The Wii U has had a chequered history with third-party support, particularly from Ubisoft, and the belated arrival of Watch Dogs feels a little like a final hurrah — whether we'll see many more big-budget multiplatform mature titles on Nintendo's system is certainly a cause of doubt. This title is here, however, and a viable option for open world shenanigans as 2014 comes to a close; unfortunately, however, the extra development time doesn't appear to have been put to good use.
Watch Dogs is impressive in its scope and ambition, a key point to make in its favour. Its recreation of Chicago is on a substantial scale, taking in suburbs, dock areas and the bustling downtown; it's unsurprising that the open sandbox genre is so desired among publishers and gamers alike. There's a thrill to blasting through a city, breaking rules with impunity and exploring the many hidden alleyways and subtasks.
The main twist, of course, is hacking. System vulnerabilities, access to technology and invading the privacy of others is the core of the concept, and it works well in a crowded city setting. With simple button presses you can hack civilians to steal their cash, unlock new cars — we're not sure of the logic, but don't particularly care — or simply learn that they're a nurse with a gambling problem. Though we think there is a bit of occasional duplication, there's still a convincing sense that you're in an interesting virtual world with a sizeable, diverse cast.
That's just as well, due to protagonist Aiden Pearce being a rather dull protagonist full of contradictions. In a sense this works, as the grey areas of hacking and committing crimes to tackle nefarious powers while protecting a family don't call for absolutes, while your actions in the world can be positive and negative at once — for example a bizarre gauge of your reputation with civilians jumps up when you prevent a crime, yet goes down 'less' when you casually run over and kill an innocent bystander. The game tells you a civilian has died, yet doesn't seem to care even if you've clearly been aiming to be the angel rather than the devil. That whole mechanic falls down, as a result, simply making it an inconsequential way to earn points, undermining the good work done with profiling a legion of NPCs.
That aside, the main campaign is a reasonable blend of missions and a solid plot. As is the norm you quickly start repeating established ideas — you hack your way into ctOS bases (think Assassin's Creed's vantage points) to unlock the digital goodies of an area, you hack into the data of persons of interest, and you engage in shoot-outs with a variety of goons. Though we typically preferred to be stealthy as far as possible and used our XP Skill Points to strengthen our hacking abilities, we nevertheless found ourselves in some mandatory gun fights. Occasionally beefed up enemies that require tricky environmental kills emerge to soak up bullets, and it feels like a classic example of a concept being overtaken by what is supposed to be a gaming norm. Quite why boss-like guards are required in a game that also attempts to provide a narrative on real-world modern technology and privacy issues is beyond us.
Overall, however, there are some good ideas that are executed well when on foot. Traversing an area virtually by hacking from one security camera to another is clever, and though the AI is typically rather daft it's nevertheless satisfying to lay traps, set off explosions, move mechanical contraptions or, occasionally, retrieve the data you need with them being none the wiser. When you do inevitably get into gun fights Watch Dogs delivers competent — though unexceptional — third-person action, with the ability to take cover and even enter a 'Focus' mode with a click of the right-stick, slowing time for short bursts. Pearce also employs the 'sprint and hold A' traversal mechanic familiar from the Assassin's Creed games, though is limited to sensibly vaulting low barriers and generally moving like a realistic human being.
Through all of this action on foot Watch Dogs performs decently, though does still struggle when there are a lot of characters on screen; we dreaded rain, too, as it could slow things down even further. The bigger problems arise when you hop in a car, as the act of driving through the environment increases the load on the system; to be blunt, it's been optimised extremely poorly. The frame-rate dips significantly when driving, and the crux is that it greatly affects the enjoyment of these moments, making handling sluggish and difficult. The game simply cannot keep up with itself, and the biggest loser is the player.
This is exacerbated by the fact that driving is integral to the experience. You're often chasing down other cars or attempting to escape pursuers, and these sequences are an exercise in frustration and irritation. It's playable, and objectives can be met, but it's a struggle and anything but fun; when hacking traffic lights and road blocks to foil foes is a battle against laggy controls, priorities have clearly been wrong.
It's a pity, as while a portion of the game runs tolerably, the driving is a let-down that diminishes the experience. There's no way to avoid this issue; travelling by vehicle is of vital importance to various missions and essential when traversing the massive urban sprawl of Chicago, and it consistently falls below the level of performance that we consider necessary to fully enjoy a game. Rather like Pearce himself, it contributes to a Jekyll and Hyde nature, from enjoyable moments to disappointing — and unavoidable — sequences.
Beyond that issue this title does serve up plenty to do beyond the campaign. We've already mentioned a reputation gauge reflecting Pearce's standing with the public, and this is largely driven by general actions. You may be exploring an area when notified of a potential crime, and if you scope out the area and catch the criminal you become known as a protector; it's frivolous, but these distractions can be entertaining. You can also tackle sub-plots and extra missions that give a little extra scope beyond the core mechanics. With progress, increased abilities and after buying or crafting more gadgets, there can be moments where Chicago is an enjoyable hacker's playground.
There's also some pleasing online functionality, which seems to have made it across rather well onto Wii U. After a short while you unlock the ability to hack into the games of others, which can involve tailing them or — far better — stealing their data. These sequences provide a form of zonal cat and mouse; once a hack is initiated the victim is made aware and begins rapidly scanning people, with the search area shrinking as time runs out (in the other player's game, you appear as a random citizen and not as Aiden Pearce). There's real tension as the data hacked percentage slowly increases, and if successful provides a major boost to a separate XP meter that unlocks more in-game items. If you do get spotted, however, it becomes a chase in which you try to escape — as per running from enemies or the police in the campaign, you need to get outside of a wide zone to officially 'escape'.
That also works in reverse, of course, with others spontaneously 'invading' your game, which prompts a quick dash to the area before using your phone and available cameras to hunt down the villain who, once spotted, needs to be killed as soon as possible — the game's instructions, not ours. It's chaotic fun whichever side you're on, and our most memorable encounter was hacking someone else and hiding in our impeccably parked car; panning the camera around and seeing another character manically dashing around was — intentionally or not — rather comedic. It was so fun that we didn't even mind that we were caught with just 9% of the hack remaining. This online interaction can be disabled, though, which is especially useful if invasions and prompts to jump into an online race or hack prove more than a hindrance to your experience.
Beyond the hacking and the 'typical' side-quests are some wackier examples, which generally play on pixellated visuals or an excuse to cause mayhem; to find these side quests it's worth simply wandering around the city, hacking some phones to get cash and to explore. This aspect of Watch Dogs is done well, and Ubisoft is well-drilled in the concept of packing a sandbox world with frivolous but enjoyable extras.
We've already outlined that the performance of this port is a problem, with the game largely playable but not meeting what we consider to be a suitably solid and consistent frame-rate. We do feel this is down to the team producing the port struggling to really use the hardware well; the Wii U does have an infrastructure rather different from its contemporaries of the last or current gen, and it shows. We don't have a port that finds a way, we have one that just about eeks out the bare minimum and declares it good enough. The visuals are reasonable, nevertheless, while audio was clearly given a lot of care in the project. We encountered some odd audio balancing discrepancies on Wii U that we didn't on PS4, for example, but that aside there's a strong soundtrack and high production values all around.
Performance is particularly disappointing in light of the delay to this Wii U version, a feeling not helped by the mediocre usage of the GamePad. The second screen is used an an interactive map, which has the benefits of easy browsing and waypoint setting, which is undoubtedly nice; on top of that we have off-TV, as expected. Opportunities are missed, however, considering the subject matter of the title, though the fact that hacking is typically done with one button or — occasionally — through one puzzle game, does highlight a key aspect of Watch Dogs; for all of its grand ideas it's still a first draft, full of potential but lacking polish and substance. Nevertheless, Ubisoft's claims that a delay on Wii U would allow it to maximise usage of the Wii U's capabilities feel hollow.
Watch Dogs is a bold, ambitious game that delivers well in some areas, though nevertheless feels like an iteration away from reaching its potential; the inevitable Watch Dogs 2 could be one to keep an eye on. It's a sizeable, enjoyable game, but one that is let down on the Wii U by poor optimisation and disappointing performance; the frame-rate is inconsistent but tolerable while on foot, but often struggles badly when driving. It's possible to play Watch Dogs and work through these bottlenecks, but that shouldn't be expected of the gamer in a big-budget, pricey retail experience.
If the Wii U is your only console, then Watch Dogs is certainly worth consideration to fill that sizeable open-world gap in your current gaming library. If you have other options, however, it's far tougher to recommend.