(Note that I started writing this review on July 22, 2014, but was distracted by editing video, The Last of US (PS4), and Destiny and didn’t get around to finishing it until November 1, 2014 when I decided to finish it.)
By the time I finish writing this post and make it public, Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs will have been out months, so you aren’t going to be hurting for a review. There are tons out there, and I really don’t expect this one to stand out or garner any more attention than any of the countless others, still, I want to add my two cents to the mix for the hell of it.
Let me start off by saying that despite all the hype around this game, I actually had no desire to buy it until the week before it was released. Frankly, I just wasn’t interested. But between some streaming IGN was doing before the release and the fact that I wanted another PS4 game to play, I decided to invest in it because it seemed to have some pretty cool features and game play. While I’ve purchased open world games before, I frequently gotten bored with them before I ever even got halfway through the single player campaign; in truth, they were purchased for the pleasure of screwing around in multiplayer with my friends. That includes everything that I’ve played from Rockstar Games… Even GTA V mainly sits in my Xbox 360 unplayed most days. So Watch Dogs had several advantages: I got the PS4 version because I was always more comfortable with the Sony controllers than the Microsoft ones, better graphical quality than 360 and PS3 at the very least, and it was more relate-able to me given I work and have worked for many years in the computer industry.
Contrary to how I usually do things, I’m not going to comment on the single player campaign; while I think it’s enticing and interesting to an extent, really it’s completely expendable from the game. It’s a token story intended to make your occasional murderous rampages and other misdeeds seem justified. Considering the game was marketed along the lines of Infamous with regards to you having the freedom to choose whether you’re a hero or villain, the fact that the single player game suggests you follow a hero-ish (really more antihero) path seems a bit heavy handed.
But to cut to the chase, here are the things I really liked about the game:
A large play setting; it’s not Los Santos of GTA V, but the City of Chicago in Watch Dogs is a pretty large place.
Great attention to details on many things; where Ubisoft thought to pay attention, they did a kick ass job. Sadly, they didn’t pay enough attention… More on that later.
Things I really, really like about the game include the graphical quality, the handling and feel of most the in-game vehicles, and the idea that a nerd can be a bad-ass.
Where Ubisoft didn’t pay attention or simply give a fuck, there are significant flaws in the game, the game play, and fun factor. My biggest complaint, particularly once a lot of people really started playing Watch Dogs was and is the fact that you can’t just start playing and not worry about getting hacked by other random players. Initially, I thought there was some triggering event, such as you pissed off the cops or did something major that triggered the notoriety kharma factor that meant the game was going to try to get you hacked. But now, as demonstrated a moment ago when I logged in for the first time in months, I got into a hacking situation as soon as my virtual boots hit the ground in the game. Fortunately, I’ve found a pretty good and effective place from which to deal with hacks but it’s irritating that I have to worry about it as soon as I start it up. There’s only one way to avoid it: go into the Online game settings and turn off “Online Invasions”. Simple right? Well, the problem with that is that it will reset any and all progress you’ve made in the online modes… So, if you participate in the online aspects on a regular basis but just want a quiet evening trying to complete the various missions, you’re just screwed unless you don’t mind losing your progress.
For the bad stuff, I kept saying this is Ubisoft’s first open world game and that this was damned good for a first attempt. But it isn’t really their first attempt, and frankly the problems really start to show after you get comfortable with the game. Until August or so, there was no cooperative mode in the game at all, and, while you could challenge your friends through the mobile app on your phone or tablet, there was no way to hack your friends. The best you could do is get in a free roam match with them and screw around either doing things together or, with adversarial mode enabled, killing one another. I have yet to do any of the cooperative missions introduced in August/September, but it’s something that was a long time coming.
Another major issue that has now been addressed was that once you get done with the missions — story missions, privacy invasions, gang hideouts, and criminal convoys — you were completely out of things to do other than hack random people going down the street and initiate (and respond to) online races and hacking. And frankly, those things get boring after a while. It’s now possible to do the gang hideouts and criminal convoys again, though the methodology behind doing them is counter-intuitive. In fact, it’s ass backwards. Rather than just selecting the mission to play again, you have to go into the Gameplay options menu and reset the side missions. While this may get the job done, why not just make them directly playable again? Is it really that difficult to fix?
While I stated the play area is pretty large, it isn’t infinite. More interestingly, it’s rather limited on the Lake Michigan side of Chicago, as you’ll notice in the “issues” video I’m attaching to this review: there’s apparently an invisible wall preventing you from going past a certain point out onto the lake. Although I didn’t highlight it the video, all roads, rivers and train tracks that would otherwise leave the Chicago area seem to curve into other parts of the city. The latter makes a certain amount of sense, I admit, but it’s still so… artificial.
Another particularly aggravating thing is the enforcement of law and order. If you kill a person on the street, you can expect to be hunted down by the police and killed. I’d like to say arrested, because sometimes you don’t commit major crimes, and so you should be arrested, right? But, as in the GTA series, if you cross the line in too negative a way, you are hunted down and killed by the police. Hello Ferguson! But sometimes, Watch Dogs’ police decide that you are guilty by proximity and execute you. Throughout the game, you will be given the opportunity to spoil petty (and sometimes not so petty) crimes that occur randomly nearby which have nothing to do with the story campaign or side missions (gang hideout, criminal convoy, etc). If you kill the criminal, say by shooting them and, I’m quite positive, running them down with a car, you may end up in a police chase even if you saved the intended target of the crime. You’re a fucking vigilante, who just took out a bad guy; why are you getting gunned down? Even if you take them down in a nonlethal way (there’s a melee attack that is only available on enemy targets), if there were gunshots fired, you will end up getting chased by the police. Not the actual criminal. You. Even though your character starts off as this anonymous anti-hero, you eventually end up well enough known that police are immediately after you for crimes you had nothing to do with. What. The. Fuck?
So the bottom line…?
The bottom line is that the game can be a lot of fun and very interesting, but it’s flawed. In July when I started this review, I was going to say that it’s early in the game’s lifespan, and it still is. There’s lots of time for Ubisoft to iron out the problems. But don’t be mistaken, there are lots of problems, and there are rumors that the primary development team has already moved on to Watch Dogs 2, so these problems may not get resolved. Time will tell… My original rating for the game was about an 8. At the time that I started writing the review I’d have put it at about 6.5. Now… maybe a solid 7.5 for resolving some of the problems that it had. But that doesn’t matter; what matters is whether you enjoy the game or not. So, make that assessment for yourself.
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