Watch Dogs Review (PlayStation 4)
Ubisoft’s ambitious third-person, open world action title has been the talk of the town throughout its development, and we finally have passed judgment on whether or not it lived up to the hype. Watching the E3 2012 and 2013 trailers for Watch Dogs and seeing it in action for the first time left us in awe, wondering about what the future of gaming would bring, especially for next-gen consoles. It boasted the ability to hack the ctOS computer system which is integrated into every nook and cranny of Chicago, along with the mobile devices of all its inhabitants, giving you a near omniscient knowledge of what goes on around you. Does Watch Dogs deliver on its promised goods? Not necessarily so, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t enjoy the heck out of it.
Once we hit the streets of Chicago as Aiden Pearce, it became quite evident that the beautiful environmental effects of the E3 trailers for Watch Dogs were noticeably absent. The world itself is diverse, detailed and filled to the brim with life and people doing different things, but just didn’t have anywhere close to the quality offered in its footage from previous E3 events. Watch Dogs’ graphics occasionally stutter as objects, people, buildings and cars pop-in while driving at fast speeds just like in previous Grand Theft Auto titles. There are also plenty of really bland renderings and textures out there when you try to take in Watch Dogs’ expansive world. The aesthetics of Watch Dogs never come close to the wonderful things we saw in its E3 demos even while playing on PS4, which is a shame because we thought it was going to official herald in the next-gen era. Despite these shortcomings, it is still a pretty game to look at for the most part and its models are wonderfully animated; it just wasn’t what we were hoping.
What we thought was going to be the central aspect of Watch Dogs, hacking is mainly used as a form of combat assistance and reconnaissance. Despite having the heavily advertised ability to hack everything in the world, the actual ctOS aspect of Watch Dogs boils down to mainly offering mini-games, surveillance and pressing a button to cause computer-controlled things in the environment help Aiden stop his enemies. You can hack traffic lights, have ATM machines spit out cash, detonate underground steam pipes, raise police/security roadblocks and even trigger a grenade an enemy is carrying to just randomly detonate. You also have to find infiltrate ctOS data towers and centers which will unlock hideouts and special locations on the world map similar to the synchronization points of the Assassin’s Creed series. Other than that, you will find yourself spending more time driving and shooting than hacking from your phone for a vast majority of the game.
The real unique aspect of Watch Dogs’ hacking system that sets it apart from its open world contemporaries is that it helps submerge you in this high tech version of Chicago. It reminds you that you are in a living, breathing world that is filled with unique individuals, each with his or her own story to tell. You can learn some of the most intimate details of a person: what they do for a living, their marital status, recreational activities, criminal history, income, what they do behind closed doors, who is sleeping with who, etc. It’s a shame that this world feels so alive when its main character, overarching plot and script are so lifeless.
It is an absolute shame to see how the story, dialogue and characters of Watch Dogs were handled. Ubisoft Montreal’s storytelling quality absolutely plummeted from the quality narrative it brought to us via Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and its absolutely breathtaking Freedom Cry DLC. For every step forward Ubisoft Montreal did in terms of charisma, voice acting, character depth and even in its portrayal of woman and minorities in Black Flag, Watch Dogs took rather two large steps in the wrong direction. Iraq Wade is written as a very stereotypical gangster to the point where its cringeworthy, unraveling much of the monumental storytelling featuring African Americans in Freedom Cry back down to the cliches we would see on bad television. The main female, Clara, is your average Catwoman-like frenemy support and a pseudo-love interest, but mainly becomes the damsel in distress. Aiden himself is a mannequin of a protagonist whose dialogue is void of any emotion yet full of idioms and weak writing. He’s on a path to revenge because Lucky Quinn’s crime syndicate put a hit on Aiden and his innocent niece was killed in the process. While he’s in your tried-and-true tale of revenge, Aiden is so much less of what we have come to expect from Ubisoft Montreal’s protagonists, and this overarching dullness is rooted the rest of Watch Dogs weak plot. Unfortunately, much of this same blandness trickled over into Aiden’s world as well.
In terms of actual gameplay, it almost hurts to say this, but Watch Dogs attempts to play like your run-of-the-mill Grand Theft Auto clone, with the ctOS features mainly secondary or acting as diversions from its driving, shooting and stealth sections. The most fun you’ll get from the game’s action result from its shooting mechanics, trying to get stealth kills/takedowns and hitting the hack button to use the environment to your advantage. We must admit, the first time you ever made an enemy’s grenade detonate while he was still carrying it was hilarious and great. Ninety percent of the time, hacking merely involves staying in cover, aiming your camera at a computer-controlled object and pressing a button when there is an enemy or car near it you need to stop. While these mechanics are captivating, we kept hoping that it would be more at the forefront of Watch Dogs’ gameplay, but it was kept on the back burner a bit too frequently. Watch Dogs prioritizes its shooting and other GTA-like mechanics and its hacking is only secondary, when this game should have been completely the other way around to help it stand on its own.
As for its areas of gameplay that don’t involve using Aiden’s mobile, Watch Dogs is pretty solid. For its shooting, it evokes your standard repertoire of hiding behind crates and vehicles as you shoot enemies from behind cover. You have your average assortment of handguns, sub-machine guns, shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, grenades along with a grenade launcher to help dispatch enemies along with your ctOS hacking skills. Combined with its solid cover mechanics and the encouragement to use stealth on your enemies before reverting to all-out war, Watch Dogs’ combat keeps you interested for most of its encounters. At the same time, Watch Dogs does not offer anywhere near as much depth as Square Enix’s Sleeping Dogs did in 2012.
The crafting mechanic and leveling systems offer a bit more depth towards what you can do in the world and gives off a great sense of progression and improvement as you get through the campaign and unlock more features. The most impressive of which is the Blackout tool, which disables the entire electrical grid of your area of the city for 30-40 seconds. Watching every skyscraper, house and building light in your area of town systematically turn off is just awe-inspiring every time it happened.
Watch Dogs’ driving offers some of the worst vehicle physics to expect in this generation of open world games. Ubisoft may have perfected crawling up towers and buildings, but they have yet to get driving down. Regardless of size or type, the cars feel remarkably light, don’t feel authentic and crashing into another vehicle doesn’t offer that same oomph we have seen in GTA IV-V, Saints Row IV, Sleeping Dogs, LA Noire or even True Crime: Streets of LA. The staggering number of breakable items in the environment you can drive through should be commended and do make up for the lack of power that most vehicles in Watch Dogs seem to lack, but driving in Watch Dogs does feel a bit soulless. Unfortunately, there are far too many driving-oriented missions for you to overlook its vehicular fallacies.
Watch Dogs offers a ton of replay value, earning you a lot of bang for your buck in terms of things to do outside of its story campaign. Chess, poker and slots are pretty solid for casual things for Aiden to do, and there are ways to use hacking to help. Technologically trippy games such as NVZM, Cash Run, Madness, Alone and Conspiracy are all fun, but the flower-hopping Psychedelic mini-game wins, where you must soar through the sky and glide from flower to massive flower on what seems to be like a lucid dream. These mini-games do seem as weird ways of trying to evoke Saints Rows’ weird sense of zaniness. Spider-Tank wins as the most fun of these, putting you in a giant arachnid assault vehicle where you blow up cars in a massive kill-spree. Online multiplayer games have racing, deathmatches, decryption, and other hack-centric escapades to do with other players, but its Invasion mode should be commended. Invasion has you entering another person’s campaign disguised as an NPC where you must hack another player in an epic game of cat and mouse as you must blend in to the crowd to avoid discovery. Having this happen to us in the middle of goofing around in Watch Dogs always kept us on alert.
Gang hideouts are fun ways of going into enemy territory and raising hell, offering you the chance to use stealth, guns or hacks to get your way past a group of enemies, much like the ones from Red Dead Redemption. On the other hand, Crime Prevention Events (similar to those of Batman: Arkham City) are randomized instances where you encounter citizens of Chicago who are being accosted by criminals where you must chase down the perpetrator. Once you do two of three of these, you will get quickly bored of the dozens of times you will encounter the same scenarios over and over again. Ultimately, the vast amount of content that you get for Watch Dogs help inspire us to overlook its graphical shortcomings. It may simply be yet another GTA clone that didn’t meet our expectations, but it still plays efficiently and offers a staggering amount of fun for players to explore every pocket of this tech-noir version of Chicago.
This review was completed with a purchased retail copy of Watch Dogs for PlayStation 4.