From what I’m told, Watch Dogs is an eerily accurate recreation of Chicago (I’ve never been), but don’t expect Ubisoft’s open world to be as exhilarating to explore as GTA V’s Los Santos.
It’s not because the world is bad — from about three hours, I actually really like it. The game just isn’t designed for reckless exploration in the vein of GTA V, which had me trying to land jets in ridiculous places and compete side missions before eventually wrapping up the scripted story. Watch Dogs isn’t like that.
It doesn’t facilitate exploring its world like GTA, and instead relies on having you buy into Aiden Pearce’s regime and the gameplay quirks that accompany it.
There’s a clear focus on delving into Pearce’s intricate backstory, and grasping the concept of hacking and surveying from afar rather than approaching every situation head-on — although within 30 minutes I had murdered about 40 incompetent security guards. This fairly linear path anchored within an open world leaves the early optional missions struggling to differentiate themselves from each other and the main storyline, offering little incentive to venture off the beaten path.
It’s not helped by poor driving mechanics which have you fighting for control, as everything from sports cars to motorbikes and utility vehicles veer into obstacles, particularly trees, as if they’re magnetised towards them. I’m sure the expertise to race around Chicago’s many perilous railway station signs will come with practice, but throw in some clunky boats, and vehicle control feels more like Vice City than 2014’s defining Xbox One and PS4 title.
The underwhelming vehicular control opens the door for police to be more than competitive. From the ground and the air, they’ll astonishingly keep pace as you bounce around the city, ensuring certain failure during the tutorial mission; and it only gets more intense. The cops’ superhuman determination is countered by hacking into garages and hiding in a parked car to escape their luring gaze, but that too is offset by high tech scanners foiling attempts to remain stationary for too long.
Driving on the whole isn’t great, but police confrontations, at least in Act 1, are as tense as I’ve experienced early in an open world game.
While the dodgem car-inspired driving mechanics leave little to be desired, the world itself is very pretty. Stunning, even. Having explored a little of Watch Dogs, I actually want to make time to visit Chicago when I’m next in the US, rather than the standard Aussie traveller slingshot between LA and New York. The lighting on the PS4 version is suburb, demonstrated by the sunset reflecting off the towering skyscrapers onto the buzzing world below.
Yet, I had to make a conscious effort to notice how gorgeous it is — and I’ve only played about three hours — while being consumed by Watch Dogs’ inundation of tasks. It feels so familiar, but there’s so much to learn instantly. The on-screen smart phone (the menu) is convoluted with optional missions and annoying multiplayer options, while using cameras to snoop on perps while listening to some muffled accomplice giving you directions, who is initially unwilling to share an identity beyond “badboy17”, is all a massive learning curve.
Perhaps, with time, I’ll grow to appreciate Watch Dogs’ spacious open world, but during the opening hours I’ve been so heavily funnelled towards main and side missions, I’ve forgotten Chicago is there to explore.