Team Review: Watch Dogs

Our last Team Review was for GTA V the reason we did that was because we felt everyone on the team would find something different to enjoy about the game, seeing how expansive it was. While I can’t speak for the others, I can use my experiences in previous open world games to describe my feelings of Watch_Dogs. I love open world games, from Prototype and Infamous, to Sleeping Dogs and GTA V. In each of those games movement is a big deal, if it isn’t fun to to move around, and explore your environment, all side activities become uninteresting and just tedious to perform. Unfortunately, that was the case for me in Watch_Dogs.

When I wasn’t driving point to point, you will find yourself doing a lot of vaulting and climbing over objects and that works just fine. The problem is when you are required to climb up anything to reach an objective, like a building to reach a collectible for example. Instead of just being able to scale the building like assassins creed, it turns into a frustrating puzzle game. Find that ONE set of suspiciously placed set of boxes that you can climb, or find the ONE cherry picker you can hack so you can climb what feels like the ONE way up to the next level or a structure or environment. It feels like the developers remembered that Aiden was a hacker and not a traceur. So they had to shoe horn in some hacking, or make it feel like Aiden is really not suited for parkour at all by removing the ability to jump and including some climbing height inconstancies.

So after an hour and a half of trying figure out how to reach a collectible, I decided to just marathon the campaign since I did not find any of the side activities compelling, especially after realising that campaign missions were giving me all the ammo, materials, money and skill points i needed to progress through the game just fine. The campaign structure will be familiar with anybody who has played an open world third person game before. You will infiltrate, assassinate, assault, tail, spy, retrieve, and participate in chases. It’s diverse enough to not overstay it’s 5 Act length. I found I was having the most fun with the infiltration and action missions. I played it a lot like Splinter Cell conviction. I took my time, scouted the entire area via hacking cameras and tagged enemies so I knew where they were at all times then made my way through killing them off one by one with well placed head shots or stealth takedowns.

It plays as a really solid third person shooter, that lasted me a good 15 hours. Though with multiple issues with the non-compelling side activities, annoying parkour, Aiden is not a good protagonist at all with a personality that ranges from brooding jerk to batman impersonator, and hacking that doesn’t feel like the game defining mechanic it should be. Ultimately the game doesn’t do enough to stand out from the rest of the pack, and for me it just ends up as a good third person shooter, not the unique open world adventure I was looking for.

Having spent most of the launch period downloading, logging in and waiting for uPlay to fix itself, I found myself questioning why I continue to support Ubisoft as they have proven time and time again how poorly they optimize games for the PC. Because many of my brethren here at Press Start will be focusing on the game itself, I chose to focus on the actual PC performance and whether it’s worth playing on the PC.

Let’s have a look at the graphics and display options:

Video Menu 1

Video Menu 2

Not going to lie here, there are some impressive options on hand here. With V-sync you can choose between 1 frames, 2 or off. 2 frames caps the FPS at 30, which provides stability (which is useful here considering how atrocious the game runs) but honestly, why would you want to play a PC game at only 30fps? (Answer: stable framerate trumps a wonky one, even if it is capped at 30).

Anti-aliasing support is great, probably the best I’ve seen. FXAA, SMAA, MSAA and TXAA. Obviously if you know about anti-aliasing then I don’t need to go into detail, but if you don’t then if you’re running a mid-base rig I would recommend SMAA or MSAA if you’re feeling brave. I’d avoid FXAA since SMAA supersedes it performance wise and graphics wise, and obviously if you’re running a high end rig feel free to max it out. TXAA is a Nvidia exclusive so if you have a GeForce card go ahead and take advantage of that.

So moving on to the graphical quality, again, we have a wealth of options, but unfortunately here is where performance takes a nosedive. I’m running Watch Dogs on an Intel Core i5-3570K @ 3.4 GHZ with a GeForce GTX 660 at 16gb of RAM, not a high end PC but definitely in the middle spectrum. It’s good enough to run most games on High quality at a steady 60FPS+. That said, on custom settings set at high, Watch Dogs barely hits more than 25FPS, which is an absolute travesty. In fact, once I hit the open world, on medium settings I’m struggling to maintain a steady framerate. And the differences between low and ultra are drastic. Playing on low means you’ll be missing out on a LOT of neat graphical effects. Car reflections, water and lighting effects, random debris and foliage on the ground. It’s all eye candy that doesn’t reflect the actual gameplay, but you’ll be missing out on a lot of immersion because of the poor optimization. Texture settings scale with video memory, so on medium you need 1GB, high needs 2GB and ultra needs 3GB.

All of this will vary based on your rig, but right now Watch Dogs is bordering on JUST playable for me. With Ubisoft announcing a patch (hopefully) I could not recommend the game based on my experiences. Ubisoft have given us a HUGE amount of customization and range of settings, but they cannot get the execution right. I managed to find a sweet spot between medium and high that gave me mostly 60fps but dipped quite shockingly once I started driving. Watch Dogs IS playable, and it is fun and diverse and interesting, but honestly I would wait until Ubisoft have released an official patch before diving in. If this was how it played now, I’d hate to have seen it when it was due for release six months ago.

It’s worth noting that there was a uproar about the supposed Nvidia exclusive deal that was struck between them and Ubisoft. You can see some Nvidia exclusive graphics on games like Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Assassin’s Creed IV, but here the cry is unjust, seeing as the game still runs poorly on a Nvidia graphics card. I have noted that I am not alone with these issues, so while you should take my perspective with a grain of salt, you should also know that I am not the minority.

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UPDATE: As of 3/06/2014, Ubisoft have officially released a stability patch, which has tackled some of these issues I have mentioned. So I guess if you’re on the rope on whether to get Watch Dogs or not for PC, now wouldn’t hurt.

PS: One completely nitpicky thing I took away from this game was in regards to the side missions where you had to hunt down random targets that have committed crimes of various nature. The game perplexingly FORCES you to commit a non-lethal takedown in order to beat the mission, with killing of the target resulting in instant failure, yet due to reasons unknown to me, not only are you forced to get up close to every single enemy, scan them with your profiler and determine if they are the target, there are no distant non-lethal options, no tranquilizers or any other method other than beating them down with your justice stick. Not only that, after the mission cleared I instantly pulled out my pistol and shot them in the face about 6 times. I did this for EVERY target that required a non-lethal takedown. Why bother restricting us so much in the game when you’re not going to even follow through or give any reason whatsoever that they should ‘survive’? Especially since I could kill any target I knocked down without ANY punishment whatsoever after I had completed the mission. This forced mission structure is just another reason why I walked away feeling that Watch Dogs was a poor experience.

I believe I was one of the few who was not mesmerized by the hype of this game. Sure I took a look at the initial reveal trailer in E3 2012 and I thought to myself that I should keep half an eye on it, which I did. Prior to the launch of the New Generation of consoles, Watch_Dogs was toted to be an all new next gen only experience that would raise the bar for gaming. Alas, it was delayed nearly on the eve of its launch for some more “polish”. Six months later the world finally got Watch_Dogs.

The concept of hacking from your smart phone which opens up a vast playground of technological infrastructure certainly is an original idea. Unfortunately, the main man you are playing, Aiden Pierce, is about as paper thin as he appears on your game cover. A character that contains absolutely no depth and given some very personal dilemmas ha faces in game he barely seems to recognise them as such with little emotion exposed at all. It stands out like a sore thumb on a cold winter’s day in comparison to some of the other major characters that will be appearing throughout your invested time.

Ubisoft have done a remarkable job of creating a living and breathing open world. The individuality in each NPC and each of Chicago’s suburbs is a plus that surely everyone will recognise. At first being let loose upon the world, I was amazed at all the hacking opportunities presented towards me. Which is great, as Ubisoft really wanted to enforce the fact that yes you are a hacker. There is no need for weapons during car chases, learn to use the city to your advantage and make it yours. Talking of cars, there was a slight learning curve I felt with the roads being extra slippery, perhaps someone buttered them?

A multitude of side activities are present that mainly consist of perfecting your hacking and parkour movements, which are briefly fun but can become tiresome and repetitious for the reasons John mentioned above.

What I was really impressed with was the shooting and cover mechanics. Basic cover to cover manoeuvres but it worked well the same can be said for the aim and shoot mechanics. In comparison to GTA (which lets face it, is Watch_Dogs sole competition) when free roam aiming then weapon aiming would require a small but significant refocus, Watch_Dogs stays on the mark all the time, saving you time and health in those heated moments.

Keeping to the tune of GTA comparisons, I feel GTA’s sound track always has the perfect song playing for each and every moment you encounter in the game. Watch_Dogs only had about 4-5 songs which I liked (and spammed the hell out of for the duration of my gameplay).

Online multiplayer elements are a great idea, the way that it has been seamlessly incorporated works a surprising treat (for when you are being hacked), although can become a pain when solely setting your task to side quests as online hacks usually mean you end up all the way across the city.

If you decide to go on the hack-attack, you had better pray for some luck. If your game synchronises to a players that has already left the spawned area, your screen will have more hiccups than the in-game alcoholics you compete against. Managing to get closer and dodging the instantly appearing cars deserves a reward in itself!

As I mentioned previously, Ubisoft gave Watch_Dogs an extra 6 months polish. This is where the game really lost me and I gave it every absolute chance to win me back. There were so many unpolished aspects I really, really would have loved to see what the game would have been like if it launched when first anticipated. For example; during a few side missions you are tasked with taking down a person for whatever various reason they provide and that’s fine, until the game forgets to load the person I am supposed to be chasing. This one example happened more times than I cared to count. Stacking a motorcycle during another side mission wouldn’t let me pick it back up, I was forced to restart (then for curiosity sakes I crashed again, in the same spot or near enough too and was able to remount the bike?). The biggest one that got me was during a cut scene your character comes under enemy fire out in the open, instantly cutting back to gameplay I was already nearly dead with no decent cover very close, God help the people trying to tackle that scene on realistic difficulty. I know it may sound like I am having a whinge and it may be so but if you are going to take 6 months to polish something at least do it right!

I believe Watch_Dogs certainly isn’t the next gen experience it was hyped up to be, far from it in fact. Yes it does have some innovative and original designs, namely the hacking concept and its endeavour to make Chicago a living breathing world. Frankly, I don’t think this game should be franchise material but I already know I am wrong, which is a shame for honest people’s wallets. For an open world experience of similar value gamers are better off going for GTA. Or at least wait for a decent price drop and dive head first into the digital trips, these barely mentioned side augmentations are the game’s ace in the hole.