Watch Dogs First Impressions

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Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
PC (played), PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U
Release Date: May 27, 2014 (Wii U TBD Fall 2014)
Engine: Disrupt Engine

Ever since its stunning reveal at E3 2012, Watch Dogs has become the poster child for next gen. Even though that demo was running on the PC, as was confirmed multiple times by Ubisoft, it gave a tantalizing glimpse into what was in store for both console gamers and PC gamers with lower end machines.

The game was even set to launch alongside the current generation as a launch title, Sony going so far as to have a Watch Dogs bundle (which looked sick, by the way). However, it was delayed to allow for further polish and refinement (this seems to be going around lately).

As soon as I saw this game in action, I knew I’d be playing it on PC. I knew that between E3 2012 and launch day, I’d have to upgrade my PC if I wanted the absolute best, premium experience of Watch Dogs. And so, two years later, my PC now contains:

CPU: i7 3770k @ 3.5 GHz
GPU: EVGA SC 780ti with ACX Cooler (I have overclocked this further)
RAM: 16 GB DDR3 @ 1666 MHz

I am currently running the game on full Ultra with 2x TXAA and injected 16x anisotropic filtering via Nvidia Inspector. Additionally, my PC is hooked up to my TV and I’m playing the game from my couch with an Xbox 360 controller. You can use these specs as a benchmark of sorts if you’re trying to figure out what performance you can expect from your own rig. My own performance will be mentioned later on in this piece, so sit tight.

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Now, let’s dive right into my experiences. The best way I can describe Watch Dogs is that it takes the best elements of GTA, Splinter Cell, and Assassin’s Creed and combines them into one amazing experience.

At the time of this writing, I have played roughly eight hours of the game. In that time, I have done a few story missions, drove around downtown and Pawnee, hacked into people’s bank accounts and robbed them of $75,000, hacked into phone conversations, went trenchcoat and iconic cap shopping, hacked into a few ctOS towers, ran around in blind panic as another player hacked into my game, and took a trillion screenshots.

Oh, I also hacked a train, jumped onto its roof, and escaped the police. What makes this more impressive is that I didn’t plan it. I was running away from an event, desperate to find any escape when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a train pull into the station. In a dead sprint, I hacked it to prevent it from leaving the station as I belted towards it. With seconds to spare, I reached the train and landed on its roof. Turning back, I saw the police officers I left behind, smiling to myself.

These types of situations aren’t rare in Watch Dogs. In fact, the amount of density and detail to the world is staggering. Just yesterday, I spent an hour simply listening to people’s conversations. No two conversations were the same, and a lot of these conversations lead you to some pretty interesting stuff.

And that’s perhaps the best way to nicely sum up my experience so far: detail.

The world is absolutely brimming with detail. The NPCs in Watch Dogs are the most believable AI I have ever come across in an open world game . They all act and behave uniquely, yet respond to the player and the environment all the same. You can tell they have their own lives. I encourage you to spend five minutes, pick a random street corner or a park, and just watch the NPCs. You’ll see what I mean.

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On top of the amazing AI, there are simply so many missions in Watch Dogs, ranging from fixer missions, hacking missions, gang busts, crime prevention, and the random missions that crop up by listening to NPCs. Each one feels unique and creates a real sense of excitement upon its undertaking.

I’ve only dipped my toes into the multiplayer component. I was hacked twice by other players. I managed to find the perpetrator on the first occasion. It was pure luck. The second occasion was marked with me running around the streets of Chicago in a blind panic, desperately trying to locate the other player.

I failed spectacularly. However, despite my complete incompetence, I really love this take on multiplayer. You’re not sharing the world with others like in an MMO per se, but you feel a sense of connection to other players enjoying the game. The sense of tension and excitement it creates is very real and a welcome inclusion.

Perhaps my only “criticism” of the game so far is the driving. I understand that Ubisoft is going for a more arcade feel here, as is the case with other open world games, but vehicles simply feel sloppy in the way they handle, plagued by perpetual understeer. Compared with its most obvious rival, GTA V, the driving in Watch Dogs is pretty lackluster. I say this after having driven various different vehicles ranging from hatchbacks, motorcycles, sports cars, and a dump truck. Yes, a dump truck. It was baller.

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Ok, I can’t hold it any longer. Time to talk about graphics. In short, this game is absolutely gorgeous. Playing this game on full Ultra settings at a buttery smooth 60fps is stunning. I have not experienced a single hitch in stuttering, freezing, crashing, or any other issue. On my end of things, the game runs flawlessly.

How does this game compare to its E3 reveal? To put it simply, it looks better today than it did at E3. This idea that somehow the game was downgraded is partially true. Yes, it was downgraded to fit on the new consoles, but the PC version actually looks better than it did at E3. Is it drastically better? No. But every little element has been improved a little bit over the E3 demo. All these little improvements add up in a big way.

If you are the type of person who does not like hearing objective truths, now is the time the stop reading. Almost everything from the E3 build has been incrementally tweaked and given a polished sheen. Shaders are more accurate, behaving realistically to lighting and weather. Lighting is more concise, providing even more accurate ambient occlusion by way of HBAO+ (which did NOT exist at the time of the E3 2012 demo).

Reflections are even more realistic, reflecting not just obvious light sources such as headlights, but also secondary and tertiary light emitted from neon signs and even Aiden’s smartphone. The water is just so damn good, tessellated to perfection. Incidence refraction helps drive the incredible realism of its properties. The water reacts not just to objects such as boats, but also to the ambient weather. It reflects literally everything, including ambient occlusion shading from its surrounding environment. Just take a look at the screenshot at the top of this piece. It’s truly ridiculous.

The sheer amount of detail and polish in the visual and technical elements of Watch Dogs simply cannot be overstated. On full Ultra, it’s far superior to the current gen console versions and indeed, better than the E3 2012 build. To deny this only showcases ignorance and a blatant lack of respect for the developers’ years of work.

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In short, I am having a blast in Watch Dogs. The incredibly immersive gameplay, genuinely believable AI, awesome weather system, myriad of activities, and stunning visuals all come together brilliantly to provide a fundamentally thrilling experience.

By borrowing core elements from GTA, Splinter Cell, and Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft have created a truly fun, dynamic, and consistently intriguing game. I am constantly amazed every time I pick up my controller and boot up the game. I experience something new every single time. I can’t wait to spend more time in Watch Dogs.


One comment

  • Of all the people I was looking forward to hearing their opinion on Watch Dogs it was you. I feel we share a similar standard towards GFX fidelity…

    I just have to say that I am shocked that your stance is that this release PS4 port version of Watch Dogs remotely compares to the E3 2012 version. (which was clearly showcased on a PC)

    In the above link there is no way you can compare a PC release running on Ultra compared to the E3 demo. The volumetric fog (looked similar to the batman series). The general tessellation, textures and shadows are superior in every way in the E3 version. The release version seems flat by comparison. Just watch the first min sequence…and if you wanna see how flat* the textures are…watch around 0:40 and look at the overhead lighting…the E3 has proper bulbs, where the release must have chose to have “recessed lighting”

    Speaking of lighting the game is…shiny? that is the only real word I can think of…it lacks depth and a richness. To me the E3 version looked mature, dark, rich where the PC release version looks “cartoony” for lack of a better word. Which it isn’t obviously.

    Now is it a nice looking game…yes…is the PC version far superior to the PS4 and the other console…yes, hands down but there really is rarely a true graphical comparison there providing the software allows for it.

    There are other UI issues and mouse acceleration issues in menus (again bad console port problems) etc but I only wanted to really discuss GFX.

    Bottom line if we had never been treated to the E3 version (same issue with Dark Souls II by the way) we never would have had expectations so high and for us PC guys hope* so high.

    Love your work, truly do appreciate your passion towards the graphical fidelity of gaming.

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