By Andrew Dodson on August 12, 2014 at 8:30pm
Watch Dogs was Ubisoft's highly anticipated game of 2013...er...2014. Setbacks and delays pushed it to a release day in May 2014, and honestly, that delay seemed to help the game generate even more anticipation and hype. It was the first non-Kickstarter game that I've followed closely since it was announced at E3; each trailer and gameplay demo seemed dead on the money. This is going to be huge, I remember thinking.
It took me a long time to write this review because I wanted to like it. I almost felt like after all the hype, and how many times I watched the trailers and E3 coverage and how many times I read articles about it, that I needed to like it. "Watch Dogs" really was my most anticipated game of 2014.
And maybe, its my fault for building up too much hype for it in my head over the last year. Maybe its my fault for playing on the PS3 rather than upgrade my PC to play it at its full potential. As I write this, I feel like I'm breaking up with a really nice person, and I don't want to hurt their feelings - the whole "Its not you, its me" speech. And that's kind of what I'm doing.
I did not like "Watch_Dogs. "
The first two hours or so were awesome. We can probably call that a "honeymoon" period. Everything was new and exciting. Chicago was huge, gorgeous, and fun to explore. The exploration factor coupled with the hacking abilities of Aiden Pearce, made the first part of the game really interesting as I ran through the streets of the city, profiled random civilians (and giggled too many times as their darkest secrets were revealed to me), and of course, hacked everything that I could.I changed street lights, shorted random circuit breakers to make them explode, rose bridges so I could do awesome jumps - just about everything I feel a super hacker should do.
It was when I first started getting into the story of the game that my feelings for "Watch_Dogs" began to drift downhill. Basically, the story starts with Pearce going into a hotel full of elitists and stealing money from them using his super hacking phone. Another mysterious hacker discovers his behavior, and he runs. Later, he gets attacked while driving his niece somewhere. The car flips and the girl dies, and for the rest of the game, Aiden Pearce is hunting down the people that killed the girl. That is basically the plot. Yeah, there are twists and turns, but none that are too extraordinary.
As you progress in the story, another issue arises. Aiden Pearce is a really unlikable character. Since his niece's death about a year before the game actually starts, he had taken up the role of "The Vigilante," using his hacking abilities and batoning skills to take down the seedy underbelly of Chicago - which, I suppose, is perfectly normal behavior if you blame yourself for her death. Outside of his vigilante type of character, he is super angsty and kind of a man-child. His moral compass is just bonkers, as well. In one instance, he'll save someone from being mugged/murdered and three seconds later, hack into someone's car, steal from the owner's glove-box, and then speed off, hitting god-knows how many people in the process. The game has a little morality bar that comes up when you do good or bad things, but it feels like someone that was tacked on last minute because I couldn't see any difference when the bar was in the "good" zone versus the "bad" zone. All I know is that I was not interested in Aiden as a character, and by the time you're three or four hours into the game, he kind of comes off like a psychopath with a martyr complex, which isn't the most flattering descriptor for the main character of a game.
Just because the protagonist suffers from being unlikable does not mean the rest of the characters in game suffer the same fate. Jordi Chin, a supporting character on Aiden's side, is remarkably fleshed out for how little he's in the game. He is a Fixer and helps clean up Aiden's messes and provides advice, ammo, and technology for Aiden's vigilante exploits. Jordi also provides the game with some very necessary comic relief, and after dealing with Aiden's mostly humorless progression through the game, I greatly appreciated. As far as villains are concerned, we had the memorable Lucky Quinn. Physically, Lucky is just an old man that needs a cane to get around, but under that physical description lies a very dangerous man. He's been a factor in Chicago crime for decades, and now he excels at combining crime and technology. He is cruel, merciless, and has a creepy smile that might give The Joker a run for his money - definitely a memorable villain.
What separates "Watch_Dogs" from other games in the open-world city sandbox genre is - obviously - Aiden's hacking ability. With his phone, he could profile civilians on the street, pry out their darkest internet secrets, and even steal songs from their phone or money straight from their bank account. One of the RPG elements of the game was a hacking skill tree where Aiden spendt points to gain the ability to interact with more stuff in the city, things like changing traffic lights, raising gates, and even causing steam pipes to explode underneath a city street. And for a while, its really cool. Imagine you're chargedby a bunch of thugs in a car, and they're right on your tail, so you take a crazy turn toward the river. Right as you hit the bridge, you hack it so the bridge starts to rise, essentially turning into a huge ramp, and you jump to safety while the frightened thugs screech to a stop and shake their fists in anger at you. That's really fun.
But it gets old. Aiden's hacking abilities feel very limited for a game where that power was one the big points of interest. Yeah, you can cause accidents by switching lights and find out people are having affairs with goats by hacking into their phones, and that's good for a giggle, but after a few hours, you realize that you've already unlocked the entire tree (it really doesn't take that long) and you still have a lot of the game to get through. And really, most of the hacking abilities you get, aren't really ones you use that often.
The game certainly gives you opportunities to use the hacking abilities to get through missions, but after doing a couple the "Watch_Dogs" way, you really start to see a pattern and they quickly become unsatisfying. Yeah, you can spend 15 minutes strategically hacking security cameras, opening door,s and virtually jumping into people's phones so you can cause a guard's phone to explode (I don't know why so many thugs have exploding phones), so its easier to take out your target.
Or you can just get a truck and run your target over and continue with the story.
One of those methods takes 10 minutes and the other takes 10 seconds, and after playing the camera-hopping game so many times, whenever you get the chance to just hit someone with a car so you can progress the story, you will take it. You may even start to think that hitting someone with a car is a different kind of hacking. Except rather than using a phone to virtually destroy them from a mile away, you're using three tons of metal and rubber to physically destroy them right in front of you.
Even though hitting people with cars is a great way to deal with things that you don't like in "Watch_Dogs," I have to bring up the point that driving in the game is horrible. Unless you're on a motorcycle, you're going to have to deal with clunky steering, questionable brakes, and never knowing if the next thing you hit will be an immovable barrier. Because you are going to hit things. It's almost impossible not to. You're going to hit other cars which, luckily, turn into origami boxes whenever you're driving; you pulverize other cars when you hit them. You're going to hit people, and your Morality Meter thing will blink angrily at you. And you're going to hit signs that you're pretty sure you've hit before, but this time they bring your car to a full-on, crushing stop. Motorcycles are a little bit better, simply because you're smaller and have a modicum of control, but the controls still feel clunky, and you're going to feel out of control a lot of the time.
Maybe the terrible driving is just Ubisoft's attempt to put a subtle "don't text and drive" message into their game. Because Aiden is always on his phone. W8 2 Hax, you guys.
The multiplayer of "Watch_Dogs" is definitely one of the more interesting parts of the game. There is no mode that you go into from the start menu. As you play the game, you'll suddenly be notified that you're being hacked; you could be anywhere in Chicago. The person that's hacking into your system is, in fact, a real person. Somewhere in the crowded streets, there is a real person that's breaking into your phone to steal your secrets. And it could be anyone. And you have to find them. What then starts is a cat-and-mouse game where you have to stalk around, looking in the crowds of NPCs for someone that looks suspicious, someone that isn't moving right or someone that seems to be following you. Then you have to kill them. It's as simple as that, but the actual act of hunting them down can be very difficult if the hacker knows how to hide or blend in. You have to profile everyone nearby with your phone, and as time ticks by, you may find yourself utilizing black-outs to buy yourself a few extra seconds. Both the cat part and the mouse part of the multiplayer are really fun and require a great deal of strategy to play.
My issue with the multiplayer is while you can opt out of it; sometimes the game forces you into a match. You could be speeding along on your way to the next point in the story. Suddenly, you'll be notified that you're being hacked, and unless you're okay with being a loser (which I, decidedly, am not), you'll have to screech to a stop and deal with it before you can progress. Frustrating? Sure. But being hacked at times where you don't want to be is kind of just the flavor of the "Watch_Dogs" world, right? That is what I kept telling myself, anyway.
Writing this article took me a long time. Every time I wrote about something bad, I would feel like I was missing something good about that and I'd rush back to the game like it was an abusive ex and give it another chance. And in no time at all, I'd want to turn the game off again, and I'd mope back to my computer to continue typing. After the first few hours, going through the story and the gameplay in general, well, it felt like a chore. There was no love there anymore.
I'm sorry, "Watch_Dogs." I waited so long for you, and when we first got together, we had some really great times, but you just don't hold my interest. Playing you just isn't fun anymore. Maybe its my fault. Maybe I just don't get you and all your intricacies.I hope people take that into account when they read this review and decide about giving you a shot. Maybe it's just me. Maybe I should just forgive the clunky controls, the repetitive missions, and Aiden's shitty personality. But I can't forgive the story. Again, maybe I just didn't get it, but I feel like in a world with games like Telltale's "The Walking Dead" or Naughty Dog's "The Last of Us," there really isn't an excuse to have only an average story for a AAA game. There is no excuse for a mostly forgettable protagonist. Maybe I just created too much hype for you while I waited, and that's on me, but after playing you for hours and never feeling fully satisfied. I...well, I just have to say enough is enough and move on. We can still be friends, though. If you want.
I'll see you around, "Watch_Dogs." Goodbye.