It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally here. Watch Dogs launched here in Sydney almost 24 hours ago. Being one of the first countries for the sun to rise on Ubisoft’s latest effort made for a rather unique embargo situation.
I wasn’t allowed to talk about the game until 5pm, 17 hours after the game’s midnight launch. Wierd, but handy, as my review copy didn’t turn up until noon.
Queue a frantic pound through the game in order to knock out that all-important first impressions. Whilst other media has probably enjoyed a week with the game, unlike with many publishers, I’m not yet on Ubisoft’s VIP list.
Still, mustn’t grumble.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, Ubisoft are masters of the technical aspect of making video games, but somewhat lacking in craft- in giving their games soul. The result is often a game that hits all the right psychological cues, but feels slightly manufactured.
Basically, too many of Ubisoft’s games – as great as they are – fall short when it comes to pulling it all together into a coherent and seamless package. Even Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft amazing flagship series, occasionally flounders; becoming almost an overwhelmingly piecemeal experience.
Ubisoft’s games always come packed with things to do, there’s almost too much- with content being fired at him/her without a thought on pacing. It almost works, as well; covering up the fact that just beneath the surface it is all a bit of a mess.
For an example of craft and technical ability properly melded you need to look no further than Rockstar and their GTA series. A perfect plot, supremely honed gameplay mechanics and cohesive side missions and tasks all pulled together, seamlessly.
Compare that to Saints Row, which has all the same elements as GTA but without the artistic craft to glue it all together. The result is a fun but subpar attempt. Whilst, no doubt, Rockstar are well versed in the psychology of gameplay, they do a better job of covering it up than others.
So when Ubisoft’s lead story designer, Kevin Shortt, told me that Watch Dogs was their most ambitious game yet, I agreed. A game like Watch Dogs is going to need more than the right algorithm or psychological prompt to fulfill the player’s expectations; it’s going to actually need to be engaging, to naturally evoke emotion unlike any of Ubisoft’s previous outings.
And I really couldn’t see them being able to do it.
Sitting down with the game, Watch Dogs lays it all out. Aiden Pearce- a man who played with fire and got his family burnt. We join him at the start of a vengeance quest. If we are going to be able to see it through we are going to have to learn to like him.
And this is where it gets a bit iffy.
Here’s a guy, seeking revenge, a vigilante, apparently a good guy, ripping through the city of Chicago like a madman. He’s mowing down pedestrians, killing cops and wrenching folks from their cars. Not exactly a hero, or even and antihero. At least the protagonist in GTAV were criminals, which kind of justified their antics.
Aiden Pearce acts like a complete schizophrenic in comparison.
But what about the game?
The game starts in storage room, with Aiden beating the man responsible for his family’s anguish. It turns out that it’s actually a storage room in Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, and its game night. A corridor littered with dead thugs and an over-zealous companion who saw fit to call the cops “as a distraction” and we are straight into the action.
Guiding Aiden passed armed police- from cover-to-cover, causing distractions, hacking the power before escaping via high-speed police chase and Watch Dogs has initiated you into its multi-layered world.
Watch Dogs is a stealth, action, shooting, driving and hacking game. It’s like all of what Ubisoft has been doing in the past has been in preparation for this one game.
My greatest fear with the game was with the visuals, we’ve all seen the videos with those washed out graphics. The good news is that the game looks great on the PlayStation 4. I’ve also seen the game running on PC and they are pretty close. What the PC gains in fidelity the PS4 makes up for in a having a more stable framerate.
Watch Dogs‘ Chicago may not be as sharp as inFAMOUS: Second Son’s Seattle, but it’s not bad for a multi-platform game. It’s worth bearing in mind that Watch Dogs is a game that spans two generations of console hardware, so we shouldn’t expect miracles.
The city of Chicago is positively alive and packed with citizens going about their business. It’s a city that you can get lost it. I’ve not played enough to properly gauge the size, but it feels pretty vast and full of back alleys and shortcuts. Also worth a mention is the water; Chicago’s waterfront looks perfect, even if the green water isn’t that inviting.
There’s plenty to do in Watch Dogs. As with previous Ubisoft titles, the side tasks and mini games are a bit disjointed compared to the main story. They offer up entertaining distractions even if they lack the immersion of the actual plot.
As you pass by you can hack people’s phones, traffic lights and other city services. This ability allows you to steal cash and cause general mayhem.
To get control of each area of the city you will need to play a hacking mini-game and unlock that part of Chicago’s CtOS. CtOS installations are often guarded by armed security forces. Using cameras to gain a line of site to your hacking target is a nice touch and a way to avoid unnecessary confrontation with armed guards.
These more involved hacking sequences, are actually quite good fun. It’s a bit of a 1990’s Hollywood movie representation of hacking and actual hackers will be wishing that it was actually this easy, but it works well.
You have to connect up a network by rotating intersections which unlock other intersections. By manipulating the flow of data or whatever the blue line is and unlocking intersections complete the hack. It sounds lame, and it kind of is- but it is still fun. You may have to just trust me on that.
Driving is a big part of the game and another area of concern for me. I wasn’t expecting much, but whilst not in the same league as GTAV, it’s not bad at all.
To get the most out of driving around and causing mayhem you need to purchase the focus skill as soon as possible. With the focus skill you can slow down time and do all those cool hacks that you’ve seen in the videos.
Bridges, vents, bollards and gates can all be hacked with the press of a button- provided you’ve unlocked the CtOS in the area – making car chases in Watch Dogs some of the best you’ve ever had.
Combat works very well, using an intuitive and very able cover system. Players often get the choice of a balls-to-the-wall confrontation or a more considered stealth approach to altercations.
I’ve only experienced a fraction of what Watch Dogs can offer, but so far I’m pleasantly surprised. The game has Ubisoft’s hallmarks stamped all over it. But still, like their other offerings, Watch dogs is a quality product and presses all the right buttons. Does it have soul? Well, yes and no; but it does seem to be an improvement on what has gone before.
I’ve been playing for a few hours and I’ve only scratched the surface with the game. It’s hard to put down which is a good sign and is offering up quite an intricate and engaging plot. It’s too early to see if the game manages to keep up the pace, but I have a good feeling about this one.
If I had to sum up my first impressions of Watch Dogs is that it is a lot better than I thought it would be, but perhaps not as good as it could be.
Time will tell.