Ubisoft’s new AAA IP is indeed an open world affair. Set in a near future Chicago where everything and everyone is connected to ctOS, a city wide WIFI big brother style automated system. The game pits you as an underground Hacker, out for revenge against a shadowy antagonist who had a hand in your nieces untimely death. Whilst it might sound like a rather generic action hero saga, the story is strong and yet it sometimes feels like it takes a backseat to the plethora of optional content the game has to offer. I’m not going to get into the specifics of the storyline in this review, but the story itself is solid and took me about 15 hours to complete. It offers a few genuinely surprising twists, leads to some absolutely cracking missions and also a really satisfying conclusion, which rather obviously leaves the door wide open for the inevitable sequel.
Aiden Pierce- the lead character is undoubtedly the most one dimensional aspect of the game. Whilst it could be argued that by leaving him devoid of real personality, Ubisoft are allowing you to create your own character it just doesn’t come off that way. At times you are forced to take actions where a different decision would have been much better suited. A character of your own creation would have been much better suited, and to be honest the story is so genderless I’m surprised that at a bare minimum, you don’t have the option to be male or female.
The rest of the cast couldn’t be more different, and whilst some of the characters do fall into cookie cutter stereotypes, enough of them do genuinely stand out. Voice acting all-round is fantastic and not just from the leading cast. The everyday Joe and the street at times seem to have more personality than Pierce. It’s a shame that Ubisoft didn’t put as much effort into the leading man, after the ego that was Edward Kenway the developers really have missed a trick with Aiden.
Chaos in the Windy City
In any open world game the environment is as much a character as any NPC you will meet or protagonist you control. In this aspect Watch_Dogs shines, Chicago is beautiful, but more importantly at times it can truly feel alive.
Clearly smaller than the vast landscapes of GTA5, Ubisoft Montreal’s meticulously created version of Chicago definitely feels much fuller. From people hanging out on street corners, musicians jamming in parks, protesters, drunks, hobo’s, lovers stealing a quick smooch down an alley, it has everything apart from dogs, or cats for that matter and definitely no next gen fish with AI. The hundreds if not thousands of citizens of Chicago really are the heart and soul of the city and they do a great job of making it all feel so alive, and that’s before you start hacking into their private lives.
During the neon glow of the evening or in the dazzling sunlight, I would find myself stumbling across some interesting landmark or building that deserved closer inspection. Watch_Dogs offers up several distinct areas. Rural mountains rise from the shores of Lake Pawnee. Rundown housing projects that wouldn’t look out of place in The Wire, play host to some of the more criminal elements of the population. Sprawling, dirty industrial districts offer great shortcuts and a really interesting skyline. High-rise office blocks and apartment buildings fill out the uptown district and parks and recreation areas are spread across the map. Whilst most sandbox games seem to use cut and paste buildings it just doesn’t feel this way in Chicago, everything appears to be unique and it really adds to the immersion of the game.
The Monkey Hustle
Running, jumping, sliding, shooting, driving, bashing, hacking, ‘slowmoing’. Watch_Dogs plays very much like you would expect it to. Driver, Assassins Creed, GTA, Max Payne and a myriad of other games DNA can all be seen in the way the game handles.
Shooting is tight and responsive, and a slow motion focus perk is right out of Remedy’s play-book. The guns all have a weighty feel to them and feel suitably lethal. Aiden himself is a rather nimble fellow. Vaulting over fences, sliding over car bonnets, he’s very much like a toned down Etzio and it works really well. Getting behind the wheel for the first time is rather daunting, after GTA5 the cars all feel lightweight and rather flighty. However, after half an hour or so everything clicks into place and you’ll soon be sliding around corners like a pro.
Hacking in general is fun; its strength comes from turning a straight up fire fight into an altogether more tactical affair. You will always be heavily outnumbered. Hack a camera to get the scoop on where the bad guys are positioning, turn a radio on to district them, blow up electrical conduits to take them down. By using the skills you have it also opens up the option of taking the stealth way through certain missions and side missions. It really is a well thought out and executed mechanic, very much in the vain of Sam Fisher. Aside from the actual combat uses of hacking you’ll find yourself using it a lot in car chases, whether to take down your target by causing a pile up in his path, or activating blockers and raising bridges to deter your pursuers.
All of these abilities are tied together by a surprisingly full featured levelling and perks system. Completing anything in the game gives you experience points, get enough of these points and you level up, earning yourself a skill point. These points can be spent in any of the skills trees four branches. Combat, Driving, Hacking and Crafting all contain various perks waiting to be unlocked. From less recoil and faster reloading of you weapons, cars taking less damage and dealing more to hacking certain elements of city infrastructure. It lets you develop Aiden in a way that suits your play style, it’s a really nice addition to the game and with 50 perks to unlock it will take you a good while to unlock everything.
Windy City Boogie Woogie
Whilst the main campaign in itself is pretty good, it’s all the optional side quests and missions that are without a doubt where this games strength truly lies. To be quite honest all these extra probably deserve a review of their own. The two augmented reality games, NVZN and Cash Run are both great time wasters.
Cash run is exactly what it says, an AR overlay is projected onto the city streets of Chicago and you must race against time collecting the floating $ signs whilst avoiding the Pac Man like ghostly blobs. Multiple courses are found all across the city and it’s great fun trying to complete them with enough time left on the clock to get the gold medals. NVZN is a take on a 3rd person Space Invaders with pink aliens appearing through portals begging to be exploded with your VR blaster.
Digital Trips are mind altering experiences along the lines of Total Recall. Sonically induced, there are 4 mini games on offer. Spidertank sees you controlling… well a Spidertank, causing mayhem and destroying loads of stuff. You’re up against the clock with the aim of destroying targets whilst trying to survive the hail of bullets from law enforcement. I’ve lost hours to this particular trip, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this one, if not a couple of the other trips get their own beefed up release- like Blood Dragon did.
Alone finds you in a bleak dystopian future, trying to light beacons to lift the darkness whilst being hunted by cyborg robots type things. This Trip is all about stealth and it’s an extremely intense experience that really keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Add to those two: Madness which sees you driving through the city streets like Ghost Rider collecting souls against the clock, and last and definitely least is: Psychedelic- which finds you bouncing from trippy flower to trippy flower. These four combined offer hours and hours of content and the first two mentioned are a whole lot of fun, it gives the game a little bit of the craziness found in games like Saints Row while keeping the main game a bit more grounded.
The extra content doesn’t end there. From criminal convoys to take down, arms shipments to track, missing persons to find, ctOS compounds to assault and much, much more. Ubisoft has clearly learned its lessons from when it released the rather sparse Assassin’s Creed way back in 2007.
Online multiplayer features heavily in Watch_Dogs and whilst the ever present and rather annoying prompts continuously remind you than an online game is a d-pad press away, the intrusion of these reminders is the worst thing in the entire game. Like most players who have a brain cell, if I want to play online multiplayer I will do. I don’t need reminding every two minutes that I can do it. Whilst the prompts are annoying, the multiplayer modes themselves are a lot of fun.
Hacking works two ways, you can either be invaded or be the invader. Invading entails finding the target, and starting a hack which alerts your opponents that you are in the area. It’s then a case of cat and mouse, staying close enough to continue hacking whilst remaining undetected. Reverse that and you are trying to find who’s hacking you before they steal or your data, it’s a fun game mode made even better when you’re hacking friends.
Decryption pits 8 players, either free for all or in teams, to locate a stash of data and remain in possession of it whilst it decrypts. Your opponents get too close and they start to steal the data. Again this mode is also a lot of fun and when working as a team it can get really tactical.
Online races are rather straight forward, either laps of a circuit and point to point. It’s a straight up race with a few opportunities to hack traffic light or bridges and ruin your opponent’s day. Racing works well and although it doesn’t offer anything new that cannot be found elsewhere, it is a competent addition to the multiplayer aspect of the game.
Then We Came To The End
When added all together you start to get an idea of the amount of content on offer, whilst not all of it is great, the worst parts are at least good. I’ve played over 40 hours since launch, and as far as completion goes I’m just over 50% there. In huge sprawling games, a lot of the content can simply feel like filler, this is not the case with Watch_Dogs. Everything on offer is both really interesting and just plain outright fun.
There are people who will bemoan that fact that it doesn’t look as nice as the original E3 reveal or that it’s been hamstrung by the cross-gen release. This simply isn’t the case. The game looks great on both the Xbox One and PC that I tested it on. Everyone nowadays seems to know what makes a game next-gen, I haven’t really got a clue, and to be honest the only limiting factor seems to be the developers themselves. Like I’ve mentioned, all the content in Watch_Dogs is good if not entirely ground breaking. The only thing I could come up with to make it more ‘next-geny’ would be to actually incorporate a music streaming app into Aidan’s virtual phone and tie it to a service like Spotify. Short of that I’m not sure what else they could do. Watch_Dogs is a brilliant first step for a new IP, and whilst maybe not as ambitious as it could have been it’s still a great game that should not be overlooked.
After 40+ hours of gameplay I’m ready to dive back in for another 40 and the content is there to do that. Playing Watch_Dogs leaves me excited for the next game, and if Ubisoft can pull off the same sort of transformation they achieved from Assassins 1 to 2 then the next Watch_Dogs could be truly exceptional.
Published by Ubisoft
Formats: PS4, WiiU, PC, PS3, X360.
Xbox One Reviewed.