Watch_Dogs – (PS3, PS4 (Review system), 360, One, Wii U, PC; Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft)
I missed most of the uproar surrounding Watch_Dogs at release. I didn’t get it until a few months after release, when I first got my PS4, and so most of the issues that I think existed had been fixed by then. And so, it feels like I’ve had more of an insight into what Watch_Dogs was supposed to be, instead of what it was at launch when it was a good few patches away from where it probably should have been. Because that’s how AAA releases normally work now. But nonetheless, back to Watch_Dogs. I’ve really enjoyed Watch_Dogs. If it wasn’t for The Crew, this could actually quite possibly be my GOTY from what I’ve played this year (suck on that, Last of Us Remastered).
I’m sure I probably sound a tad delirious now, and many of you are probably looking at your imagined version of how I look with a full-blown People’s Eyebrow. But bear with me; Watch_Dogs is a really great crime sandbox game that doesn’t feel too much like its main competitor in the serious crime sandbox genre. And I lived through the post-San Andreas time where that was the game to copy, so I know what games feel like when they try to really emulate the old Big Steal Car series. Watch_Dogs doesn’t feel like that. It also doesn’t really feel that much like Assassin’s Creed. As much as people give Ubisoft Montreal flak for having a ‘consistent feel’ to their games, I don’t necessarily get it too much here.
If I was to compare Watch_Dogs to anything, it’d probably actually be the more recent Splinter Cell games. Yes, this is an open-world crime game, and yes, you drive around and you do your fancy hacks and things, but there’s a solid heft of the game centred on your ability to use stealth and guns, and it feels more like Sam Fisher than Altair or Ezio. And when you consider how damn good Conviction and Blacklist were, it’s a pretty solid compliment to this game. Certainly, once you get to have a decent armory, the gunplay truly becomes oh so satisfying, like when I blew through a scene in one of the final missions with my grenade launcher and machine gun like an action movie star, or when you use your [different-name-for-bullet-time] skill to pop off a load of silenced headshots. It makes the game a damn good third-person shooter, to start with.
But obviously, shooting isn’t the only thing to the game. As much as I focussed on playing through as Aiden Pearce, the Shooty-Man Vigilante, and doing all the side missions that’d let me do that, there are plenty of cars and car side missions. The driving here is hardly up to a Burnout Paradise snuff, but it sits comfortably enough alongside Saints Row and Grand Theft Auto; it’s not bad, it has some realistic handling but you can still whip a car round with ease. It fits the bill basically. There’s also a decent variety of cars and bikes, if that’s what you’re into as well.
I don’t remember people really calling the gameplay into question too much though. It was more the aforementioned topic of Aiden Pearce, aka Shooty-Man Vigilante, and how the story of the game wasn’t really up to much. In real terms, the story isn’t that great; it’s a pretty trope-ridden vigilante revenge story that hits many of the usual revenge beats while also justifying you running round with a big gun shooting people and hacking things. But I’m happy with that in an open world crime game because hey, at least it’s not another story where a criminal starts from the bottom and climbs his way up or out of trouble. Aiden isn’t a particularly fantastic protagonist either, but he plods along quite fine and thankfully Ubisoft Montreal made it glaringly obvious that he’s not supposed to be likable, and I’m sure some of the other characters could have been good if they’d have the time to really develop who they were; Iraq, Maurice, Quinn, the antagonists and secondary characters are generally pretty solid, if majorly undeveloped.
As cheesy as it is to say though, Chicago is the real stand-out character in the game though. The world is pretty packed with things to do, and as a lot of things don’t necessarily appear on your map but just pop up as you travel, it gives the city a feeling of being more alive than a lot of games achieve. Obviously, I’m aware the crimes are scripted and there are only so many of them, but it does help to give you some immersion, like the roadside events in Red Dead Redemption. There are also a huge number of more traditional side missions and collectible-missions (you travel and solve situations to collect an item, then eventually do a mission to finish the set), as I mentioned before, so its pretty easy to just get stuck into the world. Also, as cheap and gimmicky as the hacking may seem on the surface, there is something satisfying about being in a city where you can just pop a bridge to jump over, or flick the traffic lights to cause havoc, or walk around people-watching and peeking in further.
The city, and the game at large, also looks incredible. Sure, it ain’t no GTA V level of pretty, but few things in this world are, lets be honest. The atmosphere the game creates is very much a sort of modern urban noir setting, what with all the dark nights and rain and technology every where. I’d be lying if I didn’t kind of want a Blade Runner game that handled the atmosphere similarly. The audio design and the game’s own soundtrack work really nicely in that tech-noir style as well, though the music they chose for your free-roaming soundtrack leaves quite a lot to be desired there; I actually probably would have been fine throwing out the rule book on this one and not having that in my open world crime sandbox this time, and just getting more of that game soundtrack music.
As a balance to how glowing my review may sound, it is wholesale worth noting that this is a game that certainly still has problems, both with itself and with context. Aiden Pearce and the story, as I said above, aren’t that great; Aiden feels fairly generic and distinctly unlikable in almost all he does, and I quite happily replaced him in my head with “The Punisher but with a magic phone”, and particularly during the first three Acts (so a good 60% of the main missions), the story plods along at an awfully slow pace. Its not so much that gameplay is locked for all that time, thankfully, but the missions drag the story out and it does feel incredibly padded for the sake of gameplay time. More often than not, the hacking system also feels very superficial; while it may be satisfying to do things with hacks when you’re in the moment or farting about in the world, it is essentially a one-button trick that gives the game a small amount of seperation from other similar games. As such, this game feeling different to things like Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row is more because of small odd things, like how the gunplay feels more like something in a Tom Clancy game or how the world seems designed to make it harder for you to just outrun the cops on roads but also harder for you to face them (as you are penalised for killing or injuring police officers on foot, but can totally let them hit bollards at high speed with no problems).
There’s also all the contextual issues with the game. There was the justified controversy over some of the things the game shows about people on the street, almost like trivia about them, which had the potential to show up messages about sexuality and things; obviously, that is something a lot of people are justified in worrying about, as its something they are personally fearful of that is being used casually and frivolously with no real discussion or reason.
There’s the fact that Aiden Pearce is never shown to be a good man, as he kills fairly indiscrimanetly and tries to get revenge like a wrecking ball throughout the story, yet is still worshipped on some level by the people in the city and the story never really handles it any better than going “Well, he’s an anti-hero and he’s dealing with crime”; even that ignores the fact that you could quite happily do even worse to the people of Chicago in the open world if you wanted to, and the only thing stopping you is if you don’t feel like letting your totally unimportant status bar go into the red. I mean, I’ll take people hamfisting dialogue like “Aiden, YOU’RE the bad man really” over how Grand Theft Auto practically hero-worships people far worse, but nonetheless, its not a very good handling of the themes. If you’re going to try and do the techie Punisher, try and at least copy the good morality-questioning stuff from the Punisher too.
I guess if I’m going to compare this to anything, it’d be The Saboteur, but reverse it. Watch_Dogs is a game that has the basic stuff that makes an open world crime game work really well, but it lacks that spark to truly make it its own little classic, which is very much the opposite to how I felt about The Saboteur, a game that stumbled constantly but ever redeemed itself on the small things that it, and only it, did as they were so well done. Watch_Dogs could be my GOTY if only because the basic stuff works so well, and is so well-made, that I can’t say I’ve put the same time in with a game this year and gotten so much enjoyment and such back, but its no testament to this game being perfect or some outstanding masterpiece of games.
Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.