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Watch_Dogs Review

Watch Dogs Review

Ever since E3 2012, Watch Dogs has been one of the most hyped and anticipated titles on any system and for good reason. The now near legendary and certainly controversial video that Ubisoft showed at the E3 was a jaw dropping, gorgeous looking game that teased a slick cyberhack Grand Theft Auto variant with everything “cranked to 11.”

To be fair, nothing was going to live up to the hype and imagination gamers used as they waited for the release and any tidbit of news or more footage was eagerly gobbled up.  During that time, some of those morsels provided deflation in the form of the disturbing idea that the game was being scaled back and dumbed down to a certain degree for the sake of the PS3 and Xbox 360 and that what we had seen at E3 2012 was not going to be representative of the final title.

As I will detail further in the next section: This is true.   However what remains is still a really good game and a really good looking one at that, especially maxed out on the PC.

* EDITOR’S NOTE: After each section, Brian Hall will weigh in with quick thoughts from the PS4 version.

Watch Dogs Screenshot 01

GRAPHICS:

Before I get into any other aspect of the game, I have to mention the graphics because that’s where the controversy is and that means I have to address “the E3 2012 video controversy” especially since this has been enough for some people to completely throw this game under the bus which I think is an unfortunate overreaction.

The controversy is valid and yes, it is true that the final product does not look as stunning visually as the E3 2012 video did. See for yourself.

A game isn’t just about pretty graphics and I’m not going to hang my hat on it but it is rather striking to see those side by side videos and realize people with monster hardware will not even be able to have a game that looks like that E3 2012 video. This is two years later. Something just isn’t right here. My point is: There should have been no reason for shortcuts or pulling back on a game that had almost two years of development cycle.  It is not uncommon for game developers to show mock ups of small finished portions of games that exceed what the final product ends up being.  I think this is a practice that flirts with dishonesty and should be halted.

For graphics and performance breakdowns that go into a lot more detail than I can do justice on here I highly recommend scouring PC centric sites like HardOCP, Guru3D, and others for performance breakdowns and tips for getting optimal results out of this game. The PC version maxed out and especially with ultra textures is noticeably better looking than the console version although the PS4 and XB1 versions definitely have something on their PS3 and 360 brethren as you can see here:

There’s no point in getting this game on the PS3 or the Xbox 360 if you have either of the newer consoles or especially a gaming PC.

This game will tax your PC.  I have a GTX 780 3GB and an Intel i7 4770 chip and lots of RAM and I’m glad for it. I am able to run the game on Ultra with 1920×1200 and I feel like I’m getting away with something.  SMAA and Temporal SMAA are the best bang for the buck on AA in terms of performance and visuals. If you insist on going MSAA don’t bother going past 4. It isn’t worth it on law of diminishing returns. Shadows are another area you can cut a corner on for some overhead. Go from Ultra down to high if need be. I recommend avoiding TXAA.  It is a performance hog and it creates a blurring effect that is simply not desirable.  FXAA is an easy standby that you can use as well.

Watch Dogs Screenshot 02

Now for the quibbles:  The minimap is too darned big and there are no adjustment options as of this writing. This clearly betrays cross-platform status or “consolitis.”

On the PC maxed out the following issues are less pronounced than the console versions but still worth noting: Some occasional bland textures (although Ultra setting goes a long ways here), sparse crowds, and once in a while popping in of cars and objects while going at high speeds is unacceptable in this day and age. This is worse on the consoles. GTA 5 did not have this even on 360 and PS3. Night time in the city is more impressive visually than the day time overall.
There are no load times to speak of which is great.  People have had some success with third party apps like SweetFX and ENB to add visual flair.

Overall this is a very good looking game albeit inconsistently at times especially in the day time.  The E3 2012 video showed a segment of a game that made every jaw drop. I can only hope the inevitable Watch Dogs 2 will at least equal that if not exceed it.

Brian Hall’s Thoughts: Numerous reports came out before the retail release that Watch_Dogs was…lacking (?) graphically. I’m fairly lenient in terms of graphics, in that I rarely bash a game on this point and it typically doesn’t weigh heavily on my overall opinion of the game (ie. a great game could lack elite graphics, and a terrible game could have outstanding graphics). Are there games that look better than Watch_Dogs? Yes, but not many. It may not be 1080, but it still looks damn good. Anyone that thinks this is a bad looking game is way too picky.

Watch Dogs Screenshot 03

AUDIO:

Excellent. Dynamic. Varied.  Good separation.  This is definitely a game you want to have on a nice set of headphones or speakers.   Hats off to Brian Reitzell for his original ambient music contribution to the game.  The car radio music selection is decent but feels like an obligatory afterthought. There are no specific radio stations like GTA has. I found that I went into the audio menu and selected the default of off for the radio after a short while.

The city is alive with the sound of cars, people, electronics, and the other big city sounds you would expect in real life.  Gun play sounds are satisfying.    I’ve noticed this in several Ubisoft titles as of late: I have to turn the volume up just a click higher than normal relative to most other games to get the same level of sound.  This is a nit. There’s nothing wrong with the audio.  2 channel is powerful and I cranked it on my 5.1 system and I felt like I was in Chicago.

Brian Hall’s Thoughts: Much like graphics, audio is not my top priority when rating a game. But Watch_Dogs delivers here as well. A pretty solid list of songs in addition to a good script and voice acting, not just from the main characters, but from random people that you can hack into their phone calls. Some of the calls are kinda funny, some are pretty bland, and others open up side missions.

GAMEPLAY:

Fundamentally no different across any platform. On the PC gamers have the choice of both keyboard and mouse and a controller.

Comprehensive menus for PC gamers across the boards so there should be no complaints there.  You can remap your controls and KBM the way you want, too, which is something that really should be a given standard on PC games.

Gameplay at its core is, broadly speaking, a Grand Theft Auto clone but dismissing this game as just that does it a disservice because you can play this game in a very non-GTA way if you so choose. That’s the beauty of it.

I personally have played this game more like a loose open world Splinter Cell Blacklist which you can easily do thanks to an excellent stealth system that’s lifted from that game. That’s a huge difference from GTA and may be the first time I’m aware of that effective stealth could be done in these kinds of games.

Stealth is effective and rewarding and often times the more optimal way to approach a situation. You can always go in loud and guns blazing but Aiden is no Duke Nuke Em and you can expect to die multiple times if you go in without any tactics or forethought.  I found that I typically would take cover and start hacking and working the camera, spot every bad guy, scan the area, and then start methodically working the area over silent as a mouse.

Hacking is the other prominent and distinct gameplay feature here that is very unlike GTA. Hacking is the key gameplay element that everything else revolves around. The default key is Q. Expect to press your preferred hacking key a lot in this game.    Hacking is your best friend and your oxygen in this game.

Infiltrating areas is one of my favorite tricks. You can stand out on a street and meanwhile hack through cameras and even hack gear on enemies to any number of results ranging from explosions, distractions, to using the cameras on their smartphones.  Theoretically, you can take down a mission area without ever having to actually set foot in there until the very end for clean up.

Another difference from GTA that is most welcome is an RPG like skills and perks tree where you unlock and expand your traits and abilities as you accomplish more things in the game and depending on how you do it.  This is extremely compelling and rewarding.  Sleeping Dogs also did this and that was another game that I felt did some things better than GTA just as I feel there are certain aspects in this game that are also superior to GTA starting with stealth.

Driving is decent but frankly leaves something to be desired. I sympathize with why people are using their game controllers for the driving.

Watch Dogs Screenshot 04

Here is an example of a range of criticisms I’ve run across that merit mention because they save me some time and I can respond to them here and give you all something a little different to look at reading wise.

“This is my biggest complaint about Ubi games. Even the main campaign missions are the same thing as the side quests with a little bit of lore attached.
IE: Instead of killing some random guy in a convoy, I have to take him out because he knows info about me.It’s still the same damn game mechanic. AC4 pulled the same  BS.”

Let’s face it, folks: All videogames are repetitive.

There are only so many variances and bags of tricks developers are going to be able to crank into any of these games given time and budget.

You can see how I feel about Assassin’s Creed, the series, and especially part 4 so that’s not much of a problem for me but I guess I’ll make this real simple: If you like GTA and AC style games and aren’t bored with either of them you will love this game, quibbles and all.  If you are bored or dislike either of those types of games steer clear.

“Most games pause when you open the weapon wheel (or extremely slow time).
Watch Dogs already has the Focus mechanic, I completely expected the weapon wheel to slow time as if you were using Focus.   Nope!   It turns out half the difficulty of this game is managing your inventory in the heat of battle”

You can choose the default for a given slot, but when grenade launchers and sniper rifles are lumped together are require further action to get at, it can cause some headaches. For the tools, it’s less of an issue. Still, if the game paused when the wheel was opened then this wouldn’t matter. In short: It’s clunky and could stand refinement.

“Chasing an NPC for a takedown, he was crossing an intersection so I hit “Neutralize”. He crossed into the oncoming traffic lane and crashed into a car. He intentionally changed lanes for no reason and crashed into oncoming traffic.”

If this complaint had said that this happened before hitting neutralize I would consider it a serious AI breakdown but not afterwards.  The AI does have some quirks and leaves something to be desired on occasion but I just don’t see the issue here. When you neutralize a car you kill its electronics and render it dead. All bets are off after that.

“Everything is clientside and there’s no cheat protection whatsoever. No effort from Ubisoft. “

This is true. No dedicated servers and wild west time for online at present. Be warned.  I am someone who thinks that dedicated servers should be a standard in the gaming industry for any multiplayer game or component across all platforms.

If you really don’t want to be bothered with having your game suddenly invaded by players at random by all means turn the feature off.  It’s a neat feature but it can become annoying if you are in the middle of something else and suddenly get raided, although that’s the point. You never know when it will happen and it keeps you on your toes.

Brian Hall’s Thoughts: For everything that is going on and all the things to do, I was surprised at how quickly I seemed to get the hang of things. With all the things there are to do, nothing is overly complicated to perform on the controls. Everything is pretty straight forward both in the in-game action and when accessing things on your phone, which, by the way, I do more on the phone on this game than I do on my own personal phone.

Watch Dogs Screenshot 05

STORY:

A decent narrative but leaves something to be desired.  I realize that these kinds of games typically aren’t going to offer Shakespeare on storylines but this is an area that clearly could have had more depth to it with little effort.  Full potential was not realized here same as the graphics.

Aiden’s typically gloominess and introspection can become wearisome and he isn’t the most sympathetic character especially after you have gone around and done some killing.  My favorite character is Jordi, the fixer. He deserved more time.

Typical of narrative flaws: There’s an obligatory scenario involving sex slaves that had promise to delve into potential depths but really was not capitalized on in a meaningful way.  All you get out of that is another throw away NPC to rescue and a side mission path to unlock a new car.  It promised something more that never happened.  The potential is obvious.

It’s a shame that the writing and storytelling weren’t up to the same level that the hacking and multiplayer components are. Clearly a lot of thought and effort were put into those components and it’s a shame there isn’t some more meat on the bones to add meaning.  Don’t get me wrong: It’s a serviceable story but it could have been a lot more.  I fully understand that these kinds of games typically don’t go for Shakespearean level story telling and writing. I’m simply making the point that the game has points of brilliance suggested that isn’t fully tapped into this time around.

I won’t spoil it for you but there is a nod and a wink to the Assassin’s Creed series in this game. That rumor was true.  It’s not a really big deal per se but it does suggest that the AC series and the Watch Dog series might inhabit the same universe.  It’s a cool Easter Egg. All I will say here is: Your last criminal convoy mission. If you were attentive in Assassin’s Creed 4 you should recognize a character in this scenario.

Brian Hall’s Thoughts: A tried and true story of payback. A slight twist on the relationship that triggered everything, but that’s not a bad thing. Well thought out and put together, this is one of the better plots I’ve seen in a game I’ve actually been able to sit down and play in a while.  

FINAL THOUGHTS:

A really good game that could have been a really great game. The fantastic potential teased in the E3 2012 video and the potential of this concept in general was not fully realized in what is still a very solid and promising debut for a new series.

As a huge fan of both GTA style games and Assassin’s Creed games and Splinter Cell games and anything else along those lines this was manna from heaven for me, quibbles and all.

There has been some concerns in the PC circles about optimization, memory leaks, and things of that nature.  Updated drivers were made available on the day of the game’s release by both Nvidia and ATI  and we certainly can expect optimization to continue on that end.  I’m also confident on support coming from Ubisoft’s side since it’s clear they have big plans for this launching a new game franchise. I’m excited about the potential for it.

Brian Hall’s Final Thoughts: I can’t remember exactly how long I was looking forward to this game, but it delivered. I have yet to find anything this game does not do well. Great looking, great story, and not too difficult to pick up and play. You can’t ask for a whole lot more than that. As for the bad, anything that could be listed as bad would just be minor nit-picking.

Watch Dogs gets a four out of five: GREAT.

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2 Comments on Watch_Dogs Review

  1. Great review!

    I’ve done everything there is to do in the single player (except the stupid drinking game), so I started me up a second play through last night. Put this one on Realistic difficulty.

    In the spirit of realistic, I’ve been obeying traffic laws instead of driving like a crazy person (obviously won’t be able to do that in certain missions), and taking down criminals rather than shooting them.

    My aim on this playthrough is to be full protector vigilante with no civilian deaths and as few enemy deaths as possible. Thankfully, the great stealth makes that feasible.

    Like

    • I probably should have gone into that some more but I felt like the driving needed a little more refinement. Even when you want to be careful and try to be… at least for me…it felt a bit loose and running over people and racking up collateral damage was unavoidable especially during any timed missions. Forget that.

      The stealth can’t be overstated for the needed and added dimension it adds to this and I really do hope I see it become a staple in these kinds of games from here on out.

      Realistic difficulty is going to be a PITA but that doesn’t seem to phase you. ;)

      Like

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