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EGM Review: Watch Dogs

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Posted on May 27, 2014 AT 12:01am

Kernel panic

There’s a hole in the middle of Watch Dogs. Even when I’m deep in its most enjoyable moments—and there are plenty to go around—I can’t shake the feeling that something important is missing. There’s some defining trait, some exciting feature, some charismatic jolt that’s conspicuous in its absence.

Leading man Aiden Pearce, for all his leet haxxoring skills, couldn’t possibly hope to fill that void. He spends the first few hours as a human sleep aid and only edges up the volume slightly by the time the curtain falls, eventually settling comfortably, if unexcitingly, into his role as a gruff, brooding sociopath with a creamy emotional center. I do appreciate that the game doesn’t attempt to sanitize his violent actions under some banner of heroic justice, but that doesn’t make him any more compelling. (Plus, the cynic in me fears that bad men who are openly acknowledged as such have become the new status quo in the wake of The Last of Us. Just wait.) He simply doesn’t have enough going on to make spending a few dozen hours with him any more than a neutral experience.

Nor does Watch Dogs’ fictionalized Chicago make a particularly noteworthy impression. With the exception of the run-down South Side and rural Pawnee, regions blend together so much that I frequently had to check my map to remind myself which part of town I was even in. Any hope that the blurbs describing pedestrians’ lives was a sign that they would be more than inadvertent speed bumps seems silly in retrospect. These are the same brain-dead NPCs we’ve seen from open-world games for years, just with a few randomized traits attached. And when I say randomized, I mean really randomized, often to the point of absurdity. I encountered a white guy who was a proud member of the Nation of Islam, a grotesquely obese “militant vegan,” and a whole lot of dudes taking pole-dancing classes.

But let’s address the technomancing elephant in the room: If anything was ever going to elevate Watch Dogs beyond its peers, it was the hacking. From the moment that now-infamous E3 demo cut to black, we all bought into the hype of a fully emergent game world richly packed with novel interactions and endless opportunities to improvise. Nearly two years on, reality is here to bring that dream back down to earth.

In truth, Aiden’s abilities are just slightly reworked versions of the same things we’ve been doing in other games for years now. Siphoning pedestrians’ bank accounts by hacking them with the Profiler? That’s Assassin’s Creed’s pickpocketing with a looser proximity requirement. Activating a car alarm to distract a guard? More or less tossing a noisemaker in Splinter Cell. Throwing up some bollards or detonating a steam pipe to take out your pursuers during a high-speed chase? In execution, something between laying down a spike strip in Need for Speed and dropping a grenade out the car window in GTA. Detonating a transformer to take out the guards clustered around it? Explosive barrels 2.0.

The lone exception is Aiden’s ability to hack into security cameras, then hack into anything in their field of view, including other cameras. This leads to some interesting opportunities for environmental puzzles, wherein you’re forced to ping-pong between cameras until you find the one vantage that allows you access the switch you need. It’s a cool mechanic—probably the game’s coolest—but it feels like the developers were too well aware of that fact. Hardly a story mission goes by that doesn’t require you to indulge in camera hopping. Pretty much all of the hacking-related side content depends on it completely. In fact, the team loved the idea so much that they even planted hidden cameras on some of the guards’ chests, just so you can hop in there and wait an excruciatingly long time for them to meander over to a new, even more camera-filled viewpoint.

Aside from that, the only significant innovation of Watch Dogs’ hacking is gathering all of these familiar abilities in one intuitive, easy-to-use system. With the exception of limited-use abilities like jammers and blackouts, everything is accomplished by simply aiming the reticule at an object and pressing the same button. To the game’s credit, there was never a single moment where I wanted to pull off a series of hacks in quick succession and found I couldn’t because I was tripping over the controls. Given how much that one button handles, that’s no minor accomplishment.

Still, I’m not sure streamlining was the best possible approach here. Since it’s so easy to tinker with environments without actually standing inside of them, the only truly tense moments are those where hacking isn’t any help: car chases after you’ve run out of magic hacking juice and encounters where you’re forced to tackle threats head-on. In fact, you can bypass entire missions without ever putting Aiden in harm’s way. Just park him a block from the action and follow the trail of cameras to your objective without any worries about getting spotted or shot. It’s probably truer to the spirit of real-life hacking than anything else in the game, but—when the only risk in the risk/reward tradeoff is wasting your time trying to puzzle out a remote solution that might not exist—it also feels contrary to what we expect from a modern action game.

If anything comes close to giving Watch Dogs that missing je ne sais quoi, it’s the multiplayer. Hacking somehow feels more revolutionary in a world where other people have access to the same slate of abilities. Rather than offering a universal upper hand over your opponents, they spurn you to read the environment in new ways. That steam pipe ahead of you isn’t just a glorified spike strip—it’s a possible threat you may need to swerve into oncoming traffic to avoid. Tapping into a camera doesn’t just allow you see more of the environment; it also leaves you stationary and vulnerable to a sneak attack from your gaping blind spot. Combined with the open world, they give the game a much-needed injection of complexity, as well as an unpredictability that you don’t find in many other multiplayer games.

Oddly enough, though, it’s the two simplest modes—those inspired by the invasions in From Software’s Souls games—that are the most compelling of the lot. Both are 1-on-1 affairs where you enter into another player’s game surreptitiously, disguised as an ordinary NPC. In the first, they’re not alerted to your presence unless they notice you acting strangely, and your goal is simply to follow them around, spy on their movements, then slip out of their world without them ever having known you were there. The second is a bit more involved. Once you’re in, you need to tag your opponent and initiate a hack, then hunker down in a good hiding spot while a counter slowly ticks up to 100 percent. If they catch you before the download is over, you can still save face (and a bit of your score) by hightailing it out there, but you can’t fight back, or you’ll immediately forfeit. It’s a lovely game of cat and mouse, replete with all the tension and dynamism of the multiplayer modes in Splinter Cell and Assassin’s Creed in a purer, more condensed form. There’s a special thrill in knowing you’ve interrupted someone else’s play and unexpectedly become their No. 1 priority. In fact, I’d say they’re the two best things Watch Dogs has going for it.

But it’s hard to convincingly argue that multiplayer, no matter how seamlessly integrated, fills that yearning gap in the single-player experience. Perhaps if it were more robust, that might be true, but there’s really not a wealth of online content to be had. In addition to the two 1-on-1 matchups, you get one mode for vehicle races, another that channels Halo’s Oddball, a cross-platform iOS/Android showdown, and free roam. It’s certainly not a paltry offering, but it’s also clear that multiplayer wasn’t the primary focus. Then again, if it had been, maybe I’d be singing a different tune.

It’s disappointing, because Ubisoft usually excels at highlighting the quirks that makes their franchises feel distinctive in spite of their crowded genres and shared design sensibilities. Assassin’s Creed has its exhaustively researched historical settings, turning every game into a snippet of time-travel tourism. Far Cry gets larger-than-life villains and the sense of survival in an unpredictable natural world. Splinter Cell, increasingly, exhibits a desire to please both action and stealth fans and the phenomenal level-design chops to accomplish just that. Watch Dogs lacks that kind of confident focus and personality, and as a result, it feels a bit, well, generic.

But, at the expense of stating the obvious, being generic isn’t the same as being bad, and there’s nothing in Watch Dogs that I could honestly term a failure. The gameplay is fluid, the systems are competent, and sheer level of enjoyable content is quite high. Despite my doubts about the disconnected nature of camera-hopping, it’s impressive that so many encounters offer three very different tactical approaches—stealth, open assault, and remote hacking—that all feel equally valid, with objectives that adapt on the fly to your choices. I’d go so far as to call a few key moments remarkable, including a brilliantly built-up raid on a high-rise slum that brought back fond memories of Dredd, and a powerful scene that manages, without any violence whatsoever, to be more brutal, unsettling, and devastating than anything else I’ve witnessed in a videogame.

When the sequel rolls around—and, let’s be honest here, it will—I’ll happily play it to see how the formula has evolved, but there needs to be serious tangible progress that goes beyond an updated setting and a few new hacking powers. With Assassin’s Creed II, Ubisoft Montreal proved they were capable of the thoughtful retooling needed to help turn a promising but flawed first effort into a viable franchise. I’m hopeful that Aiden Pearce and his turtleneck fetish can make a similar leap, but they’ve unequivocally got a much steeper hill to climb. Assassin’s Creed needed some soul-searching. Watch Dogs desperately needs a soul.

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal • Publisher: Ubisoft • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 5.27.2014
7.0
Imaginative, cleverly integrated online play helps to bolster Watch Dogs’ less exciting single-player offering, which fails to capitalize on its ambitious hacking concept in any truly memorable way.
The Good A well-built open-world action romp…
The Bad …that lacks the verve and personality of Ubisoft’s other triple-A efforts.
The Ugly Two words: escort missions.
Watch Dogs is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC, with a Wii U version on the way later. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4. Review code was provided by Ubisoft for the benefit of this review.
Josh Harmon, Associate Editor
Josh Harmon picked up a controller when he was 3 years old—and he hasn't looked back since. This has made him particularly vulnerable to attacks from behind. He joined EGM as an intern following a brief-but-storied career on a number of small gaming blogs across the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @jorshy. Meet the rest of the crew.

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