If you're waiting for our Watch Dogs review, sorry, but this isn't it. Our review copy only arrived on Wednesday, so as the start of a new franchise, I'm not willing to pull the trigger until I've tested it to destruction - from ending to endgame content. Expect our final verdict on Monday or Tuesday. However, after putting in a serious shift over the last few days, I can report that it's an interesting blend of different influences that strongly reminds me of all manner of games and movies.
The popular comparison seems to be GTA if you look at numerous user reviews, forum comments and even several critical reviews. Or "GTA-clone" to be less charitable. It's a shame, but totally warranted, since Watch Dogs is fiercely reminiscent of Rockstar's series in its first couple of hours. Once again we find ourselves jacking cars, evading police, running over pedestrians and shooting everything that moves (with much more fluid mechanics than GTA has ever offered, admittedly) in a gritty open-world city, while an embarrassment of nonsensical side-missions seem to be lifted from a checklist of open-world tropes. Time trials, minigames and challenges. Great. We have GTA already.
But that isn't entirely fair, because if you expect Grand Theft Auto and play it like Grand Theft Auto, of course Watch Dogs will remind you of Grand Theft Auto! Conversely, if you go in with an open mind and try to rid yourself of as much hype as possible, Ubisoft's anticipated hybrid feels more like a crazy mash-up of Swordfish, Blues Brothers, Splinter Cell, Paranormal Activity, Dark Souls and even a little Defendor for good measure. So without further ado, here are my current impressions of Watch Dogs both good and bad... and what it reminds me of most.
The Swordfish comparison should be obvious. Hackers and 'Fixers' are effortlessly cool and edgy, decked out in leather, tattoos and sharp stylish suits. Just like real life - no? Hacking also boils down to how fast you can type -- no tequila fellatio thus far, thank goodness -- condensed into simple context-sensitive prods at a smartphone touchscreen rather than labouring over lines of script. Uplink it ain't, but that's fine, because Watch Dogs puts a wealth of exciting depth at your fingertips if you're willing to use it.
Sure, you can smash into a target building and shoot up the place, but a little imagination suddenly turns Watch Dogs into the voyeuristic lovechild of Splinter Cell and Paranormal Activity.
You'll wirelessly leap from camera to camera, terrorising the hapless goons or guards like a digital poltergeist from the camera's perspective before luring out stragglers and mopping them up. You'll detonate transformers to murder gangbangers as their mates desperately try to work out what's going on, raise forklift trucks or open doors just to put the fear of God into them, and constantly mess with their minds by sending text messages about their dark secrets or affairs.
It's empowering and hilarious. Just walking down the street lets you profile NPCs, steal their cash and eavesdrop on their conversations, throwing up new objectives on the fly. You can even peer into their homes a little like a virtual Rear Window, adding context and personality that's often lacking from open-world games.
Mind you, Watch Dogs also reminds me a little of Alpha Protocol in that it encourages you to use guns when it should be fiercely restricting them. Like Obsidian's underrated gem, you've got all manner of stealthy and unique ways to complete your objective, but the developers sadly also gave you the option to just play it shooty-bang-bang style. Which sadly robs the game of much of its unique appeal - it's up to you to make your own fun.
The best way to do that is to get behind the wheel, at which point Watch Dogs turns into Blues Brothers in all the right ways! Once you've mastered the slippery arcade mechanics (which I don't feel are as terrible as some pundits assert), you'll hoon around Chicago with legions of cop cars at your back. Like Jake and Elwood, you can't shoot back, but you're more than capable of causing absolutely outrageous pile-ups with the greatest of ease. A hacked traffic light here. A raised bollard there. Suddenly the sirens turn to smashes and the camera pans into slow motion, showing you the ridiculous carnage as cruisers slam into and over each other. You're free to recreate the big car chase at any time, right down to the Chicago setting and a blues soundtrack!
Be sure to set up a custom blues playlist on Aiden's smartphone app for the full effect. It never gets old. It also helps to ease the sting of a bizarre borderline-broken police heat system that uses unexplained magical circles to somehow detect you through walls. Apparently Chicago PD employs powerful warlocks.
Poor old Aiden does strongly remind me of Defendor, however. If you didn't watch the mediocre yet oddly compelling movie, Woody Harrelson plays a mentally-challenged chap who becomes a vigilante to make sense of the world and his tragic upbringing, not capable of understanding how his actions affect others or how the world really works. I find that Aiden is much easier to sympathise with if you view him in the same light, too slow and handicapped to recognise his own ludicrous hypocrisy as he commits casual crimes against all and sundry and embarks on silly vigilante missions while drawing arbitrary moral lines in the sand.
Aww. Poor guy. I hope that the police eventually sit him down, make him a cup of tea and try to talk him out of making yet another nonsensical decision. I'd rather view him as autistic yet well-meaning as opposed to a psychopathic inconsistent thug.
At least the story is solid. Not great, but solid thus far. It's not going to win any awards on this front, but Watch Dogs is a cut above almost any other open world game in terms of narrative.
The multiplayer invasions add a little Dark Souls flavour. Opposing players can drop into your game and cheekily grief you at any time, with you free to return the favour in tense minigames that won't affect your progression any. It's great fun, a peripheral distraction that adds extra value and can be disabled outright if you don't fancy the idea.
Speaking of Dark Souls, though, the graphics also invite less-than-savoury comparisons too. Much as Dark Souls caused controversy with the obvious disparity between its trailers and finished product, Watch Dogs is patently less impressive than both the E3 demo and the production build Ubisoft showed me last year. Everything is less defined and detailed than we expected, even on PC (we're reviewing on Xbox One, to be clear) - and those screenshots are most definitely bullshots. Last-gen development has clearly held the game back, but in fairness, it's still a handsome game that delivers superb animations and little flourishes as Aiden fluidly hides his fireams while running and steadies himself while brushing against cars. At night, Chicago becomes a much more moody and sumptuous place to be, while sunshine after a rainstorm picks out pools of surface water. It's ambiently pretty, if not exactly the next-gen benchmark so many were hoping for.
It's a heady blend, yet all of these influences sometimes makes Watch Dogs lose its own identity, sinking beneath a morass of comparisons as opposed to blazing its own unique trail. It so often feels like it's trying to please everyone, a
hack jack of all trades yet a master of few. It's an odd place to launch a franchise; whereas Assassin's Creed was focused and raw, needing meat on its bones, Watch Dogs 2 will need to be cut down and streamlined to put the spotlight firmly on stealth and hacking.
Stay tuned for our full review soon. Until then, if you have any questions, fire away!