Spider-tank, Spider-tank, does whatever a spider-tank does…
I’ve somehow managed to open this piece without even mentioning dogs or the watching thereof; welcome to a brave new world people! Find out what I think about Watch_Dogs after the cut.
Watch_Dogs is a third person open-world hack/shoot/drive-em up from Ubisoft. It has flavors of Grand Theft Auto, a sprinkling of Assassin’s Creed and rather surprisingly, can feel a bit like Enter The Matrix at times as well.
This is a game that has received mixed reviews in some quarters and the most common dismissal I hear on social media is that it’s just GTA with hacking. Thinking about that for even a second gives us an indication of how good the game actually is, the GTA games after all are pretty seminal parts of gaming history, so to add another level on top of that must surely make it even better?
Well, yes and no.
You play as Aiden Pearce who is possibly the blandest and most uninteresting character I’ve ever had the misfortune to play. He’s a hacker and before you get involved he had done bad things which led to his niece getting killed (not a spoiler as it’s the games main driving narrative). Aiden is blind to the fact that he had a huge hand in the situations which led to her death, and that he, not her, was probably the intended target. But never mind that as he will murder thousands of people to make him feel better about himself.
He’s so myopic in fact that even as situations keep getting worse, and more people around him start to suffer he doesn’t even really stop to think if he’s the root cause (save for one throwaway line of dialogue). Now of course, there’s a narrative reason for this and it’s all a flimsy vehicle to pushing Aiden through increasingly escalated scenarios, but unfortunately it’s so thinly veiled as to be somewhat insulting to the player.
Luckily for Watch_Dogs though, everything else is so good that the weak story doesn’t matter too much. The success of Watch_Dogs comes from the world it inhabits, which is ridiculously detailed in places. There is an acute attention to detail on display here and you get the distinct impression that huge portions of the game were agonized over to make it just so. Granted, not nearly enough of the world can be interacted with, with vast swathes amounting to nothing more than window dressing, but as a stage for an interactive story, I’ve not seen any better.
It’s the incidental aspects of the world that really sell it for me. Simple things like the way pedestrians move and interact help flesh out the world. You don’t see the pedestrians as objects, but part of the living, breathing city of Chicago.
This nature of the city is helped immeasurably by the use of the Profiler. The Profiler is one of your key ways of interacting with the world. It allows you to hack items, interact with the environment and to as the name implies, profile people. Once activated, hovering your cursor over someone will trigger facial recognition software which gives you some snapshot details about them; their name, job, salary and then a little tit-bit of information. This is clearly just a random information generator, but it doesn’t matter as it helps you build that world in your head, and all of a sudden the pedestrians go from being rag-dolls to be battered about with garbage trucks to being actual people. It literally changed the way I play this type of game, no longer was I mowing innocent civilians down- in fact I was going out of my way NOT to harm civilians. It really is a brilliant psychological trick.
The integrity of this world is kept, by allowing you outlets for your more destructive side with the inclusion of digital-trip side missions. Here you can enter a digitally invented (or augmented) version of the in-game-world to reap havoc without, importantly, actually doing it in-game and hurting anyone. We’re in borderline Inception territory here, but it gets away with it. This is also where you can get your hands on the glorious Spider-Tank I referred to at the start, and there is a good variety of side missions to lose yourself in (including a rather amusing Pacman-Esq one using in-game augmented virtual reality).
Other side missions will see you tasked with stopping crimes, tailing people, or hitting criminal convoys and hideouts. Each scratches a particular need for the gamer while maintaining the integrity of the game world. You don’t have the narrative dissonance here of Niko from Grand Theft Auto 4, mowing hundreds down in a tank before sedately going bowling with his cousin. Granted, you can still go full-Niko in-game if you want, but it’s nice to be able to scratch a more explosive itch without ruining the immersion or integrity of the game-world.
Movement, once i’d figured out how to toggle walk (alt), feels right but there is a slight issue with the driving, there’s been a slight misstep with the throttle control when converting for keyboard input. It is a binary response where you can just as easily accelerate into a wall as take a corner.
Combat on the other hand is handled with aplomb. It feels suitably visceral and the weapons all feel distinct, with perhaps the exception of the shotguns. The cover system, for me at least, was faultless; just make sure you’ve got it properly aligned up and you can’t go wrong. Head-shots take people down quickly and there’s never a shortage of suspicious explosive items in the environment to make every battle interesting and above all fun. I literally never get tired of having road side shootouts and then taking out the reinforcements before they’ve even left their vehicle. It’s almost HEAT in places, but without the ponytail.
There are then the different takes on the typical missions. The ever present security cameras remove the pain from tailing missions; why follow on foot/car when you can just hop from camera to camera. There are also more contrived missions involving hopping from camera to camera within buildings to complete objectives, but again it lands just the right side of dumb. Some missions are pretty darn good and while most are at least fun, I must warn you that there are some forced-failure missions, something which is hard to forgive.
All that said, and I know I keep coming back to this, but the world really is the star here; that coupled with solid mechanics, generally interesting missions and a pleasing aesthetic all leaves you with something that’s really worth playing.
I’m trying to remember the last time I had so much fun in a game. I can see why people may be annoyed with it, or may try to rally against it, and to be honest if you’re really looking for an issue in this game, you’ll find plenty. If though, you’re just after an enjoyable romp through a genuinely stunning (in both visual and design perspectives) world then I genuinely can’t think of any better. As such Watch_Dogs is getting the highest recommendation I can give it. This really surprised me, and hopefully it’ll surprise you too.
Verdict – Red Mist
Platforms Available – PC, Xbox One and 360, PlayStation 3 and 4.
Platform Reviewed – PC
Review copy supplied by Ubisoft. Please read this post for more on our scoring policy.