Hack your way through an unforgiving city in search of justice.
PC Release: May 27, 2014
By Ian Coppock
Hype trains are dangerous for both the consumer and the company. That’s one of the overriding conclusions to be had of the No Man’s Sky incident. Far too often, gamers are presented with a tiny sliver of an idea, fill in the rest of the idea in their heads, and are inevitably disappointed when the finished product is not up to scratch. But No Man’s Sky is hardly the first over-hyped game that turned out to be a burning pile of pixels. A few years ago, there was another game, another supposed pioneer of the industry, that used a combination of artful deception and consumer excitement to push what was ultimately a disappointment. That game, Watch Dogs, is the subject of today’s review.
Watch Dogs is an open-world adventure game from Ubisoft, the self-proclaimed king of such games, best known in recent years for their Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry series. Watch Dogs espouses the concept of cyber warfare, and places it at the heart of everything the game is about. Well, it tries to. Watch Dogs is the latest major new IP in Ubisoft’s burgeoning catalog, and when Ubisoft showed off images of a guy stopping cars and hacking traffic lights with his iPhone, the game became widely anticipated.
Following its initial announcement, Watch Dogs became the subject of a hype train. Just like with No Man’s Sky, a studio presented a very dolled-up crumb of what the game would ultimately become, and thousands of gamers ran with the idea. Watch Dogs was one of this decade’s most anticipated video games, but when gamers finally got their hands on it, they found a product very different from what had been shown off at E3. The game received lukewarm reviews, for reasons that will be explored in just a moment, but these would later be overshadowed by the colossal failure of Assassin’s Creed Unity that fall.
2014 was just a terrible year for Ubisoft. It’s probably illegal to say “2014” in the company’s offices. They probably say “It-That-Must-Not-Be-Named.”
Watch Dogs tells the story of Aiden Pearce, a stoic 40-something hacker who lives in Chicago. In the universe of Watch Dogs, a powerful corporation called Blume has supplanted Microsoft and Apple as the king of all things computer. A few years before the beginning of the game, Blume embarks upon an ambitious endeavor to make Chicago the world’s first “smart city”, installing a mega-computer called the Central Operating System, or CTOS. The CTOS connects everything with everyone, linking public utilities, transportation, smart phones and security devices into one giant ecosystem. Entire sections of the city can now be managed with the press of a button, making Chicago the most technologically advanced city on earth. Blume plans to pilot the program here, and to install CTOS systems in other cities if the project proves successful.
Unfortunately for Blume and for Chicago, connecting everything in the city to a giant computer makes everything in said city easy to hack. Such is the career of Aiden Pearce, who hacks into the CTOS to open bank accounts and steal personal information, usually at the behest of shady clients. Watch Dogs begins during one such job, when Aiden and his partner Damien are attempting to hack a bank account at a swanky hotel.
Aiden and Damien find the information easily enough, but their intrusion alerts another, unknown hacker in the system, and the pair are forced to flee the scene. Not long after, a peaceful drive Aiden takes through the city is rudely interrupted when some dude on a motorcycle shoots out his tire, trying to kill him. Aiden survives, but his six-year-old niece, Lena dies, in the crash. Heartbroken that an attempt on his life resulted in her death, Aiden descends back into Chicago’s underworld, determined to use his hacking skills to find out who ordered the hit.
Aiden enlists some help to get the answers he needs, allying himself with a hacking collective called DedSec. This Anonymous-esque group of hackers is convinced that Blume is up to something nefarious with the CTOS, and Aiden helps them out with the occasional job in return for their continued support. To help him navigate Chicago’s seedy underbelly, Aiden procures the assistance of Jordi Chin, a local crime boss whose sarcasm is a direly needed foil to Aiden’s stoic seriousness. Together, the pair will maraud through a rogue’s gallery of Chicago’s worst cops, gangsters, and public officials. To make matters worse, Aiden’s old partner Damien resurfaces as a particularly unhinged antagonist.
In typical Ubisoft game fashion, Watch Dogs is presented as a sizable open world, with a mix of story missions and lots of side quests. Every Ubisoft game has landmarks that need liberating, be they Borgia castles or Rook Islands radio towers. In Watch Dogs, Aiden can hack Blume’s signal towers to uncover more about the area. The map contains a rendition of the entire city of Chicago, as well as a few suburbs and a sizable section of rural wilderness. For anything else that can be said about Watch Dogs, its map doesn’t hurt for size or variety.
What does hurt for variety in this game is how the cars handle. Aiden gets around using cars, whether he’s had them delivered from Jordi or “borrows” them off of the street. It’s no surprise that a modern open-world game utilizes cars to get around, but even more than the vehicles in Grand Theft Auto V and Mafia II, the cars in Watch Dogs are terrible to drive. One flick of the W key sends the dang thing careening off at 120 MPH. It takes a while to get used to such hyper-reactive controls. It doesn’t help that the in-game radio is full of some pretty uninspired choices for contemporary music, with no in-game option to add songs from a personal library. Anyone who doesn’t like listening to Kid Cudi and MGK all day is in for a rough time.
Fortunately, Watch Dogs‘ on-foot gameplay is a bit more intuitive. The primary element in the game is hacking; Aiden can use his smartphone to make systems all over the city go haywire. He can open and close security gates to startle bad guys, cause car accidents by sabotaging traffic lights, and even open and close city bridges to stem the flow of vehicles. He can also take control of cameras to survey hidden areas and deactivate distant security systems. Many of these functions can be performed on-foot or in the car; in the car, they’re Aiden’s only recourse, since he can’t shoot and drive at the same time.
By far the most prolific hacking activity in the game is snooping on other people’s phones. As Aiden walks the streets of Chicago, he can use his phone to eavesdrop on other people’s texts and calls. Sometimes these media are critical to finishing missions, other times they’re just funny or weird chats that everyday Chicagoans have. A bit more useful is Aiden’s bank account hacking, when he can walk up to a person, hack their phone, and empty their life savings out at an ATM. It’s a cool little feature, but it inadvertently breaks the game’s economy by making money incredibly easy to obtain. Don’t have the scrip for that assault rifle? Just walk around for a few minutes on Navy Pier.
Of course, Aiden isn’t the only hacker in Chicago, and it’s at this point Watch Dogs serves up a novel, if potentially annoying, multiplayer gameplay element. After disguising themselves as an everyday citizen, players can leap into other people’s sessions of Watch Dogs and literally just mess with them. Players can attempt to hack each other’s bank accounts or just follow them around Chicago. They can even kill each other.
Now, a lot of this sounds fun and funny, and to be fair, it is the first few times. That moment when Aiden realizes that the Chinese baker trailing him is no baker, but a hacker, is both funny and a bit spooky. But this system quickly becomes annoying when other players barge in to interrupt city hacking or side missions. More than a few times, players will be on the cusp of retrieving an item in the city, only to have to furiously backtrack and kill another gamer who’s trying to steal all of their money. Love it or hate it, it’s an interesting idea, and one that can (thankfully) be disabled in the options menu.
To complement his hacking skills, Aiden is also a crack shot. In case he needs to storm a gang hideout, or if he’s spotted during a hacking mission, he has a few firearms to rely on as a plan B. The gunplay in Watch Dogs is surprisingly fluid; players can easily make Aiden transition from one cover point to the other. Aiden can kill swarms of enemies with an assault rifle or take them out quietly with a silenced pistol. Watch Dogs was built to accommodate either playstyle. It’s not any type of gunplay that third-person shooters haven’t presented before, but it has one of the best cover systems of recent years, so that’s something.
To revisit the hacking for a moment, the hacker-god fantasy allowed by being able to hack anything is also somewhat ruined by the unrealistic nature of it all. Aiden can hack literally anything with the press of a button, including objects that aren’t hooked up to electronics. In one mission, Aiden has to pursue a boat onto a lake, and hacks open a pair of old barn doors. How on earth does that make sense? The barn doors are not electronic. And even if they are, what’s the point of installing a CTOS motor on barn doors in rural Illinois?
The plot that ties all of this hacking, driving and shooting together is nothing that Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry fans haven’t seen before. Just like in every major Ubisoft production since Assassin’s Creed II, a man with brown hair has some bad things happen to him, and he sets out for revenge. Aiden’s murder-mystery motivation is hardly novel, and it makes the entire plot of Watch Dogs soundly underwhelming. It doesn’t help that any of the characters don’t undergo any development throughout this tale. Aiden Pearce in particular is one of modern gaming’s most boring protagonists. He speaks in the same soft, gravelly voice and never cracks any jokes or smiles. He’s a brooding man whose tendencies for violence seem a bit hypocritical when one considers his mission. It’s no surprise that he’s not returning to headline Watch Dogs 2 this fall.
Indeed, all but one of the characters in this production are not particularly great. Aiden’s supporting cast fit snugly into predetermined niches and don’t budge one iota. Jordi Chin serves as the aforementioned comic relief, though his humor feels forced. Clara Lille is the stereotypical tough girl with a secret soft side, and the game does a terrible job at disguising some of the nefarious things she gets up to. The only character who’s remotely interesting is T-Bone Grady, a sarcastic, redneck hacker who, while the star of his own story-driven DLC called Watch Dogs: Bad Blood, would’ve been a much better protagonist for the main game as well. The plot of this game lurches all over the place, between Aiden’s quest for revenge and a mission to prevent the citizens of Chicago from becoming slaves to the Man.
Watch Dogs’ greatest sin goes way beyond occasionally fun hacker gameplay and a plot with attention deficit disorder. The version of the game that Ubisoft advertised at E3 looked absolutely beautiful, and there are echoes of that in these screenshots. The finished product, much to customers’ outrage, looks terrible. It looks like the E3 version after a really bad hangover. The textures in this game are shockingly muddy, with heavily pixelated typeface and surfaces on even the highest resolution. The lighting in this game is among the worst of any modern video game; everything is bathed in a single shade of pale light, with absolutely no contrast or atmospheric effects. It looks like God put one of those sterile hospital ceiling lights over Chicago and just left it there.
On top of all that, the game runs like garbage. Even on high-end systems, Watch Dogs suffers dramatic frame drops and hitching during routine missions. It gets especially bad during high-speed driving, which is a problem for players who are trying to get away from the cops or mobsters. The character models look archaic, though the animations are passable. Just like Assassin’s Creed Unity, Watch Dogs also suffers from character pop-in, when people will suddenly spawn out of nowhere, usually in front of Aiden’s speeding car. None of this amounts to anything close to what was presented by Ubisoft.
Watch Dogs suffers still from a full slate of smaller problems. The side missions are repetitive and without any sort of narrative. The hacking, while admittedly fun, also gets a bit old after a while. Additionally, the game fills Aiden’s phone with some pretty creepy information on passerby in Chicago. Why on earth did Ubisoft put that Citizen A was into bondage pornography, and that Citizen B was abused as a child? It doesn’t matter if such trends are accurate… no one wants to know that stuff!
Ultimately, Watch Dogs is an okay game. It’s an okay amount of fun to explore the world. The plot is an okay amount of action and exposition. It does an okay job of dealing with the ethics of electronic surveillance. The whole thing is just… mediocre, and it’s made worse by its poor performance on PC. If No Man’s Sky didn’t hammer the lesson home, Watch Dogs is yet another piece of evidence that hype trains are to be avoided. It’s okay to be excited for new games, but be skeptical. Because in the end, the marketing material doesn’t matter. The only way to know if a game is any good is to play it. Watch Dogs is probably not worth the time needed to do so, because it’s definitely not the game Ubisoft lied it up to be.
You can buy Watch Dogs here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.