When your phone gives you unfettered access to an entire city, it becomes your playground. You are privy to data on all of its citizens and can alter much of its mechanised infrastructure with a touch of a button. It’s a really cool premise and its one Watch Dogs often uses well, but never really capitalises on. This open world crime game can be a lot of fun, but even when it’s firing on all cylinders something usually pops up to sour the moment. Many of Watch Dogs problems are small, but there are enough of these to make a real impact.
One major issue with Watch Dogs is its narrative, the game spends a lot of time telling you the story of Aiden Pierce – cyber vigilante extraordinaire – but this tale just isn’t very good. It starts by tugging at your heart strings, in order to explain why the protagonist has become a trench coated crusader, but never achieves the needed impact. Pierce was a hacker on a job at a posh hotel, until things went south and he got noticed. It is purposefully unclear (to the player and to Aiden) what caused the job to go so badly, but Pierce has upset the wrong crowd. A hit is placed on him and an attack on his car causes a severe car crash which results in the death of his niece. This death in the family is then used a lazy plot device to somehow explain why he dons a trench coat and runs around hacking criminals.
It’s a rather clichéd set up – a man motivated by loss – and the game doesn’t use it very well. The main reason why this falls flat is because it’s very hard to care about Aiden’s struggle, due to a lack of personality. In regard to other Ubisoft titles, he’s no Ezio and is more in line with an Altair. There’s just nothing to Pierce, he has a silly Batman-esque gravelly voice and can hack things with his phone – that’s about it. His ability set makes him fun to play as, but he’s not an enjoyable character to embody. He’s written like a blank slate for the player to imprint themselves on, but this approach is at odds with the narrative. The story goes for the emotions, but this makes the game rely on Pierce as a character. The story requires a degree empathy or understanding to hit home and the dullness of the protagonist means it doesn’t work. The supporting cast is also very pedestrian, no character excels and no plot points really impress. It’s not a terrible story – it entertains when it needs to – but it’s not at all good.
The main failing of Watch Dogs is its status as an open world game, the problem being that it’s a bit of a black sheep. It is structured and presented similarly to other Ubisoft open world titles (Assassin’s Creed being the prime example), but it is set in a location very reminiscent of games like Grand Theft Auto. It’s transposing the sensibilities and conventions of one approach onto another style of game – an approach that doesn’t always work in its favour. The key problem being that city based crime games come with a certain set of expectations and Watch Dogs just doesn’t fill them. There are glaring omissions (mostly small but notable) that make the game not feel at home in its setting, constantly reminding that others have done it better.
There are a number of expected features that just aren’t there, a notable example being the inability to shoot from a vehicle. In a game with a lot (and I mean a lot) of car chases, in which you have to take down enemies, this absence becomes very apparent. Not being able to fire a gun does mean you have to take advantage of the city in these segments though, which could work out well. You can raise bridges, bring up barriers, explode steam pipes under the road and turn all the lights to green at an intersection to cause carnage. Employing these tactics will get foes off your tail in a satisfying way, but there isn’t that much open to you. It becomes quickly obvious how canned these moments are, resulting in the same effect each time, in often ludicrous ways. Escapes aren’t as dynamic as they could be, they just result in you driving around looking for interactive parts of the city. These parts are always the same and there isn’t much variety to choose from. For a game that’s focus is an interactive city that you can bend to your will, you would expect cleverer use of this mechanic. It is in dire need of unique little touches that add flavour and variance to the city, making your abilities seem powerful rather than repetitive. It would also just be nice to be able to shoot and drive, it would add another tool to a belt that is somewhat lacking.
Watch Dog’s often stumbles in a way its contemporaries don’t. For example, every time an objective updates the new location is noted on your city map but no route is drawn to it automatically. In order to work out how to get there you can drive vaguely in its direction (as an icon appears on the edge of your mini-map dependent on which way your goal is), or open up the map, find the objective and select it. When you select it, you get a GPS route laid out on the road ahead of you (something Saints Row and Sleeping Dogs did, but GTA weirdly didn’t), but this process should be automated. It’s a small amount of leg work, but you have to do this with every single objective and it becomes tiresome. You’d never not want the route displayed, yet you have to manually opt in every time. Another similarly small (but repetitive) issue is how you can’t start missions from a vehicle. You have to drive to the mission start point, get out of your car and then hold down triangle to get things going. Again, this action doesn’t take long, but it feels unnecessary and – like the GPS issue – the amount of times this turns up makes it a real annoyance. The problem is, this stuff is all done better elsewhere. Getting to objectives and starting missions is strangely a pain, especially compared to a game like Sleeping Dogs where you could use the d-pad to create a route to any objective or side activity you wanted – without even opening your map.
The city of Watch Dogs also isn’t very alive. It’s un-immersive and overtly mechanical in the way that really detracts from the experice. It has a handful of nice touches, like the ability to profile every citizen in the world (if you have your phone out text will appear over every character, giving you a very brief description, their occupation and their wage), which does help to humanise the city – and is a brilliant little feature – but this isn’t not enough. Everything you can do is displayed on your map, all collectibles, side missions and current objectives just there for you to see. This means there’s no reason to explore or involve yourself with the city. You know where all the content is so there’s never any sense of discovery, the world is set out for you on a plate. This makes things easy to access, but it diminishes a sense of wonder and place. Great open worlds feel ambivalent to the player, like they exist with or without you. The Chicago of Watch Dogs feels entirely built for you, in a way that makes it completely unbelievable as a place. You overhear citizens, but they only really talk about you. You don’t have radio stations (another annoying omission), but you have a playlist of songs which is occasionally interrupted by news stories that always involve you. It’s called Chicago, but it might as well be Pierce-ville, as only you matter. This sounds empowering, but it’ actually alienating as it takes away a much needed sense of place.
Chicago is just an unremarkable city in Watch Dogs though, it inherits a real world identity but that’s the only semblance of place it has. In regard to how the city is used, it might as well be anywhere. Separate districts are merely separated by water, they don’t actually feel distinct. Streets all merge into one, the only variance being the district of Pawnee – which is notable purely because it’s rural rather than city scape. The city is just a receptacle to carry missions, which is a shame because there’s a lot of city there. It’s a decent size but is really just a large arena for you to escape the police in. On top of this, the game also lacks meaningful side content. Side activities are picked from a repeating set and are all pretty inconsequential. They are just distractions for the sake of distractions, put there because open worlds need something in them. There’s some fun to be had, and certain types are good, but tedium and repetition are never far away. When I finished the game I felt like I should spend more time in Chicago, but the lack of meaningful side content and the lack of immersion made this difficult.
The result of all of this is that Watch Dogs relies solely on its campaign, which (luckily) is very good. The open world hangs around its neck like an albatross at times, acting as a barrier between you and the next mission that you have to drive or fast travel across, but a lot of the time the main missions use the landscape well. You go to a nice set of locations and there are plenty of fun driving sequences that fit very well in the expansive setting. The core appeal is the combat though, which is actually excellent. It’s very easy to criticise Watch Dogs (as it makes a lot of notable miss steps), but it’s also easy to undervalue its main appeal. The mechanical centre of the game is very solid, it’s a short piece of praise but a very important one. The game is just fun to play and the unique hacking gameplay helps it to really excel in places. Combat scenarios take great advantage of your ability set, allowing you to take over cameras and interfere with foes from relative safety. You can explode things in the environment, hack enemy grenades, disrupt their communications and generally just have a fun time with your virtual phone. The combat possibilities are well realised, the shooting is really robust and even stealth is satisfying (the AI is a bit thick, but endearingly so as it lends itself to the mechanics in play). The addition of hacking adds a relatively cerebral element to gameplay which makes Watch Dogs stand out from its contemporaries. Combat is inventive and super fun, there are a number of dud missions but most of the time what you have to do is great. Unfortunately, the game’s little issues often pop up and the poor narrative gets in the way, but you’ll still have a lot of fun.
In spite of the game’s problems, there is still a lot to like about Watch Dogs. Driving around the city is enjoyable, shooting up bad guys is consistently satisfying and Aiden Pierce is a good character to play as (though not in a story context). The game frequently uses its core mechanics of hacking very well, though it could do with varying things up a bit. Watch Dogs has really the one novelty, but it uses it well; it could use it better, but it’s strong enough to support an entire game. This title does feel unique, which helps a lot of its problems to lessen – it doesn’t keep up with the competition but it does some things they don’t. To a great degree, Watch Dogs gets away with more than it should. There are a lot of things you could hold against it, but there’s still this great core that keeps impressing. It’s ultimately a really fun game and it achieves this status by doing something new, not just by competently doing what you expect, which is commendable.
There’s a lot to say about Watch Dogs, I could go on to talk about how the game looks nice but lacks a certain attention to detail, for example (there’s also the really weird problem that every window seems to contain a separate world in it, rather than giving a reflection – this isn’t a joke, instead of reflections you are greeted by a view of a random intersection… It’s strange). The game clearly isn’t without its problems and it is unfortunate that these problems are easier to point out than its successes. Watch Dogs really only does one thing well, but it is consistent with this. It lacks a lot of what you want from this type of game, but the campaign provides you with enough thrills to warrant a purchase. It’s a good start to a franchise, but it has a lot of problems that would need ironing out in a potential sequel. Watch Dogs will give you a lot of enjoyment, for a while, but its not an experience that will stick with you and its certainly not without its flaws.
The core gameplay of Watch Dogs is very entertaining (and relatively unique), but the overall package is harmed by numerous detractions.