Published on June 27th, 2014 | by Ian Goodwillie0
Game Review: Watch_Dogs
Ubisoft’s new game Watch Dogs, or, uh, Watch_Dogs, is getting rave reviews. Ian Goodwillie takes a more even look at a game with some potential.
Another E3 has come and gone with Ubisoft making a series of announcements related to some of its biggest franchises. Well, as long as you weren’t looking for news on Prince of Persia or Beyond Good and Evil 2. It was an easy E3 for Ubisoft to walk into, though. Assassin’s Creed remains one of the biggest gaming franchises in the world. Our first looks at Far Cry 4 just before E3 got everyone revved up, for better or worse, for what we’ll be playing later this year. And, launched just before E3, Watch_Dogs is tearing it up with massive sales and rave reviews.
Announced a couple of years ago at E3 with some amazing footage that blew people’s minds, Watch_Dogs is the first game in what is obviously a new franchise for Ubisoft.
Set in Chicago, everything is run on one operating system. Traffic lights. ATMs. People’s phones. Everything is hackable, everything is a weapon in its own way. You play as Aiden, a man who has exploited the flaws of the system to make money in the past and is now doing so to avenge the death of his niece during a botched hit meant for him. A criminal on a revenge trip isn’t the most unique of motivations but where the main story goes from there is increasingly diverse and engaging.
The Chicago of Watch_Dogs is an interesting rendition of the real Chicago. There are more than a few recognizable landmarks, which you can check in at social media-style. It is, in a way, reminiscent of the way Team Bondi and Rockstar depicted their 1940’s version of Los Angeles in L.A. Noire. But like the L.A. of L.A. Noire, the Chicago of Watch_Dogs feels flat and lifeless. Rather than being a living entity that you interact with as part of the story, it feels like a backdrop or a matte painting background that you occasionally delve into. It’s not to say that it doesn’t look good but it certainly isn’t the achievement of a game like GTA V or Red Dead Redemption. And given the recent controversy around Ubisoft potentially intentionally downgrading their own graphicsso that the PC wouldn’t outclass the console versions, a little more depth in this department would have helped the game’s aesthetic feel no matter what system you are playing on.
On a functional level, the game play is both unique and familiar. Hacking into the city’s operating system and manipulating it is both easy and effective. Escaping the cops is actually quite amusing when you can raise bridges and traffic guards, not to mention change traffic patterns. The skill tree is diverse, allowing you develop Aiden’s attributes to suit your style of play. Game play is also quite similar to Assassin’s Creed in that it favors stealth over combat. Entering most situations guns blazing will most likely get you killed where manipulating the environment and being sneaky gets the job done. Aspects of the game play in Watch_Dogs are actually quite reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed much in the same way Red Dead Redemption was reminiscent of GTA IV. That is to say that they’re reminiscent but not exact, of course.
As big and diverse as the world of Chicago in Watch_Dogs is, it’s also surprisingly claustrophobic at the same time. As you hack people’s phones, you find yourself drawn into a huge number of side quests that are constantly diverting you from you main quest. This is in addition to a variety of important missions littered about the map that also need to be completed and are also key to the main quest yet are somehow still superfluous. On top of that, there are odd little side games all over the place that are equal parts addition to the world and a distraction from it. And this isn’t even counting all of the stuff that pops up related to other gamers mucking about in your world.
Much of this is hard to avoid as it comes up when you’re hacking an NPC’s phone to…appropriate money from their bank accounts. You can just ignore the extraneous tasks but hacking people’s phones represents a large portion of your in game income.
This non-stop barrage of side missions and random tasks makes it hard to focus on what really needs to be done in the main story. The player is constantly making choices about what thread to follow and what ignore, which is quite difficult given how frequently these tasks pop up. The same type of side tasks (i.e. finding packages, stopping crimes, intercepting criminal convoys) come up so frequently that they become a tiresome nuisance quite quickly. Oddly enough, this makes them a bit easier to ignore.
Despite all the content and the grand size of the map, the game does not have the open world vibe of a game like GTA V where you feel like anything is possible to do, within the confines of that world. That being said, not every game needs to be exactly like GTA V.
Ultimately, Watch_Dogs is good game that could have been great. It would have benefited from more time and effort put into the world itself over the seemingly unending barrage of side tasks. But if you can see through said barrage, there is a good game with interesting mechanics lurking. Where Watch_Dogs succeeds is in setting the stage for future games in what is undoubtedly going to be a huge new franchise for Ubisoft.