Although it was a bit overdue, Watch Dogs was released here in the US on Tuesday, May 28th. I’ve spent quite some time with the game, hacking my way across virtual Chicago, Illinois. So was this game worth the wait, or did Ubisoft sell us just a bunch of promises and broken software? Read on as I delve into the world of Aiden Pierce and his quest for vengeance on the Sony PlayStation 4. Note this review is broken up into both single player and multiplayer sections.
Single Player Review:
The first thing you’ll notice about Watch Dogs is the amazing eye candy in the game menus, in the HUD, and in the visual interpretation of data as it flows freely throughout Chicago. The city is represented by wire frames as it is digitally constructed throughout the story (as well in fast travel); data appears as vibrant white lines between Aiden’s smartphone and hackable devices, and even quest dialogue appears in a non-intrusive manner (similar to what Dead Space achieved).
The rest of the visuals hold their own, as well. To be specific, the draw distance is very high, and I rarely saw pop-ins, even during high speed car chases. (Of course, in the first few playable seconds of the game, I noticed that clothes would appear and disappear in the dryer – not a great first impression!). The shading and lighting effects are unfortunately not always present. Some lights, especially those in mission areas, present realistic shadows that accurately reflect Aiden’s movement. Other lights, such as headlights in cars and street lights do not generate the proper shadows. It’s distracting once are in awe of the first few scripted levels. The same is true of rain, as it does not seem to be effected by awnings. There are some minor clipping issues with the free play camera, and at times you can manipulate the visuals to see through walls or vehicles. This is an unfortunate oversight, but ultimately does not detract from the strong realistic visual style of the world. The frame rate is solid, and I never experienced slowdowns or lag of any kind as I put the game through its paces, even during frenzied shoot-em-up sequences. I’ve said that Second Son is the new gold standard in PlayStation 4 visuals, and after some 30+ hours with Watch Dogs, I stand behind that statement. Despite that, Watch Dogs will not disappoint in any capacity.
Visuals aside, gameplay is nothing short of revolutionary, as long as you play within the established rules defined by Ubisoft. As I’m sure most of you have seen in the trailers, the hacking system works as advertised. With the quick press of a button, you can manipulate the city and its inhabitants to suit your purposes: cameras, traffic signals, water mains, and all scattered throughout the city for use. Unfortunately, the game requires use of said devices to complete mission objectives. For example, you cannot use any weapons while driving your car. So in those long, winding chases through the city, you must rely on hacking to cause wrecks via bollards, errant traffic signals, manipulation of draw bridges, etc. to incapacitate your foes. Pulling along side of an enemy to unload a barrage of gunfire is not permitted in this game, unless you are fast enough to jump out of your car and fire. I cannot count the number of times I simply drove along side of an enemy vehicle waiting for the right time to use a hack. It’s very anti-climactic. It’s another oversight that is hard to overlook when it doesn’t work as planned. However, the game does provide numerous opportunities to use hacking to your advantage, sometimes hilariously shoehorning enemy AI into precarious situations simply to advance the story as enemies will oftentimes go through busy intersections and cut down bollard filled alleyways when a booby-trap free path is in sight. I understand Ubisoft wants to utilize this system, but when the AI acts silly at times, it really breaks the experience. This makes the action feel forced, but when the stars to align and a great hack is all it takes to incapacitate a foe, it is a wonderful and fulfilling mechanic. For those who are used to run-and-gun style gameplay, you will be sorely disappointed by the lack of some of the game mechanics in games like Saint’s Row and Grand Theft Auto.
That’s not to say the system doesn’t work, it’s just that Ubisoft is forcing you to use it. For that, some of the fun and spontaneity of gameplay is taken away from the player, and that’s never a good thing. Instead, the game should have focused on enhancing core gameplay abilities with the hacking system, rather than downright replace them.
Each zone of the city is controlled by a data control center which requires clever utilization of cameras, lifts, and sometimes vehicles (larger trucks to jump on, for example) in order to solve. Upon hacking each data control center, that portion of the city further unlocks, detailing optional objectives and locations. For those of you who are familiar with how the “synchronize” function work in the Assassin’s Creed series, you’ll have an easy time understanding this system in Watch Dogs. Optional minigames are standard open world fanfare (chess, car races, bounties, etc.) but none of them compare to the “Digital Trips” that are available.
These missions are based in a virtual reality world, and include Spider Tank, Alone, Psychedelic, and Madness. Each trip is ridiculously fun and focuses on key elements of gameplay. Alone, for example, puts you in a post-apocalyptic world in which stealth is the primary focus. Hiding between abandoned cars and buildings to hack key nodes is the name of the game. Spider Tank, on the other hand, revolves around you piloting a giant spider tank, capable of climbing up buildings and walls, creating as much havoc as possible via machine guns, missiles and other special weapons. Here, the focus is on gunplay and energy management. What makes these games so addicting is that, in addition to the core game, skill points are available to level up your character (or tank!). For those who are seeking to topple the leaderboards, playing through multiple sessions to level your character is quite rewarding. It’s a very welcome distraction from the reality-based elements present in normal gameplay.
Back in the brick and mortar world of Chicago, it’s easy to get distracted simply by roaming the streets and eavesdropping on the natives. In addition to the minigames above, you can overhear conversations, prevent potential crimes, and snoop on NPC text messages. In the fifteen or so hours I’ve spent “free roaming” through the city, I have yet to see (or hear) two conversations that are identical. Some are lighter in nature (a guy buying feminine precuts for his girlfriend, or a blind date gone horribly awry) whereas some are a bit darker in nature. All are equally entertaining, and provide a great sense of morality as you spy, steal, or hack your way into their lives. While there is no good/evil morality system in games such as Mass Effect, I will admit that I thought twice about stealing from a former cancer survivor or an NPC that is down on his or her luck. These little touches in the game really flesh out the city of Chicago in a way I have not seen in other titles.
Although multiplayer is seamlessly blended into the single player experience in Watch Dogs, I decided to segregate these two sections as it is ultimately possible to remove the multiplayer element from your experience. By doing so, you forfeit extra experience, skill trees, achievements, and most notably online notoriety, but those of you brave enough to leave this option on, you’re in for a real treat.
Multiplayer doesn’t “active” until the fourth or so mission in Watch Dogs campaign, when you are given a brief tutorial of another player “hacking” your city. Upon completion of this mission, you are free to dial up the Online Contracts app on your smartphone to begin the fun. By doing so, you search for another person’s game to enter. Likewise, you open yourself up to being hacked. I’ve had both happen, and unless you’re in a mission, can occur at the most unlikely of times. That’s half the fun, isn’t it? The multiplayer options include standard multiplayer free play (either cooperative or competitive) and online racing, but I wanted to highlight two of the most unique modes:
Invasion – Track down the enemy player and hack their phone. You have five minutes to engage the hack before the mission is failed. My best experience with this, on both attacking and being attacked, is to find flat ground in which to hide. Here, line of sight and altitude do not matter. Standing on the third level of a parking garage while an enemy is on the first still counts towards progress, and as many players are aware of this, they try to stop in large, rural areas once they realize they are being invaded. Once the hack begins, it’s up the invading player to remain in a section of the map while the enemy player begins to profile for them. Enemies that panic will begin shooting at bystanders to clear the crowd, but this is actually useful as most AI will get out of their car and run away. The abandoned cars make great cover locations, as do newspaper stands, phone booths, and storefronts. As the counter approaches 100%, the search area gets smaller which helps the invaded player locate the enemy faster.
Online Hacking – Similar to invasion, but this time line of sight is required. What makes this mode very interesting is that you can actually trace the enemy player’s utilization of hacks. I have invaded other people’s games and watched them frantically scramble between cameras to locate me as I bounced between cars, pillars, and other obstacles while maintaining a strong line of sight. Most enemies panic and begin to flee the area by driving away. Again, with line of sight, it is as simple as following them as they speed through alleys and highways. Of course, the real fun is the enemies who try to scope you out on foot. Here, stealth gameplay is favored and has led to some tense situations as the enemy closes in on your location.
Both of these multiplayer modes are very unique and insanely fun, and really add to Ubisoft’s portfolio of stealth-based multiplayer, as seen in the Assassin’s Creed series.
So can I ultimately recommend Watch Dogs? The answer is a resounding yes. Of course, detractors will say that a delayed game should be flawless, which makes the standards of Watch Dogs almost impossible to meet. And while there are some shortcomings, most notably in combat, the fully detailed world, full of NPCs that are simply more than cannon fodder, really ground the game. Morality isn’t measured, which adds to the realism. Visuals aren’t bright and shiny, but the dreary streets of Chicago aren’t, either. And combat isn’t flawless, but gunplay is a last option to the many avenues of subduing an enemy. Multiplayer adds a new level of fun to the series, rewarding players who are brave enough to leave the option on. Knowing that at any moment, you can be invaded, definitely adds to the entire “hacking” motif that is strongly featured in the game.
Overall Score: 8/10, with two full stars deduction for missing that extra polish and forcing players to hack when simple gunplay can end frustratingly long chase missions.
Bottom Line: The intriguing, vibrant world of Chicago is close to perfect and delivers where it matters the most. I haven’t seen a title this ambitious since Grand Theft Auto III, and while the formula needs a little polish, Watch Dogs is one of the most innovative games this year.