Can Ubisoft’s long-gestating open world espionage revenge title ‘hack it’? Sorry, that was inexcusable. L33t hacker extraordinaire Matt Reynolds delves into Chicago’s hi tech underworld to find out…
NOTE: Multiplayer is a no go at this stage – as I played the game pre-release I did not get the opportunity to have a play around with it. Expect an in-depth feature soon.
Watch_Dogs hasn’t had it easy of late. After its initial showing at E3 2012; it was the game on everyone’s lips – a stunning walkthrough demo blew everyone away and cemented Ubisoft’s new IP as the most wanted game going forward. Long before any mention of next-gen machines, it was clearly the first next-gen game. Stunning graphics and a massively interconnected world ripe for exploration really captured the gaming world’s imagination and so we waited with bated breath for more information.
And then it all went quiet for a while. Once the PS4 and Xbox One were announced; we quickly learned that Watch_Dogs was to be a launch title for both machines in November 2013. However, it soon transpired that the game would suffer a six month delay – disappointing sure, but not necessarily bad news. Half a year of extra polish can really help games become great after all. However, when Ubisoft decided to release some new video footage the internet blew up – was this really the same game shown eighteen months before? Low-res textures and less detailed character models were a far cry from the dazzling visuals on display at E3. Throw in a review embargo ending on the day of release and the world began to wonder – just what is up with Watch_Dogs?
On booting up the game on PS4; one thing becomes apparent – the graphical downgrade has definitely happened, but not to the extent you might think. Sure, there are some dodgy looking textures on certain plants and walls and the character models aren’t quite on par with the E3 footage but Watch_Dogs is still a pretty game. It may not be the eyeball-melting next-gen visual masterpiece that we are all still waiting on but for an open world game it is up there with the very best of the genre. Lighting and water effects deserve a special mention – Chicago in the rain by night looks beautiful.
Now that we’ve dealt with the graphics we can move on to the important question – is Watch_Dogs any good? Happily the answer is a resounding yes. After the initial 15-20 minutes are out-of-the-way, taking you through the obligatory hand holding tutorial sections, the game opens up and you can begin to play with the game’s brilliant systems. While initially it may appear like any other open world GTA clone, its central conceit makes it feel startlingly original. Hacking into Chicago’s super computer network ctOS allows you complete control over the city’s security and traffic systems. You can take over security cameras, raise and lower the city’s bridges and cause electrics to explode. But the most fun you can have is changing the traffic lights on the fly as you drive around. It is immensely satisfying to cause huge pileups that often result in some truly earth shattering, controller shaking explosions. When these pileups involve the police or criminals chasing you it’s even better – you feel like the ultimate badass.
The other central hacking system is your Profiler – this is the tech that allows you to tap into ever single citizen’s life, giving you unique (and sometimes hilarious) information on their personal traits and idiosyncrasies. You can syphon money from their bank accounts, find items to help with hacking, and also intercept texts and phone conversations that can lead to potential crimes to thwart. These mini side missions are a fun distraction and reward you with both items and XP that feeds into the game’s perk progression system – more on that in a moment. The problem with the Profiler is that the sheer amount of people on the streets can lead to you becoming very overwhelmed with information very quickly – it then becomes difficult to concentrate on a single mission or objective clearly. Imagine suddenly being able to hear everyone’s thoughts while stood in Piccadilly Circus and you’ll get the idea. Thankfully; Ubisoft aren’t stupid. With a tap of the Square button you can flick the Profiler on and off at a moment’s notice, allowing you to focus on the task at hand.
Ubisoft haven’t made a lot of noise about Watch_Dogs‘ skill progression system, which is a shame as it’s a nice touch that a lot of open world games don’t go for. Its nothing spectacularly original, being a wheel of perks split into various disciplines like driving, combat and hacking, but its nice to have and lends the game a sense of depth. Hacking in particular is very useful, as upgrading it gives you a much better chance at evading pursuers by the aforementioned methods of controlling the city.
The game is also adept at providing those perfect moments of open world syncronicity normally reserved for GTA. After finishing one mission, I stepped out of my hideout into the lashing rain; my trenchcoat billowing behind me as Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘My Love is Winter’ started playing – a personal highlight. As Aiden Pearce has a smartphone; music is no longer restricted to car journeys – you can have a soundtrack to your adventure wherever you are. Granted, the mood was ruined slightly by the fact I hadn’t yet figured out how to holster the assault rifle I was carrying and so pedestrians were fleeing in terror screaming at the top of their lungs, but nobody’s perfect!
Speaking of guns; combat is also slick and satisfying. Weapons are punchy and have a nice kick to them, the cover system is highly polished and you can use the environment to your advantage by dropping containers on enemies, blocking lines of sight by controlling cranes and forklifts, and even hacking into your enemies’ ordinance to explode it in their pocket. Should you wish to avoid combat the stealth system is excellent, with plenty of surveillance tactics at your disposal and many paths to objectives. Car chases are also superb; fast and frenetic affairs where your only option to shake your tenacious pursuers is to mess with the city as much as you can. All in all, this is one highly polished game.
If I haven’t mentioned the plot, it is because I don’t want to spoil anything. Not that its earth shattering – Aiden’s ‘tragic’ past is by-numbers stuff that won’t have you reaching for the Kleenex – but it is solid and compelling stuff. The characters are a mixed bunch – some are delightful, others are wisecracking pains in the ass. The writing has its fair share of dodgy moments, and you are always reminded of how people don’t actually speak like this in real life. Then again, it is a story filled with hackers – a personal bugbear of mine as I can’t stand the archetype.
Despite the Herculean length of its hype trail, the downgrades and delays, Watch_Dogs is a success – a gleefully fun game that breathes new life into the open world genre and does so with flair and polish. When the game releases I strongly suggest you hack into the nearest ATM and siphon enough funds to download this game into your life.
Matt Reynolds @TheLostMoment