If there's one lesson to be taken from the launch of Ubisoft's ambitious open-world action game Watch_Dogs, it's probably that games can still be over-hyped for way too long, and it can really hurt the reception of it. After two years of mostly-impressive showings at conventions and trailers, the game launched alongside with a mountain of gamers' expectations that they simply couldn't live up to. Watch_Dogs is still an impressive and fun game, though, even if it does wind up lacking the cohesion and charm that the kings of open world action games, Rockstar, have mastered.
Watch_Dogs takes place in a near-future Chicago where computer crime and mobile device hacking has become very commonplace. To help combat this as well as gain an information stranglehold on the city, a program called ctOS has been started, and it pretty much serves as a version of Big Brother that spies on everyone using the thousands of personal and city-run cameras throughout the city. The main character, Aiden Pearce, is an established vigilante and hacker that can tap into these as well as fight his way out of most situations using either his trusty police baton or an arsenal of conventional weapons.
The game plays out a bit like GTAIV (which itself is a bit of an amalgamation of New York City and Chicago) when out in the open world, and Deus Ex Human Revolution when in many of the game's story missions. Watch_Dogs gives players choices very often when completing these larger missions, giving players the opportunity to complete them with pure stealth, non-lethal violence, or just full guns a-blazin'. With that said, it doesn't seem like players are supposed to be able to complete a full non-lethal playthrough, but it should be mentioned that technically, neither of the two most popular Deus Ex games (the original or Human Revolution) allowed, or at least intended to allow, the player to complete the game without killing a single soul. Still, Watch_Dogs does allow the player to complete entire missions without harming anyone, and I applaud the developers for going through the considerable effort to enable this.
As missions go, you'll get a solid variety in the linear story missions along with a slew of optional ones, and they're pretty much all centered around the vigilante theme. Whether you're fighting human trafficking, investigating a serial killer, chasing down an infamous hacker, or going after one of the gangs that plague Chicago, the game maintains the ctOS, hacker, and Aiden-as-vigilante themes pretty well. And of course, all of this is enabled by Aiden's trusty smartphone, which allows him to learn about the people of the city, secretly steal from their bank accounts, or when in combat, set off their phones or explosives to distract, incapacitate, or just straight-up kill his enemies. You can also use it to scan every person in the game and learn a one- or two-line tidbit about that character's life - this is sometimes designed to give players insight on key characters, but it's usually just for flavor. Sometimes, that abundance of information that Aiden has access to will make for interesting situations, too - for example, you'll find out that a man who's about to commit a crime is probably going to say something crazy before attacking someone in a dark alley, because you learned ahead of time that he's a mental health patient. And other times, you get a bit of perspective - like how that thug who's brain you're about to put a bullet through actually just buried his youngest son. Does it really mean that much? Maybe not, especially since much of it is just randomized stuff that you'll see maybe a bit too often (how many top fighting game tournament players live in Chicago, anyway?), but in my mind, any way to add a little humanity to the thugs and seemingly nameless and faceless people that fill up a video game city is a worthwhile enterprise.
You just can't have a modern open-world city game without a solid variety of vehicles to drive, and Watch_Dogs delivers on this notion well. From bikes to sports cars to big trucks, everything in this game is quite fun to drive and handles well. In fact, some handle too well - motorcycles are hugely useful in this game, where even a dirt bike is so fast that it can outrun police helicopters. And with their ability to stop on a dime and not throw you off in all but the biggest of high-speed crashes, I have to say that the range of motorcycles in this game are a joy to ride - even if they're a bit too easy to handle. Otherwise, there is a lot of car ramming in this, mostly because Aiden doesn't have a way to shoot while he's driving, unlike some other action games. Frankly, I agree with this decision since it seems like it'd be nearly impossible to do in real life, and with the way Watch_Dogs is structured, it forces you to be smart about car chases and gets you to pick your routes with a bit more strategy. When being chased, you'll want to avoid the highways and anything with long stretches of flat terrain, and instead use more city streets where you can hack the traffic lights, steam pipes and blockers to attack your pursuers at most intersections.
And speaking of things Aiden cannot do, there are a few other things that I was surprised to find aren't in the game. Aiden has a melee attack that serves as a contextual takedown move, and it only works on active attackers, so you can't use it on random people in the streets. (More of a strange omission than one that really matters.) Aiden also cannot perform a regular jump - there is no jump button at all. Instead, he relies on an Assassin's Creed-style system where he'll hop over only some things like low walls quickly if you hold down a button while sprinting. Watch_Dogs' world was not designed with any crazy branch-balancing or wall-climbing, though, so you're limited to using these traversals mostly in small ways and only in particular spots. These are generally more slight annoyances than glaring omissions, but I can think of at least a few situations where I could have done some discretionary leaping that would have worked out just fine.
The online play in Watch_Dogs is set up with online missions that are launched directly inside your single player game. They're clearly marked with purple coloring so you know what you're getting into, and the game does try to give you some online practice with an "invasion" early on in the game (yes, some of them work a bit like Dark Souls) with a simple AI-powered attack. After that, though, if you make yourself available to invasions in the options menu, you'll likely find that players will be much tougher to take down. One thing I do like is that most of these online missions don't have you invading another player's game in order to kill them; it's usually something more non-violent, and it's up to the defender to bring the violence. Overall, the online play is something that's clearly a little more understated, and that's probably because so many people who play games like this rarely spend time in the multiplayer modes.
Uplay. Ugh. For those who buy and play games on Steam, few things in PC gaming have made less sense than Ubisoft interjecting Uplay right in the middle between the place you buy the game and the game you actually want to play. I have had issues connecting to Uplay with Watch_Dogs which have wasted about an hour that I could have spent playing if I were just playing the game on Steam directly. I'm not against publishers having their own digital distribution networks, but they should offer something unique to their players and make it solid and reliable - which Ubisoft fails to do. Uplay is just a time-wasting middleman since most PC gamers will buy on Steam, then have to log in separately to Uplay, and it just makes no sense with all the delays and frustrations when servers are down or when e-justice nerds are DDOSing their service.
I've laid out some negative things about Watch_Dogs so far, but my biggest complaint is with the illusion of choice and the mismatch between gameplay design and storytelling. One mission seemed to expect me to kill a bunch of incoming mob thugs, as it laid out the level design to make that choice very easy, but after seeing the result of killing them all - Aiden being remorseful for killing a bunch of people while being seen by someone he didn't want exposed to that kind of violence - I had decided to retry the mission and see if I could get a different result with a non-lethal approach. I went through the vastly tougher process of winning that entire fight against 15+ goons non-lethally with baton takedowns, and what was my reward at the end? The same cutscene with Aiden still anguishing over killing all of those people. Sure, Watch_Dogs is taking note of your actions, but it's only one narrow sliver of your deeds, tracked in a way that's convenient for the developers. To have a big, expensive, blockbuster game have such a lazy, broken intersection between gameplay and storytelling is just frustrating to see.
Still, Watch_Dogs packs in a ton of content, at least a few interesting characters, and a solid story into its box, and while the game has become an internet punching bag because of how it looks uglier than its E3 showing and because of Ubisoft's silliness with Uplay and its dozen collector's editions (for a game that isn't even part of an established franchise or with a long-standing fanbase yet), I'm here to judge the game based on what sits before me, which is just the full game without any crazy content - nor do I have wild expectations based on trailers, which admittedly, most people who wind up buying the game wouldn't have even seen anyway. And the result is that this is a solid game that sparks some interesting thought about spying, hacking, and modern society, but it also lacks some of the cohesion and charm that other games in the genre have shown. More annoyingly, some of Watch_Dogs' open-ended gameplay leads you down a very rigidly-defined storyline, which is really disappointing. I can only weakly recommend picking up Watch_Dogs, and even then it's only if you've got sixty bucks burning a hole in your pocket. Otherwise, grab it during a sale.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a final digital copy provided by Valve over Steam/Uplay.