Disclaimer: this is a non-spoiler review, so if you haven’t played the game yet, no worries!
OK, let’s start with the elephant in the room: the graphical downgrade. Is it noticeable? The short answer is yes, unfortunately it is. Having said that, in 2012 when ‘Watch_Dogs’ was first revealed at E3, there were lot of concerns surrounding the unbelievably good graphics… even though the next generation of consoles was inevitably around the corner.
However, does this mean that Watch Dogs’ graphics are bad? No, not at all. The city of Chicago looks really good, as do the surrounding areas of Pawnee and The Wards. The same can be said of the main characters of Aiden Pearce, Clara and Jordi Chin, just to name a few. On the other hand, throughout my playthrough of Watch Dogs, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen better graphics and experienced more alive and real feeling settings on last-gen games. For example, ‘The Last Of Us’, ‘Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag’ (a Ubisoft game, incidentally), and ‘Grand Theft Auto V’ (yes, I said GTA 5). Granted, the former of the three games was a first-party exclusive and not an open-world game.
With that metaphorical elephant out of the way, allow me to move on to what can make or break a predominantly single-player title: the story. Watch Dogs’ story follows a hacker known as Aiden Pearce (or by his vigilante name, ‘the Fox’) as he hunts down the people responsible for the death of a loved one in and around Chicago. Whilst the story does have a ‘been there, done that’ feel, it is presented very well in terms of pace and the characters used. Despite this, due to the story being a tad cliché, it soon becomes predictable and missions can be repetitive. In addition to this, the story isn’t memorable in any way. This isn’t helped by the game assuming you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. For example, in one mission, I was tasked with tailing a criminal in a car, but I had already forgotten why I needed to.
Throughout the story, the game sets a serious and dark tone surrounding abduction, as well as other issues, and rightly so. But this tone is undermined by the options given to the gamer when travelling across the map. For instance, at one point in the game, there is some sad music playing (I won’t say why, as this is a spoiler-free review). Whilst this music is playing, I was able to hack into an electronic sign above a main road in order for it to display, “I can has cheezburger?” It’s moments like this where it seems the game doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, and it strikes an odd balance between ‘Saint’s Row’ and ‘LA Noire’ that simply doesn’t work. Annoyingly, this then creates more long-term problems as, from that moment on, I was never quite able to take the game’s story and darker elements seriously. The same applies to the so-called ‘digital trips’, which are extremely fun. Nevertheless, they do detract from the plot’s emotional impact immensely.
What is also able to make or break a predominantly single-player game? The characters. My favourite by far is Jordi Chin, a satirical hitman. This is mainly down to an absolutely fantastic performance by the character’s voice actor, Aaron Douglas. This isn’t to say I didn’t like the other characters too, though. Clara, T-Bone, and Damien Brenks’ characters were all well-acted and they had good chemistry with the other characters. Unfortunately, Aiden is the worst of the bunch, at least for me. And, being the main character and all, that isn’t great. His gruff voice and attitude doesn’t exactly make him likeable, either.
This is overshadowed, though, by the game’s clever use of hacking in the world of Watch Dogs. In case you aren’t familiar with the game’s interpretation of Chicago, the Windy City is powered and run by a computer system known as the Central Operating System (or ctOS, for short). Pearce has hacked into ctOS and, therefore, has the unique ability of hacking into the city’s infrastructure. This ranges from traffic lights to bollards, and bridges to road signs. Unfortunately, given that Pearce’s access to ctOS is the foundation for every hack you perform (and there are a lot, trust me), the player is never informed as to how Pearce initially received access to the system at all… you simply have it from the start of the game to the end.
Pearce is also able to ‘profile’ any random citizen of Chicago at will. Profiling an NPC provides you with a limited look into their lives as randomly generated information is displayed, including their occupation or hobby, income, name, and one defining fact. This, surprisingly, did a very good job of humanising the NPCs and making me feel like they actually have lives.
However, not all of these hacking opportunities are provided at the start of the game. You must unlock and buy upgrades via a skill tree. In order to unlock and purchase upgrades, you must perform tasks such as progressing the story or successfully invading someone else’s game (more on that later) in order to gain XP, which is used to gain skill points. These skill points can be used to upgrade Aiden’s hacking, combat, or driving abilities, amongst other things.
Speaking of driving, Watch Dogs offers the player a large choice of vehicles (e.g. cars, bikes, vans, emergency vehicles) with which to traverse the huge map. Whilst they do not necessarily adhere to the rules of physics, they do all feel different in their own way. For example, a van is much more difficult to steer than a sports car.
As with most things, I enjoy a challenge. I like being rewarded after having worked hard at something. This is why ‘Portal 2’ and ‘Batman: Arkham City’ are among some of my favourite games of all time. These types of games aren’t challenging to the point of frustration, but are challenging enough to give you an unrivaled sense of elation once you figure out their puzzles and discover their secrets. Therefore, it saddens me to discover that Watch Dogs is just too easy. It’s too easy to find a fast car anywhere on the map due to an abundance of them. It’s too easy to locate a criminal in a given area due to the area being extremely small. And it’s too easy to stop your pursuers (i.e. cops, enemy hackers/players) due to a button prompt that pops up on-screen, even if you aren’t anywhere near the object that you’re hacking. The only slightly challenging aspect of the game are the hacking puzzles, but even those are simple enough. Although they did, admittedly, provide me with a rewarding feeling.
In terms of the online modes, these arguably deliver some of the best experiences in the game. 1v1 hacking is tense for both parties, as the hacker must find an adequate hiding spot or place to blend in (other players look like NPCs to each other) whilst nervously looking out for the person they are attempting to hack. Online racing is also tense as you never know who will try to hack into blockers, gates, traffic lights, or bridges ahead of you in an attempt to stop you. For those who want to calm down, a relaxing online free-roam mode with friends or randomers is a good suggestion. ctOS Mobile Challenge is my least favourite out of the five available modes. It pits a mobile (or tablet) user against one playing on a console, tasking the former with taking down the latter with well-timed hacks, and tasking the latter with escaping their unseeable enemy. Decryption, on the other hand, is my personal favourite. This original game mode involves teams and individuals as they go head-to-head in order to take control of a valuable file and steal it from the opposing team or players. It is exciting, high-octane action at its very best.
Now, I can’t make a review of Watch Dogs without comparing it in some way to its biggest, GOTY-winning rival: GTA 5. I know that these games are different, but hear me out… please? As I mentioned earlier, I felt that GTA 5 offered a more realistic world to explore than Watch Dogs. I can’t exactly put my finger on precisely why, but there’s just something about Los Santos that Chicago doesn’t have. Also, I felt more impressed by my initial impressions of GTA V than I was by Watch Dogs. This is down to the large amount of press coverage Watch Dogs received at events like E3, which only increased the hype. Grand Theft Auto 5 had none of this.
Overall, then, the game that promised to be the first, truly next-gen title on the PS4 hasn’t quite lived up to expectations. Does that make bad? No… very far from it, in fact. Watch Dogs is the best next-gen title to date, and has set the bar very high for open-world games on PS4. Quite simply, this is a game you do not want to miss… just stay away from that E3 2012 reveal demo.
If you would like to contact me directly, my Twitter is: https://twitter.com/ps3nutter
Want to watch us live-stream Watch Dogs? Of course you do! Check out our official Twitch channel: http://www.twitch.tv/ps4fans
(If you’re wondering why this game got such a high score from me after everything negative I wrote about it, it was because those problems are minor… although there are quite a few of them, as you may have noticed. The things that make Watch Dogs great, however, are far from minor).