Ubisoft announced a sequel to one of their most controversial titles just before 2016’s E3 Expo. Watch_Dogs was seen by many at release as a disappointment – a game that completely failed to live up to its hype. With the sequel, the publisher has taken the opposite tack. Rather than announce the game two years or more before its release, this time mere months would pass before announcement (June 2016) and estimated release (November 2016). With the announcement in place, I thought it would be a good time to look back at Watch_Dogs and – with hindsight – see that actually there’s a good game under the hype and disappointment.
The free-roaming, open-world game became something of a staple of the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. From playing as criminals in GTA to undercover cops in Sleeping Dogs, it seemed as if the genre had reached its pinnacle. But as that era entered its twilight, Ubisoft announced a game that looked set to provide a new world of possibilities. A digital world within the digital world.
Watch_Dogs was touted as one of the flagship games for a new generation of consoles and not even long delays could diminish the hype. On release, the title wasn’t everything that gamers (or critics) expected and were hoping for and it’s been looked on quite negatively as a result. But last year, I went back to Watch_Dogs’ near future Chicago and found a rather good game waiting for me. I couldn’t stop playing once I got back into it – and here’s why.
The Chicago of Watch_Dogs may not be a perfect likeness of the city it represents, but it’s clear the developers have taken the time to lovingly craft their fictionalized version. Smaller in scale, and artistically altered to make travel more fun for players, the inclusion of key structures helps those with an awareness of the city feel immersed in the world. Even players who don’t know the windy city – or even that Chicago has that nickname – benefit from the detail, as the metropolis presented in the game has a lived-in feel. Much of this feeling comes from the varied population of characters that players will encounter while exploring the city. This is all thanks to the game’s key feature – Aiden’s clever little smart phone.
While wandering the city with this device, information about each and every person encountered will be displayed, offering a small window into their lives. There aren’t many games that make us feel guilty about electronically stealing from a random person encountered at a bus stop, but the simple “recently lost their job” prompt certainly had us pausing for thought. Moments like this show that Watch_Dogs has a little more to it than its competitors in the genre.
The unique selling point of the game, was of course its use of that same phone as a hacking tool. For the most part, hacking is simply a matter of holding down the action button for a second or two. In most cases, this is simply one stage of the process, and not the entire hack. Once Aiden has accessed a security camera, for example, he can jump to any visible piece of technology and from there to the next. This digital leap-frog becomes a game in its own right, and canny players can use mechanics such as this to their advantage.
Mini games may be the bane of some games’ existence, but in Watch_Dogs, the hacking mini games add another layer of immersion. Presented as puzzle games, players are encouraged to use more than just their trigger reflex to complete missions. If anything, it’s a shame there aren’t more of these present to really add to the feeling of being a hacker vigilante.
The amount of choice that Watch_Dogs offers players through the use of Aiden’s phone is something that few games can match. When carrying out missions, the player is free to pick their own approach. Charging in through the front door with grenade launchers blazing is certainly an option, but only one of many. Far more rewarding to us is managing to take down an enemy’s installation without even setting a foot inside the security fence.
Choice extends beyond mission performance though. I mentioned the game’s tug on the player’s moral core earlier – is Aiden’s need for cash more important than that recovering cancer patient’s? Or that newly retired police officer’s? Or that corporate lawyer? Okay – maybe that last one can afford to lose a few dollars!
Watch_Dogs may not be a perfect game and it can’t be denied that it fell short of its potential, but it offers a glimpse of a promising future. It’s a solid experience and one that at least tries to bring new ideas to what has become quite a standardized genre.
Playing it again now, the bitter taste of our initial disappointment is washed away – and I – and hopefully you – can finally appreciate it for what it is. Find or purchase a copy. Set aside your prejudices. I think you’ll be pleased with the results.
GS Blogger: WedgeDoc