Cast your mind back, if you will, to the afternoon of June 4th, 2012. The pre-E3 press conferences were in full swing, with Ubisoft taking its moment in the spotlight in front of the assembled gaming media. Aisha Tyler had just wrapped up her second stint on presentation duties for the publisher, introducing the public to several titles that would go on to be hugely successful, including Assassin’s Creed III, Rayman Legends and Far Cry 3, and just as everyone was preparing to high tail it over to Sony’s conference, we were informed that there was one last game to be shown; a brand new IP by the name of Watch Dogs.
What followed was nothing short of astonishing. We were seeing our first glimpses of genuine next gen gaming, almost a full year before the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were announced to the world. Visually sublime, Watch Dogs promised to take gamers on a journey like they’d never experienced before. An entire living breathing city was there to be manipulated, hacked and explored, wrapped in a storyline that touched upon the notion of world run by a single, centralized, omniscient operating system, capable of tracking the movements of almost everyone living within it.
We were asked to consider the potential ramifications of living in such a world; left to ponder just what we’d do if it became reality and, more pertinently, what we’d do if such a system wasn’t entirely secure. It was, in short, much weightier material than we had grown used to through the previous decade of triple-A releases, but it promised to be a breath of fresh air – a new start for gaming, pushing the envelope not only in terms of visuals, but also gameplay, mechanics and authenticity. The Watch Dogs shown to the world that afternoon heralded the potential rebirth of gaming.
The Watch Dogs released in May 2014, however, is not that game.
Before we progress with this review, there are some things that need to be addressed, particularly given the level of heated discussion generated online in the past few months.
Visually, this Watch Dogs barely looks like the same game demoed on that stage in Los Angeles – at least in terms of our PS4 review copy (we’ve yet to see it in action on a monster gaming PC). It’s not an ugly game, in fact it’s actually quite pretty, with flashes of astonishing beauty littered throughout, particularly during the night time sections, or just before the sun dips below the horizon and is casting dazzling shadows, with shafts of light breaking through the sprawling Chicago skyline, but it lacks the fidelity, depth of field and overall feeling of a living, breathing city that we had been promised.
This perceived “downgrade” has been the cause of much frustration online, with gamers quick to lay charges of overselling the product at the feet of Ubisoft Montreal. It wouldn’t be the first time a game didn’t quite measure up to its pre-release footage, and it definitely won’t be the last, but given the fact that our first glimpse at the title came at a time when both Sony and Microsoft had yet to finalize the hardware to make up their new consoles, it’s hardly fair to claim anything underhanded or intentionally misleading on behalf of the developers.
In an ideal world, this would be the all-singing, all-dancing Watch Dogs from 2012, but when you consider that the PS4 and Xbox One are struggling to hit 1080p 60fps on a regular basis right now for the bulk of their releases, it’s abundantly clear that this is not an ideal world. In three or four years, once developers have started finding their feet on the new hardware, and optimization tools are more sophisticated, it’s likely we’ll start to see that level of graphical prowess, but for now, it’s slightly out of reach.
That leads us neatly on to the second point that needs to be addressed; that six month delay.
Originally slated for launch on November 15th, Watch Dogs was unexpectedly pulled from the release schedule at the last minute. It was a ballsy move from Ubisoft, and the publisher paid the price with a drastic dip in share prices almost overnight, but it was undeniably the right decision if the alternative was a game that simply didn’t work properly.
Since then, we’ve had all manner of rumours as to why the game was held back, from key mechanics simply not working to the developers feeling they needed a little more time to polish it up, but the likelihood is that it boiled down to optimization; getting the most out of the host platforms in order to do justice to the game, and make it reflect that first look as accurately as possible. While that hasn’t turned out to be exactly the case, it’s certainly been a solid effort. The big question is whether or not the most vocal elements of the gaming world will be willing to look beyond the A-B comparison videos and actually take the game for what it is.
Because the truth of the matter is that Watch Dogs is a really, really, really good game.
However, for the first 90 minutes or so, you’d be hard pushed to figure that much out. Indeed, the game’s opening is among the most underwhelming we can remember in recent times. The obligatory scene-setting prologue introduces us to the main themes that’ll underpin the rest of your journey as Aiden Pearce, setting up a story of revenge, hacking and personal demons, but once you’re dropped into the modern day, things take a disturbingly long time to come together.
One of the most vaunted features of the game, the hacking mechanic, is haphazardly introduced, often without proper explanation or instruction. In an age where we’re spoon fed far too much, it’s a noble effort from the team at Ubisoft Montreal, with players left to figure out the bulk of the mechanics for themselves, but it often results in frustration as you try to figure out how things work, and why. But these ultimately amount only to teething problems, because once the game opens up a little and allows you to see the full scope, not to mention choice of approach, available to you, everything suddenly falls into place.
Those expecting to be able to hack everything and everyone are in for disappointment, but the handful of core hacking elements very quickly combine to make for some satisfying puzzles and challenges. Accessing a security camera from Aiden’s smartphone typically allows you to travel great distances without actually moving, as you crouch behind cover hidden away from your enemies jumping from camera to camera, accessing increasingly remote areas to locate vulnerable computers and terminals in order to open the path for Aiden to progress. While the ability to influence your surroundings, activating potentially lethal booby traps to take down the abundance of hired goons littered throughout the game’s various locations, or triggering distractions so that you can slip through unnoticed adds a huge amount to the gameplay.
One area where Watch Dogs does measure up to that original showing is the level of choice on offer. If you’re the type of player that likes to shoot first and ask questions later, you’re perfectly free to engage in full-on shooter tactics. It’ll be tough going, but there’s nothing stopping you from attempting it. Likewise, those who would rather avoid fire fights wherever possible can opt to use their heads and stealthily navigate past enemies unnoticed, towards their goal.
For me, personally, the latter approach was the one I favoured, with prolonged shoot-outs reserved exclusively for when no other option was viable, and that approach served to create some truly momentous experiences within the game world. Sneaking around, triggering distractions and taking down enemies with clinical asp blows really is a sight to behold.
With such a vast map for players to explore, the issue of vehicle handling is going to prove a sticky one for Watch Dogs. Like the rest of the game, it’s less than stellar initially. The cars just don’t “feel” right, with loose handling and a lack of perceptible weight the main points of contention. Early on you’ll likely find yourself fishtailing around the streets of Chicago, careening into oncoming traffic, bouncing off walls and inadvertently lowering your reputation by repeatedly ploughing into unsuspecting pedestrians as you go.
To say that the handling improves later on would be a little misleading, but with a little trial and error, you’ll soon get a grasp on the nuances of vehicle handling, so even if things don’t behave in a way most would deem reasonable for a game as notable as Watch Dogs, it won’t be long before you’re weaving in and out of traffic, manipulating traffic lights, bridges and blockers as you go, throwing up obstacles for any brave enough to pursue you.
Whether or not you deem that acceptable for a major title with as big a focus on driving as Watch Dogs is a matter of personal preference, but we urge you not to give up on the game based on your initial experiences behind the wheel; it does start to come together after a while.
And that’s a good thing, because on top of your hacking exploits, cover shooting adventures and covert exploration, you’re also going to find yourself on the run from the cops quite regularly, and they’re nowhere near as easy to shake as they are in games like Grand Theft Auto V. In Watch Dogs, you’re going to have to work hard for your freedom.
Twisting and turning through back alleys, pulling unexpected u-turns and slipping unnoticed into underground garages are all essential skills to have in your armoury if you’re going to escape the long arm of the law. Expect to experience punishing chases that take in great swathes of the city as you attempt to shake patrol cruisers and helicopters while navigating your way through roadblocks and persistent attempts to shepherd you down unfavourable routes – and expect to feel mighty proud of yourself when you eventually manage to escape.
Typically, games following the same open world formula as Watch Dogs have tended to veer towards a larger-than-life approach to characterization and narrative, with plenty of comic relief or fantastical story arcs being thrown around in the likes of the Grand Theft Auto series, or Crackdown. More recently we’ve seen Sucker Punch’s inFamous: Second Son attempt a more emotionally-driven approach, but none have managed it quite so well as Watch Dogs.
Touching on some heavy subject matter, ranging from the covert gathering of data about individuals through to dealing with the loss of close family and the strain it puts on relationships, this is a game that manages to deliver the kind of story that David Cage has been falling short of for years. It’s not perfect, by any means, but it’s a giant leap in the right direction for the medium and sterling performances from Noam Jenkins (Aiden), Anna Hopkins (Nikki Pearce) and Aaron Douglas (Jordi Chinn) only serve to enhance the experience.
I haven’t really touched upon the game’s online multiplayer features yet, because the game remains relatively sparsely populated at the time of writing this review. As the week progresses and players start to delve into that side of the game, we’ll cover that in greater depth, but it’s worth speaking about the ins and outs of the functionality for the purposes of this review.
Ubisoft Montreal has clearly gone to great lengths to try to offer something a little different with Watch Dogs’ multiplayer, and to a certain extent it’s worked pretty well. As you play through the single player campaign, you’ll see sporadic notifications popping up on screen offering you the ability to “invade” another player’s game in a seamless manner.
Typically, this’ll amount to you tracking them down and attempting to steal data from them, while they try to find your position and take you down before your transfer is complete. If they’re successful in locating you, you’ll have a chase to look forward to as you bid to escape from your pursuer. It’s fun, and it works reasonably well whichever side you’re on, but the lack of players during our review window makes it difficult to say whether or not it’ll play a major part in the overall experience of the game – and on most occasions I simply opted to ignore the notifications and continue through the campaign, save for moments when my game was invaded by another player.
So, how does Watch Dogs weigh up overall, ignoring the fact that it was never going to be able to stand up under the pressure of its own hype?
It’s by no means a perfect game, but it is an incredibly capable one. The strong campaign, inventive (if occasionally limited) hacking mechanics and open ended approach to gameplay certainly place it right up there with all but the very best in the space, while several disappointing elements like the vehicle handling, occasionally unreliable controls (having Aiden climb instead of doling out some asp-flavoured punishment to an enemy grunt is frustratingly common), lifeless NPCs and a potential lack of replay value once you’re done with the main story arc prevent it from truly excelling.
The unyielding pre-release hype may not have done the game any favours in terms of how the finished product will likely be received by certain aspects of the gaming populous, but to write it off based on it falling short of some ludicrously weighty expectations would be to miss out on one of the most enjoyable open world titles to date.
Watch Dogs is a fine game, almost a great one, but flaws in several key areas hold it back from reaching the top of the pile – nothing here makes it unworthy of a place in your library, however, and it’ll most likely go down as one of the more enjoyable releases of 2014.
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