Watch Dogs review journal #3: the highs and lows of Ubi’s new franchise

By Dave Cook, Thursday, 29 May 2014 08:02 GMT

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Watch Dogs is a big game, so rather than rush out a weak review full of generalisations and a lack of detail, Dave’s decided to go one better and dive deep into Ubisoft’s latest. In this final chapter he gives his verdict.

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Missed my previous entries? Go here:

After a weekend of cramming Watch Dogs down my own throat and putting real time into it, one thing became clear above all else: that this is the start of another new blockbuster franchise from Ubisoft. Will we see a sequel confirmed for launch in Fall 2015? I could believe it, but I really hope the company spaces this series out to allow time for innovation.

Here’s why:

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Hello Familiarity, My Old Friend

The yardstick of a well-paced game is if it’s still throwing enough ‘new’ at you several hours in. It’s like when Valve gave Freeman the Gravity Gun in Half-Life 2. That was a considered, well-timed changed of pace designed to act as both a tutorial and interlude to the gunplay. Watch Dogs does’t have those game-changing tremors to the same degree, but there are some aspects I felt started to drag as the clock rolled on.

Aiden’s Profiler app is a revelation in that it manages to make you feel powerful at the touch of a button. Once you start upgrading his hacking potential using skill points, you’ll be skilled enough to rip choppers out of the sky, while new weapons like the rocket and grenade launchers give battles a kick. The same can’t be said of the stock weapons, which feel barely indistinguishable. I couldn’t tell you the benefit of one shotgun over another.

”Watch Dog gives you a heightened sense of purpose in a world veiled by deception and redaction, resting on a dark, corrupt underbelly. You see more than most and have the power to disrupt its DNA by running a few well-placed hacks.”

You just need to look at Saints Row 4’s Dubstep Gun and the Penetrator as examples of how to inject ‘new’ into a sandbox game. Sure, the presence of a big, flopping dildo sword in Watch Dogs wouldn’t make much sense so I’m not suggesting that at all, but it needs something other than a new KX-24 assault rifle. I made that gun name up by the way, but would you have believed me if I said it was a weapon in the game?

The game’s combat is also slick and suitable for either stealth or combat modes of play, but once you’ve wrapped your head around the best ways to trick the AI and deal with the typical progression of armoured and elite soldiers that come later, you’ll yearn for more ‘new’ in your diet. Ubisoft’s environment design makes you think about your approach constantly, but once you’ve seen one silent takedown from cover, you’ve seen them all.

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This is a problem I’ve encountered with many sandbox games, and it’s why – out of the whole GTA series – I’ve only finished the third and fifth games. I just lost interest because there was no carrot on the end of that stick, nothing to really convince me that my perseverance would be rewarded. Watch Dogs scraped by in this department as the plot and world really gripped me, plus it looks superb on PS4. It’s a world you feel could exist, and one that makes your presence significant.

That’s where the real appeal lies; in giving you a heightened sense of purpose and power in a world veiled by deception and redaction, resting on a dark, corrupt underbelly. You see more than most and have the power to disrupt its DNA by running a few well-placed hacks. This shines through in the plot, and as Aiden you’ll be taken to some pretty despicable places only to turn them upside-down as any vigilante would.

”Pressing that one button to create chaos never really gets old, but after a while the process of jacking into a camera then panning around to find another one to jump to almost becomes hard-wired into your brain.”

So from a narrative perspective – a few stereotypical characters aside – I had plenty of ‘new’ thrown at my face with enough momentum to keep me moving between each mission.

I also applauded GTA 5 for this in my review last year. Aiden’s a likeable anti-hero who goes through a great deal of soul-searching and endangers those closest to him to get the job done. As the frayed ends start to reveal themselves he starts to wonder if maybe, all this time, he was wrong?

Flawed heroes are often the best, and Aiden’s full of hypocrisy and recklessness, but he also has a kind heart that makes you root for him one moment then scold him the next. No matter what happens, Watch Dogs always goes back to the issues of code and conspiracy, two areas it excels in.

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Hack-a-Mole

Seriously, pressing that one button to create chaos never really gets old, but after a while the process of jacking into a camera then panning around to find another one to jump to almost becomes hard-wired into your brain. This is essential to get a line of sight on the security box or eavesdropping target you need to progress of course, but after a while this formula started to lose its edge.

It’s not a game-breaking problem, but if Ubisoft’s top brass are sitting in a restaurant right now, discussing the direction of Watch Dogs 2 while daubing quail yolk off their beards, then they really need to start thinking about how to use this foundation to make those hacks more explosive, dynamic and fun. Everything in there works well, from the bollard road traps to creating widespread blackouts, and it sustains just enough to keep you keen.

”You might feel rotten about stealing a few hundred quid off a cancer patient, or someone who has recently become divorced, but I guarantee you’ll stop caring after about five minutes. You won’t get caught hacking money from people either. It’s too easy.”

There are little things in there that feel welcome, but don’t matter too much in the grand scheme of things. I liked checking into City Hotspots using Aiden’s FourSquare-style app, then receiving gifts from other players or leaving them behind, but I had enough ammo, money and focus meds to go around that the gesture was lost. Money is far too easy to come by and there’s no real reason to spend it.

Early on, Aiden’s unhinged partner in crime Jordi gives you an app that can be used to call for a vehicle drop-off. You can pay top dollar for the high-end rides, or unlock them free forever by simply finding and stealing one in the world. Most rides are fast enough to complete missions with ease, so there’s really no need to buy a top-level sports car. The city economy feels less relevant than other aspects of Chicago’s design.

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I mentioned this in my Watch Dogs ‘Ask Me Anything’ session, but siphoning money from pedestrians is too easy and lacks consequence. I could spend a few minutes wandering up to everyone with a bank account and hitting square to significantly boost my bank account before extracting the spoils at any of the city’s ATM machines. The last step feels necessary.

Ubisoft has tried to make you feel bad about stealing from the city’s hard-working citizens by dropping sensitive information into their profiles as you hack them. You might feel rotten about stealing a few hundred quid off a cancer patient, or someone who has recently become divorced, but I guarantee you’ll stop caring after about five minutes. You won’t get caught hacking money from people either. It’s too easy.

Those are my main complaints, and while they don’t wreck the experience, they’re definitely worth considering. Once the awe of your PC or new-gen edition’s visuals wears off and you look at the game beneath the gloss, you’ll likely encounter some deja-vu, but at least there’s solid context informing your sprint between each mission marker.

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