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Watch Dogs

Watchdogs / 16th of July 2014

Watch Dogs, developed by Ubisoft Montreal and released on the 27th of May, was billed as the first of the next generation of videogames that would convince us that buying an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 was finally worth it. It was initially set for release alongside the launch of the PS4 but was then delayed by six months. And although it has managed to rack up the sales - four million in its first week - and broke the record for biggest first day sales in Ubisoft’s history, it was met with a general shrug of indifference from critics.

Which is a bit unfair in some respects. The indifference that preceded the release of Watch Dogs was a result of Ubisofts over-marketing their new franchise. Releasing an admittedly impressive gameplay trailer way, way back at E3 in 2012, and then following it up with more and more gameplay demos at every gaming expo for the next two years. This practice, along with a frankly ridiculous variety of different pre-order bundles - brazen considering it’s a new IP - left the games media saturated, and no matter how good Watch Dogs would eventually be, the hype-train Ubisoft set in motion meant it never had any chance of surprising us.

As a result this tactic has somewhat backfired as the game has been criticised for not looking as good as the initial demos suggested. This criticism is unfounded frankly. On 360 and PS3 Watch Dogs is a very pretty looking game, especially when it rains at night and Chicago is lit up as the light reflects off of roads, raised train tracks and buildings. No it doesn’t look as good as it did two years ago, even on Xbox One or PS4, but it’s no less impressive than the likes of Grand Theft Auto 5. Rockstar’s game received rave reviews for its impressive scale and graphically quality, and is again being gushed over after the recent release of gameplay footage showing it running on next-gen consoles.

GTA was always going to be the series Watch Dogs was compared to and in some regards it exceeds it. Both the main story missions and the side quests are inventive and a lot of fun. In fact on my second day of playing it, I realised that without intending to, that I’d spent about two or three hours just roaming around the city solving little puzzles. These effectively function as the game’s collectibles, but with the added caveat that by collecting all eight or nine of one specific type you’ll unlock a unique mission. A far better incentive than collecting hidden packages, purely for the sake of a 100% completion achievement. Another highlight, this time from the campaign, was when I was tasked with guiding an NPC though an area littered with enemies. It reminded me of the beginning of the Matrix, specifically at the point in which Neo is instructed by Morpheus as to where he should hide and when to dash from cover to cover, as Agents attempt to track him down. By using the tools the game makes available, i.e. hacking cameras and using them to learn enemy patrol routes, I managed to guide him to safety… after a few attempts. But pleasingly when I did fail first time around and the NPC died, the mission didn’t fail, instead I was tasked with entering the danger zone myself to grab the dead man’s phone in order to obtain the information I sought.

However Watch Dogs does have some pretty basic problems that get in the way of these good ideas. For example, the theme of playing as a vigilante is all over the place at times. As hacker Aiden Pearce you’re on a personal vendetta against the corrupt Blume Corporation and its machinations. The game has to account for this and as a result doesn’t give you the same freedom as the likes of GTA or even Assassins Creed. On the one hand you can’t whip out your baton and knock lumps out of someone who spits at you as you walk by. But you can quite easily steal money from a civilian’s bank account via the game’s profiling system, or hijack a car and then use it to chase down a potential criminal. This breaks the immersion of playing as the vigilante, and it gets even worse when completing missions can often result in pretty horrific collateral damage, as civilians and police officers are gunned down or blown to bits in the name of knocking out someone suspected of being involved a comparatively minor crime.

More simplistic flaws include the actual hacking - of things like steam vents or a set of traffic lights - which aid in evading pursuers, but unfortunately boil down to a series glorified quick-time events. A little harsh considering it’s hard to think of an alternative which would enable you to perform such actions during a high speed chase, but I feel it needs mentioning. Something that can’t be forgiven however is the shoddy camera controls when driving. Vehicles themselves are great, but when you can’t look behind you or upwards while driving it causes real problems. The upgrade system allows you to unlock handy abilities such as disabling pursuing helicopters for a short period, but it’s of no use when the camera prevents you from looking towards said helicopter to activate the hack. Some enemies also seem to possess x-ray vision as they’re able to see you through fences and perforated walls within building sites which, when you’re trying to play the game as stealthily as possible, can be a real cause of frustration. Things like these are basic oversights in development that should have been rectified, the fact that they’re not is like someone managing to build a racing bike from old washing machine parts and forgetting that the tyres need air come race day.

All things considered Watch Dogs is a genuinely enjoyable game, Ubisoft has taken the best bits from its other franchises – the cover system from Splinter Cell, free running and vantage points from Assassins Creed and Far Cry, and weapons from Ghost Recon - and managed to make something that at times feels greater than the sum of its parts. However if you don’t like the Ubisoft template then Watch Dogs isn’t going to be the game that wins you over. Not only that, the suggestion that it’s the first real next-gen game doesn’t hold up, nothing is revolutionary and couldn’t have been done on the previous console generation. All it does have, that can rightly be deemed next-gen, is pretty visuals and those were oversold by the hype built up created by Ubisoft in the two years it took to get the game from E3 to shop shelves. Watch Dogs is a solid first outing and its sequel - not unlike Assassins Creed - has the potential to build on its foundations, and hopefully surprise us.

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