Game review: Watch Dogs for PS4

This will likely be my last game review for a while, and not because I’m flat broke. I have a huge stack of old games I could trade in for something new. The problem is, I haven’t seen anything new or used that I want to play. This last review is for a game I was tepid on to begin with, but decided to get it because it was steeply discounted.

Watch Dogs got a bad rap right after release because Ubisoft gave it a graphical downgrade from the demo shown at E3. Personally, I feel like bullshotting is so common among the big publishers that it’s not worth my anger. HOWEVER, there is something that pissed me off about this game, and that was the fact that it doesn’t work with the rest mode on the PS4. On all my other games, I could put the console to sleep and come back the next day at the same spot I left. But no, this game would shut down and drop whatever mission I was in. More infuriating was the intrusive U-play sign up. I actually have a U-play account, but I didn’t want to use it. I had to skip the setup on every. Single. Startup. UGH.

So, with that out of the way, Watch Dogs is a wannabe Grand Theft Auto with some phone “hacking” puzzles thrown in. This is hacking in the same vein as that 90s movie was, but I actually liked the puzzles, even the ones on a timer, and you know how I feel about timed missions. (If you don’t know…I hate them with the burning passion of a thousand supernovas.) The driving is mostly decent with some caveats that I’ll get to later, and despite the graphical downgrade, the world looks pretty damned good.

It’s a pity I can’t praise the story, because the story is pure shite. A lot of the blame is on main character Aiden Pearce, who is a tool in many different ways. He’s a tool in the sense that it’s impossible to like him, and he’s a tool in that everybody uses him so easily. The writers want me to believe this guy is so smart and capable, but in the story he is so stupid that he deserves everything that’s happened to him. But he can’t take all the blame for this. The other characters around him all hail from the book of action movie cliches, and every time the story went, “Ah ha, here’s a twist,” I sighed and thought, “Yep, saw that coming from the intro.” This is a clumsy string of delaying tactics, and as the story progresses, they just get more and more stupid as they go along.

So…without spoilers. Aiden is a fixer, a hired gunman working for a hacker named Damien Brenks. At a routine job stealing digital cash from a hotel lobby, they pick up some data that gets them both put on a hit list. The guy meant to hit Adrien ended up killing his niece instead, and Adrien goes on a an epic angry white boy tantrum. I’d say his is the worst, but when Damien finally shows up in the story, his white crybaby antics are even more pathetic. “Boohoo, they made me a cripple!” he cries while pointing to his leg brace. Yep, he’s still walking fine, with no limp whatsoever. But man, that leg brace is just soooooo unfair that he needs to come up with this convoluted plan to get back at the whole city.

No, man, I ain’t believing this.

“Gee Zoe, I notice you mentioned white twice. Why is that?” Well, helpful invisible commentator, this game is…if it isn’t racist, it’s got a huge blind spot for how it portrays race. The “good” hackers are all white, and the only black hackers shown are gang bangers in a slum living up to every possible black stereotype. The only other black character is also a criminal. It’s ridiculous that the game went to such huge lengths to make comparisons between Aiden and gang leader Iraq because Aiden is a serial killer with delusions of moral superiority. He’s not a good guy. He’d happily murder a clean cop if it meant reaching his goal. He ain’t no hero, yo. So pitting him against a war veteran who returned home with a plan to blackmail corrupt officials into compliance…yeah, I’m not feeling it, man.

But let’s set the story aside and talk about the game. A lot of the time in Chicago is spent doing GTA style driving. Oh sure, at first I tried obeying the law to get to places. Problem is, everyone drives ten miles an hour, even on the highway. They still manage to get into accidents all the damned time, and I often laughed out loud watching one car rear end another in what felt like slow motion.

Problem two is, even driving ultra slow, the pedestrians are constantly whining at me. “Oh my god, what is he doing?” a woman screams. I’m driving five miles an hour behind all this other traffic. If I was driving on the sidewalk, or at least speeding, I might understand the complaints. But these people whine about your driving even when you’re going with the flow of traffic. Do that for ten or fifteen hours, and suddenly you snap and drive onto the sidewalk and over several of those whiners while screaming “NOW YOU HAVE A REASON TO COMPLAIN MOTHERFUCKERS!” (Or, at least that’s what I did after fifteen hours of putting up with it. Your mileage may vary.) After that, I had no problem speeding everywhere GTA-style, because it meant I was blasting past the whiners before they could even react to my presence.

But even if you drive the same way as GTA, this is totally not GTA. Oh sure, the wanted system might give you the impression, as could the need to steal a car every time a mission gets hairy. But this is totally a wannabe. In GTA, if you want to deal with another driver in a chase, you can pull out a gun or a bomb and blow them away while driving. In Watch Dogs, you either have to wait for the chance to use your phone on some environmental trigger, or you have to bash their car into submission, get out, shoot them dead, and then get back into your now highly damaged car and try to make a run from Mister Popo. (And the cops are all men, by the by. Not a single woman officer anywhere. Another blind spot? I’d say yes.)

The chases are a core part of the game, and they just keep getting dumber as the game goes on. At one point, I was in the game’s equivalent of a Ferrari chasing a van, and the van was moving like a much faster exotic car. If I was in the same van, it would handle like shit, and rightly so, being top heavy with that portable antenna. But in the hands of an AI driver, it’s suddenly supa-van, and even the fastest car in the game has trouble keeping up. After running this guy off the road, I have to get out while there’s fifty police shooting at me, kill this guy with a billion witnesses, and then get back to my car and outrun the entire city’s police force.

These chase scenes often only have one very narrow path that I’m allowed to take, and I have to sit through a long dialog scene before I’m even allowed to move, giving the other guy a huge head start. Fail to catch up, and the whole dialog and wait has to be done again. Oy vey.

In one particular chase, I actually went outside before triggering the cut scene, and the dude’s car was there, but he was not. He doesn’t even appear until after I’ve triggered the cut scene. Similarly, the cops who chase you weren’t on patrol in the hood before they start the chase. They just appear all around you. Apparently this ctOS also handles instant teleportation. Who knew?

The in game navigation suffers from two problems, both of them hugely ridiculous given the setting. First of all, there’s no street signs or street names. If you’re making a driving game in a modern city, how do you fuck up something this simple? This goes hand in hand with the second problem. There’s no search feature on the phone for locations. On my real life phone, I can enter an address into the search app and get a map with my current location as the starting point. In the game, if I miss the two second window to mark a waypoint, I may never find what I’m looking for. It doesn’t help that the game is often covering up the prompt I needed with other distractions. Oh, look, here’s a crime to stop. Here’s a gang hideout. Here’s a criminal convoy. That mission prompt you needed? Gone forever. Hahahahahaha.

Fun times.

Speaking of the crimes and criminal convoys, this too is a feature taken from GTA, and it didn’t make any sense to me in that game either. I’m stealing money from people’s accounts through their phones every two or three minutes. Why should I care if this dude stole a wallet and got his cash the old fashioned way? I kill people all the time just because they’re in my way, so why am I supposed to chase down every murderer in the city?

Actually that leads me to another random issue that’s not quite a complaint. This game could do without a lot of the distractions. I’m supposedly on a race against time to save my little sister from being killed, so why am I’m constantly getting pinged with distractions? This isn’t Person of Interest, and Aiden isn’t Reese. (He’s not nearly as compelling a character, really.) I know open world games need side quests to pad them out, but mostly I just ended up driving around the distractions even though it meant not unlocking several achievements.

Also like GTA, Aiden is constantly whining about how “this isn’t like him,” but frankly the game never veers from pushing my decisions towards murder and mayhem. If you want to make a game about criminals, that’s cool. Go ahead and do that. But don’t hand me bullshit about the character feeling conflicted when his in game actions tell an entirely different story. Aiden is a cold-blooded murderer, a thief, and an all around asshole. Don’t hand me a sob story about a “heart of gold” because it doesn’t exist.

This reminds me of a certain battle in the game. I’d had to murder my way up through a building to take on a boss, and one of his armored goons comes running out at me with guns blazing. I slipped around behind him, and in searching for me he stumbled over the bodies of all his friends. Now I’d done this same fight three times before without success because of this dude’s armor combined with his mega machine gun. But this time around, he lowers his gun and goes, “Dead? They’re…they’re all dead. Oh my God.” Then he turns to me and says, “Hey man, just please, make it quick.” I didn’t want to kill him at all after seeing his soul torn out like that. But this isn’t a game that affords me mercy as an option. I am the bad guy, and this poor dude is just another victim.

About the only thing that separates Watch Dogs from GTA is the “hacking,” which are puzzles where you have to reroute signals through a series of locks to open them. It’s dumb and has nothing to do with real hacking, but I admit, I liked it. This is no shock, as I’m a fan of puzzle games. When I had to do these in the course of story missions, I mostly found them fun. They’re also used for “privacy invasions,” side quests involving getting into the routers of NPCs to peep on their private lives. I did this exactly twice, and both times I felt like I needed to shower right afterward.

There’s a subplot that goes nowhere about the company behind the citywide software service using it to monitor everyone everywhere…somehow. Aside from one video making fun of Assassin’s Creed, I stopped scanning these because they gave me the same feeling of needing to bathe. Which may say something about me. I’m perfectly okay with gunning down a crowd of bad guys, but I feel ill playing a peeping tom, and damn the trophy I might get for doing so.

There’s also a mission where you have to hack multiple devices to find a boss in a nightclub, but it wasn’t the puzzles that were dumb. It was the fact that I could easily see the boss and didn’t need to do the puzzles to find him. “No no,” the game insists. “You must play along and pretend you’re blind and can’t see the guy with a neon mask on.” If you want me to do the puzzle, at least put the boss in another room nearby. Don’t stick him right out in the open and then tell me I can’t find him. He’s. Wearing. A. Neon. Mask. That’s kind of hard to miss, yo.

(I had another thought about this mission. The story had me chasing him because he had supposedly vital data, and it required that I stay very close to download data from his…something. I was standing not ten feet away from him in the club, but couldn’t actually start the download until after we were in cars doing 150. Why? Because video game logic, that’s why.)

Edit: There is another niggling complaint I wanted to add after posting the initial review. There’s clothing shops, so I was thinking this was another idea lifted from GTA. After all, in GTA V, many missions require changing clothes to fit the job. But no, the clothing shops in Watch Dogs all sell color variants of Aiden’s lame outfit. This is really stupid that he’s a wanted criminal who EVERYONE recognizes, and yet the story never acknowledges this gaping logic hole. (Plus, if the shops all sell a “Vigilante special,” how come there aren’t more people wearing the same clothes?) There’s a mission in the middle of the game where you have to enter an auction run by a mob boss Aiden already met. It shouldn’t be hard to notice this because he’s wearing the same clothes. So it doesn’t just make Aiden look like an idiot. It makes the whole game look clueless about how this kind of mission should go down. Sadly, it’s this kind of decision that drags the game down over and over again. It coulda been a contender, I tell ya. But no. Let’s move on.

For most of the game I was praising a random detail, and that’s the clear camera. In a lot of games these days, if it starts to rain, water drops appear on the screen and distort the view. This is stupid in my opinion and it makes no sense when playing a third person perspective game, (It makes more sense if the game is first person and the character is wearing a helmet, but I digress.) so I was glad that this game didn’t do that. BUT, late in the game, the bad guys start throwing digital artifacts up, sometimes even blotting out the whole screen for upwards of one second. This may not be an issue when my character is on foot, but in a car doing 180, that shit can wreck you. Which I suppose is the point. But it’s a stupid point because why would my vision be impaired with a system hack? Is Aiden watching the world through his phone? Is he driving with his phone taped to his face? No? Then this is bullshit, plain and simple.

The final chase of the game uses this visual fuckery along with a trick that renders the navigation system virtually useless, throws in random camera swerves, and adds another fifty cops to the mix. I had an ability to disable helicopters, but the camera refused to swivel up, something that had NEVER been an issue until that mission.

The whole time I was struggling through this final mission, I kept asking, “And the cops don’t notice their system has been hacked?” It’s the kind of plot device that could only fly in a video game. Even a Hollywood movie would acknowledge the fact that the cops have their own cyber specialists tracking incoming traffic. They might have the specialists be stumped because “this guy’s too good,” but they would know they were being hacked. But in a game? Nah, this kind of thing is handed out with a straight face. It’s stupid, and when I got done with it, I was mad even after doing the final mop up operation and watching the credits.

And speaking of the credits, despite Aiden uploading evidence implicating the big corporate baddies of all kinds of crimes, they don’t even get a slap on the wrist. Well, that’s one way to thank me for playing. “Your whole campaign was useless. Ready for the sequel now?” Um…mang, I dunno.

This was very much a mixed bag for me. When I was doing the sections asking me to be sneaky and tactical, I really had a good time. My enjoyment plummeted every time the game set up a chase and demanded that I murder someone using the clumsy methods available to me. The story always sucks, but at least it was well acted. The graphics are good. The city is okay to drive around even without street signs, and the puzzles were mostly fun.

So I’ll give Watch Dogs 3 stars. It’s not something I’d want to play over, and I don’t even want to finish mopping up the various side quests. But it filled about a week of play time, so I’d say I got my money’s worth out of it. But if I feel the urge to drive fast and crazy, I’ll just pull out Grand Theft Auto V. Sure, those guys are criminals too, but they don’t spend nearly as much time trying to convince me they’re really the good guys.