New Game+: Watch Dogs and the perils of expectations

June 13, 2014


Remember E3 2012? Okay, yeah, you probably don’t. It was the year before the announcement of the now-current generation of consoles, leaving us with another slew of games for our old machines and ultimately turning the show into a bit of a slog as a result. One game stood out and surprised just about everyone though, and that game was Watch Dogs. It was a brand new, original title from Ubisoft, and the reveal trailer was something to behold.

Not only did it seem like the first “next generation” title technically, it was conceptually brilliant as well. Sure, some groaned when Aiden, the main character, inevitably pulled out a gun to deal with some adversaries, but the potential for something different was there.

Then, almost two full years later, Watch Dogs was released to the masses. Many of us expected a little too much for a multitude of reasons, but even disregarding that, it seemed like it would be just different enough to stand out from ever-popular open world trend. Even the smallest of new ideas can do a lot to make an otherwise same-y looking title seem impressive. Unfortunately, in the case of Watch Dogs, it wasn’t enough.


Sure, I, like many others, bought into the hype of that initial reveal. Even if I knew it wasn’t going to revolutionize the industry or even be a landmark title for that particular genre, it looked impressive, both visually and mechanically. The idea of being able to essentially hack into anyone’s lives in our technology-driven world and use that as a springboard for some new activity or a hindrance to our enemies seemed to have limitless potential. And the online, which is arguably the most defining feature in the final product, was mysterious yet alluring. It all came together to create something with real weight behind, at least seemingly.

Watch Dogs is not that game, or at least not the game many dreamed of after that demonstration. Yes, you can hack into the phones of just about everyone in virtual Chicago and steal their information for the purpose of stopping crimes, vigilante-style. Yes, you use your seemingly-magical phone to hack into the technology around you, even if you really only have access to about five or six useful items in the environment. It’s still an amazing concept, yet it brings back the same feeling of déjà-vu I had when I played the original Assassin’s Creed. There’s something interesting there, yet the surface is barely scratched.

It also doesn’t help that Watch Dogs plays it safe in just about every regard, becoming less of a game and more of a checklist. I’ve already covered a lot of this in my review and I don’t want to keep harping on what was said there, but it really feels like its sidestepping the major problems in the genre instead of tackling them head on. What turned this seemingly ingenious concept into a lackluster third-person action game? Nothing did, and that’s the problem.


While it’s safe to say a lot of what made us excited about that E3 reveal is still present in the final game, it’s also present in a game that Ubisoft needed to sell to as many people as possible. It plays it safe because even if one part of the game is unappealing to you, there will be five others that grab your attention and force you to forget about what didn’t work. It plays it safe because it still focuses on hacking, but the hacking is rudimentary and, for the most part, barely essential to the experience. It plays it safe because it wants to allow you to sneak past enemy encounters, but still requires you use a gun every now and again. It wants to be both that reveal trailer and also a game for everyone else at the same time. Instead, it’s really none of those things.

That’s not to say the game would be ultimately better (or perceived as better) if expectations were much lower, but when you start things off on such a high note there aren’t many other places to go but down. E3 reveals are meant to be captivating and Watch Dogs was that and then some. It was the rare instance of a reveal that very few people were privy to ahead of time. It didn’t leak and its announcement laid the groundwork for what seemed like something different. We are at fault for buying what Ubisoft was selling at that conference, sure, but we also can’t be blamed for being excited. It’s in our nature, after all.


So, did Ubisoft fail to deliver? Maybe, but regardless of the final product there was little chance it would meet those insanely high expectations. Conceptually, yes, Watch Dogs is that trailer and plenty more. It sticks to the formula we were promised from day one, but in our excitement we forgot it would most likely come attached to much more than we bargained for.