Watchdogs: the RCG review, much like the bastard child of Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto itself this commentary has taken longer than expected. Without further adieu let’s get this party started.
All joking aside I think in Watchdogs’ case the delay was a good thing and here’s why. As I imagine many of you have heard there were some fervent rumors about how the visuals received a severe downgrade compared to the 2012 E3 trailer, I can say that the game looks decent and I am pretty sure we have the delay to thank for that. I have a feeling Watchdogs was conceived on a rainy Chicago night because Ubisoft sure seemed to put a little extra attention to detail when recreating those scenes. Watch Dog’s Chicago never looks prettier than it does on a rainy evening.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said about everything in the final product. Even with the extended development runway Ubisoft was not able to save the Chicago Bean. The first time I turned on the game I was really excited to see if the Bean made an appearance in the game. One can safely assume that the major Chicago landmarks like the Willis (Sears) Tower and Wrigley Field (renamed May Stadium) would be in the game, but whether or not a b-list landmark would make the cut or not was up in the air. Nothing can describe my elation as I crested the hill and could see a shape in the middle of a park that just had to be the Bean. Then as I approached it was as if I was unexpectedly slapped upside my head as I got right up next to it. As I was starring it down a quote from the immortal Bane sprang to mind “seriously?!?!” The matte gray blob standing in front of me looked more like an unfinished asset than the Chicago landmark. I imagine it is the remaining artifact of the assumed downgrade.
Lets move on to the meat and potatoes of the game, the story. Though it was a pretty standard revenge story it was still engaging enough to keep my attention for the duration of the campaign. I will say however that being what it is it did not do the game any favors as far as putting it on any game of the year lists. Harkening back to how the delay helped Watchdog’s case as far as visuals are concerned I am going to go out on a limb and say no matter how much polish Ubisoft was able to give Watchdogs I whole heartedly believe it would never have lived up to the hype of being “Game of the Show” two consecutive E3s. I firmly believe that the oil burned off of the hype machine by the delay surely helped boost some review scores. Again that’s not to say I thought it was bad, it was just average.
Ubisoft had a number of ambitious goals with Watchdogs, first and most obvious was making virtual Chicago a living city, which they managed to nail better than most developers in the past. NPCs interact with each other, sometimes having friendly conversations or rap-battles, sometimes not so friendly NPCs might randomly attack each other. Then entering profiling mode with a tap of a button only immerses you even further in this living world. Suddenly every NPC has a name and occupation, even a net worth. Ubisoft has done a truly impressive job creating this virtual Chicago, they even went so far as to add a random celebrity to the mix. I ran across Aisha Tyler in the lobby of the Willis Tower, and without shame I can say I was virtually star struck. I found myself gawking at her and even snapped a few pics before I moved on. It didn’t take long for the other shoe to drop on the realism though, after stealing nearly $5,000 from a dying cancer patient named Thomas Anderson I realized just how much of an a-hole Aiden Pierce really was. I was no longer running around maiming and stealing from nameless NPCs, it was now significantly more personal. I do have to admit though it still didn’t stop me, guess that kinda makes me an a-hole too.
It wasn’t until I had amassed a half-million dollar fortune and realized the currency was completely worthless in the game that I stopped stealing from the unsuspecting victims. By the time I had finished the campaign I had spent a grand total of $200 and it was because I was forced to in order to complete a mission. I was able to find everything I needed scattered around the map so I never needed to spend money on weapons, vehicles, or supplies. It would have been nice if they added properties or upgrades for your hideouts or anything that compelled me to spend money. Speaking of finding things scattered in the environments I was a fan of finding loot in glove boxes when stealing cars. It is not a game changing feature by any means but it was a nice little addition to a mechanic we have been gleefully taking advantage of since the original Grand Theft Auto.
Another ambitious feature that Ubisoft introduced to the open world genre is the multiplayer invasions. I am a bit torn on this new mechanic. While I do think on paper is sounds absolutely awesome and I really hope they keep working on it, in this particular instance it was not executed well. Without exception every time I was invaded it was more jarring and off-putting than anything else. It completely takes the focus off of anything you are trying to do and takes you out of the immersion. On more than one occasion I was about to start a campaign mission and just before I could press the button I would get invaded which lead to tracking down the second player, followed by either a foot/ car chase then a murder and an inevitable police chase all equating to 15 to 20 minutes that I was not able to progress in the story. The most unfortunate part about it all was there seemed to be no way to stop it without losing any progress you have made online. Meaning when you turn off the online features you lose all the notoriety and unlocks you have earned and you have to start all over if you wish to participate again later. While the feature is quite ambitious and I do applaud Ubisoft for trying something new, in the end it turned out to feel like another attempt at forcing multiplayer into an open world game that didn’t quite work.
One final gripe I have with the game is the cover system. To me it felt very clunky and on more occasions than I can count on both hands it cost me either an objective or my life. It was incredibly frustrating trying to sneak around in cover only to pop out just as the enemy was closing in on your position putting them in the perfect position to unload a shotgun round in Aiden’s face instead of being able to silently take them down as intended. Or the poor victims of street crime that lost their lives because when I attempted to vault from cover and take down a shooter only resulted in me getting stuck on a corner or other unseen object that caused enough hesitation for them to pull the trigger. Again this is not a deal breaker but it is relatively annoying when the inadequacies rear their ugly heads at the least opportune times.
Despite all of my complaints I did enjoy my time with the game, and one day I may pick it up again to do some trophy hunting around the city, but at this point I can honestly say I am happy that I am done with the game. If you are a fan of Grand Theft Auto I would recommend that you check out Watchdogs, but don’t let your expectations get as lofty as they were after the 2012 and 2013 E3 conferences.
* Review based on PS4 version. Also available on Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS3, and soon to be Wii U