Review: Watch Dogs

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Watch Dogs was reviewed on XBOX 360

Watch Dogs has been in development by Ubisoft Montreal since 2009, and was unveiled officially by the company at E3 in 2012. Since then, the game has undergone a somewhat long development process: it was intially set for release alongside the next-gen consoles but was delayed in October last year in order to refine the game which Ubisoft hopes could become their next big IP. Gamers finally got the finished product last week and my thoughts of the game are detailed here for your perusal.

The premise of the game is simple and set out in the opening stages: protagonist Aiden Pearce is a criminal hacker in the city of Chicago on a revenge mission. The main events of Watch Dogs take place 11 months after an attempted robbery at the Merlaut Hotel went wrong, resulting in the murder of his niece Lena by enemies of Aiden. Thus the game revolves around Aiden attempting to track down those responsible and bring them to justice.

watch_dogs_ss5_99858Watch Dogs is a part stealth/part combat game and mostly the player is able to choose the route they wish to take. Nearly everything in the city with an electionic chip in it is hackable by the click of a button. This includes but is not limited to cameras, explosives, bridges and traffic lights. The hacking process is at all times seamless and instantaneous, and allows for many very creative methods of evading law enforcement, enemies, and for navigating restricted areas. For example in a typical police chase, bridges and bollards can be raised in order to stop the cars in their tracks, or traffic lights can be turned green in order to create a pile-up which also allows for escape. Cameras can be hacked in quick succession to navigate well guarded areas, allowing access to hard to reach areas where files or controls may be hidden. This gives two ways of playing: the all guns blazing approach where any enemies crossing your path are mown down in a storm of bullets, or the stealthy approach where you do not even fire a bullet. In the days of linear gameplay, Watch Dogs is a breath of fresh air in terms of allowing the player to mostly choose how they progress.

In terms of level design, those who have played other Ubisoft games or indeed many other open-world games will recognise the different types of missions encountered over the course of the game. By far the most infuriating missions of Watch Dogs or indeed any game are stealth missions which instantly fail you if you are detected. Ubisoft however seems very keen to keep including these in all their games, especially the Assassins Creed series. Although the stealth aspect can be fun, failing the mission can really sour the experience and can get to the point where you no longer enjoy the game. However, these missions are relatively few in number and so are tolerable when they do crop up. Missions that involve escaping from the police or enemies can also prove frustrating: it can at times take an inexcusably long time to shake off your pursuers and this is compounded by the fact you cannot shoot whilst driving, meaning the only way to destroy cars is to ram them until they burn. The driving mechanism is also not great. It is functionable, but for a large open world game like Watch Dogs, when a long time is spent driving about the city, this should really be more refined than it is.

kTH7RL2Missions are on the whole extremely varied and can provide a lot of fun over the course of the game’s extremely long playing time. Even after completing the long campaign, a variety of side missions are open to the player, dotted around the city. These range from fixer contracts (driving challenges) to Gang Hideouts which are good fun to play and extend the playing time substantially. There is a tendency in open world games though to over-stuff them with side-missions and collectibles. Watch Dogs, in a similar vein to Assassin‘s Creed, is somewhat guilty of this. At times, the number of icons on the in-game map can feel daunting and this is simply not necessary for the majority of gamers, who will likely tire of any game after playing it for so long. However, although Watch Dogs feels and plays like an overstuffed kid at Christmas, there are some parts of the stuffing which are genuinely good fun. Digital trips are available from the get-go through Aiden’s phone and give a number of arcade-style games to play through if ever you get bored of plain Chicago. Spider Tank is one such example and indeed it would be possible to spend many hours just playing this mini-game, such is the madness and fun of it.

watch-dogs-review-ultraGraphically, in comparison to last years Grand Theft Auto V, Watch Dogs compares poorly. The in-game world of Chicago is similar in scope and size to San Andreas but the level of detail is not as meticulous. The animation of the key characters is good but the detail of the surroundings can at times be blurred, with a poor draw distance. I frequently noticed screen tearing whilst playing through the game, and this is not something I usually notice when playing games. It is clear that Watch Dogs is a huge game that was probably optimised for next-gen consoles and ported down, and this shows. Although this is a good looking game that is great fun to play, you can tell it must have been a struggle to get this to work on the XBOX 360 and the PS3. This is not to say that you shouldn’t play this on last-gen systems, indeed this is one of the best games to come out this year. Rather that, given the option, you should play this on more capable systems such as the PS4, XBOX One or PC.

Finally, I must talk briefly about the choice of Aiden Pearce as the main protagonist. I recognize that the man is miserable and on a long-term revenge mission, but must he be so unlikeable? His gruff and monotonous voice does nothing to dispell the feeling that a more interesting character, such as the mad Jordi Chin, could have been chosen to front the game. Furthermore his moral compass is somewhat ambiguous. He is on a mission to seek revenge for the murder of his niece, yet he wilfully goes round murdering anyone who crosses his path. It would be better if Aiden was positioned as either a hero or a villain, as in his current state it is a bit confusing.

Watch Dogs should be applauded for trying something new. In the age of non-stop sequels and yearly franchises, the concept of the game is much more interesting than most others out there. The hacking aspect of Watch Dogs distinguishes it from other open-world games and is extremely well incorporated. Ubisoft wants this to be a successful new IP for them, and the news that this became their best-selling game in its first week of release is certainly encouraging. With further sequels, the experience can hopefully be refined to improve the game even more and establish the series as one of modern-gaming’s greats.

8/10 – Watch Dogs is available now for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC. A Wii U version is being developed for release later in 2014.

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