Review: Watch_Dogs – Open World Playground Redefined

Watch_Dogs took a pretty long time to finally reach our consoles and PCs. Initially announced at E3 2012 and scheduled to be a launch title for this new generation, it was then delayed to today, and it’s pretty much demonstrates the validity of the famous quote attributed to Shigeru Miyamoto “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.” 

I guess I just spoiled the ending of my review, didn’t I? But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to say about Ubisoft’s latest labor of love.

The game puts us in the shoes and iconic trench coat of Aiden Pearce, a rather gloomy and not exactly likable hacker turned vigilante who tries a bit too hard to sound like Batman. Aiden is seeking revenge for the death of his six year old niece Lena, and he’s not afraid to wreak havoc across the whole city of Chicago in order to catch the murderer, and especially those who sent him.

I won’t describe the story in more depth for two reasons: First of all, it’s really not that great. You could easily define it the biggest weak point of the game, with slightly flat characters and a plot that never manages to truly engross. Secondly, it’s not that relevant. Watch_Dogs‘ story is pretty much a good excuse to send  Aiden out in the city to cause trouble, hack everything in sight, and provide us with a whole metric ton of open world fun.

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The graphics of the game are extremely solid, with crisp high resolution textures, detailed models and a lovely art direction, topped by a lighting engine and a set of weather effects that really brings up the best of of the virtual Chicago at our fingertips.

The only weak real point are the buildings that often look a little boxy, even if the interior mapping effect that lets you see the interiors in motion when they aren’t accessible (or even really rendered) adds a nice level of immersion to the picture.

Effects are probably the most charming element overall, with some of the best explosions and rendering of flames, sparks and smoke I’ve seen in a long time. Add to that an absolutely stunning reflection effect on the wet asphalt, and you’ll find yourself staring at the screen in awe on quite a few occasions.

Consoles, especially last-generation ones, suffer a little bit from the weaker hardware compared to the PC version, but the visuals PS4 and Xbox One are able to provide still hold up very well, despite some visible aliasing and a slightly weak ambient occlusion solution that makes some of the environments look a bit flat.

The astonishing visual glitz coming with the PC version unfortunately comes packaged with a price. The 3GB video RAM soft requirement (it’s not strictly “required” per se, but if you have less than that performance will be hindered massively) for ultra textures doesn’t seem justified, and unfortunately optimization seems direly insufficient.

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If your PC isn’t extremely powerful chances are that you’ll have to deal with a long struggle against the game’s visual settings before you can play the game without horrible swapping and frame rate issues, as I experienced first-hand myself. This normally gets fixed in follow-up patches, but that’s really not an excuse to ship a game with these kinds of widespread problems.

Ultimately, if you look at single elements, the visuals won’t be quite as pretty as what we’ve seen in inFAMOUS: Second Son, but taking in consideration the overall picture and at the fact that there is usually a lot more going on around the player in Watch_Dogs, we can see that the two open world games are placed pretty much on an even playing field.

Audio is a bit of a mixed bag. Voice acting is very well performed and convincing, helping a bit in making the otherwise slightly sub-par story more entertaining and enjoyable. Unfortunately music isn’t exactly the best we’ve seen for an open world game, with a limited selection of not exactly inspiring tracks.

Yet graphics, performance and audio be damned, gameplay is where Watch_Dogs really shines. Shooting and stealth gameplay are extremely tight and precise even if mouse control might require fidgeting with the configuration file to disable hardware acceleration (I really wonder why developers keep enabling it by default, only to force gamers to invariably yank it off their configuration files). Driving shows a few more loose ends, with the cornering performance of most cars a little stiff.

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Hacking is obviously the real king: there are so many things you can hack in Watch_Dogs’ virtual Chicago and so many ways to interact with all of them, that it’s very easy to just lose yourself as you roam around the city exploring and having a whole load of fun wreaking havoc and playing pranks on the passer-bys. I can easily say that few games have made me feel like some sort of “god” like Watch_Dogs does. It’s fun, it’s engrossing, and it’s extremely addictive, especially considering the complex and extensive progression system which will keep you grinding to perfect your skills.

The ability to profile your fellow citizens is simply a stroke of genius: most open world games tend to feature the flaw of limiting the interaction with random NPCs to shooting them and driving over their corpses. While you can’t have a chat with most inhabitants of the virtual Chicago, you can still discover a lot about every single one of them, and deeper interactions like the prevention of crimes add a further layer to the whole thing. NPCs aren’t simply soulless walkers to protect or to use as bowling pins, but they’ll tempt you to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get to know them better.

Interaction with NPCs is also tied to a very well done morality system, and while it’s not overly complex, the way you deal with them definitely influences the way they’ll act towards you, and adds to the immersion, turning the city into a more lively and dynamic environment.

Ubisoft Montreal also did a great job in scattering elements of local color across the city, with street performers, rappers and fun little Easter eggs that keep the player coming back for more exploration. There’s just too much to discover, and it definitely causes the main story to take a back seat to roaming.

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If that wasn’t enough, there are plenty of minigames to enjoy, ranging from simple ones like poker and chess (even if the chess challenges tend to be a lot less interesting than a full blown game), to Digital Trips that could almost pass as whole games, such as throwing you in a carmageddon-like ride against hordes of zombies or putting you at the controls of a monstrous spider tank wreaking havoc in a limited portion of the city.

The spider tank digital trip itself is probably one of the most addictive minigames I’ve seen in a game of this genre, especially thanks to the progression system similar to Aiden’s, which seems absolutely unnecessary for this kind of side activity at first sight, but really pulls you back for more every time you get a moment of respite from the protagonist’s hacking romps.

If that wasn’t enough, the extensive online modes add even more content and longevity. While roaming the city freely with friends or shooting at each other in the most classic team deathmatch is fun, invading someone else’s single player game is not only an original idea (or better, semi-original, as you could say it’s somewhat inspired by the Souls series) but it’s very appropriate to the game’s theme and unexpectedly extremely fun.

You can drop unnoticed into someone else’s world and let loose the creeper inside you, following him around and just observing what he does or trying to hack him while remaining under cover of your false passer-by identity. Of course it’s not at all easy to remain hidden, as you have to actually behave like a NPC, and there are a whole lot of things that can give you away, from alerting the “other” NPCs with sudden moves (and they’re quite sensitive), to leaving the headlights of your car turned on when everyone else around you has them off.

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Being the victim is just as fun, mostly because you don’t really know when someone might invade your game, causing you to observe your surroundings and your fellow citizesn with a much greater level of attention. I jumped on my chair quite a few times as something happened that made me think I was being invaded, and of course the tension caused by the feature made me think it was happening many times, in which there was actually nothing wrong around me.

There’s no doubt about the fact that the strongest point of Watch_Dogs is the inordinate wealth of content it includes. There’s simply no way to run out of things to do before you’ve spent at least a hundred hours traveling across Chicago while hustling, stealing, playing games, invading, hacking, running people over and simply having a whole lot of fun.

And that’s exactly what Watch_Dogs is all about: fun. You can sit in front of your TV for ten hours straight or just fire up your console for a ten minute spider tank trip, and you’ll leave satisfied. Watch_Dogs may not have the best story out there and certain elements may not be 100% perfect, but things mesh together in a beautifully large open world playground that will leave you wanting more, and will pretty much always provide what you’re looking for.

Watch_Dogs is a gift that keeps on giving. Only, you have to pay for it.

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