There’s always someone watching.
When I think of next (now current) gen gaming, Watch_Dogs is the game that comes to mind. It has personified this generation for me ever since I saw the original E3 trailer, back before the current consoles were even announced. In fact, I had it pre-ordered for the PS4 before I actually owned the console. Now, having played the game I can report that Watch_Dogs is an excellent example of a third person open world game, but it fails to live up to the “next gen” hype.
The game’s protagonist, Aiden Pearce, has the ability to hack people and objects around him using his phone. For people that means viewing personal information, and stealing bank account data and knowing which guards can call for reinforcements. For objects the possibilities vary greatly. By hacking video cameras Aiden can view an area, and even hack other cameras to create a chain, allowing him access to a guard or computer that would be inaccessible otherwise. While driving he can hack stoplights and barricades, either to his advantage or the disadvantage of would-be pursuers.
Platforms: PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC
Multiplayer: 2-8 people
The base game play in Watch_Dogs is similar to other games of the genre like the GTA series, but playing it the same way is a sure path to frustration. Even on lower difficulties Aiden can’t take much damage, and success relies on a combination of stealth and hacking elements in the environment to the player’s benefit. For example I could hack a car and set off the alarm to draw a guard’s attention away from me, or hack an electrical panel as he walked by; causing an explosion that took him out.
The game has four main skill trees, with the hacking tree being the largest one. As I invested more points in it the game play opened up significantly, and sequences like car chases (which were miserable at the beginning) became much more manageable. Unfortunately, all of the skill trees are open from the start, so players can sink points into combat or other abilities early on and leave themselves with a difficult path. For a game that needs to be played a certain way (especially early on), I wish the developer had locked the other trees for the first few levels, or otherwise communicated that investing in hacking skills would be the most advantageous.
Taking place in a fictionalized Chicago, the game is absolutely teeming with things to do. From intimidating gangs to eliminating criminals, the amount of content is really impressive. Even better, each type of side mission has a progression tree with unlocks, giving players a reason beyond “just because” to tackle the side content. In addition to the stock content, players can also invade each other online, which presented me with opportunities to hack other players for rewards, or try to hunt down a player hacking me.
The constant sense of progression is one of the best parts of Watch_Dogs. Gaining skills continuously expanded my game play options, and rewards for side activities are stated, so I could hunt down activities that would unlock a specific perk I wanted. As the game progressed I started seeing more and more paths through a given area as my hacking abilities expanded. Hackable items are clearly visible whether driving, sneaking or viewing an area through a camera, allowing me to plot my ideal route.
The multiplayer is split between invasions integrated with the game and different online modes. Invasions, like everything else, have their own progression unlocks, but when I turned them off to avoid distractions the game informed me that not only would my unlocked perks not be available anymore, but all of my progression would be reset. Having those perks disabled is one thing, but losing them entirely just because I wanted to focus on the story without random encounters for a few hours was a harsh penalty.
Trying to set up a dedicated multiplayer game had its own frustrations. Using Aiden’s phone (which functions as the in-game menu) I could choose a game type and then invite friends to join me. However, if I wanted to change the game type, say from Free Roam to the objective based Decryption, I had to completely quit to the main menu, load my game again and start a new online session, re-inviting my friends. It’s a very poorly designed process, and one that’s not helped by the fact that initial game load times are relatively long.
Graphics are a hot-button issue with every new console generation, and Watch_Dogs holds up its end of the bargain by looking terrific. From the texture of Aiden’s clothes to the raindrops hitting the pavement, the visuals generally impress. There are some occasions where that is not the case though, and they really stand out. For example, Aiden has a detailed, expressive face, but some secondary characters look like their models were pulled right out of a last generation title. It’s only an issue because the visuals in general are so good, but it’s definitely jarring.
Watch_Dogs borrows game play elements from GTA, inFamous and Assassin’s Creed (among others), adds a hacking dynamic and pulls it all together into a great game. Despite some standout visuals though there’s nothing here that feels like a leap forward in gaming, and I can’t imagine the core game feeling much different had I played a last-gen version. It doesn’t tarnish the experience, but players looking for a reason to need a new console still don’t have one.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on PlayStation 4.