Watch_Dogs was carrying a heavy weight right from the beginning. It was, for most, the first game we saw that we knew would be running on the new consoles. It was the first new franchise announced for the new systems, and it looked great in previews.
That was 2012. Over the next couple years, we saw hype continue to build for the game as it became the poster child for 'next-gen' and was named a launch title for both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Shortly before launch, however, Ubisoft announced a delay that would set the game back seven months.
Now Watch_Dogs is here, it's in our hands, and it's time to see if it lives up to the massive amounts of hype around it. Is Watch_Dogs everything we hoped?
I'm Batman? I guess?
There's always the risk that a game like this is going to be burdened with hype it can't handle, but I wasn't prepared for just how overburdened Watch_Dogs ended up being.
The first thing to fall apart under the weight is the story that's supposed to be compelling us to inhabit, hack, and take over Chicago. I'm not always expecting games to explore new areas of storytelling or anything like that, don't get me wrong.
Not only does Watch_Dogs seem afraid to leave its house, though, it feels like it's afraid to even look out the window.
Watch_Dogs introduces Aiden Pearce, a vigilante working in the city of Chicago, which has been recently overhauled with a new system that operates traffic lights, electricity, communications, and anything else you can imagine. Aiden has gained access to the system, called ctOS, and is using it to enable him to better do his work.
Aiden wasn't always such a good guy, though. A heist gone wrong led to the death of his niece, Lena, and that sent him on a quest to use his abilities to track down the people that made that happen.
So we have a basic revenge plot. Aiden is angry about a death in the family and will stop at no cost to get payback.
Here's the thing, though, and this might be what gets us as a site in the proverbial hot water for bucking the norm, I really didn't give a crap about all of this stuff.
The hacking. The hacking was cool. We can get into that in a later segment as a mechanically sound principle.
My problem with Watch_Dogs and its story, writing and characters is that all of it is so incredibly middle of the road. For a premise that's so daring like this campaign about escaping from beneath the eye of Big Brother, Watch_Dogs takes a narrative path equivalent to vanilla ice cream.
It's plain. It's boring. It's unoriginal. It's all been done before. To death.
Eric, I know you in particular took issue with the stereotypical characters here.
Everything about the characters was painfully boring or just inexcusably lazy.
Aiden himself is a bad photocopy of Batman, complete with the gravelly voice. None of the other characters do anything but fill a basic role. A victim here, a villain there. One of Aiden's friends, Jordi, ends up being the only mildly interesting character. He feels like he might've been lifted from a discarded Grand Theft Auto side story.
It's downhill from there. The female characters – the ones with more than 30 seconds of screen time – start as or become victims. Chicago is a city known for its diversity and racial history, and all of the African American characters are pretty much portrayed as criminals.
In any big city like Chicago, a writer has tons of options to create interesting characters and give them interesting opportunities to interact. Instead, we get an angry dude hell-bent on revenge rescuing women and spending part of the game beating up minorities.
Even Aiden's motivation rings hollow. He's angry about his niece's murder. The first time you go through an intersection and flip the switch on the stoplights, five cars are going to slam into each other. How many more nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles did you just kill? If Aiden had been presented as a pacifist who uses computers to do what guns can't, resorting to his baton in extreme situations, that motivation might've worked a bit better.
Here, it just makes him look like a hyper violent criminal who needs some therapy and lots of time behind bars.
At one point, Aiden is driving his sister somewhere, and she mentions an ice cream shop that used to be there with 101 flavors of ice cream and, you said it Joey, the only flavor Watch_Dogs has is vanilla.
I'll Stay at the Hotel, Thanks
Which brings us to the city of Chicago itself.
I just, man, I haven't been this disinterested in a big budget game like Watch_Dogs in an extremely long time.
The characters and storyline are plain jane, right? Somehow, this futuristic city of Chicago is too. It's gray and rainy, at all times. That's fine. That motif is the atmosphere Ubisoft wanted to present with this game. I get it.
The issue is that the color palette does the already disinteresting locale absolutely no favors.
With open world games, it becomes the mission of the developer to breathe the environments to life. The game space needs to feel like it is living and breathing at all times, regardless of whether or not you're playing. To make that sense of realness present, developers need to create a sort of hustle and bustle to the city space.
With Watch_Dogs, that bustle starts as an illusion. When Aiden brings up his phone, he can see the world around him in floating contextual menus. That woman, her name is Cindy, she earns 30k a year as a teacher and she's an avid gamer. That guy, his name is Mark, he earns 60k a year and he's a consultant.
At first, it's inviting and interesting. Then things start to repeat. The names are obviously random, there's a limited number of hobbies (I saw like a dozen obituary collectors during my time with the game alone) and each NPC's personality stops at the floating menu.
Chicago feels like a crappy computer program, which, because Watch_Dogs is a video game, is exactly what it is.
Exactly. Being in the city just isn't fun in any respect. I'm walking around peeking into all these peoples' lives and so many of the things I learn about them just make me feel gross. I hack into houses and apartments to see videos of people breaking up, cheating, being lonely, arguing, having sex. There's not a positive moment to be found. So many of the data points you pull up just encourage you to judge the person you're pointed at, too.
I will say this – I made an effort not to steal from people who make less than I do in real life, so it affected my behavior that way, but it didn't add much to the game beyond that.
The city isn't terribly fun to navigate, either. There's little visual variety and, as you said, it's not exactly a bright and shiny city. This is especially disappointing so close to the release of the PlayStation-exclusive Infamous: Second Son, a game we complimented for its colorful palette. This is a drab, boring city despite Chicago's rich real-life history.
A couple developers are known for their open-world games and Ubisoft is one of them. Far Cry 3 and Assassin's Creed IV were two of the better games of this type in recent memory, and it's obvious that Watch_Dogs is taking a page from both of those, but somehow they managed to suck a lot of what made those games fun out of Watch_Dogs.
The gang hideouts aren't very fun to take down – not to mention I'm not sure why I should be doing it aside from "it's there." It didn't seem to affect the wider game the way it did in Far Cry 3.
Communication towers and ctOS centers were actually pretty fun to hack, but there aren't very many of them.
Aside from those towers, though, few of the activities filling the open world were actually fun. They felt like filler – big portions to fill the plate.
While we're on the space itself, let's touch on how you go about exploring it physically. You drive.
There's a lot of driving in Watch_Dogs. It might even be on par with GTA in this regard.
Almost every mission ends with a chase in cars. Whether it's bad guys trying to get you, or you trying to get them, you wind up behind the wheel more often than not.
The problem here is that driving in Watch_Dogs isn't fun. There's hacking, which we'll touch on later as a reminder, that keeps it interesting. However, the physical way cars handle is just awful. Whether it's cornering or nudging in traffic, every single car you drive performs the same: Badly.
There's a hand brake here. You'd think that would make for some amazing cornering and drifting. Not so much. I never used the hand break because I was so focused on just not running into everything around me.
Am I crazy?
No, you're dead on. Half the missions seem to require you to take down a moving vehicle. The only way to do that is with whichever car the game has seen fit to provide you with at the time. When it goes just right, it can be kind of exciting, but the squirrely driving makes it incredibly frustrating most of the time.
One later mission has you chasing down a TV van while police are hassling you – the police are relentless by the way, and that makes driving even less fun – and I think I chased that van down ten or fifteen times before I could finally nudge it just so or get a well-timed hack that actually had an effect. Most of the tries just ended with police sandwiching me and me blowing myself up with a grenade launcher to end it.
An open world has to be fun to inhabit, and nothing about Watch_Dogs is fun. It's just functional.
Press Square to Hack
The hacking, though – the central element of Watch_Dogs – is actually a lot of fun. Its only crime is not playing a big enough role in the game.
In a lot of ways, the hacking is what keeps Watch_Dogs from being a complete miserable failure for me. This is a game that flew in so heavily hyped as the first truly next-gen experience, and every single aspect of it so far feels like last gen with slightly (and I mean slightly) better textures.
The hacking doesn't exactly push in that next-gen feel. It just makes the game more fun.
You've got this phone, and you can use it to control the ctOS. You can hack into other phones, cameras, forklifts (always forklifts, man), roadblocks and helicopters. You can hack into all sorts of stuff.
That gets interesting when you're asked inadvertently to be stealth and use hacking to solve environmental puzzles. You need a passcode to get into an office, so you'll hack around a small space jumping from camera to camera in order to find the right guard to hack. You'll be tasked with eavesdropping on someone, and rather than following them in the shadows, you'll just hack your way through cameras in order to listen in.
That's when Watch_Dogs is at its most interesting and rewarding for me. When I'm hacking, I'm having fun.
A couple friends of mine are programmers and system administrators, so I knew I had to let them take a peek at this game. After an initial laugh at hacking everything around you – including explosives that half the enemies carry for some reason – my programmer friend made a comment that helped me get past some of that initial silliness. Remember, I used to fix Internet connections for a living. I'm hardly a hacker, but I know my way around a network.
If the hacking in Watch_Dogs is taken as metaphorical rather than literal, then what you do in those puzzle sequences is a sort of metaphor for pivot hacking, where you gain access to one system as a way to insert yourself into a third, but previously inaccessible system. This is what Watch_Dogs is best at by far. Hacking bridges and traffic lights is one thing, but these layered hacking puzzles are fun and truly creative and give a feeling something like hacking. In these moments, I felt like I was doing something I hadn't done in a game before, and I was loving it.
That big albatross called hype keeps coming back and that hype hurt the game from the get-go.
Watch_Dogs was hailed as the coming of next-gen, but almost from the beginning it was announced for previous generation consoles as well. It's hard to join the future when the past is dragging you down.
As I played the game, I saw frequent hits to the framerate even on PlayStation 4. The game was steady most of the time and when it counted, but the frame drops were there and they were pronounced.
I don't normally care about this kind of thing, but I have to wonder how much the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were holding this game back.
I mean, I mentioned this in our gaming staff meeting this morning while we were chatting with Ron. The game absolutely feels like it was built by a huge number of people.
There's no intimacy here. From the detail of the textures to the care put into the NPCs. It's all just lacking. That, to me, is what kills the hype in an open world effort like Watch_Dogs.
Spotty mechanics, an odd reliance on shooting, a mediocre story, all of that stuff is forgivable in my book if this game managed to live up to the next-gen hype. If Watch_Dogs was breathtaking and interesting in finite ways that could only be delivered on powerful machines, yeah, I'd love it.
Instead, we had a game that received crazy marketing, too much buzz for its own good, potentially too friendly previews, a weird online system that was awkwardly implemented and a whole slew of way too conventional narrative offerings.
It's mediocre, plain and simple. And mediocre for a game that was supposed to be the best thing since sliced bread is a problem.
Watch_Dogs was supposed to be the chosen one, but it's neither the coming of the new generation nor a particularly good game.
We don't blame Watch_Dogs for the hype Ubisoft foisted on it for the last two years, but expectations aren't the only problem weighing this game down.
A story that doesn't even make an effort to capture the imagination, a monotonous city that is somehow as tedious to drive through as the real version, and visuals hamstrung by their connection to the previous generation all kept Watch_Dogs from living up to the expectations people had assembled.
The smashing success of the game has all but ensured a sequel. We just hope they can concentrate on the core mechanics and bring us something a little more fully baked next time around.
We purchased Watch_Dogs for PlayStation 4 with company funds. Eric completed the critical path and experimented with other modes, while Joey completed about 15 hours of the game.
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