get in there quickly or you’ll be chasing him down the street.
The city map is dotted with side missions. As in previous Ubisoft games, the map is unlocked as you unlock towers- in this case ctOS broadcast towers. These towers are usually locked and perched on rooftops. You’ll need to locate the control box for the gate and work out how to get up there. Some are easier to solve than others.
With the map unlocked you will see the location of fixer contracts, which are mainly driving jobs, digital trips – which are augmented reality style mini-games, gang hideouts – which involves clearing enemies from an area and investigations – a multipart investigation separate from the main story.
There’s so much to do in Watch Dogs that you are likely to be fatigued by the side missions long before you complete it.
As well as the entertaining main story and the multitude of side missions there’s also the multiplayer aspect of the game; the online contracts, which are very interesting.
Online free mode is a bit similar to the lobby system found in Grand Theft Auto 4 and GTA Online. In this mode one to eight players roam Chicago causing havoc to themselves and others. I didn’t really get much out of this and considering the amount of time it took to connect to a game, I don’t think it is very popular.
The ctOS mobile challenge mode is something a bit different. In the same way that Battlefield 4’s Commander mobile app interfaces with BF4 games, mobile and tablet users can download a ctOS App that allows them to connect with Watch Dogs players’ games.
Using a helicopter, mobile players pursue Watch Dogs players and unleash traps and police in order to stop them reaching their goals.
It’s great for players on the move, allowing them to get a bit of Watch Dogs action on the bus and a great extra game mode for players on console and PC.
If you enjoy driving in Watch Dogs you can engage in online races with other players. It’s standard stuff and really needs no elaboration except to say it’s there if you want it.
In my opinion, the best integration of multiplayer in Watch Dogs is via intrusions.
Unless you switch it off, when you are playing the game you are always online and susceptible to intrusions from other Watch Dogs players. In the menu these are listed as online tailing and online hacking. In practice they basically amount to the same thing.
To the victim, they will just be roaming the city (these multiplayer intrusions don’t happen mid-mission) and get a notification that another player has entered the game. The other player is a fixer trying to steal data. Before the other player is successful the victim needs to locate him with the profiler and eliminate him.
To the attacker, who instigated the intrusion from the menu, he is Aiden Pearce and his victim is a (suitably skinned) rival fixer that needs to be dealt with. It’s a great way of having two players (who are, in their own games, the protagonist Aiden Pearce) believably interact in what is really a single-player game.
Watch Dogs is a lot of fun and packed to the brim with things to do. The experience does have a manufactured feel about it, and if you scape off the veneer it is very much a standard Ubisoft game.
The whole is greater than the sum of the game’s parts which, when viewed in isolation, are rather hollow and soulless affairs.
But there’s just so much of it and it is easy to get lost in the intriguing plot and interesting supporting characters. I just wish that I didn’t recognise so many of the game’s mechanics from previous Ubisoft titles.
Regardless of the above Watch Dogs is a great game, if not the innovator that it believes it is.