Chicago, a city full of people on mobile phones and the hacker with the best phone doesn’t even have a camera built in.
Watchdogs wowed us at E3 2012 with jaw dropping visuals and its innovative environment hacking gameplay. Two years and a delay later you have to look at all the expectation and wonder if it delivered.
My Watchdogs was late, later than most being delayed by glorious Aus Post, so I was doubly on the back foot to start with.
Watchdogs is ambitious, the game delivers an impressively rendered Chicago as its playground, graphically it stands proud especially on PS4, while not lifting to the shiny heights that infamous E3 2012 promised you have to admit it does generally look pretty good. The environment however well-built and widely populated it is feels a little empty, almost soulless. By comparison other notable open world games deliver well-worn worlds that feel lived in, they feel populated and organic Watchdogs and its version of Chicago feels like a model village and as for the game’s protagonist Aiden Pearce, well the jury’s out on that one.
The dressing is there, pedestrians wander about, hang around in alleyways and perform manual jobs, but they never seem more than that. The A.I. is lacklustre without any serious ramifications for your actions, a body in the street will often garner little more than a nod from any nearby toon and if they do run away screaming, they soon return to their designated action. Not forgetting the police have virtually no presence and are pretty much invisible until they get whiff of you being a little bit naughty, then the whole force comes out.
What the inhabitants of the city do provide however is your main source of income, a measure of your notoriety as they witness your actions and by hacking their phones the opportunities to eavesdrop on a multitude of conversations. These voice calls and text messages more often than not open up side missions and activities. Funds are gathered from hacking NPC characters that are highlighted in blue, this skims an amount of money from their account which you can swiftly withdraw from any nearby ATM machine. That’s all well and good, but this is the point where you start to wonder if you really like Aiden Pearce, his motivation for his actions or the grey line that he walks. As far as protagonists go, he’s incredibly hard to like, engage or root for. Especially when he’s fighting the good fight one second, then stealing cash and running down pedestrians the next.
On general playability the combat system works well and as a bonus you can craft secondary devices to support your arsenal. An arsenal where there appears to be no penalty for failing, getting arrested or dying. Aiden’s overcoat is constantly bristling with enough small arms to make Keanu Reeves jealous, same goes for ammunition, it’s all over the place in bags or dropped by dead bad guys. There are a few weapon shops around the map, but there’s just no need to go there. There is also a great cover mechanic straight out of the last Ghost Recon stable, but it works nicely, pick your spot and Aiden will scamper into cover all of his own. He also has some free running skills for leaping objects and sliding around, but this doesn’t really cover anything like the jumping or clambering that Assassin’s Creed fans will expect. The city could have been a lot more flexible and interesting if there was more verticality introduced.
And then there’s the drawcard, the hacking. Aiden has a smartphone and while it may not have a camera function (in this day and age?) it does have some nifty abilities. Like being able to hack various objects around the city, being able to ghost around security cameras, hack fellow city folk, change traffic lights, disable helicopters. the list goes on, especially as its also governed by a skill tree that encourages you to play through the campaign to get skills to unlock more exciting hacks.
There’s no argument that it is a fun addition to the genre and gameplay wise, does add some interest to otherwise run of the mill situations. Take a car chase, either police or bad gang members, it’s a lot of fun guiding them into situations where you can write their cars off with a well time bollard, exploding steam pipe or traffic light pile up. Likewise on foot the opportunities are aplenty, using cameras to scope out your objective and trigger traps, using your phone to cause the grenade on a bad guys belt to go off. They’re all great, but after a while they start to feel a little run-of-the-mill. It’s a great dimension to add into the mix, it just doesn’t really carry the game on its own strengths and can get lost in all the side activities which are spread around the city, some of which are too much of a wrench from the narrative of the game.
The phone is also your portal into the online world of Watchdogs, the game world offers some multiplayer action and race variants and some excellent ‘one on one’ modes. In fact, being invaded in your own game is just about the most exciting thing Watchdogs has to offer. Playing cat and mouse with another player that is hiding in your world, downloading your data is lots of fun. Especially if when you spot them you end up in a chase, the invader to escape and you to stop them. The flip side of being the aggressor in this mode is that unless you get a good local map layout to spring your trap, the invaded player can often run around like a lunatic until they spot you. Which kind of detracts from the whole subterfuge intention of it.
Overall, Watchdogs is good, not great, but good. The story is sometimes painful and the protagonist is no better. If this is Ubisoft doing their franchise by numbers thing, I look forward to the third or fourth game in the series. Until then I’ll just sit back in awe at the sheer number of abandoned (keys-in and hackable) electric forklift trucks there are lying around Chicago, somebody really ought to call health and safety if that’s the case.