Two years after its surprise E3 reveal and following a six month delay, Watch Dogs has finally launched. As someone eagerly its launch, I’m disappointed to say that it is only pretty good. As a whole, the game’s reception since launch has been hurt by a supposed graphic downgrade and a poor PC port. But even ignoring those recent issues, Watch Dogs still fails to be any better than good as a whole (although it does have some particularly strong moments). I’d still consider it worth a play-through for anyone looking for something to keep them busy over the summer, as long as expectations are suitably lowered. This is not Ubisoft’s finest work, nor worth years of wait, but instead simply a decent game.
In Watch Dogs, you play as Aiden Pierce, a hacker and vigilante, who after his niece is accidentally killed in an attempted hit on him, seeks revenge on those behind said hit. The story mode is a decent length, clocking in around 20 hours and does have a few twists along the way, but is let down by its protagonist Aiden, an ultimately uninteresting and one-note character. The support characters aren’t much better, all of whom seem to have cliché personalities that can be fairly summarised in just a few words: The disapproving younger sister, the tattooed up female programmer, the now mad but once renowned hacker and so on. In fairness all the characters are well voiced, but by the end, I was just about sick of everyone in the game.
Gameplay-wise Watch Dogs plays as a third person, open world action game set in Chicago. If you’ve played Grand Theft Auto, then the core mechanics of cover-based shooting and driving will feel familiar. That said, playing a lot like a game as good as GTA is hardly a criticism and both aspects of gameplay are enjoyable in Watch Dogs. The open world does also feel GTA-esque, with cars to steal littering the streets, shops that can be robbed and police chases around the open city. The element supposed to differentiate Watch Dogs is Aiden’s ability to ‘hack’ parts of the environment, such as security cameras, gas pipes, traffic lights or even a security guards grenade (which remains darkly funny no matter how many times you do it). This hacking is very simplistic with, aside from a sparingly used mini-game, it being via a single button press. This is probably for the best, as it allows the environment to be utilised in fast paced sections. However it does mean that it feels less like playing as a hacking mastermind and more like playing as someone with a rather fancy gadget.
Another issue with hacking arises when driving, as it replaces the ability to use a gun whilst in a car that most games in this genre give. Rather than trying to balance driving at top speed while firing a sub-machine gun at increasingly close pursuers, the occasional prompt to press ‘Square’ will pop up, which then takes out a car through use of a road block or similar. Whilst it looks cool initially, after a few occasions the simplicity of this method does make it less enjoyable than the traditional approach. If it could be suitably balanced so as to not be too easy, having both the hacking mechanic and ability to use a gun in a vehicle would have helped vary car chases.
Other implementations of hacking are stronger though, when used to support traditional mechanics rather than replace. The game is never better than when it lets you take an enemy stronghold by using security cameras to scout the place, hacking a couple of explosives to put the guards in a panic before picking them off with silenced head shots as they try to work out what is that is happening to them. Moreover, these sections give the player room to choose. They can be played in that more stealthy manner, or you can go in blind, guns blazing if you so choose. However, unfortunately not all the missions are nearly as fun as this. Despite it being 2014 and gaming being on a ‘new generation’ and what not, we still have not seen the end of ‘instant fail’ stealth missions. There was one point where a guard saw me, microseconds before his virtual brains were blown out by my silenced pistol, well before any sort of alarm could be set off. But because this poor guards last sight was the barrel of my gun, I got the pleasure of replaying the entire section. This is incredibly sloppy. It feels lazy, breaks any immersion and leaves the player frustrated. The fact there are multiple sections like this across the campaign is bordering on embarrassing.
However, there are some inspired sections outside of the main campaign. Credit should be given for some of the side missions, which vary from shootouts and checkpoint based driving challenges, to other unique challenges. In a few side missions, you are tasked with driving across the city whilst avoiding being spotted by the police, which felt like playing through the opening scene of Drive (which you should watch if you haven’t). These missions were tense and car-based stealth is not something I’ve seen before, making it a bit of a highlight. There is also a mini-game where you control a ‘Spider Tank’ (which is exactly what it sounds like) and are tasked simply with destruction. This weird but welcome break controls very well and is thoroughly enjoyable. The other main thing to do outside of the campaign is deal with random crimes, but unfortunately this distraction is not well thought out. You are tasked with spotting a potential criminal or victim, waiting until the criminal starts doing something bad and then catching them. Jump in slightly too early and it doesn’t count as you stopping a criminal, as they put their knife down and everyone pretends that they weren’t about to do something bad. Yet if you wait until after they’ve attacked or killed the victim and then chase them down it does count as doing something good. These sections also always end with a remarkably similar foot chase (or the choice to gun them down, if you prefer a Judge Dredd style of justice) and feel repetitive and not thought through.
Another problem worth a mention is that the police AI is particularly poor, especially if compared once more to GTA. No matter what you have done, they are solely interesting in shooting you dead. In one instance, I had a minor crash with another vehicle, where we were both at fault. I got out of my car to see what the damage was like, only to be shot dead by the police for the accident. Such AI behaviour comes across as lazy. GTA has managed to have more varied police responses since several previous iterations, and Watch Dogs suffers in comparison.
Overall then, Watch Dogs is a bit of a mixed bag. It is not close to being a bad game, considering the strong core mechanics, some excellent sections that combine the hacking and stealth action gameplay, a few great side missions and a good amount of content. But the boring characters, instant failure stealth sections, bad police AI, and some of the weaker side missions hold it back from being a great game. Knowing what Ubisoft are like with sequels, its a safe bet to assume a Watch Dogs sequel will be out before I’ve graduated. Hopefully they can iron out the issues and make something really worthwhile. Until then though, we’re left with something worth a play if you’re bored, but not a second thought once you’re done.