Watch Dogs Review
No, Watch Dogs is not next-gen.
It doesn’t push boundaries or fulfil the ‘living world’ promises Ubisoft set before it, it doesn’t do anything particularly new and – at times – it’s not all that much of a technical achievement.
But it is still a great game, all the same.
Open world games live and die on their ability to kill time, on the numerous icons that litter the map. An open world game without distractions is often not worth your energy.
But Watch Dogs pulls it off, and even manages to do it without being a GTA copycat. Rare though they are, this is an open world game that can stand aside from Rockstar’s massive shadow.
Watch Dogs Story, Characters & World
There is a problem though.
Frankly, it’s a tad difficult to get enthralled by Watch Dogs’ tale of digital subterfuge, corporate conspiracies and its government-always-watching vein of paranoia.
And that’s mostly due to the characters of the game.
Everything is introduced rather hamfistedly, and within moments of the game starting you’re already Chicago’s reputed ‘Vigilante’ with a passion for vengeance – but with a family he’s sworn to protect.
It’s a poor, cliched way of starting any story, especially in such an interactive medium. Despite a hurried introduction, we’re told to care for characters we didn’t know existed minutes before.
It doesn’t help that Aiden Pearce – the aforementioned Vigilante – is an unlikable prick with a personality as rich and vibrant as the grey cap he always wears.
Far too many monologues (as if to remind us what we’re doing) and a constant reiteration about our quest for revenge makes Aiden and his Batman-esque gravely voice just a little tough to bear.
He is, of course, surrounded by a motley bunch, but so stereotypical and one-dimensional they are that it’s hard to truly care about any of them.
It’d be easier to name these characters Obvious Bad Guy, The Call To Arms, Love Interest and Mute Child Intended To Evoke An Emotional Response for all the time wasted on character development (of which there is little, anyway).
But that’s not to say Watch Dogs is a total failure in this regard. There are moments of quality and characters with a little bit of depth, and as the intrigue unravels it’d be unfair to say there is no desire to discover the truth.
Watch Dogs’ story simply doesn’t have the cinematic subtlety of GTA 5, the over-the-top humour of Saints Row or even the cop-drama intrigue of Sleeping Dogs.
Luckily, what it does have is a smartphone.
If you’re expecting total control over the whole city, as we had been led to believe, then you might want to rein that excitement in a little bit – turning off traffic lights and knocking out the lights is the best you can hope for in Watch Dogs.
Yet while Aiden’s abilities are limited, they add to his overall toolbox to make gameplay in Watch Dogs feel, if nothing else, original.
In chases or escapes your hacks act as of-the-moment reactions to get out of a troublesome situation.
It’s rare you’ll have the opportunity to plan your actions around your hacking abilities, but it feels nonetheless empowering as the camera cuts away to highlight a perfectly timed road trap.
It’s in the more specialised sections – usually (but not always) story missions – where you can make use of Aiden’s hacks to capitalise on the environment around you.
There’s a puzzle element to this side of Watch Dogs, as you feel your way around the digital landscape (usually through cameras) to better understand – and sometimes further – the task at hand.
It’s surprisingly stealth driven in this regard, and harks back to classic Splinter Cell as you jump from camera to camera, judging guard patterns and making your plans.
Stealth Vs Action In Watch Dogs
And that isn’t to say a heavy-handed approach to your problems can’t be the way to go.
Watch Dogs handles itself more than amicably when it comes to gun-on-gun action, if that’s your preferred flavour. It can be surprisingly tough, too.
It rarely feels like you’re forced into a particular playstyle, either, which is nice. Whichever you prefer, using your hacks for surveillance, planning and execution enhances the core gameplay tenfold.
The missions you undertake are fairly freeform as well, with fairly simple and obvious goals – how you achieve them, though, is up to you.
There’s an argument that this could leave Watch Dogs feeling a little repetitive and while there are fairly few set pieces, as it were, the pacing means you’re never quite bored of the tasks set for you.
Especially if you favour the stealth approach.
The Open World Of Chicago
Course it helps that Chicago has plenty to do. It might not share the same fidelity and believability of atmosphere as Los Santos, but it’s a trove of options all the same.
The ability to scan any passer-by is a novel distraction – often with entertaining pairings, such as the sweet elderly lady who frequently searches for fetish porn.
But while these scans can lead to additional gameplay – nearby crimes, new gang hideout missions or even cash boosts – they don’t quite do enough to add to the legitimacy of Ubisoft’s digital world.
They are walking gameplay mechanics, and though the interactions, animations and conversations are all acutely created – you’ll often want to stop and listen – these NPCs never truly feel like anything other than AI machinations.
Sadly, much like so many open world games before it, Watch Dogs doesn’t quite hit that feeling of realism, however fair a criticism that may be.
All the same, the smartphone-fuelled NPC hacking a great feature – and there’s a lot of content here, so it’s well worth eavesdropping on every conversation you can, you’ll get a good bunch of laughs and they rarely repeat.
Then there’s the optional side content, too. These might be more major endeavours – like system hacks and fixer missions – to more peripheral content like a variety of collectables and stores to visit.
There’s even throwaway elements, such as chess and poker.
Or ‘Digital Trips’ and AR games, that leverage the digital themes of Watch Dogs for some restriction free entertainment, enabling something a little… different.
However superfluous all this is, it’s good that it has been included in Watch Dogs and adds to the bevy of things to do and see in between more scripted missions.
Watch Dogs Review
Lastly it’s worth talking graphics, if only for the history Watch Dogs has as the herald of next-gen gaming.
While Watch Dogs might not achieve the seemingly ever-so-important holy grail of 1080p, it is all the same a gorgeous game – at least when the light hits it //just// right.
Truth be told there can be moments – usually in the cold light of day – where Watch Dogs suffers from a lack of visual quality. Faces and clothing, too, suffer from an unusually matte finish.
But at night, during or post rainfall or when the sun peeks between the beams of the L-Train tracks, Watch Dogs can be outstanding.
Frame rate, too, jutters from time-to-time as detail is streamed into the huge (and it is huge) digital recreation of Chicago.
It’ll likely upset the number crunchers out there.
Normal people, however, who care first and foremost about gameplay, ought to pick up Watch Dogs. There’s hours upon hours of content in the campaign alone, ignoring the plethora of distractions Chicago has to offer.
Watch Dogs doesn’t bring much new to the table, but it does make for a throughly enjoyable experience.
It’s easy to forget the nonsense story or characters, favouring instead that Watch Dogs is a game that offers the necessary freedom that open world game’s ought to provide, with a handy twist of smartphone hacking giving it an identity of sorts (albeit a fairly loose one).
Version tested: PS4
While multiplayer has played a part in our final score for Watch Dogs, we wanted to provide a more in-depth discussion about it – read our Watch Dogs multiplayer impressions if you want to know more.