Watch my chops
Watchdogs is without a doubt the most anticipated game of the last two years. With an incredible trailer stealing the weekend at E3 2012- it’s taken a long time coming. For nearly everyone it was our first glimpse of ‘next-gen’ as it was then and it promised so much. Interesting systems governing wind, light and physics, a sprawling city with huge amounts of information available, connectivity in a way we hadn’t really seen outside of Demons/Dark Souls. It looked to be something special. Two years on and it’s finally out, has it lived up to that initial promise?
Largely, yes. While there’s definitely been a bit of a graphical step down (even on PC), the systems are all intact and the gameplay hits all of those notes talked about so long ago. Some people may have overhyped the game, leading to some impossible expectations, but taken for what it is Watchdogs is clearly one of the first in a new generation of games (soon to be joined by the likes of Destiny later this year and The Division next year) that brings a huge amount of innovation to what was quickly becoming a very stale genre.
One of the interesting things about the game is that there’s no one thing you spend most of your time doing. There is a main campaign, but during the length of that (which could be 10-40 hours depending on how much you get distracted) you’ll be chasing trains, breaking into places, breaking out of places, destroying convoys, being a hitman, stealthing your way about and sometimes just racing across the city. It’s incredibly diverse and the objectives usually make a lot of sense. Sure you usually end up killing way more people than you’d expect the character to want to, but if you really want to it’s possible to play around 90% of the game non-lethally, or you can turn into Chicago’s worst serial killer. The plot is interesting enough, even if it’s not going to win any awards. The idea that they must have been writing all of this before the NSA scandals is somewhat shocking as much of the game’s background lore and comments are around the fears of a state of constant surveillance and privacy intrusion. You can regularly hack into their servers and see the mundane (and often hilarious or upsetting) things that they’ve been recording. The news of the last two years has made this game more and more relevant, to the point where it seems topical, something few AAA games can ever claim.
Of course with this being an open-world game there’s so much more to do. From complex chess puzzles to drugs that make you think you’re controlling a giant spider tank destroying half the city there’s plenty of side activities spread about. Completing these gives you experience and sometimes extra little perks and everything feels worth while. The mini-games are all well thought out too and well worth searching for when you fancy a change of pace. Thanks to the recording capabilities of the two current-gen consoles it’s also loads of fun to just mess around with the hacking and awesome car physics. Try stopping a train so you can park a truck on it, but an explosives laden fire engine in the middle of an intersection and then turn off the traffic lights to cause a pileup, just spend ages wandering the streets reading up on the personal lives of the thousands of citizens of Chicago. There’s never an excuse to feel bored in Watchdogs and the level of polish across the game is pretty consistent, nothing feels like an afterthought.
The shooting and combat is all more than adequate, with headshots satisfyingly dropping enemies and a wide range of varied guns which you can carry all at the same time, constantly giving you a wide range of options to go into rights with. It’s more satisfying to take down hideouts and groups of enemies with the environment though. From your phone you can explode transformers and steam pipes and grenades in ememy’s belts, you can raise bollards and bridges to stop traffic, you can even cause block-wide blackouts to provide a cover of darkness with which you can make your escape. You can do all of this from the view of CCTV cameras so we were able to take over numerous enemy strongholds without ever stepping foot inside, treating it as more of a puzzle rather than a shooter. The hacking isn’t just for combat, you can always pull up details on any NPC in the game, finding out their occupation, income and a few personal facts or a criminal record. Of course it’s all coming from a limited database but it’s impressive how rarely you see repeats and it creates an amazing sense of immersion, with the NPCs feeling much more than simple set dressing. You’ll think twice before stealing money from the bank account of someone who’s going through a rough time, and you might be tempted to put a bullet in the knee of that guy who’s cheating on his wife.
The big surprise for us with Watchdogs has been the multiplayer. There are some fairly exciting races and a freeroam mode you can join in with your friends but the best are the invasions. Rather than asking you to go into someone’s game and murder them Dark Souls style, Watchdogs forces a strict ‘no killing’ policy. When you go into someone’s game the whole point is to be undetected, and it rapidly becomes a SpyParty style challenge of matching your behaviour to that of the AI, or simply a really good hiding spot. One mode simply involves tailing the enemy. Unless they try to pause or start a mission, they won’t even know you’ve joined their game and you need to keep it that way while staying within eyesight. If they’re on foot you just need to blend in with the NPCs and hope they don’t look your way, if they’re in a car it’s a little tricker although you’d be surprised at how little players look in their rear view as you swerve across the highway taking out traffic due to your terrible driving. The second invasion mode is about hacking. You need to find the player, which creates a circle on the map, and then within that map you must find somewhere to hide and then start hacking. The whole process seems to take around three minutes but it’s incredibly nerve-wracking as the circle you could be in starts to shrink. The player must track you down and identify you and they’ve got a lot of tools to do that. They could just run around scanning people to work out who it is, even if you’re ducked down in a car ( a very cool feature) they can scan you if they get close enough. They can also take over local CCTV and have a look that way, scanning large crowds very quickly. The best way to win as the hacker is to find a hiding place no-one would think to look in like a skip or a hedge, but even then the game is supremely tense and the timer is so long it’s hard to play this mode for more than twenty minutes at a time.
After you’ve done a little hacking you’ll become increasingly paranoid in the main game, and that’s exactly what Ubisoft wanted. You start looking behind you, suspicious of everyone in case they’re onto you. You become the stereotypical hacker, distrusting of the authorities and dismissive of the public. You want to get your objective done but you can never be sure if you’re alone or not. Unfortunately some players have already found ways to work out if they’ve been invaded, but hopefully Ubisoft will keep supporting the game and try to keep this to a minimum through patches as when the mode works, it’s incredibly successful.
Graphically Watchdogs might not be the powerhouse we were hoping for, but it is a beautifully realised version of Chicago with enough going on to make it feel alive. Of particular note is the physics engine which notice only creates realistically crumpling cars but also wind effects in the trees and on the water and a surprisingly realistic animation for the jackets you can wear. Riding on motorbikes is a joy just to see your jackets flapping in the wind.
Watchdogs hasn’t been perfect, there are definitely limitations of the engine causing bits of slowdown even on high-spec PCs, and it doesn’t look as good as that initial trailer. The story can be a little bit cheesy and definitely lacks some of the maturity it seems to be trying to convey. That being said, it is a fantastic game and clearly the first truly next-generation game. This is the start of a revolution in the way we play games, the way we consider single player and multiplayer, it’s worth the asking price just to experience that.