Originally revealed at E3 back in 2012, Watch_Dogs has been eagerly anticipated for some time. Finally releasing this year after missing its originally planned console launch window for late last year, does it live up to the hype?
Watch_Dogs begins with hacker Aiden Pearce on a job that goes wrong. Pearce is breaking into the prestigious Chicago hotel the Merlaut when he is detected and finds himself hunted down and, in an attempt to kill him, his niece is accidentally killed. A year later, he’s trying to put his life back together with his sister while at the same time getting back into hacking to find out who put the hit on him so that he can get revenge for the death of his niece.
Prologue over, you're set free in Chicago to explore to your heart's content. The Chicago of Watch_Dogs is controlled be a city wide computer system called ctOS, and Aiden is able to manipulate the network to take control of cameras, break through security doors, overload circuits and a number of other actions. And, because it’s a game and the logic of these things don’t really matter, Aiden is able to do all of this from his phone in just a couple of inputs. Impressive!
The story missions are fairly standard action game fare and not the sort of thing that would feel out of place in a blockbuster movie. There are a few major setpiece missions that raise the bar, but sadly there are also a number of less exciting follow missions that mostly drain the momentum of the story.
It’s a decent plot overall though, and one that I was entertained by until the end, the last couple of missions in particular being pretty great, though I’ll of course not spoil those here.
Outside of the main story, there is a huge amount of side content. There are quite a variety of these, with the most numerous being the side missions. These will pop up on screen fairly regularly and as your phone intercepts communications regarding them, and come in several varieties. There are street crimes to prevent, races to win, gang hideouts to destroy and criminal convoys, which are a number of vehicles with enemies in that you need to take out before they reach a destination.
Some of these missions will affect your reputation meter which, unlike many games, doesn’t have much direct influence over your character or the story. You don’t get a dark broody evil version of Aiden or a glowing godlike good one, but the meter controls how civilians in Chicago react to you. If you’re on the good side you’ll be cheered, people won’t call the police and the news bulletins you hear will be generally positive, while if you’re not then you’ll find the police being called on you much more often and in greater numbers.
Other events that pop up on screen are the online linked events which will pit you against other players in races or hacking challenges.
If they weren't enough, there are also augmented reality games that have superimposed 8 bit style computer graphics projected on top of the landscape, drinking games, chess, puzzles and digital trips that let you play some games within the game.
And then there are a ton of collectables. There are 100 city hotspots to visit, and numerous items that culminate in a mission from finding them all. There are also ctOS towers to hack, much like the radio towers in FarCry 3, that give you locations on the map for the various collectables and allow you to hack items and people in that area.
Once you have control over ctOS in each area you can hack passing civilians for a number of things, though most of them just give cash. Others will have locations of hidden parcels, tips on crimes, songs that you can steal and add to your playlist and yet more simply have conversations that you can listen in on.
I'd possibly say there is just too much of it. Even with having spent a massive amount of time off the main missions with the collectables and some of the side missions my save game was under 65%, with a massive amount of the side quests and online hacking missions left to do to get full completion.
I never tried the keyboard and mouse controls, but I've heard reports of them not being so great and having a strange layout. With an Xbox pad though the pad control overlay that you'd expect to find in modern games is present and plays much like many other games. It does have some unusual choices however, particularly when it comes to shooting.
Possibly due to it being a Ubisoft game with one of their main franchises having such an emphasis on free running, Aiden is also fairly agile. Run is bound to the right trigger with B being climb, and the use of the trigger means that you can't shoot when not aiming, so there is no hip fire shooting. When aiming with a gun though the controls are very tight and precise, possibly too much so as Aiden has pinpoint accuracy even though he doesn't present as having any formal weapons training - he is a hacker after all, not a soldier.
Very oddly, you also can't shoot while driving, which seems like a huge omission in an open world driving game, especially when you have missions that set you chasing down vehicles and stopping them and instead you have to wait until your chase takes you to a hackable item such as traffic lights or an explodable steam pipe. The driving controls aren't the best, with cars generally feeling like they're floating a bit above the ground and not the most responsive, but motorbikes largely seemed OK.
Anything that can be hacked or activated is controlled by a single button, and you typically have to just hold it down for a couple of seconds to perform the action.
Controlling the cameras in particular can be pretty cool at times, and you can often avoid moving all together and just complete objectives by moving from camera to camera. In a neat touch, Aiden always appears blurred out on camera, as he has hacked into the ctOS and blanked his identity from it.
Graphically it's a pretty attractive game, though if you're running on a 1GB graphics card like me then you're restricted to the medium texture quality setting which mostly looks fine though there is the odd texture that looks to be a very low resolution that rather drops the immersion a bit. The various bits of foliage have differing animations depending on the weather, and the game looks particularly great when it's at night and is raining and windy. It also has some of the best water I think I've seen in a game recently, and some nice little physics touches at times, such as Aiden’s coat while riding on a motorbike. It’s generally quite busy too with the streets fairly packed with pedestrians which is good to see as too often open world games have small numbers of civilians leaving them to feel somewhat deserted.
I've read a number of people online reporting of poor performance in the game generally, particularly with AMD based systems. Even with my now aging 7770 I was playing with a mixture of medium to high settings in 1920 x 1080 with v sync enabled with no problems, so I’d take these reports with a pinch of salt.
It does seem to take a little while to load though, and for some reason goes through a full load again if you’re restarting after a death. The load screens also have some fairly dumb or obvious tips on them, or maybe I’ve just played too many games?
Sound wise, the voice acting is overall rather good though there weren’t really any standout performances. Aiden has something of a Christian Bale’s Batman growl to him at times, presumably because he’s trying to hide who he is, but often he doesn’t even have his face covered so it seems rather pointless. The background audio from passersby is a little repetitive, in one half an hour long play session I heard the same loop about the police being like ninjas due to ctOS making them more effective almost a dozen times, though admittedly I haven’t noticed it as much since so it’s possible the game was either having a bad day or it’s just been patched out since.
Sound effects are rather standard fare and the in game sound track is decent enough, though listening to it can be a little annoying. Instead of using the traditional radio station setup, songs are played off Aiden’s phone, meaning you can listen to music while running around, which is fine. If you don’t have this on though, a new song starts whenever you get into a car. So if you jump out of the car to grab a collectable and get back in, a different song starts from the beginning, which seems to end up with you hearing the first 30 seconds of most songs, and then nothing else of them.
All this really brings me to my biggest problem with the game, in that it’s a victim of its own hype. It’s certainly not a bad game, and I enjoyed my time playing it, but expectations for it were so high that it had to be something spectacular to pay it all off, and sadly it really isn’t. It’s a solidly constructed, fun game that has a ton of content to experience, but aside from the hacking gimmick there isn’t much that makes it stand out from other similar open world games and I think the sheer volume of things to do actually detract from the game overall as it makes it quite unfocused. The quality of the story I think manages to just win through though, and I’d certainly say it’s worth a play.
Watch_Dogs is available now on PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3 and 4, with a WiiU release due.