Watch Dogs PC hands-on: Not the perfect open world, but still a world of fun

Watch Dogs

By on April 24, 2014 at 1:30 am

There’s any number of clichés that can be called to mind to help us deal with the disappointment of delay. From the tried and tested “everything comes to those who wait” to Shigeru Miyamoto’s oft quoted philosophising that a delayed game will eventually be good — but a bad game will always be bad.

Neither of these maxims are guaranteed to be true, of course – there are plenty of examples of the wait not paying-off or a delayed game that ends up being both late and rubbish – but Ubisoft will be hoping that they ring true when it comes to Watch Dogs. Having recently taken a peek at the upcoming action adventure title, I can report that its ambitious open-world holds a mixed bag of familiar shortcomings and tantalising tastes of freedom.

To the publisher’s credit, it has been forthcoming about why the delay was necessary and exactly what the extra time has enabled the development team to do – and it’s not sexy new features, additional game modes or a slew of eleventh hour changes to the core game play concept.

Instead, the explanation revolves around the myriad systems underpinning the entire experience and the simple fact that the team didn’t feel that they were working as well as they should; the game was good but not all it could be. This naturally leads to the question of how well it all hangs together now and while it’s apparent that it’s not perfect, its world does feel coherent and full of possibility.

First, the niggling negatives — and most of these revolve around the notion that when you offer an open world that can manipulated, altered and explored in the manner that Watch Dogs’ can, there are going to be those players who will seek break it so that they might understand its limits. I’m one of those players, which is why soon after sitting down with the PC build I commandeer a speed boat and set off around bay area of this alternate Chicago setting only to bump up against an invisible wall that stops me heading too far out to sea.

Watch Dogs certainly isn’t the first game to resort to invisible walls, but it’s slightly disappointing that so blunt a solution is being relied on here. At some point, somebody’s going to have to find a more satisfactory answer to this particular challenge, but it’s apparent that it’s not going to be Watch Dogs.

Later, I decide to test the extent to which NPCs react to protagonist Aiden Pearce as he goes about his business as hacker extraordinaire. While it’s evident that running around with a gun in your hand is going to attract attention and result in several panicked calls to the local law, it seems Watch Dogs’ NPCs are less observant in other areas as setting off a car alarm has little effect on the people sitting a few feet away at a nearby bus stop, who don’t so much as flinch. It’s a minor thing but one that jars within a world that feels otherwise busy and alive.

Speaking to lead game designer, Danny Belanger, I ask if such niggles bother him and whether the delay has heaped still more pressure on the team from people who push and prod at the edges of Watch Dogs’ world and so may be more critical of such issues.

“I don’t see how this game can have more pressure,” Belanger answers, smiling. “Even from the start the expectations and excitement has been so high but I think that overall pressure helped us make better decisions.

“Ultimately, we’ve chosen to focus on what we feel is important. We do that by looking at the things that players are doing most often and focus on those areas to make them as good as we can and ensure that the systems fit within the fiction of the world as best we can. Occasionally, there will be the odd cases where a player is adamant to break something or to test it beyond its limits and then we’ll have to just sit back and have fun watching the videos!”

Inconsistencies notwithstanding, what Watch Dogs currently excels at is giving you options and offering breadth, if not always depth. Like its Ubisoft stable-mates Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs has a plethora of things to do outside of the main story missions. From hunting down collectibles, intervening in people’s lives and tearing around the streets in a range of vehicles, there’s always something waiting to distract you and fill your in-game downtime.

Similarly, there’s a pleasing flexibility of approach when it comes to achieving objectives, illustrated by playing an early mission through twice to test different strategies. Charged with leaving an area discreetly, the most immediately obvious option is to avail yourself of a car left to you by your entertainingly offbeat associate, Jordi. Manipulating traffic lights to ease your passage, it’s a simple enough case of driving carefully so as not to call attention to yourself and evading the patrolling police as you slip out of their catchment area.

However, what’s more interesting is the ability to forgo the supplied vehicle altogether, hop the fence, make your way to the closest train station and hitch a ride out of town via public transport. The most satisfying thing about the latter option is that it is in no way signposted and the fact that it is still recognised as a valid approach hints at a pleasing degree of freedom. This suggests Ubisoft Montreal isn’t relying solely on the novelty of its on-the-fly hacking system and is instead endeavouring to work a degree of freedom into all areas of its fictional world.

“We use the term ‘free-approach’,” Belanger explains. “That’s where the story establishes a problem that you need to solve and then you take over and do your own bit of the story. Maybe you need to stop this guy and it then becomes systemic and it’s totally up to how creative or upset or angry you’re feeling at the time as to how you approach the solution. It creates a unique game play situation that you’ve had a strong part in creating.”

It’s a concept promised by many games but delivered by very few. Watch Dogs’ varied mechanics mean it has the potential to entertain in a variety of ways but we’re likely going to have to overlook some familiar shortcomings in order to derive the most from it. I’m also slightly concerned that the familiar segment structure of its world that sees you liberating control towers so as to unlock surrounding content – as seen in the likes of Far Cry 3, inFamous: Second Son and Assassin’s Creed All of Them – may dull its shine and prevent it from feeling like a genuinely new experience.

That said, Watch Dogs has been a long time coming and it’s looking like it will have been worth the wait when it finally arrives at the end of May — as imperfect as it may be, it’s also a lot of fun.

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16 comments (Leave your own)

Upgrading to 8GB RAM and a Corsair H80i so I can play it.

 

I like the idea of ““That’s where the story establishes a problem that you need to solve and then you take over and do your own bit of the story. ” but often games with that will still do the “LEAVING COMBAT AREA” restart thing, which is just irritating.

Alsot he control tower map unlocks, eugh, I don’t exactly hate that system, but I am a bit over it.

I’m still interested though, even if I just spend my time catching public transport >.>

 

Hey,

This is probably the most awaited tittle in ages, at least for me. So i really hope that Ubisoft do things right, starting with the programming. A well programmed game, usually makes the whole experience better. I don’t really want to play Watch Dogs constantly feeling the game lagging when there is no reason for that to happen at all. I’ve kept my expectations low, so i don’t get disappointed if that’s the case. So far they show something new, deep and good. So let’s see if Watch Dogs accomplishes what their creators promise. Please take a note that usually Ubisoft do things right. I’ll be in Chicago on May 27th that’s for sure.

 

Seeing the title of this made me fear my recent pre-order (GMG, $50~ for the deluxe edition with 20% off), but glad its only little things. The multiplayer seems to be setting up nicely from the recent trailer.
Hopefully these little things won’t drive us all too crazy, and I’m sure they can do a quick patch to up the scare factor of a car alarm.

fruits,

People have been burned before by bad games, hell it put me off pre-ordering this till the last moment when I’d seen some reviews and a decent amount of footage, and even then I didn’t drop top dollar on it, I hunted to get it cheap as possible (without going to russia) so that if it was bad, then I wouldn’t cry too long about the price.

 
Anon. E. Moose

I haven’t heard much, but how does the world size compare to something like GTAV? From the first screenshot it looks like there’s going to be different environments and I’m just wondering how they’ve scaled the city to fit such things in.

 

anonemoose:
GTAV

You just made me lose the game.

 

makena:
I like the idea of ““That’s where the story establishes a problem that you need to solve and then you take over and do your own bit of the story. ”

Sounding just a tiny bit Deus Ex-y (the original, not the recent one).

 

jme,

HAHA sucked i— me too v.v

i wonder just how big the city size is in terms of km2, if you had the chance to ask you should have. i didnt get many negative truths about this review, i cant help wondering if your wanting it to be great made you ignore a few details or not.
but if you did try and couldnt find any im very impressed :D
would read again

 
jerichosainte

“I’m also slightly concerned that the familiar segment structure of its world that sees you liberating control towers so as to unlock surrounding content”

Urgh, I really hate this model. They only do this to shorten their development cycle because Its basically just copying and pasting the same monotonous tasks into different areas.

Far Cry 3 was the worst in the games mentioned, no variety what so ever, I completely lost interest in the game after 2 or 3 outposts. Buggered if I’m doing 20 of those bloody things. I have a job to fill that gap.

Creating a different context for the same model is not going to make it any more interesting for me. I’m gonna pass on this one.

 

Article Quote:
“Watch Dogs certainly isn’t the first game to resort to invisible walls, but it’s slightly disappointing that so blunt a solution is being relied on here. At some point, somebody’s going to have to find a more satisfactory answer to this particular challenge, but it’s apparent that it’s not going to be Watch Dogs.”

Didn’t GTA 5 basically perfect this for the gaming industry? I don’t think I even need to explain how it works – it’s that simple and effective. Furthermore we aren’t going to get negative vertical displacement (digging) in games anytime soon, so for the maximum height map, do the same thing – add a point where vehicles will just run out of fuel or whatnot and they come spiraling back down.

Excuse me for my gigantic rant, but I will further my argument by referring to Battlefield 4. In both standard and air superiority modes the maximum height is absolutely dreadful – what century are we in? There is no reason to blame this on lack of system performance, because for god’s sake we can run Kerbals Space Program on a map – if people are running BF4 in the first place then why wouldn’t they have enough performance to boost the maximum height? Here is where my argument directly applies back to Watch Dogs. Are developers just getting lazy, and resulting to invisible walls that are such an easy way out, or can we expect to see more intuitive approaches like GTA 5′s perfect example?

Either way, I am greatly disappointed like this, takes all the immersion away when looking at the big picture…

 

I totally disagree that the ‘faults’ are actually faults at all! Which is great news for me!
ie. why exactly is an invisible wall a problem? It’s basically a big ‘stop fucking around and get back to playing the game’ reminder. There is this obsession among open world junkies who seem to say the bigger the game world the better, more realistic blah blah I’d love to see developers put in an endless boat-treadmill, just to screw with the heads of the obsessive explorers ie. LET the player drift off the map if they want, they chuckle smugly to themselves and say ‘oh the invisible barrier will be here sooner or later’…but just have nothing there and watch them waste 2 hours sailing to nothing. Now THAT would be realism.

The other fault mentioned was that citizens don’t react to car alarms. If this applies to cops as well I’ll actually be GLAD. Nothing more annoying than a game where you are going about your way from A to B, you sneeze in the wrong direction and suddenly cops/marines/choppers are coming after you in hordes.

 

Even if we don’t get quite as much freedom in this open world as GTA, I won’t mind as long as the missions give more possible solutions or paths than Assassin’s Creed (up to 3 at least, yet to play 4) which can be fairly restrictive. From what I’ve seen, this seems to be the case. Looking forward to it even if I don’t be buying right away.

 

sifter132,

Yep! Give me an invisible wall over “Get back to the mission Ma-Fa ! 5,4,3,2 – you’re dead’, or a jolting kick back to where you started, any day.
Well, unless the travel has been slow; the ‘wall’ is five-ten minutes real time out, and I can’t get back without having a quick travel option.
Comes a point where a desire to explore and Easter Egg hunt can be overcome by tedious if your on the edge of the map and are forced to crawl back the same direction .
We obsessive explorers shouldn’t be punished for our choices.

Yes, overly observant cops/guards can also be a pain, “You’re under arrest bad boy. You goin’ to gaol…”.
“Bu, but wha’d I do boss ?” . Just glad some games allow modders to make guards, etc. a bit less observant at times (thinking Ovlivion here).
Almost as bad as having to please a cousin or girlfriend. ;)

I didn’t mind the towers in FC3. The game was way too dumbed down overall though. Again, thanks to the modders for helping to make it a bit more challenging by removing see through walls and giant icons, etc.

I guess a lot of it comes down to having enough gameplay options to please various gameplay styles and abilities.
There’s no better way to make a game appeal to a broader player base than opening it up to mods though.
.

 

“…when you offer an open world that can manipulated, altered and explored in the manner that Watch Dogs’ can, there are going to be those players who will seek break it so that they might understand its limits.”

OH.

OH, OKAY.

 

You might want to read your article before posting it to check for any words that may have accidentally fallen off the page.

 
little_ninjai

It will be a new experience to those who did not play Far Cry 3 like me. Sounds like a gta world with a smarter character. I don’t need an endless world if it means the world I have is more immersive and fulfilling. But how will it look and will I still get all the physics on amd?

 
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