DISCLAIMER: As of the day this article is published, I did not own the XBOX One or PC versions of this game, so I can’t safely say whether or not the version on the PS3 that I played is any better or worse, so I’ll be focusing on the last generation.
In May of 2014 one of, debatably, the most hyped games ever by the name of Watch_Dogs (yes, I am adding the underscore every damn time I type its name) released on multiple platforms and I got mine pre-ordered, because I’m the problem, for my PS3 on account of my lack of next-gen consoles in my household.
It was a long time coming; I remember reading about it on Official Playstation Magazine in 2012, and how it would be ‘one of the most innovative triple AAA releases of this century’ or something along those lines. The trailers and other marketing made the game out to be a constant battle with morality over who to steal money from, who to assist… needless to say, I was certainly hyped. I retrieved it from my mailbox as soon as I could, shoved it into my console and watched the intentionally glitchy intro sequence in all its majestic glory.
When I first played Watch_Dogs, I was pretty impressed (probably because my standards were fairly low at the innocent age of 14). The hacking gameplay felt fairly fresh, the story was enjoyable, there wasn’t a terrible number of glitches like the ones I was destined to experience in the legendary Assassin’s Creed Unity, and the whole aspect of every citizen in the city having their own unique name, personality, backstory, religions, likes and dislikes, slightly disturbing pastimes (looking at you, man with a terabyte of turtle porn on his hard drive) was so incredibly COOL to my naive little mind. Sure, it had its problems but, for the most part it was a massively fun, 20+ hour romp through the kind-of-average-at-best-looking city of Chicago.
Then I played through it again the other day.
First things first, what’s up with the graphics? I understand that more graphically-enhanced versions exist on the PS4 and XBOX One, but then I am forced to compare the game’s presentation to that of The Last Of Us, a game almost an entire year older than this. I understand that The Last Of Us is much more linear in comparison to the open-world Watch_Dogs, but I would at least expect it to come close! Heck, even the original Uncharted is arguably better-looking, or at least on par if you consider its set-pieces and general aesthetic.
On the subject of presentation, the distance for rendering in civilians is surprisingly poor. The game has a morality system, which is affected by actions you take and activities you partake in in-game, but keeping it on the right side (both literally and metaphorically) proves far more difficult than it really should be since people do not load in ahead of your fast-pacing car during a high-octane police car chase until the game is absolutely sure, with incredible precision, where your car’s headlights are on the screen so they can spawn as close to that as possible, therefore making you a “murderer”. It feels very cheap and frustrates me to no end.
The physics are hilarious at points; the water and dirt effects are practically non-existent, for example. The first time I encountered swimming in the game, I thought it was some kind of glitch but lo and behold! it happened again mere minutes later. The cars, as they glide (or rather, thrash violently like a helpless seal) through the maze-like streets, presented an experience similar to that in Grand Theft Auto V, only it’s a fair bit worse. Driving feels horrendously heavy when grounded to the earth, but somehow weirdly floaty when in mid-air. Crashing while on a motorbike will, obviously, send Aiden, your character, hurtling into the sunset, but his moment of flight, in all its swan-like majesty, looks very strange and unnatural, as if he’s not even human. Furthermore, unlike the aforementioned GTAV, standing on top of moving vehicles does not, in fact, cause you fall backwards as Sir Isaac Newton intended. Instead, you simply plant your roots firmly into the roof of the car or boat and begin to road-surf like a radical dude-bro. Thank you Ubisoft, for making your game 2hip4me.
While the game’s appearance is nothing to sing and dance about by any means, its gameplay is the thing that truly shines, despite its further issues. The most important part of this is, of course, the hacking. While it can’t technically be classed as “hacking”, per se, as it is more accurate if described as, “Aiden has a cool app that can post memes on billboards”, it isn’t stopped from being a ton of fun. You have the ability to change traffic lights, open and close doors, summon bollards from the Earth’s core, and many other amusing methods of wreaking untold trauma on the city’s residents. Another use of hacking is during combat, in which you can eliminate sometimes tens of guards, or just psychologically fuck with them by constantly tripping car alarms and triggering forklifts, without even entering the area, and that aspect remains immensely satisfying when done flawlessly.
Hacking is by far the best part of this game, but something which is similarly gratifying is the shooting. It isn’t anything particularly special: over-the-shoulder, third-person-shooter, aim for the head, etc. Nevertheless, the guns feel great to shoot, as if your bullets are really hitting the enemies. In terms of stealth, using the silenced pistol to headshot every single guard in a restricted zone without being noticed is great fun and never feels repetitive. However, there is never a feeling of fear or tension; ammo is plentiful and guns are easy to scavenge from the dead left in your wake, making currency feel slightly redundant (unless you REALLY need to see Aiden in a swanky red-leather trench coat). Even if this wasn’t the case, I still would only use the silenced pistol and the AK-47 as I do now, so all the other guns that I have stockpiled in my pockets of infinite space become useless.
I never found the main story missions boring, by any means, but the side ones, especially the criminal convoys, felt incredibly samey and they lacked the fun and freedom of decision-making that is present in gang hideout objectives. Dealing with simple crimes felt very… well… simple, but they were always a quick and easy way of raising my morality meter and were decent time-wasters and a good way of breaking up the main story.
The story wasn’t anything special, unfortunately. It was very cliché the whole way through, as were Aiden’s motives: our super badass, grisly-voiced, ultra-cardboard-cutout protagonist previously lives a life of crime, before that life gets a close family member killed, which causes him to track down who wronged him in the past and end them for good (P.S. that’s not a spoiler, you find all this out within the first ten, possibly five, minutes of the game). Ubisoft does love it’s good old reliable dead family member(s) cliché, don’t they? All the plot twists, story beats and character development were so lazy and dreadfully generic that I’m genuinely surprised no-one jumped out from the corner of the screen and shouted, “you’ve just been pranked! Of course the writers knew that this form of narrative is tired as all hell, how couldn’t they?”
WARNING: the next few paragraphs contain spoilers for the final missions in the game! Do not read if you haven’t already played or intend on playing Watch_Dogs at some point!
However, I like the death scene of Lucky Quinn, as it provides some daunting commentary on the state of modern society. He says, while dropped to his knees as his heart slowly begins to fail him:
“Do you think you’ve won? You see when I die, they’ll build a statue. And you? The city didn’t stop for your grieving family.
“Because you don’t matter.”
This is brilliantly clever writing. It suggests that only the rich and powerful are remembered, whilst the common folk are left in the dust, forgotten. Not only does this provide great commentary upon the twisted, celebrity-obsessed, media-hungry society that we live in, but it also suggests that no matter what Aiden does, no matter how many famed villains he stops, it will all be for nothing. Because the normal man dies without a trace, but the rich will always live on, regardless of their morality. It’s an oddly elegant place to end on, when compared to the clichéd trainwreck of the previous 18+ hours. In a way, it’s actually quite beautiful.
That is until I realised the Damien side plot hadn’t been resolved yet and the game drags on. Quinn’s death could have been the perfect ending to the plot, a sombre farewell to a decent game thus far but NOPE. The real ending involves the most infuriating mission of the game so far which took me give or take about 450,001 tries, a police car chase, before you reach a lighthouse, where a clusterfuck of QTEs and random out-of-character motives for everyone around Aiden, ensues. It really diminished my final opinion on the game and, quite frankly, it may have docked points as a result.
OKAY THE SPOILERS END HERE!!!!
Watch_Dogs is a game with a lot of potential, and the inevitable sequel will hopefully iron things out, and while the gameplay is, at most times, very fun and incredibly satisfying, the presentation holds it back from being stellar. A cliché story rubs salt in the wounds, but the underlying message is something to commend for sure, before the homicidal car chase in the Grand Canyon that is the actual ending.
Do I recommend it?
Yes, mostly for the fun you’ll have blowing the brains out of some guy who’s busy preparing his son’s birthday party. Just don’t pay attention to the story and you’ll be golden.