RELEASE DATE: May 27, 2014PLATFORM: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U (Coming Soon), PCDEVELOPER: Ubisoft MontrealPUBLISHER: UbisoftCATEGORY: Action/Adventure
Word of Watch Dogs’ alleged awesomeness seemed to precede its arrival by about two years thanks to an impressive E3 debut in 2012, another appearance last year, and a lengthy delay.
We expected something fresh with breathtaking visuals that looked as if they had been snipped from the real world and a new way to play an open-world game. We thought that Watch Dogs might be a fit challenger to Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto franchise, but after playing it, the word revolutionary does not come to mind.
Based in a near-future model of Chicago, the game map is massive, but the cityscape is bland, interchangeable, and a big part of why this game feels less visually dynamic on PS4 than Grand Theft Auto 5 on the PS3, even though the characters look a bit more life-like.
There is no flavor, no cleverness buried within the game. You won’t catch yourself smirking as you might in GTA while listening to the radio or walking by an NPC mid-conversation. The whole thing feels a bit antiseptic, as Aiden moves through the streets, a ghost, floating by to evade detection while trying to hack his way to the truth about a conspiracy that led to the death of his niece, Lena, all while occasionally thwarting crimes as The Vigilante.
Those asides are a decent way to fill time between missions that can sometimes feel monotonous; but they are also necessary, because exploring Watch Dogs in a purposeless manner holds little appeal after a short while.
As for the much ballyhooed “hacking” element, it just doesn’t wow me. Thanks to his phone, The Profiler (really), Aiden can turn off traffic lights (which isn’t as useful as it seems), remotely cause explosions, control forklifts, wreak havoc, and access surveillance cameras that are connected through the ctOS network. This allows him to get out of jams and break into certain areas, but even in the first mission, as Aiden tries to escape from a baseball stadium by hacking camera after camera to unlock a door, one quickly misses the simplicity of a well-placed door kick-in or lock-pick. This raises a question: though the hacking element is new, does that automatically translate to better, or is this just a gimmick and a fresh coat of paint on a familiar type of game?
The Profiler also profiles pedestrians and anyone Aiden encounters, revealing a sliver of personal information that seemingly tells Aiden all he needs to know to assess if they are a threat, which is most helpful when he is in “Vigilante” mode or when he is dealing with a multiplayer feature that allows others to jump into your game to try and hack you before you can track them down.
Has someone recently traveled to a foreign country? Have they consulted with a plastic surgeon? Are they depressed? How about their bank balance? It’s minorly off-putting to realize that, in a way, crumbs like that do form the cookie that is we, but despite that and the elements of surveillance culture that are captured in the game, the “message” is a mile wide and an inch deep, and both the story and the paint-by-numbers script echoes that level of non-depth, especially when you compare it to a game like The Last of Us or GTA.
I really do hate how much I’m comparing this game to GTA, but it is the open-world “gold standard” and Watch Dogs is playing in its division. It’s hard to dismiss the contrasts, especially when the easiest shorthand description of Watch Dogs is, “Like a less lush Grand Theft Auto with a hacking gimmick.”
I don’t want to paint this game as nothing more than a trudge, though. The meat and potatoes gameplay is quite solid and the controls are smooth as Aidan runs down the street, ducks for cover, hops over a fence, or fires a gun. If there is anything that signifies that this game comes from the same people who produce Assassin’s Creed, it is in the easy way that Aiden handles.
As for the driving aspects of the game, they are simple and mostly enjoyable, but while I don’t want to sustain real-world damage with a car while in the midst of a chase, at the most difficult setting, I was able to beat the ever loving shit out of cars, racking up superficial damage with each one of the dozen (being so conservative) top speed head on collisions that I sustained before my car would explode. What’s more, I usually only momentarily slowed down during this very scientific test of mine and sometimes not at all, like when I got into small overlap crashes and occasionally seemed to phase through the other car as if Kitty Pryde was my co-pilot (Kitty’s presence would totally do that, so don’t even. Homegirl made a giant bullet go through the earth.)
While the core gameplay is a plus, the other elements of Watch Dogs conspire to make this little more than something that is worth a dedicated weekend rental or two and not something that you are likely going to want to go back to time and time again.