The Chicago of the future is downright frightening. On the surface, we have the illusion of security while beneath, festering like a rapidly spreading virus, there’s an undeniable sickness. Protagonist Aiden Pearce fully understands this sickness and taps into it on a daily basis; he sees the diseased underbelly of the technological marvel that is the sprawling metropolis. And herein lies the primary allure of Watch Dogs : We see it, too. Those NPCs that wander the streets? They have lives beyond that sidewalk and the exploration of those lives – and the motivations behind them – is what drives the game forward.
This is a humongous yet finely appointed environment, as the developers pay special attention to every minute detail. Obviously, these details are even more impressive on one of the next-gen consoles (as opposed to the PS3 and 360 versions) and yeah, you’ll definitely want to play this one on the PS4 or Xbox One. With every step, players continually encounter – and greatly appreciate – the unparalleled liveliness and vibrancy of the city. It’s in the expressions of the individuals, the general chaotic flow of urban existence, and the overall world design that ramps up the immersion. There are a few visual inconsistencies in the gameplay but beyond that, this is an epic presentation.
With such a huge variety of voices, effects, and music, Watch Dogs is an audio tour de force. It’s really a double-edged sword, though: With so many acting performances, such a huge number of diverse gameplay effects, and such a sweeping score that molds itself to every facet of the experience, there’s bound to be some drawbacks. At the same time, shouldn’t we also praise the wildly ambitious technical aspects? It’s all the more impressive because the majority of everything you hear just screams AAA polish, the kind of next-level refinement and professionalism we’d expect from a next-gen adventure.
In the future, electronic eyes and ears are everywhere. A computer system called ctOS sees all and knows all; nobody’s private information is truly safe and under the guise of security, civilians live in fear. While that fear isn’t always immediately visible, you will see their unmitigated anxiety as you progress. As I mentioned above, this is the element that elevates Watch Dogs ; it tries to do what no other open-world sandbox game has accomplished: It wants the player to be part of a virtual environment populated by entities that actually seem real. You will see their lives and spy upon their most personal of moments.
At first, it’s a tad unsettling. Voyeurism has become more and more popular in today’s society, and I find it unnecessary at the best of times, disgusting and puerile at the worst of times. However, you’re not merely a voyeur, you’re a hacker and a vigilante with a purpose. Aiden Pearce isn’t some dude who hacks into your phone for the express purpose of reading your texts, seeing what you bought for your mistress, finding out why you won’t eat bologna, etc. No, he has a goal in mind, even if he clearly delights in using “big brother” against the very individuals who installed such a privacy-invading system.
Yes, there’s a lot of hacking. However, you almost forget that it’s hacking because of the puzzle-based and strategic nature of the gameplay. The combat isn’t simply running and gunning; it’s about analyzing the situation from the shadows and figuring out a plan of electronic attack. Of course, you will have access to a variety of powerful weapons, but the inclusion of environmental manipulation via hacking is the twist that will keep you coming back for more. How would you like to play? Do you want to achieve your objective by creating mass chaos, or would you rather go stealthy and silent? How badly do you want to play judge and jury? That wealthy womanizer who refuses to pay child support is just begging to be robbed…
Perhaps my biggest problem with all of this is that Ubisoft didn’t take advantage of what they had. The gameplay is great, as the freedom granted by the combination of standard combat and hacking makes it wonderfully dynamic. The moralistic side of the game comes into play, too, and it’s extra interesting because you find yourself invoking your own ideals and principles. Unfortunately, we never really learn a huge amount about the main character, which is disappointing, and the plot feels disjointed and a little thin. For most games, it wouldn’t be “thin,” but considering the hugely ambitious nature of this production, the story definitely falls short.
Sure, Aiden made a promise and he’s going to keep it, no matter what. Well, how is that different than most video game heroes (or in this case, anti-heroes)? It takes too long for us to peer deeper inside Aiden; it takes too long to determine what really makes him tick; in brief, it takes too long for the protagonist to come into his own. And even when he does, we feel a little shortchanged. He feels almost one-dimensional in a virtual world designed to be anything but. Still, if you take the completionist approach and you really want to pursue Aiden’s inclinations and beliefs, you can do so. You still won’t find out everything you want to know, though.
Then again, perhaps it’s wrong of me to harp on the story and character development. After all, this is an open-world sandbox adventure and for the most part, these games don’t rely on plot points and high drama. They rely on the gameplay, and Watch Dogs has that in spades. There are a gazillion things to do in this futuristic city; in fact, one could argue that we get the most diverse and most compelling array of missions and tasks we’ve ever seen in an open-world game. I’m downright shocked at the “repetitive” accusations I’ve seen. Granted, there are certain types of missions you undertake multiple times, but is that not the case with all sandbox games?
And really, there’s far more to do in Watch Dogs than you might initially believe. You have to spend time exploring and discovering; when you do, you’re justly rewarded. On top of which, a lot of things can happen when you’re simply wandering around the city; it’s not just a bunch of brain-dead NPCs wandering around in circles. While the developers didn’t do quite enough with this concept, either, it’s a step in the right direction: We want more authenticity and believability in the new generation, right? Well, Watch Dogs is a glimpse of that and in some cases, we get a very big – and very intriguing – eyeful.
Exploring this city is a joy. It’s not merely a freewheeling joy, either; with the moral elements built into just about every activity (if you’re paying attention), and with the unpredictability of this metropolis, you’re always emotionally invested in the on-screen action. I will add the following caveat, however: The driving physics could’ve been better. They’re erratic and even unreliable, as some vehicles seem to control much better than others. All in all, driving often feels loose and unstable, and that’s a shame. One could argue that you get used to it (and you do), but it still feels like an important mechanic that wasn’t given quite enough TLC.
As for the online portion, I think it depends on your expectations. If you restrict yourself to online invasions, you might be disappointed. They’re just not as engaging or exciting as I would’ve hoped. The first part of the invasion is actually quite tedious, whether you’re the invader or the one being invaded: The latter runs around trying to find their attacker, while the former just hacks and waits. Only when one attempts to catch the other does the action escalate, but by then, I’ve often lost interest. Remaining a lone wolf is more my style and besides, the rewards seemed to be better. This also makes the multiplayer feel much like the campaign, which I happen to like.
Then there are online races, which aren’t as straightforward as you might think due to the hacking twist. Decryption mode consists of two teams of four and the goal is to acquire and hold sensitive data: Working together, you’ll attempt to steal that data and escape, and these confrontations often result in a pitched, madcap battle to maintain the information in question. If you wish to take full advantage of the multiplayer component in the game, you’ll come away mostly satisfied. If, however, you only dip into it occasionally, you may not be as enamored with what you find. Again, it’s entirely up to you.
Watch Dogs has the guts of a masterpiece. This ambitious project had the foundation to be one of the most amazing interactive experiences in history. Therefore, it’s with a somewhat dejected heart that I must deduct points for falling short in several areas. The story and character development isn’t of the strongest stuff, there are a few minor to significant control issues, and multiplayer invasions don’t quite cut the mustard. At the same time, I have the greatest respect for a developer that shoots for the stars, and presents us with a game that gives us a new perspective on an accepted formula. This really is a peek at what open-world sandbox games could become in the future…
It’s plenty exciting and a little scary.
The Good: Great detail. A dynamic, lively atmosphere that puts immersion through the roof. Several great voice performances and tons of fantastic special effects. Hacking mechanic is an excellent twist on the standard action/adventure style. Moralistic elements add another dimension. A ton of stuff to do.
The Bad: A few control issues, especially with the driving. So much more could’ve been done with the story and protagonist. Online invasions are a little blasé.
The Ugly: “Some of the stuff people are doing in their ‘private’ lives are beyond ‘ugly.’”