We’ve been watching Watch Dogs for a while. When we checked out a behind-the-scenes demo of the ambitious sandbox last year, we hinted that the hands-off nature of the presentation didn’t bode well for the open world escapade. Our misgivings certainly weren’t misplaced, as the title was delayed mere weeks before its intended deploy date, and oft outspoken publisher Ubisoft plunged the outing into darkness for a pretty prolonged period. It saved our sanity by re-revealing the hack happy affair just a few short weeks before its revised release, and now the game’s finally infected retail outlets around the world like a nasty computer virus. Alas, is it actually any good?
Seeing as our review’s not quite ready to rock yet – associate editor Robert Ramsey is currently inserting matchsticks underneath his eyelids – we thought that it would be fun to upload some initial impressions on the affair. And they’re mostly positive ones. There’s no doubt that the Chicago set adventure is built from the same blueprints as Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, but that’s hardly a negative when the aforesaid properties are so good. Within the first few hours of the enormous campaign, you’ll find yourself sneaking around like Edward Kenway, gathering up resources which allow you to craft bits of kit, and participating in ambient missions around the world.
It’s a structure that feels instantly familiar, but the folks at Ubisoft Montreal have built a new set of systems on top of familiar ones. The majority of these sit at the heart of your smartphone, allowing you to hack security cameras, locked doors, and more. While it’s all expertly authored by the developer, you definitely get a sense of freedom as your eyes stretch beyond the space in front of you, and it all adds an additional layer to the stealth and combat that comprises just a small portion of the game. Pull out your ingenious instrument when you’re merely sauntering around the world, and you’ll be given background on every single person that you encounter.
It’s all clever systems at its core, of course, but it successfully taps into the voyeur that exists inside all of us. However, while it’s nice to know that the couple kissing passionately in a side alley are both cheating on their spouses, the effect carries much more significant meaning when you learn that the person that you just needlessly murdered recently became a father. It’s hard to get a grasp for just how much variety there’ll be in this area within the first few hours, but on the basis of the short cross section that we’ve played, we can only assume that it was a localisation nightmare – the sheer amount of text included in the character profiles is impressive to say the least.
Don’t expect the hacking to reinvent the third-person shooter genre, though. While it’s very much the focus of the game, it amounts to little other than pushing the square button to trigger different actions. However, these do have a value: you can stop a runaway vigilante by overriding a nearby circuit box or open up a gate to create a shortcut through the world. The mechanic also factors into some of the more exploratory aspects, as you’re able to tap into forklift trucks and mechanical lifts in order to create improvised passageways onto the rooftops and more. And if all else fails, you can just hack into an innocent bystander’s bank account and take their cash.
It’s perhaps the moment-to-moment variety that makes the early hours shine. After an initial high-stakes escape from a baseball stadium, you’re pretty much given the freedom of the city in order to undertake contracts and crime prevention. A lot like the Saints Row series, the game makes contrivances in order to get you straight to the best bits, so it’s easy to forgive the fact that cars appear almost instantaneously when you ask for one. “Whoa, how did you deliver that so quickly?” an inquisitive protagonist Aiden Pearce asks. The question is unsurprisingly dodged by his sharp suited Asian friend.
In fact, if there is a weakness so far, it’s that the narrative seems pretty tired already. Make no mistake, the cyber warfare core is a fascinating piece of fiction, but the cast doesn’t seem particularly interesting at the minute. The mouth scarf sporting star is one of those predictably bi-polar anti-heroes that has come to define the entire medium – taking pot shots with a machine gun in one scene, and lamenting the loss of a family member in the other. The title even attempts to change up the pace by inviting you to a ten-year-old’s birthday party, but it inevitably ends in a car chase and a frantic gun fight – much to your younger sister’s dismay.
But this isn’t supposed to be The Last of Us – much as it would probably like to think that it is – so the pangs of emotional turmoil don’t really need to resonate as hard. Instead, it’s about outrunning the cops in a stolen sports car, and remotely raising a bridge in order to get the upper hand. And it’s during these pursuits that the game is at its best visually, as police lights illuminate the smoke emerging from the rear of your vehicle, and lightning cuts through the cloudy sky. Admittedly, the release never comes close to rivalling the jaw-dropping demo that the publisher perhaps mistakenly showed at E3 a few years ago, but it definitely still has moments of visual brilliance.
And while we’ve barely even scratched the title’s surface at this time, we're eager to see what else it has to offer. With the mission types likely to loop eventually, we do get the impression that the title could outstay its welcome, but the skill tree and progress tracker hints at numerous undiscovered activities, meaning that we probably won’t be getting bored for some time yet. Its resemblance to the rest of Ubisoft’s portfolio means that this arguably isn’t the innovative affair that you’ve been waiting for, but the hacking mechanic adds a little something different to the formula in almost every area. And at the end of the day, who doesn’t want to put their finger on an entire city’s pulse?
What are your initial thoughts on Watch Dogs? Has the game grabbed you, or are you still waiting to get into it? Have you decided to skip the release until it’s a little cheaper? Dump your opinion in the comments section below.
What are your thoughts on Watch Dogs so far? (56 votes)
- I’m getting strong signals from this game, and having a great time23%
- It’s early days, but it seems alright20%
- I’ve played a bit, and I’m feeling disconnected from the experience7%
- Er, I haven’t actually played it yet50%
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