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Watch Dogs Review

by William Schwartz

Watch Dogs has all the tell tale signs of an another annual Ubisoft franchise in the making. It’s easy to draw parallels between the publisher’s other popular franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry in their open worlds and gameplay ideas, the gun play is distinctly Ghost Recon, the stealth Splinter Cell. Watch Dogs is a Frankenstein franchise, pieced together by some of the Ubisoft’s best ideas.  It has a massive open world, tons of collectibles to uncover, and some truly fresh new ideas when it comes to the hacking aspects of the gameplay. What isn’t completely its own, Watch Dogs borrows in whole from its siblings under the Ubisoft umbrella, and often times iterates for a fresh take. The formula that Ubisoft has used in other successful franchises is followed to a tee. Though outside of the interesting hacking premise on which Watch Dogs is built around, it isn’t anything too special when it comes to progression and story, nor is it the revelatory leap in graphics that it was billed as.

As much as it borrows from other games, Watch Dogs’ hacking gameplay mechanics are its own. You play as Aiden Pearce, a hacker with a heart of gold. Aiden is jacked into a near future Chicago, which is monitored by a 24-hour surveillance and control system known as ctOS. It allows him to access cameras, and manipulate the world around him with objects controlled by the system. This includes traffic lights, bridges, barricades, lifts, steam pipes, and other environmental fodder. This system also allows him to monitor and gain information about any of the city’s inhabitants that are carrying a phone. It’s a premise that plays well with a genre that is known for exploration and freedom, and just about every aspect of the hacking system in the open-world is incredibly well done.

watch-dogs-hacking

Watch Dogs is at its best while these new hacking mechanics are being introduced. Your first 5-10 hours of the game are rather incredible. The hacking gameplay turns things like car chases and getaways into truly memorable experiences. Using the environment to lose the police or enemies on your tail is a fresh spin on game situation that has been used to death in this genre. Tackling a mission while using your phone to manipulate the environment; avoiding, distracting, and outmaneuvering guards is fun when keeping it stealthy. Though as the game wears on, open-world sandbox aficionados are going to get the feeling that they’ve been here and done that for many portions of the game. It’s almost as if Watch Dogs runs out of ideas to use the mechanics with which the game is built around. There are quite a few mission types that borrow completely from the Assassin’s Creed series, like ‘tail your objective but don’t get too close’ mission types. Then there’s the old ‘shoot your way out of the warehouse, get in a car and lose your tail missions’, which are prevalent as well. And while they use the mechanics of the game to spice things, they’ve tend to overuse them, and end up having you do the same things repeatedly. It’s the times where Watch Dogs does its own thing that are the most enjoyable. Aiden getting himself arrested and then hacking his way through a prison system to grab intel from a fellow prisoner is a high point, and its because the game has taught you a new system of ideas to work with. Hacking cameras and sneaking around without your enemies being none-the wiser is a power trip that supercedes the gun toting fantasies that many games are built around.

There’s a great sense of satisfaction in Watch Dogs when you actually complete your missions without alerting anyone. While the initial focus is almost always to keep quiet and stay stealthy, most missions that aren’t completely devoted to stealth usually devolve into a massive gunfight. The gunplay isn’t bad in Watch Dogs, it just sits at odds with what are the better parts of the game, and the main character as he is described to us through the story. Aiden is billed as a family first character, who acts as a vigilante on the streets. He’s fighting crime convoys and chasing down purse snatchers, but he’s also a gun toting maniac in a duster, that will murder indiscriminately when the story calls for it. Aiden may have been a more interesting character if he truly did take a no killing approach. There are glimmers of this Aiden, and the story even sets him up as a compassionate hero in the early goings. Like the gameplay, he devolves into every other gun toting protagonist in video games today.  For just being your average Joe, with above average computer skills, Aiden takes on many superhero-like qualities, including the ability to absorb incredible amounts of damage, in the game’s at-odds shooting sequences. All of it just seems a little unbelievable to carry any weight. The gunplay in Watch Dogs isn’t poorly done. It’s on par with other AAA third person shooters that rely on cover mechanics and a sit and wait approach. There’s a large arsenal of weapons to use and items to craft, but it makes the game feel like every other shooter out there, instead of something unique and different.

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The main storyline of Watch Dogs is largely forgettable, and its probably because Aiden is such a dry character. After being involved directly with the murder of his niece, Aiden is seeking justice for her death, and gets his family wrapped up in this revenge quest, yet again. There are a number of colorful characters that are introduced in the Watch Dogs storyline that are more interesting than the main protagonist, but they don’t salvage what is ultimately a story that we’ve heard before. Ubisoft touches on some interesting topics though.  Government surveillance, human trafficking, and a number of issues are explored, albeit only briefly.  Ubisoft tries to sell the living, breathing city of Chicago alongside the story of Aiden. Characters color the world with interesting text messages and voicemails which Aiden can intercept, and do well to add a level of realism to the game. Though the city itself doesn’t quite capture the essence of Chicago. The highly condensed version paints a vague picture of the real thing. Sure, there are definitely some recognizable landmarks. You’ll find the Sears Tower, Millenium Park, Navy Pier and the Magnificent Mile, but everything else is all very segmented. I’m not sure what research was done by Ubisoft in this aspect of the game, but there is no area in Chicago where you’ll find a mountain range in the backdrop.

For those that don’t play these types of games for the story, there is indeed a ton of content in Watch Dogs. The main storyline is broken into five acts and will take you between 30-40 hours, and tackling side content might double that number. Digital Trips where players engage in virtual fantasies, AR Phone Games, Fixer Contracts, and other side missions are literally on every street corner. Just walking around any area of the game and you’ll find hundreds of NPCs to hack into, you can siphon cash from their bank account, eavesdrop on their conversations, and sometimes you’ll encounter crimes in progress, which you can choose to intervene in.. or not. Like Far Cry 3’s tower system, which allowed you to open up more of the map for exploration, Watch Dogs follows a similar path with its ctOS towers. Infiltrating these towers will uncover numerous hidden items and collectibles in each area. There’s a system of “City Games”, where players can play poker, chess, three card monty, and others. As the game wears on, there are a number of missions that involve tracking down items in the world, which open secret missions for Aiden. The bottom line is, Watch Dogs is chocked full of content, and we haven’t even started talking about the online aspects of the game.

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A leveling and progression system ties everything together in Watch Dogs. For every action that you perform, you earn points towards leveling your character. Reach a new level and you’ll earn points which can be used in the unlocks system.  New abilities can be unlocked in the Hacking, Combat, Driving, and Crafting skill trees, which all have a number of unlockable abilities that bolster Aiden’s skills set. The skill tree is fun to explore, if just for the new hacking skills that Aiden can learn. Points come quick, and players will need to complete specific missions throughout the world to travel down some of the different skill paths.

Watch Dogs Multiplayer

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Online Play is seamlessly integrated into Watch Dogs in an interesting fashion, in fact, its one of the most impressive aspects of the game.  Those who’ve played Dark Souls will be familiar with the game’s invasion mechanic featured in the one on one modes.  There are a couple of multiplayer modes that open up for more players, and there’s one of the most impressive uses of second screen connectivity that we’ve seen over the last few years.

The invasion modes, Online Tailing & Online Hacking are essentially hide and seek style modes, where you are tasked with either following a player and observing them, or downloading information from them.  These one on one modes are cool in the fact that they are incredibly tense.  You never can quite tell if the person you are following has seen you.  The one on one invasions will either see players jumping into your game, or you into theirs.  While it’s not the first time we’ve seen something of this type, Ubisoft has probably executed it with the most polish.

Bigger modes, like Online Decryption, allow between 3-8  players to face off in securing a critical file, and its more along the lines of what we’ve seen in other multiplayer games.  It’s guns out gameplay, that differs very little from other third person shooters.  There are also online races, which allow between 2-8 players to race for supremacy.  The driving in Watch Dogs is ok, but its not necessarily good enough to build a whole mode around.  The online connectivity seemed hit and miss during this review.  Perhaps it was a netcode issue that will be fixed in a future patch, but cars warping all over the map was something that sapped a lot of the enjoyment out of this traditional offering.  There’s also an online free roam mode which will allows players to explore Chicago with friends, or play in an adversarial mode.  Up to 8 players can play in the Free Roam mode, in fact all modes topped out at 8 total players.

One of the coolest features of Watch Dogs is the ctOS Companion App, which has an online mode dedicated to pitting players on mobile devices who download the app, against players playing the actual game. The ctOS mobile challenge is essentially a obstacle course that is dictated in real time by the player on the mobile device.   The player playing the actual game will need to make it to checkpoints within an allotted time. While the player on the mobile device is utilizing the ctOS system to impede their progress.  With barricades and traffic jams at their disposal, as well as police units like SUVs and Helicopters, it can be a hilariously good time.

The Verdict

Watch Dogs is a huge game, with a lot of content to explore. It definitely doesn’t shortchange its players of missions to tackle, collectibles to find, or systems to explore. It’s also a well-built game. For what it’s worth, Watch Dogs looks and sounds great. The console versions might not be quite as pretty as the PC, but it certainly looks better than open world games that have come before it. Though comparing it to games that have come before it, it’s also more straight forward than, say, Grand Theft Auto V. Watch Dogs doesn’t quite measure up to Rockstar’s series in terms of story telling, nor does it offer the same type of open-world experience that allows for creativity when not on a specific mission. If you’re looking for a game that feels like a modern-day Assassin’s Creed with cars and guns, you won’t be disappointed in Watch Dogs. If you’re looking for the kind of creativity that’s found in games like Saints Row or Grand Theft Auto, you might be disappointed.

Watch Dogs is a victim of its own hype when it comes to what the game looks like, and what types of gameplay is actually in the finished product. A lot of Watch Dogs relies on rehashed ideas from other games, and isn’t quite a generational leap for the open world genre. There are some undoubtedly great parts of Watch Dogs that feel fresh and innovative, but Ubisoft too often falls back on the tried and true to round out the game instead. It’s understandable, there’s a lot riding on Watch Dogs, and appealing to what players find comfortable and familiar is a risk averse design philosophy. Watch Dogs shines when it relies on its own ideas, but is ultimately held back by its more conventional features.  One can only imagine what this franchise will become if Ubisoft ever lets this dog stand on its own four legs.

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Watch Dogs

  • Available On: Xbox One, PS4, PC, Xbox 360, PS3
  • Published By: Ubisoft
  • Developed By: Ubisoft Montreal
  • Genre: Open World, Action
  • US Release Date: May 27th, 2014
  • Reviewed On: Xbox One
  • Quote: "Watch Dogs shines when it relies on its own ideas, but is ultimately held back by its more conventional approach."
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