Watch Dogs is a sprawling game you can sink hours into, arguably an Ubisoft specialty. And in some respects, it’s a spectacular games. And in others, it’s a total trainwreck. Having put twenty hours or so into it, you can make a compelling case that it’s both the best and the worst game of the year, even at only the halfway point.
The Case For
In its basics, Watch Dogs is actually a superb refinement of what’s arguably Ubisoft’s house style at this point. It’s a shooter with a mix of stealth and gunplay options, where how you achieve the mission is generally open-ended. Everything is rock-solid and makes sense, although some mechanics, such as driving, will take a little getting used to.
The “hacking” mechanic, arguably the central selling point, is more than just a gimmick and actually adds a lot to the game; before you approach any area, you’ll want to get behind cover and see if you can’t tap into a few cameras and get the lay of the land, not to mention create distractions and thin the numbers.
Furthermore, the game rather cleverly makes use of the concept of line-of-sight. The QR puzzles scattered around the game world are cleverly used and have the mark of a good puzzle: Once you work out the basics, it all clicks smoothly into place. “Riding the cameras” is often a fun way to solve problems and unlock new areas.
In short, as something you play, it’s a great game. Where it falls down is the trappings surrounding the play.
The Case Against
One doesn’t come to an Ubisoft game expecting Shakespeare, but even by their standards, this game might be some of the worst writing the company has ever put out. Take, for example, Aiden Pearce, or Smartphone Punisher, since that’s the extent of his character development. Oh, except that we learn for a brilliant social engineer and master tactician, Aiden is kind of a dimwit when it comes to spotting obvious villains. But not as dimwitted as the villains, who, despite you being famous as “the Vigilante” practically from the start of the game, don’t notice you look just like that guy on the news killing all their men.
The game’s script is filled with problems like this. Iraq, seemingly a stock gangbanger character, turns out to be a master manipulator playing off the perception of his neighborhood to mask a larger scheme, an opportunity that’s utterly wasted in favor of cheesy stock villains. Maurice, the poor schmuck you learn was forced into trying to kill Aiden, is a weepy annoyance. It becomes distracting how bad some of the writing is.
There are a few technical problems with the game as well. The police are infamously hard to shake, partially because the game wants you to perform cinematic vehicle takedowns. One problem: Those takedowns zoom in for a nice, slow-motion view of the wreck… while you’re still driving away and trying to dodge obstacles and other cars. Considering the relentless nature of the cops in this game, that means pursuits take far longer as you wreck or even get killed.
Finally, and most curious, in terms of sound, this game is just embarrassing. Brian Reitzell, the composer for Hannibal, hands in a flat generic score matched only by the absolutely stock selections of pop music on the soundtrack. Even the ambient sound is a mess, looping constantly and worse, noticeably.
A Great And Frustrating Thing
The end result is a game that’s a lot of fun to play, but filled with constant nagging little problems that, especially when you’re forced into a scripted police chase, suddenly come to the fore to make it irritating. It’s a game not annoying enough to make you stop playing, but after sneaking through a carefully designed setpiece where you headshot foes and sneak behind them to clear the area, only to find the alarm you were trying not to trip is triggered anyway as part of the script. It’s a game where a thrilling string of missions and takedowns is capped off with a ten-minute chase scene where you just want to ditch the cops.
And thus, that mix of fun and annoyance makes us believe there won’t be a more frustrating game this year. Hopefully the sequel has enough time to tweak, to make it simply the best game of the year.