It's safe to say that there are few entertainment events that I am more eager for this year than the release of the new Ubisoft game, “Watch Dogs.” The first time they showed a video from this, I was fascinated. And now that I've had a chance to play it for about ten hours all told, I'm still excited to really get into it. I feel like I've grazed the mere surface of the game at this point, and even though there's a million things happening for me in June, “Watch Dogs” is going to be a big part of that month as well. At this point? Inevitable.
The first observation I'll make is that the game has a pervasive sadness in the opening stretches that I didn't fully expect. When I saw that first gameplay video two years ago, what got me was the idea of hacking the city around me to use as part of the gameplay. I've enjoyed watching the city itself come into focus as they've released more and more materials, and the conversations about how they might be incorporating multiplayer were also exciting. But I've gone out of my way not to learn much of anything about the story because I hate having that element of a game ruined for me before I can experience it for myself.
My review of the game won't run for at least a week, because I don't think I could give any sort of genuine response until I've had a chance to live with it a bit and see what gets its hooks into me and what doesn't. All I can offer today is my impression of that beginning and the actual game play and how quickly I started to feel comfortable with it.
There's an opening scene in which we see the moment where Aiden Pearce, your character in the game, first draw the attention of a shadowy organization when he and his partner target the patrons of a hotel and casino for some online thievery. They don't get away clean, though, and an order is sent for someone to reach out and show Aiden what will happen to his family if he ever crosses paths with this group again. In a very brief scene, we get a glimpse of how that plays out, and then we jump forward eleven months, as Aiden starts to get his revenge for what happened, working his way from the lowest level scumbag up.
I had no idea what I was doing in that first couple of rooms. The game isn't really holding your hand at that point, either. Because I've played first-person-shooters and big open sandbox games, I had a general sense of what to do, but it must have taken me five or six times before I could even figure out the basics of how to get my guy across a room and up a flight of stairs. Same thing in the room after that. Little by little, I started to figure out the basics of what I was supposed to be doing, but while there are some very cool and interesting ideas inherent to the hacking, I didn't get a sense that much of what I was doing had any real impact on the game itself. I'm sure that changes as the game progresses, but as a start, I felt like I had a lot of options that were interesting, but inconsequential.
The first real mission involves tracking down someone who is harassing Aiden's sister, and the first time one of my hacks had a real impact on the game was when I got a barrier to pop out of the street in front of of his car, forcing a wreck. I chased him down on foot and executed him on the sidewalk, right in front of a dozen witnesses, as both of our cars exploded behind me. To my surprise, this did not seem to attract any police attention at all, which made it feel a little less urgent.
In terms of graphics, I thought the XBox One version I played looked great. Does it feel like a massive jump forward from “Grand Theft Auto V” on the PS3? Not really. I think it looks very good, but there are a number of stylistic choices made in the earl section, in particular when Aiden is lost in memories of an incident, where digital noise and video bleed is actually part of the style. As a result, it feels like you're watching the graphics melt down, and it's hard to judge just how sharp they are overall. Driving is one of those things I consider very important to how I'll feel about a game overall, and so far, the driving I've done feels like it's always on the verge of being out of control. Hopefully, that is something that is just a matter of time spent with the controller.
I'm happy to cop to the idea that any control issues I have are because this is the first big game I'll be playing on the XBox One. I've had plenty of time to get used to “Titanfall,” but as long as that game's got the bizarre matchmaking issues I continue to encounter, I'm going to be taking a step away from it. Besides, after I finish “Watch Dogs,” I've got a rental copy of the new “Wolfenstein” waiting for me. One thing's for sure… it feels like the system is starting to become central to my entertainment diet, especially since I've made it my primary hub for Hulu and Netflix and Blu-rays as well, and “Watch Dogs” is going to be a major part of that adjustment period for me.
I'll have much more about this game in the weeks ahead, including some stand-alone pieces about the multi-player features.
“Watch Dogs” is in stores now for XBox One, PS4, PS3, XBox 360, and PC.