Releasing a new, AAA franchise these days is a bit different than it was five years ago. Franchises which fail to garner success similar to the biggest names in gaming can sink companies and publishers into dire financial circumstances. Releasing a new, AAA franchise under the umbrella of software behemoth Ubisoft is an entirely different animal. From Far Cry to the Assassin’s Creed series, Ubisoft is not accustomed to fiscal failure. It has been clear since Ubisoft announced it’s newest franchise, Watch Dogs, the publisher expects great things from the franchise.
These expectations from Ubisoft both help and hinder Watch Dogs. The half-year delay the game got in November has paid dividends and Watch Dogs is as clean and polished as one would expect from Ubisoft’s internal studios. Bursting at the seams with side missions, collectibles, and other distracting endeavours, Watch Dogs is much like Assassin’s Creed with how much content is thrown at you – we’re talking well over 40 hours if you are looking to get it all done. On the other hand, it is the likeness to Assassin’s Creed which holds Watch Dogs back. For all of the polish and charisma Watch Dogs exudes, it lacks creativity. The game fails to provide an experience which elevates it above the handful of other urban open-world games, and it also fails to create experiences which intrigue and delight you as you wade through the plethora of activities the game provides.
For fans hoping to get their money’s worth, Watch Dogs, like most Ubisoft games, doesn’t disappoint. You can play the game’s 15-20 hour main story, you can take on driving side missions, you can prevent crime from happening in the city, you can take the fight to the criminals by invading their territory, you can spy on the citizens of Chicago, you can play augmented reality games where you chase coins or fight aliens, you can buy into high-stakes poker, the list goes on and on. Watch Dogs throws so much content at you, it’s bound to be a mixed bag. The trouble is, with the franchise being so new, it is difficult to know what content is good and what content is bad. A digital trip side mission could be a multi-hour affair, and not a very fun one, but these black holes of fun catch you by surprise and bog you down. It takes a few hours of playing Watch Dogs to get into an open world rhythm, but once you find your stroke, you’ll settle in for a good time.
There are dozens of different side quests, but there were three different types which are the most prevelent. The first is the Fixer Contracts which usually involve some sort of driving, the second is the Gang Hideouts which involve sneaking into a territory and taking out a target, the third is the Criminal Convoys where you must locate the target who is in a vehicle and take them out. These side missions can be as frustrating as you start out, trying to understand the AI takes some doing and your limited control over the city makes it hard to take down vehicles. As you get deeper into the game, there is a side-mission sweet spot where the right amount of powers become available to make the side missions easier to knock out (which is good since there are close to a hundred of them) and the missions still seem fresh. The deeper you get into the game more rote the missions become and as their difficulty increases it leaves you wondering what the point of them really is You’re usually flush with cash and will level up with little difficulty, so what is point of these time wasting distractions? Ubisoft provides little answer to that questions, especially with a narrative which creates urgency, making these side-mission even more superfluous.
There are dozens of other ways to fill your time, and all have the same groove as the side missions. Hacking into private cameras is one such mission, which can lead to long stretches of fiddling with cameras or tracing hidden wires. You can find audio logs throughout the city, scan clues left by an anarchist hacker sect, investigate murders, all of it is serviceable, but – like the side missions – hardly any of it feels fulfilling.
The most fun I had while not on the main path of the game was simply walking around Chicago and hacking people’s phones. The voyeurism aspect to Watch Dogs is its most interesting attribute. Listening to people discuss financial troubles, their sex lives, and other intimate issues is fascinating, although not always believably delivered. Where Watch Dogs threatens to stand out from other games is how unique its population is. In Los Santos or Steelport, civilians are little more than mobs to run over, but when you are on the streets of Chicago in Watch Dogs the person you are hacking could be a blood-donor, a sex addict, or a relapsing alcoholic. Like so much of Watch Dogs, it grows stale after two dozen hours. You start hearing repeated conversations, catching repeated character models, but the illusion holds longer than most games.
While the people populating Chicago are interesting, the city itself is not. Currently living in Chicago, I was impressed by moments when the game nails certain landmarks. The Loop in particular is the most authentic, and Watch Dogs seems to agree as the majority of action takes place downtown. While the heart of Chicago is replicated with accurate hands, the neighborhoods surrounding the Loop feel generic. Part of this isn’t Ubisoft’s fault. When building a world of skyscrapers and pavement, there becomes little room for variation. The map is sizable and serviceable, it just isn’t memorable.
The heart of Watch Dogs is Aiden Pearce’s story of revenge. After a job goes wrong, Aiden is attacked and his niece is killed. While Aiden’s sister – the mother of the deceased girl – and his nephew go through a grieving process Aiden remains hell-bent on killing those responsible. The overall narrative is fairly predictable, there’s little which defines Aiden aside from his guilt and moody look, but it all zips along with the sharp dialogue Ubisoft is known for. Every character has a one-liner, they all sass each other, the dialogue gets to the point, and the voice acting is solid, it all snaps along quickly enough to keep you from thinking too hard. The overarching narrative does get itself a little side tracked and you might find yourself wondering why you are doing certain tasks, also – as I already mentioned – the urgency of the story makes side-quests feel silly, leaving little time to simply explore the world.
Mechanically, Watch Dogs is pretty standard fare. You drive, you shoot, you climb some things, all in the name of justice. The driving takes a little getting used to, cars slide around like they’re on ice and everything seems to go from 0 to 60 with little room in between. The shooting is a bit more enjoyable, as the auto-aim is snappy and accurate. Then there’s the hacking, Watch Dog’s most unique feature. A lot of this is simply, “Press ‘X’ to hack” or connecting pipes to hack a system, but when you are on the run the mechanic is at its best. While you are in a high speed chase – which will happen often – indicators will pop on the screen, telling you to press the “hack” button to neutralize those chasing you. This can lead to some exciting moments, as you lift a bridge and leap over it to escape the Police or blow up a manhole cover to stop a criminal in their tracks. You can also use this hacking to infiltrate an enemy base and set off explosions or distract the guards. It all works well and feels rewarding when pulled off correctly. It may be dumbed down to “Press Square” to hack, but these simple mechanics allow for some cool action sequences and creative use in stealth.
You don’t start off with all of these hacking abilities. In fact, you start off with very few skills. As you complete missions and side quests throughout Chicago you earn experience which unlocks skill points which can be distributed in your skill tree and give you more abilities. The skills tree is divided between hacking, driving, crafting, and combat. The more skills you put into hacking, the more you will be able to manipulate the city of Chicago, starting with gates, and escalating to disabling helicopters. As stated previously, these skill points are easy to come by and there’s no point where Watch Dogs feels like you’re grinding out skills. It is fun to watch more of Chicago come under your control as you improve these abilities.
Watch Dogs attempts to erase the line between multiplayer and single-player, as online contracts are fed seamlessly into your game. Upon accepting these contracts you are tasked with entering someone else’s game and attempting to extract information while hiding. The player being invaded must seek out the invader and attempt to stop them. While hacking civilians on the street, you will come across moles for the ctOS, Chicago’s ever-watchful eyes. These people will report you when they are hacked putting a bounty on your head and creating contracts for other players to invade your game. It’s a creative way to play multiplayer, but it doesn’t offer a lot of incentive or variety. There’s little reason to invade someone else’s game aside from building your notoriety, and I rarely found my game being invaded. With so much to do in Watch Dogs, this feels like another minor addition amidst the endless list of things the game has to offer.
As stated earlier, Watch Dogs is a nicely polished product. The game looks good running on the PS4, but the difference is in the minutia. The world is more populated and hand-crafted than would be possible on previous-generation hardware. The character animations are well done, and while Watch Dogs isn’t a pretty game, it’s put effort in the right places. That being said, there were a few hiccups I found. The frame rate dropped for me a few times when I would complete missions and the PC version seems to have frame rate issues while traversing the city. Console players really don’t have much to worry about, but these PC issues are disconcerting.
Watch Dogs feels like your traditional blockbuster game. While offering a smattering of mechanics which are fun to play with, the game attempts to color within the lines of traditional design and give players the experience expected of an Ubisoft product. With so much riding on the line, it is hard to find fault in Ubisoft’s safe strategy. I don’t blame Watch Dogs for not taking chances, but it makes it impossible to really fall in love with the game. AAA games are something different these days, they are investments which need to work within the expectations we have forged over the years with established publishers. While it means we’ll get polished games with bits of flair, it also means games like Watch Dogs fail to give us something truly exciting.