Watch Dogs as a game is engaged in a fierce struggle to discover and assert its own distinct identity. In the end, it fails in ever achieving the much-desired uniqueness. It has taken the mechanics of other open world games, and while they have been transplanted here fairly accurately, the very fact that it is an imitation goes against the game’s credit. Alternately a mix primarily of driving and shooting, the game’s greatest attempt at innovation is relegated to the hacking mechanics. Nearly every electronic device is hackable, from cell phones through to traffic lights, and, most usefully, the cameras which line every street. Initially somewhat of a novelty, as the plot progresses and more technology is bound to the will of Aiden, the protagonist, things open up a bit. While interesting, these systems seem underutilized; if the game could have shaken off traditional open world tropes and focused to a greater extent on the hacking, the game might exist as something totally unique and fresh. What’s here is satisfying, but there is a great deal of potential for even greater satisfaction.
The hacking may permeate many aspects of the game design, but the world built around those systems – Chicago – is equally important. As a city, it can be striking graphically, though in terms of technical aesthetics, it can be hit or miss. The city seems sprawling at times, partially because of its density; objectively, the map is rather small, but what is here is carefully, lovingly made. The downtown area, with its towering, infinitely tall skyscrapers, is awe-inspiring. There is some baked lighting which enhances the beauty of the building; some of them seem dazzling and almost impossibly white, while at nighttime, individual windows are lit, others remaining dark, reflecting the constant activity of the city. The number of NPC’s along the streets is fairly impressive at all times of the day, and while the character modelling for these inhabitants may not be the best in the world, there is few repeating in terms of modelling. There is overall a lived-in feel, which I rather like. Though somewhat small in size, there is impressive diversity in the world; Pawnee, a small fishing village on the outskirts of the city proper, is noticeably quaint, especially in comparison to Sears Tower, and the other buildings of downtown. Being somewhat rural, there are foliage models present, with bright trees in autumnal hues; while pretty in terms of coloration, in comparison to the city, these are technically unimpressive. Still, this area offers impressive views of the city skyline, especially beautiful at night. Some of my greatest highlights in the game involve simple exploration, roaming around the world, not doing anything in particular, just taking in the sights and immersing myself in the world.
If Chicago, Pawnee, and the scant other areas are beautiful artistically, seemingly populated with diverse, believable people, it is sad that the activities in that world are lacking in entertainment value. The map is expectantly littered with icons, and it can initially be overwhelming. Many of the icons, though, indicate the most basic of activities – there are multiple forms of collectables to seek out, and mini-games to engage in, fun for the completionist, but largely lacking in engagement for me – and likely many others. True, I did find enjoyment in some of these, particularly the chess puzzles, and with the variety of games on offer, there is likely something for everyone – though nearly none of these diversions are especially deep in terms of complexity. Indeed, many of the systems all throughout the game seem at times overly basic, the developers almost afraid of crafting something that is more involved; almost everything is simplistic. There are, first instance, hackable towers, which fulfill the role of the radio or bell towers in the Far Cry games. While they themselves were not particularly difficult to complete, they as side activities were still more involved than the mentioned towers of this game, which essentially devolve into the opening of a locked door, and a brief, very brief instance of platforming. The rewards are largely the same between this game and that other franchise, but for me, there is a larger sense of reward in those other games; nailing precise jumps, steadily growing in elevation, and then peering around at the world below is more fulfilling than the simplistic objectives to be found in these towers.
True, these towers are but one of many side activities, but they are a perfect illustration of the overall basic nature of the game. Almost all of the puzzles revolve around the same brief mini-game; there is little diversity here, and a strong overreliance is present. It doesn’t help either that even when knowing the patterns and intended objectives of the game, which involves the manipulation and unlocking of various currents, there is some trial-and-error retained. Whatever enjoyment the puzzles might offer is soundly destroyed by the frequency with which they appear – rather than being refreshing, they become almost annoying. Repetition, too, is a great flaw with this game. Every collectable quest is needlessly long; if they were shorn down in terms of quantity and bolstered in terms of quality, the game would benefit immensely. Certain quest strands with the potential for more entertainment are ultimately made redundant and even mundane by their failures in terms of diversity – ambushing a convoy with explosives or gunfire can be fun in theory, but when the formula is totally static and unchanging, engagement wanes. That there are nearly twenty instances of this convoy side-quest is almost an insult. While they do incentivize the completion of these events with certain rewards, none of them are game-changing; a gun is given for reaching this threshold, a new vehicle for that one. It’s not worth it to slog through the repetition, though in another game, patience in such things might be justified; in a title with truly enjoyable gameplay, repetitive side activities such as these might be more tolerable, if the enjoyment factor persists. But here in Watch Dogs, the gameplay isn’t particularly enjoyable – it is serviceable, but again, the systems largely show the lack of any true originality.
The vehicles are very floaty and can at times be difficult to control. The expected hand-brake is present, but in almost all of the cars, more intricate maneuvers are made difficult; the cars have a tendency to fishtail when cornering, and while later unlockable vehicles suffer from this problem to a lesser extent, the driving is never particularly enjoyable. True, driving an expensive, exotic car at breakneck speeds, letting up on the accelerator and coasting into a turn can at times be enjoyable, but it is an almost constant grappling with the controls. The vehicle roster is large, and being subdivided into various classes, many of them feel distinct from one another. Motorcycles are especially fun to drive, with an added feeling of speed. It’s never completely terrible, and when it works it works well, providing some exhilaration. But this proves true only when driving around the city and the countryside, free from any danger. Once any type of pursuit is initiated – be it by the police force or a rival gang – the driving completely falls apart. There is no in-vehicle shooting, and no explosives can be employed; an integrated ramming maneuver is also absent. As a result of this, the only real defense is tied to the hacking. This is a good thing, at least on the surface. Raising a drawbridge to elude a pursuer, or passing through a car garage, deliberately closing the doors of entry behind you – these moments of strategy are great, and really help to elude the aggressive pursuers. But these instances are relatively rare. The car combat essentially devolves into the pressing of a button once an indicator appears on screen; a cop may be speeding over a destructible piece of infrastructure, for instance. He is vulnerable here, and while it can be satisfying to blow a steam pipe, completely incapacitating the driver and his vehicle, the sense of self satisfaction is lost, again because of the basicness of the affair. The car chases are especially annoying, as all pursuers are totally relentless; the police will recklessly ram into the player’s vehicle, and the escalation of their response is very exaggerated; even for the slightest infraction, the police may be set apart the player’s tail; there response seems to multiply as the chase progresses; suddenly, there is a helicopter in the sky. It is totally unbelievable, and very frustrating. There are pilotable boats, though, and they exist as the greatest escape tool; a helicopter can be temporarily disabled, and the open sea becomes a savior. It can be fun to drive around the city, but when any tension or opposition is present, almost all enjoyment goes away; the controls are finnicky, and combat abilities are basic and limited.
The on-foot controls are a bit better, though still not great. For me, one of the greatest flaws in the game is related directly to the locomotion. Aiden can easily scale certain walls and other low objects, and the animations for his movements are spectacularly done. Despite this flashiness, mechanically it is very flawed. There is no dedicated jump button; and this really limits the sense of movement. Even if there was included a contextual jump, like that found in the Zelda games, Watch Dogs would benefit greatly. But it is not so. Chicago as a city has great verticality, and the fact that upward traversal is prohibited by confined movement illustrates again missed potential. Verticality and freedom of climbing would benefit gameplay immeasurably, offering more tactical opportunities. The sense of wonder from the exploration would be heightened, too, and even a pilotable helicopter would have done wonders for the game. Seeing the sprawling city of Chicago from above would surely be a sight. But here, even the smallest of gaps represents an obstacle.
While the supposed parkour is underwhelming, the other on-foot systems fare a bit better. There is a stealth system in place, and while not particularly complex, it is enjoyable enough. There is really no sound component, success at undetection achieved solely on line-of-sight. There is cover everywhere, and that is a godsend for the stealth. The expected takedowns are there, and silenced weapons are awarded at certain intervals, which really assist in the stealth. There are a few other aids, like an activatable lure, which attracts the attention of an enemy, though the greatest aid is connected to the hacking; enemy radios can be disabled, preventing a call for reinforcements, while explosives can be hacked – grenades detonated – and many other things, like the activation of an enemy’s phone, grabbing his attention and furthering options for action. It is a solid system, and can be rewarding when it works, especially when the hacking opportunities are incorporated and used effectively. Sadly, the stealth takes a backseat to outright combat, where all the strides at originality made by hacking are almost completely ignored.
The game plays like a traditional cover shooter, seeing the player character huddled in safety, merely waiting for the enemy to reemerge, so that shots can be landed. There is an integrated focus mechanic, which temporarily slows time, allowing for more precise shooting. It seems out of place here, but again reflecting imitation, its inclusion is expected. A heavy reliance is placed upon this ability, and it becomes an integral part of combat. Lining a sniper shot at a distant enemy will always be enjoyable, and the focus mechanic facilitates this. Every acquirable weapon in the game is always wieldable – there is no inventory limit, which really encourages experimentation. Explosives also play a prominent role, and they can be crafted at any time, if the ingredients are on hand. The A.I. here is surprisingly good, as they employ flanking maneuvers, not all enemies cowardly hiding behind cover. Rushing Aiden, a few times they caught me off guard, though the mini-map is useful in lessening the surprise of these actions, as it shows tagged enemies and the direction they are facing. Had this not been there, the game would have taken on a very different feel. The impressive A.I. also extends to the stealth systems; they are not unbelievably hyper-aware, and failure in such engagements is largely on the fault of the player. Tougher, armed opponents are especially vulnerable to explosives, and there is always a lingering sense of challenge even as the game progresses, and steady improvement of skills occurs.
The skill-trees seem like an arbitrary inclusion, incorporated as a result of expectation. It is divided into various branches, such as combat, hacking, and crafting. The hacking upgrades are essential, as they provide more opportunities in open fighting and in vehicle chases. The combat skills are similarly important, as they extend the length of the focus meter, or increase proficiency with various weaponry. The vehicle upgrades are pretty uninspired, offering improved off-road handling, increased vehicle damage, or a reduced rate of tire blowouts. It’s good that they are here, though, as it further provides something to work towards, even if on a basic level. Experience points are awarded for nearly every action in the game, and there is a constant sense of advancement. It’s just a shame that the skills acquirable with those points are, for the most part, uninspired or not very useful.
The story had the potential to be the game’s saving grace. It is consistently dark in tone, which has always appealed to me. While dark, it is not necessarily violent, just more mournful in terms of themes. Aiden is driven by revenge for his niece’s killing; that is quickly established as his primary motivation. His sister and her son are promptly introduced, and the familial aspects are really developed in these early scenes. We learn of his tumultuous relationship with his sister, who encourages him to move on from the murder of his niece. He can’t, and there is tension between them. From here, the plot really begins to meander. The familial aspect is still there, though it quickly fades from the spotlight. Aiden’s sister is ultimately abducted, and his new mission is her rescue. In his attempts at liberation, he comes into contact with various gangs, even stumbling into a human trafficking den, women sold to the highest bidder. The game’s plot really begins to lose focus here. If the narrative was a bit more straightforward and limited in the number of characters introduced, the game would benefit greatly. Luckily, there are no true caricatures present; the hacker, Clare, with her endearing French accent, is interesting as a character, while the eccentric T-Bone is odd, somewhat loud, but still very likable. They serve as Aiden’s greatest aids and do breathe much needed life into the story. The hacker culture is developed somewhat strongly, reflected in the very appearance of these characters and their acquired skill-sets. Operating out of a bunker, they monitor all things with a multiplicity of screens, and access to CtOs, which is firmly integrated into all the technology in the city of Chicago. Interesting companions, their interactions with Aiden help to develop his character. While there is some resolution to his tale, the plot loses much of his steam maybe half way through the narrative; it tries to focus on too many things, and it is interesting to consider that this was the one field where Ubisoft showed any real efforts at ambition. There is a commentary to be made here, of the role of technology in our lives, of the importance of family and familial bonds, of the justifiable nature of violence and of the accepting of the past and the ability to move forward into the future. All of these themes are present, but none of them are developed expertly, their potential fully tapped into. As it is, there are inklings of thematic complexity, and there are interesting characters and motivations, but no definitive statement is ever made.
Watch Dogs is not a bad game, it is just an uninspired one. Its world of Chicago, with a lived-in feel, wondrous sights and landmarks, and diversity of inhabitants, can be at times visually striking, intriguing, and even compelling. Exploration is enjoyable, even if no concrete objective is attached to those wonderings. The city and surrounding landscape are underutilized, though. The world is lovingly crafted, but movement therein is excessively limited, to an unacceptable degree. Driving, gunplay, and stealth are present as the trio of pillars which anchor the game, and while all the systems at play here are serviceable, none of them are in any ways innovative, or even impressive. A fourth, more prominent pillar, though, is related to the hacking, the game’s greatest attempt at originality. It enlivens and alters greatly the gameplay, though even this ambitious attempt at originality cannot help a game which is otherwise iterative, boring, and even frustrating at times. Along with the world, there is a story to be told here, a story of technology and the modern world. Attempts are made, but ultimately those attempts result in failure. Watch Dogs is not an outright bad game, though at times I felt as though I was forcing myself to play it. There are some highs present, but they are an oddity. Potential for greatness is certainly here, and I am hopeful the sequel capitalizes on those potentials.