So the thing you might be thinking, especially if you’ve read other reviews of Watch Dogs or if you’re hearing stories whilst waiting to buy it, is that Watch Dogs is disappointing to the hype it created. Of course there was a huge amount of hype, it was a delayed next generation launch title! But ultimately it’s created a large amount of expectation that you think it won’t deliver, given what everyone else has already reported.
That was something I agreed with for the first couple of hours of playing. To start with the game drops you right in to the action. Actually, narratively, it’s a bit too deep in to the action. So let’s address the issue of the story, as I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about it.
The story of the game is that you’re a lone technologically advanced ex-hacker who has become a vigilante in the Windy City, otherwise known as Chicago. However this occurs because your character, Aiden Pearce, carries the weight of guilt in being indirectly responsible for the death of a family member. His actions and setup make him a man on a course for redemption and satiation of said guilt, which leads you on the path of destruction and death in the name of justice.
Now the criticism of Pearce, the vigilante apparently known as ‘The Fox’ but that’s hardly ever mentioned, is that his character is unlikeable and the empathy for him is hard to come by. Which is partially correct, but there are reasons for that. Firstly we don’t know enough about what Aiden has done after his trauma and secondly, the open world nature of the game doesn’t direct us in the vigilante path unless we wish to.
This means that a very important part of this character is essentially redundant, depending how you play it. As reviewers we spend as much time as we can working to complete the game as fully as possible which means we’ve all kind of ignored the crime fighting sub-plot element of Pearce in favor of gunning down many bad guys on our lone ranger redemption fest. It’s also very weird how even with this crime fighting persona, you’re still a criminal actively stealing vast sums of money from unassuming innocent people, which further reduces the belief in Pearce’s confused psyche.
But as you go on further in the game, Pearce does become a tad more emotionally accessible and, by the end of it, you are invested in his story. The entire situation he is in is a mess and unless you appreciate the finer points of the past decade of television drama, it may completely gloss over you.
In fact the past decade of television drama has an awful lot of sway in the story of this game. I recall a preview video somewhere that said one of the villains of the piece, Iraq, is someone the voiceover referred to as Iraq Barksdale. The reference to The Wire is not amiss either as a fair portion of the game owes a lot to the gritty projects portrayed by that show.
In fact, if I was to sum up this story I would class it as this: Robocop’s OCP meets 1995 movie Hackers, interspersed with Wire-esque gang warfare and a hero based on The Punisher that, all in all, tries a bit too hard to deliver a serious message. And it does try very hard to deliver an Orwellian style nightmare of a surveillance state, ala Blair CCTV, and the dangers of integrated networked automation.
Sadly though this is let down by the fiction of the world being very repetitive and poorly constructed and acted. The random stories you find along the way hacking into other people’s conversations and phones (a device intended to humanise the world round you) very quickly become repetitive and tiresome, and the random jobs/salary and recent activity information can get a bit silly at times. The tertiary elements such as radio news pops and television broadcasts as well as the occasional DedSec interruption are incredibly wooden and far inferior to the rest of the game’s acting. Which is strange as they’re actually crucial for plot exposition but feel casual and almost throwaway.
But we’re gamers, right? We don’t give a shit about story and my dramatic criticism of the narrative construct. You want to know how it plays and want me to stop twatting around like this is an literature essay. Well, alright then.
As I have touched up on the fiction of the world, let’s discuss the world itself. It is, quite frankly, magnificent. The open world Chicago is designed very much like the original Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. There are the ropey areas, the slightly middle class areas, the big city, a more desolate backwater area and several ways to get around. The inner city is sadly a bit dull though. Apart from the enjoyment of checking in to a place on your phone and finding out some history regarding the area, the city itself is not very interactive except where the game has its set pieces. The metropolis is effectively a built up road maze with many obstacles and tools for you to escape the police, or the prying eye of the ctOS.
However, Pawnee, an area you grow very accustomed to in Act III is one of the most beautifully realised places I’ve seen in gaming. As a rural gaming environment, I’d put it up there are one of my favourites next to Bright Falls from Alan Wake. The colours are rich and deep and, regardless of the resolution blah de blah (I was playing it on a PS4), it is a lovely place to just walk around and it arguably has more interesting things to check out than Chicago itself. Even the old wooden bridges, appear in excellent detail and add to the atmosphere.
Pawnee is also one of two places that you can see the beautiful sight that is Chicago from afar. When it hits night, you can look over the largest expanse of river and see those skyscrapers lit up. The only other place is on a boat out in the water expanse on the east side of the map (presumably Lake Michigan). Whilst the game doesn’t compare at all to Grand Theft Auto V in its fiction or depth, it does portray the metropolis from a distance that GTA wasn’t able to do effectively, in my opinion.
Now, the hacking… I’ll be honest; the game revolves around this apparently jailbroken iPhone being the Excalibur of hacking and it does get a bit old quite quick. There is almost an over reliance on it. It’s far too easy to do things and, especially when earning (stealing) money, it makes the economic part of the game entirely redundant. I never once, apart from the mission where I had to, purchased anything from a shop. I brought one gun as part of that mission. The rest, the ammo, the component parts for grenades and distractions, were all found in game. I’d amassed over $200,000 and spent none of it except for a gratuitous coffee or beer. Even the clothes are just different colours of the same clothes and I think Watch_Dogs missed out on a great customisation opportunity here.
The weapons are not as comically violent as others in the genre and are very functional. Mostly sub-sets of themselves but they are all easily handled and the weapon wheel is easily used. You get by without really getting annoyed or frustrated at weapons or their selection which I am guessing is the plan for it. Driving is relatively simple but very sluggish in the early stages of the game and as soon as you can get a motorcycle and your hacking skill tree is good enough to manipulate any potential chases/ramming sequences, then it’s again far too easy. The motorcycle is in fact incredibly overpowered. It is, unless you make the mistake of going head first into something, practically accident free.
The online part of the game is relatively fun although I found it quite a distraction from playing the storyline of the game or a side mission. The game occasionally prompts you into going online, thinking that someone is actually already trying to get you. Which is fine, except that it takes you very off course of where you were initially heading. I wouldn’t say that the online is an successful expansion for the end game or between missions necessarily, but it does mix it up a bit. Although there are rewards for winning such battles of hacking prowess, there isn’t really any punishment to drive you to defend yourself.
If I was to describe the gameplay like I did the story then it would be thus: Metal Gear Solid stealth meets logic puzzles in engineering kills/data retrieval, combined with an overused Driver-esque-ram-someone-off-the-road mechanic, and if you want you can just shoot the crap out of everything anyway. Apart from frustrating take down missions where you have to get close up to a guy and knock him out. Which is quite annoying, as you’ve previously murdered 90% of the people before him so why do you need to keep him alive? No one knows.
The other game modes are quite interesting too and there are plenty of mini-games around even though exploration is a mini game in itself. Finding cars, intercepting convoys, doing take-down hits are all fun little distractions. The two stand out games though are the Digital Trips and The Cash Run game. The Digital Trips are kind of psychedelic digitised acid trips that are games in themselves. Madness is basically Carmageddon, Alone is almost a game version of the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg movie ‘The World’s End’, Psychadellic is a trippy free falling trampoline bouncing game involving flowers and points rings and Spider Tank is a tank designed like a Spider destroying the city for points… Enough said. Cash Run however is my favourite. This turns the game in to an augmented reality, free running 3D platformer to collect coins and is great fun.
One thing I must mention is the portrayal of women in the game. Now I’m not defending GTA at all in this, but GTA is intended as a satirical look at society and its problems. Watch_Dogs is not. There are points where the portrayal of women is absolutely misogynist to the point of screaming at the game and thumping my Caitlin Moran books in its general direction. Our companion in the story, Clara Lille (with her wobbly accent), has a massive chest tattoo that highlights the fact she’s wearing a top that is unnecessarily revealing. It’s almost comical how low cut her top needlessly is. She is completely over-sexualized, especially compared to our hero Aiden who is wearing more layers than a space-walking astronaut.
Also there is an entirely random storyline involving human trafficking (The Wire season 2 anyone) and the sex slave trade. Now I get that it’s trying to be edgy, but it just felt like gratuitous exploitation and left a sour taste for me. Even the girls in the drug labs were wearing bikinis and as you first hack your way around the projects, sexual assault and sexual acts are rampant and completely pointless. It doesn’t need to be there. The entire sex trade thing didn’t even leave a message; it just felt like it was there to spice things up. If the entire sequence were a drug-based enterprise, I’d have been fully accepting. But this just feels vacuous and needlessly objectifying in an already testosterone filled game.
The thing is I actually started to enjoy Watch_Dogs a lot more towards the end. To start with I had to plough on and, much like everyone else, remind myself that this wasn’t trying to be a usurper to the Rockstar crown. And whilst I had my reservations and criticisms, I also enjoyed the game and some of its stand out moments. But this should have been a launch title and at times, it feels like it should have been. That’s not to be derogatory to it, I’ve had fun playing it and I’d rather a game be delayed so that it is ultimately ready when we get it. Watch_Dogs delivers a good impression on what a next gen console can be capable of whilst not really getting the basics right.
Watch Dogs has a lot of strong moments and is an interesting take on the open-world genre, but ultimately lacks the punch and direction to make it great.
– Chicago looks excellent, especially at night.
– Weapons are easy and powerful
– Hacking is easy
– Hacking is too easy
– Story line isn’t very well set up to start (poor exposition)
– Doesn’t further the genre into the next gen like we’d hope.
Why a 7?
Well, going by the idea that other recent examples in this genre are an 9 or 10 score, this has got a lot of work to do to get that far. But it is still ultimately an enjoyable game for a time and is visually great.