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'Watch Dogs' review: It's about the gameplay, not the graphics

What do you think about Watch Dogs?
What do you think about Watch Dogs?
Permission given to use by Ubisoft

Watch Dogs (Xbox One)

Rating:
Star5
Star
Star
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Star

When I started following Watch Dogs back in June of 2012, the thing that intrigued me the most about it was the element of hacking and how that transformed gameplay. For me, Watch Dogs has never been about how gorgeous of a game it is and how I can slowly walk around Chicago looking at NPCs and buildings, it has been about the gameplay. If you want a game for its visuals, go buy Ryse: Son of Rome or Killzone: Shadow Fall.

Watch Dogs rocks.
Permission to use photo given by Ubisoft

I don't care about visuals when it comes to Watch Dogs because gorgeous eye-candy is not what makes this game great. It's not what makes any game great. The two aforementioned titles at the end of the first paragraph prove that. Visuals are a part of the equation and Watch Dogs' does look incredible, but for me, this is a great game because of the gameplay and the fact that Ubisoft really has redefined the way you can create an open-world game. Watch Dogs has an immersive story with intriguing, jump off the screen characters to carry it all out.

The sum of all its parts is what makes this game so good. Companies always talk about creating something new or innovating, but they don't always deliver on those promises. Ubisoft wanted to rethink, redefine and re-imagine gameplay, and let me be one of the first to tell you, they did just that.

Visuals

Let's just get this out of the way first. Does Watch Dogs look as good as the demo we saw at E3 2012? Of course not. However, Watch Dogs is still gorgeous and is one of the better-looking games we've seen on new-gen consoles. From trees blowing in the wind as you walk through downtown Chicago, to leaves tumbling across streets, these are a few examples of the various visual elements that help increase immersion.

Additionally, driving around Chicago while the streets are wet or it is raining, really allows Watch Dogs to shine the most. The drops of rain and puddles on the street are as good looking as the ones we saw in Sony's InFamous: Second Son. Cars in Watch Dogs have a gorgeous glow and polish to them, plus character clothing in cutscenes move with greater life than we've seen before.

Cutscenes are an interesting beast to talk about. While it may seem funny or odd, I found that cutscenes that take place during the nighttime are better looking than those that happen during the daytime. An example of this is an early scene between Aiden and Nicole Pearce at her house during the day. Things don't look quite right and not as defined. A later scene in the game between Damien and Aiden is unbelievably good-looking, almost to the point where I thought the visuals were borderline real-life. I'm not sure if this was intentional or accidental, but cutscenes in Watch Dogs at night look better to me than the ones during the day.

From a visual standpoint though, Chicago looks amazing in its new-gen glory, as do the characters, the movements of their clothes and the various environmental effects you will see throughout the game. Yes there is room for improvement, but Watch Dogs looks very, very good.

Story

Watch Dogs tackles a subject matter that no other game has before. Hacking and technology are interesting subjects and are ones that drive the entire concept of this game. Watch Dogs features an intense, thrilling story that sees Aiden Pearce try and avenge his niece's death that took place 11 months beforehand. Using his hacking skills and interesting group of allies, Aiden is hell-bent on delivering justice to those that took his niece, Lena Pearce, away from him.

The story is one that I found myself wanting to stay focused on throughout my review, not out of a desire to finish the game faster, but more because I wanted to see what would happen next and who I would meet. It's an immersive, intelligent tale that has a fabulous supporting cast in it. Among my favorite personalities in Watch Dogs are Jordi Chin and Damien Brenks.

Jordi is quite the interesting dude with a unique way of getting his points across. He opts for a more banter-focused dialogue and often provides some of the best comedic relief in Watch Dogs. Damien on the other hand was interesting to me because of his overriding diabolical, maniacal behavior and tone. He was someone who always kept me guessing and at times, I felt hints of Heath Ledger's Joker performance coming through in Damien's performance. I'm not saying it was as good as Heath's at all, but Damien had a certain level unpredictability that made me think of The Dark Knight's Joker.

An intriguing, captivating supporting cast helps drive the story of Watch Dogs and helped keep me interested from start to finish, something open-world game plots often have a hard time doing.

Gameplay

This is where Watch Dogs blows away the competition and hammers home the fact that yes, this is a great game. The hacking mechanic, while admittedly quite easy, is ever so freeing and addictive. For the tens of hours I played this game for, hacking remained an unbelievably fun feature to play with. Hacking fundamentally changes the concepts of missions in the open-world genre. Mission structure will never be the same.

From side missions to main missions, hacking is tattooed into the way you play Watch Dogs. If you're playing through a gang hideout side mission and you have to take out a leader of a gang in a circular garage structure, it's wise to survey the area you're in. Hacking cameras and finding out how many enemies there are, where they are located and what all you can hack around them, are all keys to completing the mission.

Throughout missions in Watch Dogs, some enemies have hackable grenades. Be careful when you do this though, as once an invading presence is revealed via your hacking; enemies will start looking for you and inevitably find you. Hacking can be used as a means to complete an entire mission or as a way to help setup your plan of attack.

Hacking isn't just a nice, gimmicky feature that Ubisoft created for Watch Dogs. It's a feature that the most in-tune players will learn to use strategically and carefully. For example, when trying to evade the police or an enemy convoy, players will need to be careful and smart about when they hack the city. It's not something you should do freely because hacking five streetlights in a row probably won't get pursuers off your back. Lining up your foes for well timed, perfectly executed hacks on something like a steam pipe or blocker is most beneficial and rewarding.

Watch Dogs' driving system is simple, and practical. One thing I didn't like about it was the fact that you can't shoot while driving. I assume hacking is suppose to take the place of shooting, but still, there are certain missions that would have been nice to have the option of shooting. That choice should've been left up to the player, not made for them, especially since shooting while driving is such a typical feature in an open-world game like this.

Shooting is a stellar system with a nice compliment of weapons to suit any play style. Focus helps players really dominate a group of enemies at one time. Much like hacking, your hacking battery, driving, crafting, and a slew of other skills, focus can be upgraded and its duration extended. Watch Dogs' shooting encounters are often cover-based, featuring pretty aggressive AI. However, AI in Watch Dogs does pull an Assassin's Creed when it comes to enemies briefly seeing you, and a meter filling up until they actively pursue you. While you may have hidden before the meter was full, enemies still investigate where you are, often leading to a shootout.

For those who are wondering, I was able to play Watch Dogs offline and had little issues with it. It's absolutely not the same experience because of the absent, seamless online multiplayer, but I had no functionality issues with the game when it was offline.

Side Content

Well, there is a lot. While the main campaign will take you between 18 to 20 hours to complete, the game's side content adds another 20 hours, easily. Side missions range from fixer contracts that have you deliver a handful of cars in a short amount of time, to criminal convoys that task players to take out a target that is being escorted to a destination in Chicago.

Gang hideouts are actually some of the more challenging side missions, in my opinion. These missions have you take out the head of gangs around Chicago, who are often times well guarded, forcing players to implement a well-thought out strategy. Some of the guards can call for reinforcements, so it's best to take those enemies out first, if possible.

Other side activities include poker, chess, shell game and plenty more. I found Shell Game to be an interesting one. I've never seen it employed in a game before. It's the game you see at sporting events where an animated scene shuffles a ball around and you then have to guess at the end which of the three cups has the ball under it. This was a surprisingly fresh, fun side activity that I was not expecting.

Watch Dogs keeps track of your progression on every level. From your skills being upgraded, to the amount of side missions you've completed. For players like myself, who are self-confessed perfectionists, you will have no choice but to 100% this game. Yes, it's a major task, but it is one that's very attainable, given the fact that you can keep track of everything you have and have not completed.

Watch Dogs presents players with enormous value in the amount of content in this game. It's a Ubisoft open-world game, so I wouldn't expect anything less, but still, it's an impressive how much there is to do in Watch Dogs.

Online Hacking

We didn't have enough time to give a true account of Watch Dogs' online experience, due to not enough players being on Ubisoft's servers. With that said though, I had sometime at a preview event as well as a few occasions during this review where I got an amazing taste of what this multiplayer is like.

The best example I can give you is when I was playing the aforementioned mini game, Shell Game. I just finished up completing a level when I was prompted with a notice that I was being invaded by another player. I needed to locate this person and did so as they were poorly driving around in a car. I tracked them down and took them out.

It was truly amazing to be in my single-player game, not even be thinking about the fact that someone else could enter it, and then within the drop of a hat, jump right into locating my hacker. Yes, it was only a taste, but Ubisoft is certainly onto something with this multiplayer. It's a nice compliment to the open-world experience, and doesn't need to be anything bigger than it is.

Verdict

Watch Dogs is a game we've all been waiting for. In a day in age where something new and innovative is always promised with a new game, but is rarely delivered upon, Watch Dogs actually walks the walk. Hacking will forever change the way you and I think about open-world games.

Despite the superficial, ridiculousness surrounding the graphical difference between now and E3 2012, Watch Dogs is still absolutely gorgeous. The gripe that some people have gotten caught up in should not come into play when deciding whether or not you should get this game. Games are more than a pretty moving picture to look at, and Watch Dogs proves that.

A compelling story with intriguing, diverse characters helps bring the city of Chicago to life. I want a sequel to this game and I hope Ubisoft chooses another city that hasn't been created in gaming before. I feel that really helps this game standout on its own and for the most part, remain free from comparison to other open-world games.

It's yet another brilliant IP to add to the Ubisoft portfolio and it's one I can't wait to see where it goes next. Watch Dogs is a Game of the Year candidate. It delivered on its promise of being next-generation. Ubisoft is in the business of doing things differently and thinking outside the box, obviously.

I'm happy to report to you, Watch Dogs is a great game.

Pros

  • Hack, hack, hack
  • Main and side content is deep
  • Entertaining and engaging cast

Cons

  • No shooting while driving

An Xbox One copy of Watch Dogs was provided by Ubisoft for the purposes of this review.