First and foremost, I need to get this out of the way: Watch Dogs is a good video game.
Whenever I hop into a massive open-world title, I simply exist and let the game take me where it wants to. Sometimes I blast through the story missions and (hopefully) finish the side missions afterwards; other games distract me with miscellaneous adventures to the point where I forget they contain a narrative in the first place. I do my absolute best to subvert every pre-release expectation and simply go for a ride, putting my experience entirely in the game’s hands. Some of my favorite open-world games (notably Saints Row: The Third, Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, and Assassin‘s Creed IV: Black Flag) became second universes for me, as I would enter their environments and simply exist. Watch Dogs does an absolutely phenomenal job of providing endless distractions, as Cyber-Chicago is a city full of virtual leisure. Its environment does not suffer from the dreaded “Populated, Yet Feels Completely Empty” Syndrome that plagues a great deal of open-world games (cough cough Grand Theft Auto IV cough cough), which is a major plus in my book.
However, I’m not entirely sure that Watch Dogs is the “true next-gen experience” Ubisoft has branded it as.
While nearly all of the Watch Dogs disdain comes from an extreme case of “haters gon’ hate,” Ubisoft now has to lie in the made that it made. Boasting arguably more hype than any 2014 title, Watch Dogs has been in our faces constantly. Viral marketing, commercials, and press pieces seemed to hit the Internet daily for the past few months, as Ubisoft’s hacking-based open-world action title was pegged as “THE GAME TO GET!” Granted, Ubisoft certainly profited from this incredible marketing push, as it has sold more copies in its first 24 hours than any other title in the company’s history. The sales are certainly there, but does the actual product live up to the hype?
Being a solid open-world title is not enough, as we have seen countless examples of these over the course of the last two generations. Watch Dogs is supposed to be different, which is an entirely separate proposition altogether. It is supposed to stand out for its “seamless” online functionality, its world where everyone has a story, and its breathtaking visuals. While Watch Dogs certainly succeeds in giving life to every non-player character, its successes in the other two categories are certainly debatable.
Look, the fact that random players can enter my game at any time is certainly interesting. I’ve had a number of unknown online peers deliberately try to sabotage my campaign, and catching them mid-hack is both tense and entertaining. However, this process is not as seamless as one might think, as players are still required to navigate a menu to enter another player’s game. Perhaps I’m picking nits here, but simply transferring a menu from the home-screen to the in-game map (or Aiden’s smartphone menu) does not qualify as “seamless.” I still have to enter matchmaking, and I still have to wait to connect to another player. A seamless matchmaking experience would indicate that I could go from completing a side mission to hacking another player at the drop of a hat (literally, without a seam). Nit-picking aside, I have yet to discover an easy way to hack into my friends’ games at random, which was easily my most anticipated Watch Dogs feature. The ability to mess with my fellow editors’ progression is tantalizing, but it appears as though this is not possible. True, I could simply be a moron who is missing a blatant menu option entirely; however, if it is this difficult for me to find the option to hack a friend’s game, is the multiplayer experience truly seamless?
While Watch Dogs is looks solid, it is nowhere near as beautiful as inFAMOUS Second Son, the game I consider to be the benchmark for what this generation’s AAA titles should look like. Now I fully understand that Watch Dogs suffers from a blatant case of the Cross-Generational Flu (that’s two made-up video game diseases in one article, give me some credit here), meaning that it is all but incapable of looking as gorgeous as a PS4 or Xbox One exclusive. The issue comes, once again, from Ubisoft billing this game as a true next-generation experience. If you are going to peg your game as mind-blowing and generation-affirming, your visuals better back up those claims. Sadly, when one looks at its finer details, Watch Dogs is simply an above-average looking video game.
Whereas inFAMOUS Second Son‘s lighting dynamically reacted to various surfaces, Watch Dogs‘ lighting physics have a definitive last-gen feel. Streetlights do not realistically reflect off of puddles in a significantly noticeable way (I spent a good five minutes playing with puddle-lighting in inFAMOUS Second Son because I’m a huge dork like that). When one fires a bullet into a body of water, there is no splash effect; instead, it simply appears as though bullets vanish into the abyss. The water physics are nowhere near as realistic as those of Ubisoft’s other major AAA next-gen release, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, as they have a definite “last-gen” feel. Perhaps the worst visual offense is Aiden’s character model, as his sweater constantly clips the seat of his pants as he runs (this is most noticeable when wearing the black and yellow outfit). Look, it’s a decent-looking game, but it simply doesn’t stack up to the 2012 E3 reveal; our expectations do not meet the reality we have received.
Okay, so I’ve sullied the great Watch Dogs like the rest of the Internet, hand me a medal. Ubisoft has (and will continue to receive) their money, so this criticism is not going to affect them in any noticeable way. I simply hope that in the future, when we are promised a hardware-affirming AAA title, it turns out to be what it’s billed as. Though Watch Dogs is a very good game, it is difficult to shake the feeling that it could have been truly great with a bit less hype.