Ubisoft introduced players to Watch Dogs with an exciting gameplay demo that stole the show at E3 in 2012. Since then, a six-month delay and rumors of a visual downgrade have caused fans' faith in the promising new IP to waver. The final game lies somewhere between the early next-gen hysteria and subsequent skepticism; like most antiheroes, Watch Dogs gives players what they need, but not necessarily everything they want.
Watch Dogs follows the exploits of Aiden Pearce, a tech-savvy hacker hell-bent on discovering who was responsible for the death of his niece and making them pay. The story offers up a number of conspiratorial twists as Pearce discovers the far-reaching powers of the Blume Corporation. The company's CtOS is the interconnected operating system that Chicago runs on, and through his own hacking prowess, allows Pearce to run Chicago.
While the new-gen versions of Watch Dogs are visually impressive (albeit less stunning than early demos suggested), the Xbox 360 and PS3 incarnations have taken a major graphical hit. Ubisoft’s attempts to get the game running decently on older hardware have transformed Chicago into an ugly ghost town, with far fewer people inhabiting the city. Not only do the last-gen versions fail to live up to Grand Theft Auto V, they look worse than many other games released over the past few years, and the blurry faces, low-res textures, and frequent pop-in and screen tearing have a significant impact on immersion, even if the gameplay is the same.
Like many open-world games, the activities in Watch Dogs split your time evenly between being on foot and in a car (or motorcycle or boat). The driving controls are looser than I'd like, and are more reminiscent of the early 3D GTA games than the turn-on-a-dime handling many modern games offer. Most objects have a distinct feeling of weightlessness in the world; fences crumple like tissue paper, light posts snap off and shatter on the ground, and cars spin out of your way with minimal contact. Smashing through bus shelters and sidewalk cafes without losing speed creates some Hollywood-worthy action moments, but they come at a cost; ramming a pursuing enemy vehicle into oncoming traffic only to have them blow through cars and be back on your tail a second later is frustrating – especially considering you can't use weapons when driving.
Instead, technology is your weapon (spoiler!), and you unlock a variety of hacks to eliminate your foes. Activating guard posts, overloading steam pipes, and tripping traffic lights can take down vehicles with a single hit, and the game signals when it's best to activate them. They work well, but are fundamentally limited – you have to find them in the environment in order to use them. This leads to a lot of circling around blocks and alleyways hoping to come across a type of hackable item you've already unlocked to use on foes. Rather than eliminating all of your pursuers via environmental takedowns, driving in Watch Dogs is really about evasion – losing your tails just long enough to pull into a secluded side street or parking lot and hide in your car (via an actual hiding mechanic) until the heat dies down. Once I realized that, the cat-and-mouse driving segments became more fun.
On the other hand, the on-foot action is entertaining from the get-go and only becomes more engaging as you unlock new abilities. Hacking items adds a meaningful dimension to combat, allowing you to effortlessly hop between camera feeds to get the layout of the environment, tag foes, and activate traps. The solid shooting mechanics make full-scale firefights enjoyable, but Watch Dogs' combat really shines with a stealth-minded approach. A focus power lets you temporarily slow down time to line up headshots and take down enemies before they alert their buddies; using the environment to my advantage and picking off enemies one by one while remaining undetected never got old for me.
That said, Watch Dogs' gameplay still has its problems. All too often, Ubisoft Montreal forces you into the scenario it wants you experience; most missions are bound to end with a protracted car chase, and sometimes backup guards spawn no matter how careful you are. Additionally, the developer still hasn't learned that tailing missions are boring and over-armored enemies that require multiple magazines worth of ammo to take down are cheap and frustrating.
On the whole, however, the campaign missions are entertaining, and provide the right mix of interesting environments and gameplay variety. Guiding a non-player character through a gang-controlled apartment building via security cameras and crashing the secret auction of a human trafficking ring are just two of the memorable scenarios that complement Watch Dogs' more conventional action missions – which still feel fresh thanks to Pearce's hacking powers. A wealth of unlockables and some interesting side content should keep completionists happy for a long time. The Dark Souls-style multiplayer elements are also engaging; having random players invade your game to hack your data or observe you from the shadows adds a sense of urgency that going up against non-player characters can't match. As boring as tailing an A.I. character is, chasing after and observing another unsuspecting human player while trying to remain unnoticed is exciting and amusing in a voyeuristic kind of way.
Unfortunately, Watch Dogs' story doesn't live up to the gameplay, in large part due to Ubisoft Montreal's inability to pick a tone and stick with it. Some characters, like Lucky Quinn and Jordi Chin, are (relatively) understated and interesting. Others, like Anthony "Iraq" Wade and Clara, are so overdesigned that it's hard to take them seriously. Aiden Pearce is a mix of the two approaches; a lone-wolf vigilante with a comically gruff Batman voice who can't let go of his guilt for the death of a family member. Ultimately, Pearce is Max Payne without an affinity for cheesy poetry, and while he offers up a few compelling moments during the story, he's usually just a mope who can't stop staring at his cellphone.
The few thought-provoking and poignant moments of Watch Dog's story are undermined at every turn by the general idiocy of the rest of the writing. Random civilian chatter, enemy conversations, and the video feeds you frequently hack are filled with crass, immature, and oftentimes offensive content, such as one random NPC's diatribe about why he was justified for beating his girlfriend. The GTA series manages to skewer American culture with a sardonic wit and a tone that matches the style and stories of the series. In contrast, Watch Dogs' more sensationalistic writing simply panders to every annoying stereotype of a pubescent, mouth-breathing gamer; vulgar sex jokes, lazy insults, and obscenity-laden outbursts are repeatedly served up without context or class. Ubisoft's attempts to make you think about the random people you're hacking are so heavy-handed that they come off as patronizing, and are undermined by the same sophomoric humor. This NPC has brain cancer. That NPC was recently prescribed diarrhea medication.
At the end of the day, Watch Dog's story works as a basic revenge tale, and the final few missions provide some gravity to the characters. Ultimately, however, the main draw of any open-world game is the gameplay, and while not perfect, Watch Dog's hacking abilities add an engaging and unique twist to the third-person action. Ubisoft Montreal’s new series could go in a lot of exciting directions in the future, but given the visual problems caused by the underpowered last-gen systems, I hope the next Watch Dogs adventure is a new-gen exclusive.
This review pertains to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of Watch Dogs. A superior version of the game is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. The screens contained in this review are from the new-gen version of the game.
Like most antiheroes, Watch Dogs gives players what they need, but not necessarily everything they want.