Watch Dogs open world is trumped by its smart, layered mechanics
|Platform 360, PS3, Win, Wii U, PS4, Xbox One|
|Developer Ubisoft Montreal|
|Release Date May 27, 2014|
Watch Dogs was announced with more fanfare and anticipation than most new properties.
First shown at E3 just shy of two years ago as the first "next-generation" video game, developer Ubisoft Montreal's newest title missed the next-gen console launch last fall. Now, after a six month delay, Watch Dogs has finally come out of the shadows.
In many ways, Watch Dogs feels like a synthesis of some of publisher Ubisoft’s flagship series, mixing the open-world and navigation of more recent Assassin’s Creed games with the shooting and modern environments of series like Splinter Cell. There’s a sense of trying to be all things, all under the umbrella of modern day paranoia of surveillance and privacy. But Watch Dogs is at its best when it’s the most fenced in.
Watch Dogs stars protagonist Aiden Pearce, a contractor for hire who steals information, money, and anything else he’s paid to do in the city of Chicago. During an intrusion run fleecing the guests of a high profile hotel for the rich and famous, Aiden’s hacker partner catches the virtual traces of a secret that powerful interests are willing to kill to protect. As a warning, Aiden’s niece Lena is killed, drawing him into a wider conspiracy involving ctOS, the Blume corporation’s new city management and surveillance network.
Helped in part by a hacker resistance, Aiden is armed with the Profiler, a smartphone-driven set of tools that allows him to tap into ctOS’s all-encompassing surveillance state. Every face in Chicago is a data point for analysis, and any improperly protected electronic device and network is an opening for Aiden as he drives, shoots and traverses the city to gather more information on the conspiracy at the game’s heart.
Aiden's ability to hack ctOS connected systems manifests in several ways. The Profiler gives an often horrifyingly personal view into the lives of random citizens on the street. These people can also often be "hacked" in various ways, yielding bank account information, linking to crimes in progress and other side missions and more. Aiden can also manipulate his environment in various ways, whether by activating construction machinery, opening doors or other effects. But you’ll spend much more time hacking security systems, especially cameras and server systems that allow even greater access to ctOS's databases.
The ability to hack cameras is especially useful — Aiden can hack almost anything via line of sight, including via camera lens. If you're smart, you can link from camera to camera for giant sections of secure structures, finding weaknesses and gathering intel. I spent as much time exploring environments virtually as I did physically.
At the time of publication, Polygon was not provided an opportunity to thoroughly test Watch Dogs' online component in any meaningful way. My limited experience with them in the weekend prior to the game's release suggest a host of modes that seem fairly standard for open-world titles in 2014, with the exception of the invasion mechanic. If you allow it, other players can actively antagonize you during your otherwise singleplayer game. My advice? If you're in the midst of a particularly driven singleplayer session, you may want to turn it off. In the meantime, I'll continue to test the game with populated servers, and will update the review if it meaningfully impacts my recommendation.
While Aiden's ability to hack various computer systems at will via the Profiler is a neat trick, Watch Dogs also distinguishes itself from other open-world games via the strength of its basic mechanics. There’s an emphasis on refinement where other games seem content with just enough. Navigating the environment on foot isn’t a hassle to be avoided, as Aiden controls responsively and has a good amount of traversal capability. He won’t be jumping off any structures into bales of hay, but he can climb up ledges or leap nimbly over waist high obstacles without difficulty.
Aiden is also handier with firearms than other open-world leads. Gunplay in Watch Dogs is smooth and handles well, even if it's not particularly challenging. It's aided by a good, functional third-person cover system, which helps with more than just shooting — it also allows for effective stealth. I took advantage of this at every opportunity, as I suppose every disgruntled would-be vigilante should. Meanwhile, each vehicle out in the world has its quirks to learn while still adhering to a pretty reasonable standard of ease of use and general responsiveness.
It’s not just that there are so many options. It’s that Watch Dogs strong fundamentals allow for multiple good options.
Those fundamentals are helped by the focus system, which allows Aiden to slow down time briefly. This makes for easier head shots, and, theoretically, the ability to be more calculated about triggering ctOS hacks in the open-world while driving. The game insinuated that focus should help better use hacks while, say, I was being chased, but there never seemed to be enough time or warning to rely on these tricks as a means of escape. I was always better off jamming comms or calling a blackout and hiding in an alley with the engine turned off — a great touch.
Strong fundamentals give you multiple good options
The problems inherent in using hacks in the wider world are symptomatic of a bigger issue — Watch Dogs’ Chicago is attractive enough but just isn’t very interesting to navigate. There’s plenty to do, I suppose — maybe even too much. I was constantly inundated by notifications of crimes in progress or convoys to intercept or potential multiplayer contracts to accept. In fact, these notifications were so prevalent that I started to wonder if I could disable them completely, or at least hit a snooze timer on them.
And despite those constant opportunities for side jobs, I found myself totally uninterested in them. Side content in Watch Dogs is, for the most part, less interesting variations on more thoughtfully designed elements of the main campaign: smaller fortified areas, less complicated camera puzzles, and the like.
Worse, while driving from one mission to the next can feel like a welcome respite from time to time, many of the driving missions are exercises in frustration. Running from police can take ages until you earn enough experience to effectively neuter their units via ctOS hacks, and missions that forced me to chase down enemy vehicles demanded more precision and timing than the game’s cars felt capable of.
In fact, despite its open-world trappings, Watch Dogs does the most with its inventive abilities and great mechanics when it has the most structure. Story missions frequently enable and even encourage a lengthy recon phase. Any new assignment always involved my search for a CCTV camera which would then spider outward like cracked glass as I went from camera to laptop to junction box and on and on, spying weakness, marking targets. More than any stealth game I can think of, Watch Dogs does a remarkable job in allowing for proper preparation. It creates a universal environment of constant puzzle solving, which sits cozily next to all the action on display.
In these moments Watch Dogs is, if you’ll pardon the cliché, a thinking-person’s open-world game. In the first half of the game, I scrounged what gear I could, making do to find solutions to the situations I was presented. Maybe an IED would have worked to take out a cluster of troops, but there were none to be found — instead I triggered a forklift and, when enemies went to investigate, detonated a junction box, which cleared up my problem nicely.
But Watch Dogs’ considerable progression system provides enormous potential for growth in Aiden’s abilities. If gadgets and one-time-use items are your thing, you can put points in crafting that allow you to build more and more complicated devices. Improved hacking, driving and combat options are also available.
By my last hours in Watch Dogs’ campaign, I was a hacker god with a knack for well-deployed gear. I would bounce from camera to camera, marking every target, peeking out from cover to disable helicopters overhead with a hack, and triggering blackouts to move past the confused private security unnoticed.
So few games manage this kind of delirious payoff in their character progression, and it snatched Watch Dogs from the jaws of disappointment when its story couldn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
Watch Dogs’ basic premise is one of its strongest hooks, all old-school noir conventions and private eye posturing with a post-NSA whistleblower twist. But after a promising (albeit well-trod) start, Watch Dogs’ plot struggles to remain coherent. The writing has Aiden’s flaws covered, but it never finds a way to make him relatable beyond a dead niece and a family in trouble. Ubisoft Montreal also introduces so many "big bads" that it’s hard to know who the real villain is.
To be fair, this might be the point — that there are no easy villains to point to, that there’s no easy solution to the constant surveillance and information overload that pervades Watch Dogs’ Chicago. But the game never takes that extra step beyond lightly gesturing in the direction of a position on anything. Instead, it uses privacy, surveillance and data-mining as a mechanical quirk at best. But it feels like window dressing and conversational gibberish far more often.
It’s just as frustrating that Watch Dogs is content with caricatures over characters. It leans heavily on noir stereotypes — the sexualized female source of info, the character macguffins, the muddy morality and lack of easy choices. It leans so heavily on those noir stereotypes that it becomes achingly predictable — and picks up the genre’s sexism to boot.
WATCH DOGS OPEN WORLD IS TRUMPED BY ITS SMART, LAYERED MECHANICS
As an open world game, Watch Dogs provides “enough” — enough sidequests, enough space, enough of a playground — to qualify, but it doesn’t quite place. Other games have nailed a better balance in optional activities and large-scale ambiance, including other games from Ubisoft Montreal itself. But when Watch Dogs focuses on the things it does better than anyone else, it finds an identity worth developing. As a hybrid open-world stealth-action game, it’s in a class by itself.
Watch Dogs was reviewed using retail PS4 and Xbox One copies purchased by Polygon staff. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews