This write-up will contain no plot spoilers. This isn’t really a review so much as a collection of my thoughts about the game.
Watch Dogs was one of my most anticipated games for this year. It was to be the first truly next-gen experience (I’m sure that phrase alone will set TehRage off on a rant 😛 ) of the new generation. GTA 5 had already been well into development for the last generation cycle so it doesn’t really count and still has not even been announced for the Xbox One, Playstation 4, or PC, though that may change at this year’s E3 in a couple weeks. But now that Watch Dogs is available, does it live up to all the hype? The short answer is sort-of and no.
Graphics & Performance
Yeah, I’m going to be that guy and talk about the graphics first. There has been quite a bit of Internet rumbling about the graphics quality of all the versions of Watch Dogs. In short, the footage shown during its initial E3 announcement and subsequent conferences/events did not quite live up to the release quality in the final product even on the highest graphics settings (Disclaimer: I am not able to run the game with everything on its highest setting on my current gaming PC, but I have done comparisons with images and video from all the other platforms and a PC with everything turned up to max).
Watch Dogs looks good enough. It’s not the graphical feast of eye-candy that was at the very least implied with the official footage, but who honestly thought it would be? Certainly not anyone that has followed gaming for any length of time. Initial demos are often times not even run on hardware they claim to be. Demos for the Xboxes and Playstations were run on very powerful and custom-designed PCs and optimized for those specific platforms. It’s not exactly a bait-and-switch, but it is close if you aren’t really paying attention or aren’t accustomed to these things. It certainly looks better on PC than GTA 5 does on the Xbox 360 today.
Just getting Watch Dogs to run decently on a PC is a bit of a challenge. Not in the way that Crysis or Doom 3 were graphical bellwethers of their times, designed to run on max settings for hardware that wasn’t even available yet. Add to that poor support for SLI/Crossfire configurations, unoptimized drivers, and it’s an experience that can be incredibly frustrating for even hardened PC gamers like myself. I’m no stranger to installing beta drivers with game-specific optimizations, editing the arcane secrets contained within text configuration files, or even adjusting launch parameters for the game shortcut – all of which I had to do for Watch Dogs to get acceptable performance – but having to do all of these things in this day is a bit harsh. I won’t even bother to go down the hackneyed argument that PC gamers are the true gaming elites and enthusiasts and able to do all these things. All of these problems point to a poor and/or rushed PC port, something I thought were were done with given the x86 architecture of the Xbox One and Playstation4. The initial settings for the PC version appear to be customized specifically for consoles. Either there was an oversight in their rush to make the launch date or it truly was just a shoddy port. Either way, it’s unacceptable. A patch to address some of these issues is planned, but the damage is already done to Watch Dogs’ reputation.
UPlay & Multiplayer
Watch Dogs is a Ubisoft title, meaning UPlay is required for the online components. Gone are the days of UPlay’s constant Internet connection requirement but not forgotten. UPlay has very much damaged the Ubisoft brand to the point where some players (*cough* TehRage *cough*) are boycotting literally any title that includes UPlay. Much of UPlay’s rancorous reputation is well deserved, but the current neutered UPlay is different. The game authenticates with UPlay once then you’re done. You do have to launch UPlay to start the game, but you never have to go online again. If you choose that path, however, you miss out on Watch Dogs’ multiplayer aspects. That is, if UPlay servers are online. I cannot say I was one of the many hordes of enraged players that could not authenticate their game and play on launch day or the days following, as I was not. But UPlay was down most of the rest of the first day it was unavailable for most of the next 4-5 days following. Again, having multiplayer servers and even authentication servers go down so hard and for so long during a game’s launch is not forgivable these days.
When UPlay did come back up I was able to participate in the online modes. That’s the interesting thing about Watch Dogs, players can just pop in and invade. There is some sort of match-making going on behind the scenes, but it’s all unseen to the players. One thing you should know about Watch Dogs multiplayer is you are always Aiden Pearce -the protagonist- on your own screen; to other player(s) however, you appear as a random NPC. It’s only through profiling (scanning you phone) that another player can detect an invader. If you really want, all multiplayer modes can be disabled.
My first encounter came when I tried to start a mission and was told it was locked because I was being invaded by another player. The other player started hacking my phone and installing a backdoor to steal data, the de-facto treasure in an information age. I started running around trying to profile anyone and everyone to locate the assailant. I was on a very busy street surrounded by hundreds of NPCs walking down the street, standing around talking on their phones, and driving around. A circle overlay on the minimap told me the player was in that general area, but the trick is finding and eliminating them before they install the backdoor and steal all of your data. In a desperate attempt, I turned down an alley and found a sports car parked with a random NPC inside – I had found my hacker! Assault rifle drawn, I opened fire on the enemy. Their car sprang forward and lurched away as they fled. In the end, they fled the scene and got 49% of the way through their backdoor install. It was a draw, we both got some experience.
Several hours later, I decided I wanted to try doing that to someone else. Initiating the “contract” to hack another player, I was entered into a 2-minute queue for matchmaking until I entered another player’s world. It wasn’t entirely seamless on my end, but the loading screen was fast enough. The player’s location showed up on the map as quite some distance away. I was given the option to fast travel to a nearby, which I accepted. There is a 3 minute window in which to engage the player and start hacking their phone. My heart sank as I materialized and realized we were in a fairly deserted warehouse district with a scant few NPCs wandering around and absolutely no traffic. Pulse quickening, I began stalking my prey. I tried hacking cameras at a distance to get an eye on them, but there just weren’t enough cameras available. Creeping into a warehouse with a few NPCs inside, I caught a break and my target ran past the doorway. No doubt they had also tried to initiate a mission and were told that they were being invaded. That was all the window I needed to start the hack and start installing the backdoor. My pulse was racing a mile a minute as I initiated my first ever multiplayer hack. The player was trying to profile the few NPCs around in an attempt to locate me. I knew if I stayed out in the open I would be spotted and gunned down. As luck would have it, there was a car parked in the warehouse where I was hiding. A mad dash to the car then a quick button press to “hide” in the vehicle and I was effectively shielded. At this point I was 25% through and the player was starting to panic.
From my hiding place, i watched as my adversary started gunning down innocent NPCs in an attempt to find and stop me. The NPCs in my warehouse fell not 15 feet from where I hid. This brought about something strange, a feeling of remorse for my actions that caused innocent bystanders to be gunned down needlessly. I wasn’t the one shooting though, so I pushed it out of my mind and continued with the backdoor install. 35%. 50%. 60%. The other player was very desperate now. They were running all around trying to find me. The search area had no doubt been narrowed down by now to this one building and a little bit outside. Time after time they ran through the warehouse and never spotted me. They stood in the doorway, defeated, and accepted their fate. At 99% I hopped out of the car right in front of them as a taunt in the final seconds, leaving no time to react as I dematerialize in front of them, the game was over. I was victorious!
The Stealth Game that Wasn’t: Musings on Single-Player, Story, and Characters.
Single-player is the heart of Watch Dogs. All the great multiplayer in the world can’t save a game if the fundamental mechanics and gameplay are poor. Fortunately for Watch Dogs, it really shines in the single-player mode. You start with little to no skills other than your basic hacking of phones and cameras and the ability to use weapons. Your damage, steadiness, new hacking abilities, enhanced driving abilities, and crafting skills are all augmented by purchasing them with skill points, which are pretty common if you do lots of side missions like I have been. At 28 hours in, I have unlocked about 80% of the skills available. Some of the skills require a certain progression reward to unlock such as completing 5 fixer side-missions. You also earn rewards for finishing a certain amount of each mission type. None of the rewards are good enough to force you to play the side-missions if you don’t want to at all, but they do serve as a decent carrot-on-a-stick to urge you forward. Though to me, the xp gained for completing these missions is better than most of the rewards. More xp means faster “leveling,” which means more skill points to spend.
I won’t go into details on the story as it does somewhat keep you moving forward towards a specific goal. What I will say is I don’t find the story particularly interesting. It’s a rather bland affair that introduces you to new mechanics and side-missions as you progress along. The missions do a decent job of mixing things up and introducing new craftable items. I will liken the story to that of a similar open-world, sounding game Sleeping Dogs. The story is serviceable but not a masterpiece by any account.
As with any open-world game, driving is a pretty big part of it. Driving is a bit mixed in Watch Dogs. Overall, the vehicles handle way too sluggishly from what I’m used to in these types of games. Cars are often unwieldy behemoths that handle far larger than they should, and actually large vehicles handle like jumbo jets trying to drive in traffic. Stick with the smaller, more nimble cars and motorcycles and things shouldn’t be too difficult, or find one of the numerous sports cars. Though nothing handles well when the framerate stutters far too often than it should, causing crashes into oncoming traffic or plowing into a sidewalk of pedestrians because you missed swerving slightly. Fortunately, there are strategically placed hideouts that you can fast-travel to at any time as long as you aren’t on a mission.
About the only issue I have with the mechanics are the game doesn’t understand what kind of game it is trying to be. There fairly long sequences that require stealth where you fail if you are spotted. Then there are other sequences that seem to punish you if you try to maintain the stealth mentality instead of opting for guns and explosions. The first mission of the game is a good example. You have to use stealth to avoid detection by the police and escape. That is, until you actually escape, then it becomes about losing the cops by any means necessary. There are other missions later on that require killing characters or stopping a convoy of cars, neither of which are stealthy. Harming or killing civilians is punished by a reduction in reputation amongst the public, even if those actions weren’t seen by anyone, though apparently pushing a car into a crowd of NPCs wandering on the street during a high speed pursuit doesn’t count. Gunning down waves of gang members, private security, or even cops doesn’t seem to matter to public opinion. One of the side-missions involves “teaching” someone a lesson by using a non-lethal takedown on a specific target, usually the boss of a gang hideout. Why killing everyone else in the area but beating up that one person is counted as a victory I will not understand. If the idea is to teach them a lesson, why not restrict it so that no one may be killed. It’s just another example of the inconsistent morality of the game.
So is Aiden supposed to be Batman fighting crime with cunning and non-lethal means or The Punisher fighting it with all the guns and explosions he can? The game never answers that question or even really asks it. Aiden expresses disgust at another character murdering a bunch of gang members early on but has no qualms about killing even when other characters are squeamish about it. He even justifies it to other characters. Clearly Aiden is driven by a need for revenge (not really a spoiler), but he seems to have a rather flexible sense of morality. Maybe that’s one of the central themes of the game. If it is, it’s not even remotely explored. Aiden supposedly dawns his mask to keep his identity secret when he’s doing vigilante stuff, except he usually doesn’t. The mask really only comes on when the guns come out. Add to that, the public seems to be well aware of his identity, expressing shock that they are seeing the vigilante to snapping photos as I stroll or drive down the street like Aiden is an A-list celebrity. So clearly he doesn’t really hide his identity. NPCs seem to be well aware that Aiden Pearce is the vigilante, unless it’s inconvenient for the story. Why hardened criminals would not know the face and name of Aiden as he strolls into their dens of iniquity posing as someone else is beyond me. Even the police don’t seem to know Aiden, even when the news reports an arrest warrant out for Aiden’s arrest; the police simply don’t seem to notice. I could walk up to a cop and stand staring at him and he wouldn’t do anything until I pulled a weapon. It’s just an odd thing. The whole reason for a vigilante to wear a mask or something to obscure his identity is to protect those close to him or her.
There are a handful of other characters in the game in addition to Aiden, though none are playable like in GTA 5. In all honesty, the other characters are more interesting than Aiden by a long shot. Aiden is as vanilla as he can be while the other characters are rum raisin, strawberry cheesecake, and rocky road. You meet an interesting cast along the way with their own pasts, though this is usually not explored more than a couple lines of dialog to establish who they are in the world, yet that is more than Aiden gets. Ultimately, everyone is as flat a character as Aiden, and that’s really a shame. There was so much potential to have a memorable cast instead of the same cardboard, cliche cast assembled here.
Have I enjoyed my Watch Dogs experience thus far? Yes, though the game seemed hellbent on keeping me from doing just that when I initially started playing, between performance issues and UPlay buckling under pressure. At the end of the day, Watch Dogs is honestly a mediocre game that doesn’t quite know what kind of game it is trying to be. It doesn’t push the envelope of the genre and it doesn’t do much that’s new. Performance issues are a significant hurdle to overcome on the PC version just to play the game. Shallow characters and story provide just the bare minimum to keep things moving along without really adding to a rich world that there should be. Online multiplayer can be thrilling or frustrating depending on the situation. Some of the game mechanics could use some tweaking to make the game more enjoyable. It’s not the slick proto-cyberpunk game I wanted and hoped it would be. Despite that, I have mostly enjoyed my experience with Watch Dogs.