Watch Dogs for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC
If there’s ever been a game which has fallen victim to its own hype, it’s got to be Watch Dogs. From the stunning E3 reveal to release, anticipation spiralled downwards and downwards, until Watch Dogs was released to a fair amount of apathy from the gaming community (not that this hurt sales figures mind you). I have no sympathy whatsoever for Ubisoft though; Watch Dogs had one of the most obnoxious marketing campaigns I’ve ever seen. From the ludicrous amount of collectors editions, to their fumbling of the visual downgrade, to the ridiculous description of Aiden Pearce’s baseball cap as iconic before the game even released, Watch Dogs became synonymous with the idea of games as a product, rather than games as an experience. It’s a shame really, because behind all of that Watch Dogs is actually a pretty damn good game, and if Ubisoft had cut down on the hyperbole it might have been much more warmly received.
Watch Dogs is set in a Chicago under the sway of CTOS, a city wide network run by the shadowy Blume Corporation and follows Aiden Pearce, a hacker and criminal, who at the opening of the game has successfully robbed the Merlaut Hotel with his partner Damien. Whilst hacking their accounts, Aiden comes across a strange file, before being intercepted by another mysterious hacker. Scared for his family, Aiden flees with them to the nearby town of Pawnee. In a tunnel, an assassination attempt crashes the car and takes the life of Lena, Aiden’s niece. Aiden becomes consumed with vengeance, and uses his prodigious hacking skills to hunt down those responsible for Lena’s death, in the process discovering a conspiracy stretching all the way to the top of Chicago.
The story isn’t exactly ground breaking, but it gets the job done, with a good supporting cast and some nice villains. Watch Dogs has one crippling narrative problem however, and that is its protagonist Aiden Pearce. Aiden is possibly one of the worst protagonists in gaming. He’s a bland, gravelly voiced anti-hero cliché, utterly devoid of anything approaching personality. He makes the Master Chief’s and Marcus Fenix’s of the world look like Hamlet. He’s also utterly unsympathetic; I think we’re meant to feel sorry for Aiden, but all I felt was disgust. Don’t get me wrong, games can get away with unsympathetic protagonists, but they have to at least be interesting or entertaining; look at the trio from GTA5 for an example of this done right. You can also sort of get away with a boring protagonist if they’re likeable enough. What you can not get away with is unsympathetic and boring. That’s Aiden Pearce. There are some members of the supporting cast who could have made genuinely interesting protagonists, but none of them are grumpy, male or white enough to qualify. Aiden is a millstone around Watch Dog’s neck, a character who drags the entire experience down.
Watch Dogs is hardly the revolutionary experience Ubisoft suggested, but it is nonetheless a fine addition to the open world city game genre. Where it was promised as something which might dethrone GTA, in reality Watch Dogs is closer to the similarly canine sounding Sleeping Dogs; a game which takes most of its cues from GTA whilst offering some cool features of its own. The main feature is, of course, the hacking. This is usually accomplished by holding a button over a reticule, causing the desired effect to occur. This can be the raising or lowering of bridges, or appearance of road spikes, or cause transformers to explode, taking out enemies. In fact, at its best, there are times where objectives can be finished without even making a physical presence in the location, simply hopping between security cameras and using the environment to take out enemies. I liked to use a hybrid approach of hacking and quick headshots, assisted by the bullet time ‘focus’ that can be activated with a click of the right stick. The combat is actually really good, significantly better than GTA5s, with Aiden being much less of a bullet sponge than your average protagonist, requiring a fair bit more thought and strategy. You probably could play the whole game guns blazing, but it’d be hard, and not as much fun. Watch Dogs has also come under considerable flack for the driving, which is even more arcadey than that in Sleeping Dogs, but I actually liked it, particularly when using a bike. Watch Dogs just plays very nicely, lacking the chunkiness which can often blight this genre.
This is also a massive game. The main story is lengthy and pleasantly epic in scope, and there’s a vast amount of side stuff. Happily enough, it’s actually all a lot of fun, particularly compared to Ubisoft’s usual efforts in this department. This is a Ubisoft game, so it follows the Assassin’s Creed/Far Cry 3 structure of climbing high points in the map to unlock surrounding side content, and there is a lot of it. The collectibles are actually pretty worthwhile, with the ‘voyeur’ collectible letting you gain glimpses into people’s lives, some of which are hilarious, and some actually really moving. The side missions are numerous and varied, and never really got dull for me. You can even ‘check in’ to areas in the map Foursquare style, if that’s something that appeals to you. The biggest side attraction however are the ‘Digital Trips’, surprisingly deep mini-games which throw Aiden into bizarre situations. There’s ‘Madness’, which sees Aiden seeking to mow down demons in a hellish nightmare world. There’s ‘Alone’, where Chicago has been taken over by robots and Aiden must stealthily liberate it. Next is ‘Psychedelic’, where Aiden bounces around the world on colourful flowers. Finally there’s ‘Spider Tank’, in which the player takes control of the titular vehicle and wreaks havoc. All are incredibly fun, and well developed, with most even containing their own skill trees. There are plenty of things to quibble with about Watch Dogs, but value for money is not one of them.
Much has been said of the visual downgrade Watch Dogs suffered between the E3 showing and release. Again, Ubisoft shot themselves in the foot because Watch Dogs actually is quite a nice looking game, but it will never seem like it compared to what was promised at E3. Particularly in the rain at night, Chicago looks beautiful. The rustic charms of Pawnee outside Chicago offer a nice variety. The character designs are generally good, although Aiden is ridiculously over designed. The voice acting is generally brilliant, particularly in the case of fellow hackers Clara and T-Bone. The exception is, once again, Aiden. You noticing a pattern? Thankfully even Aiden can’t ruin the music, which is synth heavy and tense, and really helps to bring a solid edge of drama to the proceedings.
Watch Dogs is far from perfect, but I actually liked it a lot. It’s been widely written off, which I think is slightly unfair, although I won’t be shedding any years for Ubisoft over this. The inevitable Watch Dogs sequel, which I hope is over a year away but probably isn’t, should be able to fix a lot of the problems here, and Ubisoft will have another franchise to push obsessively. If you can separate the game from the business, Watch Dogs is a damn fine game and definitely worth a go.