“I’d been reading up on the big cons. Social engineering. Psychology. Intimidation tactics. I needed to be able to win a fight before it even began. I wasn’t there yet, but I am now.”
Aiden Pearce, Watch Dogs
Motivation, the key differentiating factor that you come to realise permeates and encapsulates the entirety of the experience of this game, unique even amongst its own peers and rivals and one that is very much a welcome discovery in an otherwise entirely recognisable open world title. Released in May 2014 from Ubisoft’s Montreal Studio, a game’s house that has become synonymous with games of this genre and style, assisting, perhaps even instrumental in the formation of some notable and expansive open world franchises including the Assassin’s Creed series and the Far Cry games following the first title from Crytek, Watch Dogs was an original Intellectual Property, IP, that attempted to shift the studios traditional focus from historic or environmental open world titles and establish a new series of games in a modern urban location. This of course brought the studio into direct competition with the nearest equivalence to this particular genre, the behemoth of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto 5, released in September 2013 on the seventh generation of consoles before transitioning onto the present era in November 2014. On it’s announcement in 2012, the title garnered significant praise not only for its perceived graphical prowess but also the unique factors attributable only to this title, specifically the ability to hack and manipulate the world and environment around you unlike anything in Rockstar’s title, and as a consequence became the studio’s most pre-ordered new IP. Despite the over familiarity of the genre and the legacy of the studio for fairly repetitive open world historical titles, gamer’s were clearly onboard and impressed with the drive to experience a modern open world title, sold on a mix of next generation graphics and a level of interactivity and connection to the world around them unlike anything experienced previously.
Reality unfortunately did not match perception or anticipation and on its release Watch Dog’s experienced a mixed array of reviews and critiques, levelled principally towards the difference in the graphics of the release trailer and the finalised product. Whether this was a valid criticism or not, certainly it did little to deter the sales of the game which by the end of 2014 had sold upto 10 million units, receiving numerous awards and nominations although in themselves, a reflection of the games divisive nature nominated for Best Original Game at the Games Critics Award in 2013 and then a year later winning the Most Disappointing Game only a year later. What cannot be denied about the game’s narrative, as opposed to other studios that often attempted to play it safe during the transitional period between consoles, with the prolonged length of the seventh generation this was an ambitious and bold attempt to launch a new original property that shook up and challenged a number of the preconceptions about the open world genre, conversely adopting and using those same ideas and tropes unfortunately in part, but certainly for the company a step away from its recreation of historical locations and settings, attempting for the first time to create an urban modern world recognisable to the playing base that would in turn create traction and resonance far more so than any historical setting in the distant past. With the game celebrating its 5th Anniversary this year, we took it as an opportunity to revisit this game, a title that generated so much optimism and resulted in a forlorn sense of resignation at over ambition and under delivery. With a chance to experience the game today with the benefit of hindsight and a certain degree of trepidation, it’s time to journey back to the near future on the streets of Chicago and step into the shoes of the vigilante Aiden Pearce.
Who watches the Watch Dogs…
Motivation and purpose, alluded to in my initial observations, a crucial driving factor in the game’s narrative that permeates and fills the entire experience, a contrast and indeed, welcome state as it tends to be a common missing denominator across the entire genre. The game pits you as Aiden Pearce, the central protagonist of the game, known most commonly amongst the population as The Vigilante. Having suffered the loss of his niece, Aiden has taken on the persona of a vigilante attempting to solve and bring justice to those who have wrought damage upon him and his family. Having suffered a familial tragedy witnessed at various points through flashback the opening act is focused on Aiden establishing contact with the root cause behind the person that ordered the hit on them years earlier. It soon becomes clear to accomplish his objectives he’ll need to associate once more with Damien Brenks, a former partner in crime before his deeds became more altruistic. The detente is short lived, and the optics of the final two acts shifts as your sisters life is placed in danger by Damien who takes her hostage to influence Aiden in following his agenda to recover a series of computer files and imagery being held by various criminal enterprises. Whilst the trajectory of their journeys is consistent for a short time it becomes clear the end goal and destination is drastically different, if only to recover his sister and ensure hers and your nephews safety. The tone shifts from Aiden acting as a vigilante around the city pursuing his own agenda to becoming the central focus of various forces both friendly and hostile who are motivated to catching and unmasking The Vigilante. As Damien becomes more desperate so to does his actions, the repercussions being felt and experienced by anyone in the orbit of Pearce. Having liberated his sister from the clutches of Damien Pearce ensures she is driven to safety and away from Chicago effectively ending their familial involvement in the game leaving Aiden with the sole motivation to take down Damien and bring the conspiracy into the open, a task that threatens the well being of a great many citizens throughout the city. As the game draws to a close, all motivations and purpose have been reduced to a pursuit of revenge against the main antagonists of the game. Each resolution a painful experience for The Vigilante until you are left with the final confrontation between Aiden and Damien atop a rain soaked lighthouse in the bay of Chicago. The game does offer an additional confrontation once part of the credits have appeared, allowing you to test your direction and resolve and whether to continue the path you have chosen. How you act and what you decide to do is entirely up to you as the player.
Watch Dog’s plays like any number of third person open world games, there isn’t a great deal new to the core mechanics so I’ll briefly surmise a few of the key points and then focus on some of the more individual touches that actually elevated this game for me. The combat and shooting are as consistent with other titles developed by Ubisoft with a number of guns and weaponry that feature in Watch Dogs also appearing in Far Cry 3 for example. The different weapon types do handle differently with differing degrees of kickback and recoil, firing a grenade launcher for example produces a different output and consequence to a silenced pistol. It lacks perhaps the weight and impact of the guns and feels a little light but I didn’t have an issue with the guns, preferring my usual approach of stealth killing with the silenced pistol to relive my James Bond fantasies. When the moment came I was happy to cycle through to my trusty machine gun and grenade launcher combo and all hell would break loose. Utilising the usual mix of stealth light mechanics so familiar in other open world games of the franchise you can quickly guess the direction and best route to take in clearing areas before moving on. I did feel the melee combat was weak or severely restricted in contrast to other open world games, even more so in fact. You don’t have a range of options in your hand to hand fighting, instead a single button press to take down enemies. I did appreciate a variety of take down animations, for example when you have a pistol or gun equipped you shot the hostile, otherwise opting for a more visceral physical put down. However, I did find myself drawn to comparing this game to other titles such as Far Cry or Assassins Creed which all have various melee or bladed weapons options, certainly in a contemporary setting and when your characters name and actions draw comparisons to other more famous vigilantes such as Batman or Green Arrow, to effectively be reduced to a single button press felt wanting. The driving mechanics were very similar, almost identical in handling to that experienced in Sleeping Dogs which is to say the vehicles have almost no weight or handling and feel about a half decade behind Grand Theft Auto which itself wasn’t a paradigm of racing excellence. One of the more interesting or notable additions to the genre mix was the different weighting for cars around you and that in your possession. With the fluidity of the driving you do find yourself crashing, a lot, in to other incidental vehicles and signage which take a significant amount of damage and roll away to an extent its almost comical. In contrast your vehicle, whatever model you choose to drive has a high degree of invulnerability able to survive multiple crashes and impacts before coming to a halt. If this had only applied to the vehicles you ordered, perhaps customised with armour it would have been forgivable but there is something quite game breaking to see a car rolling around in the air with a slight impact before you get in and it handles like the Batmobile from Batman Begins. The method of vehicle destruction for enemy pursuits is also a little strange, you become accustomed to ‘gaming’ high speed pursuits to an extent, and certainly it is consistent with how other vehicles take damage but as has been noted the elasticity factor is ever present and no matter how much you nudge or drive vehicles into walls or oncoming traffic they will snap back to you swiftly. The only way to end their pursuit is to hack the environment around you, from light signals to steam pipes and road spikes, if you time the mechanism just right you take out the pursuing car and end the chase. It’s a unique mechanic that removes the ability to game the chase however does become a little tiresome when you realise it itself is an artificial constraint. The game’s strongest mechanism for me was the narrative aspect, a strange tool to point out but one that did elevate the experience. Consistently your protagonist is recounting the events of what has transpired and discussing the next steps to take. Each mission is a continuation of your previous objective, a refreshing change from other similar open world titles that drops a main objective pin on a random location and gives you no context or justification for their presence or indeed impetus to travel there. On more than one occasion when I began a new session a crucial or context setting phone call would repeat reminding me of my motivation to head to that point. Throughout, Aiden recants the previous exploits and sets out his justification and reasoning for pushing forward, a narrative choice that does perhaps remove an element of the personification found in similar games where you relate or personify yourself through your characters actions, whether you agree or find disdain for his actions, the game does a fantastic job in making the reasoning behind his actions clear and ultimately leading to a forlorn sense of sadness as you enter the final moments.
Graphically my first experience of Watch Dogs was from the PS4 release so I can’t comment on the improvement or changes made to the game from its release on the seventh and eighth generation respectively. Visually, the game does benefit from the additional power of the current generation of hardware, the lighting effects of the city look stunning as they are, you do find yourself idly imaging how good this game could look in the future. I had certain preconceptions going into the game, self described as a near future techno thriller does elicit certain expectations, in truth I was probably anticipating a game more akin to Deus Ex and the opening moments did allude to a more confined corridor based game. Thankfully your escape and adventures within Chicago portrayed a more believable modern, urban, open world title with the city divided into distinct settings and areas to explore. I do find myself experiencing a strange game breaking sensation with these types of games where as many environment types are juxtaposed into as close proximity as possible to showcase the developers ability, interesting to explore and experience but certainly breaking the illusion of the experience. I live in London, I can travel an hour and still be surrounded by the urban environment. In a game such as Watch Dogs within 10 minutes I could have driven through the dockyards, the business district and be approaching the more affluent areas in the north in short order. It’s necessary I’ll concede but does break the immersion of the title. I can tolerate this to an extent into older historical titles although Syndicate manager this in a more effective manner setting the game within a specific area of London, by attempting to showcase the whole of a fictionalise Chicago, it just felt artificially constrained. The character models work, there weren’t any memorable individuals for me with the exception of Aiden although as with a great many open world games I never felt the need to alter his appearance despite having clothing options available. Perhaps a male mentality, I had a functional look for him from the beginning, your appearance has no influence in the game so it became entirely a subjective take, if you were happy with how he looked in his opening wardrobe you could experience the entire game dressed as the character from the game’s cover. The game does unfortunately commit the sin of many open world games, attempting to fill your city with a plethora of options and side quests that have no real tangible effect on the main narrative. In a world where Watch Dog’s was your soul concern its a forgivable sin to create that repetition across your spectrum of games, allowing a great level of immersion into the world of the game but ultimately they are redundant tasks to an extent that don’t have any impact or correlation to the main quest. Which removes any impetus to actually play through and experience them. For curiosity sake I complete about a dozen optional quests, granting me additional skill points and a variety of clothing and other options. Skill points, as with nearly all open world RPG light games are your way to develop your skill set divided into four distinct classes. As with many games of this type there are usually about a half dozen critical skills to unlock that assist in your game that can be obtained naturally through playing the main campaign. In short, there is very little drive to actually play the side or sub quests and they just felt like padding which again, is nice as a gesture but feels repetitive of so many other open world games that I’ve played and experienced. Probably the best moments I had in the game came through my own projections, there is clearly a great deal of influences in the game from various media and pop culture, least of which of course was the aforementioned Batman. Having a character acting as a vigilante hero driving the streets of Chicago in your optional jet black armoured car, a filming location for large sections of The Dark Knight certainly elicited memories of that film. There was an incidental car chase I happened to be involved in that found me driving beneath the pillars of the above ground subway that given the dusky time of day had me humming the music of Hans Zimmer. I’ll discuss the games audio, the featured track list is fairly unremarkable and doesn’t really add anything exceptional to the experience. It’s of course a subjective take but you remember the moments where a particular licensed track is used effectively in a game, from Mad World in Gears of War 3 to Jose Gonzales track ‘Far Away’ in Red Dead Redemption. Ubisoft games for me have yet to find that defining moment of connectivity, the music tracks featured in Watch Dogs just felt like an insipid assortment of songs without any real connection that added little. At this point, and certainly with a modern day setting I’m astonished the platforms haven’t signed connectivity deals with the likes of Spotify or Apple Music to allow you to access your media applications through the game. Your character uses a near future smartphone that allows you to go into a music application and select the variety of licensed tracks featured. Here’s the point, on the last generation of consoles in Grand Theft Auto one of the options was to allow you to open a playlist from your home console with the music stored, even wrestling games of old gave you the option to use your own music as entrance themes. Where you have a modern day game on a modern day console that feels a step backwards from what you’ve experienced before, it just seems like a genuine missed opportunity to do something unique with the game. Would it work in titles such as Assassins Creed, of course not, but given the modern contemporary setting not to include the option seems a genuine waste. One thing I did like was Aiden’s voice, perhaps not as true to his implied Irish heritage but certainly distinctive, a shame the voice actor hasn’t done more work in this area. I would be hard pressed to view this as anything other than a current generation title, unlike Inquisition it certainly doesn’t feel like a cross generational release or suffer from the plethora of issues that title did.
The motivation to invest in this series came from the new direction across the Atlantic and the launch of the trailer at E3 2019 for the third entry in the series Legion with its setting in my home city of London. Approaching its fifth anniversary this year I was invested to go back and experience the first entry of the Watch Dog’s franchise on the current generation of consoles. My main experience to take away from this first game was the devotion and effort put into ensuring my characters, and through implication my own impetus as the user’s motivation was continually made clear and focused as part of the narrative. On far to many occasions when I have grown tired or needed a break away from a game on returning I have lost all recollection of what I was doing and why. One of the best aspects of this game of which I opened this retrospective review was the importance of motivation, the driving force behind why Aiden does what he does. One of the more refreshing aspects of this title was the confidence in beginning the narrative with an established character, a vigilante on the streets of Chicago attempting to bring justice to those who had made such a devastating impact on his life. There was no convenient amnesia or forced relocation requiring you to start in a new location. You were very much a resident of the city, recognised by the population alike, rebuilding connections to resolve a long standing issue. I appreciated and enjoyed that confidence in storytelling, a confidence of a studio who have defined the open world genre in recent years and now work to refine elements into their best possible state.
This was a game I’ll concede I had certain trepidations going into, principally having spent a great deal of the last year exploring the various open worlds of Ubisoft and becoming accustomed to their various mechanisms to such an extent it becomes part of the experience to identify their integration and use. Given the development period, a great many of the tropes which have now been identified and even mocked to some extent in Far Cry 5 were ever present, from the familiar clock towers unlocking the map to compounded areas with a set amount of enemies to kill, stealth light, RPG light, all present and accounted for. In many ways Watch Dog’s delivers all the expected elements of an open world Ubisoft game you have come to expect and certainly on the surface doesn’t warrant or justify any special praise or recommendation. But in one specific way, it elevates itself so remarkably in a way I haven’t seen repeated in the last five years which in retrospect is a genuine shame. The constant narrative push and explanation pushes you through and drives your gaming experience, if studios want me to invest anywhere from twenty hours plus into their virtual playgrounds they need to give me a reason and focus to do so. I’ll make no apology, a weak narrative and a hundred different side missions or quests to unlock a variety of clothing or vehicles that serve no practical purpose will lose my attention very quickly. I need to understand why my protagonist is driven to do what he does beyond my player input, here the game succeeded to such an extent, I fully brought into the main campaign far more than I have with any other recent open world title. As your campaign finished and you realised everything and everyone you cared for around you had crumbled away or been swept aside by your actions it left a very bitter sweet sensation, the familiar jubilation from completing another game and setting it aside in an instant gone, replaced with a feeling of remorse and regret that vengeance and revenge had overtaken my protagonist to such an extent he was blind to the world around him being pulled apart. For a game to accomplish that, for me, was genuinely astonishing.
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