How ‘Watch Dogs’ Could Dethrone ‘Grand Theft Auto’ Down The Road – Forbes
Ubisoft is gunning for Take Two and Rockstar, that much is clear from the recent release of Watch Dogs. While the game is meant to be focused on espionage, spying and hacking, it’s without question also supposed to compete with Grand Theft Auto on an action sandbox shooter level, trying to get a piece of the pie that allows a game like GTA 5 to launch with $800M in day one sales.
For Watch Dogs’ part, it’s already been a huge success for Ubisoft with a five-platform launch making it their most successful first week release in history with four million copies sold to consumers, surpassing their previous record-holder, Assassin’s Creed 3. Obviously those aren’t GTA numbers yet, but for a new IP that endured its fair share of controversy ahead of/at launch, it’s very impressive.
Ubisoft has recently said that they want to increase the rate at which they produce games in their series, presumably thinking they want to adopt the Assassin’s Creed “yearly release” model for their other series, possibly Far Cry, and perhaps Watch Dogs too, eventually.
With that strategy, it’s clear they can beat out Rockstar in at least one aspect, time to delivery. Rockstar has never been in a hurry, especially recently. Four years passed between GTA: San Andreas and the next-gen GTA 4. After that, it was another five years before GTA 5 made it to store shelves. The good thing about a delayed release schedule is that it builds up loads of anticipation for the next title, which is why you have $800M day one sales in the first place.
And yet, what if there was a series that could produce a fun sandbox experience nearly on par with GTA, but do it once every year or two instead of every four or five? What if that series was Watch Dogs?
It doesn’t sound so far-fetched, especially now that we see how much the two games have in common, and how Watch Dogs may even have an edge in some ways. I recently recorded a video which you can see below that goes through a few of the areas where they compete, and who comes out on top. Give it a quick watch before I discuss the items more in depth below.
Those were my brief thoughts, but there’s plenty more to say about each aspect.
Both Watch Dogs and Grand Theft Auto have plenty of chase sequences in their sandbox cities, but which does it better?
In my review of the game, I praised Watch Dogs for using its vehicle sequences to showcase how hacking really could change the game and differentiate it from a game like Grand Theft Auto. Unlike GTA, you can’t just empty an SMG into pursuing cars until they catch fire, nor can you lob sticky bombs out your windows as you pass through police blockades.
Rather, the only way to effectively get away from cops or hunt down speedy targets is using your array of hacking skills, be it flipping lights, raising bridges, activating dividers or spike strips or blowing up gas mains. These segments can be a little frustrating until you get the hang of them, but they use Watch Dogs’ central hacking concept better than anything else in the game.
That said, when competing with Grand Theft Auto, it’s hard to say this style of vehicle play is inherently more fun. Far and away the best sections of GTA games are its wild and crazy car chases, including five and six star police runs. The sheer insanity of these sections combined with all the different ways to dispatch your enemies (guns, bombs, ramming, etc.) make them much more dynamic than similar segments in Watch Dogs. Yes, I can press a button to auto-kill a target car in slow-mo cutscene, but that’s not nearly as fun as trying to run them off a cliff or into a wall, or shooting the driver of a car between the eyes with a perfect pistol shot as you’re doing 120 on the freeway. Here, GTA’s wild and crazy attitude makes these segments more fun, even if car chases in Watch Dogs are in keeping with the tone of the game, if that makes sense.
When you’re out of the car, however, I think Watch Dogs proved they have a better combat system than at least the latest iteration of Grand Theft Auto. I’m ignoring tone here, because even if giving Aiden Pearce, superhacker, a 75-round Light Machine Gun as a solution to most of his problems seemed silly in a game supposedly based around stealth and subterfuge, I can’t argue that Watch Dogs’ combat system, both stealth and guns blazing, is better than what we’ve seen from GTA recently.
First off, at least Watch Dogs gives you the option to complete many missions stealthily. Even if that’s not GTA’s style, it can be mundane if you’re constantly tasked with the same type of mission that simply requires you to gun down enemies behind cover over and over. Watch Dogs has missions that can be completed in silence, with LMG bulletstorming an alternate route if the player chooses to go down that path (or screws up their stealth run by accident). It’s nice to have options, at least.
But even mechanically, Watch Dogs has a better overall on-foot combat system than GTA. The limited use of freerunning makes diving over desks and car hoods more fluid than in GTA. The shooting itself uses auto-aim, as most any game does these days, but in relatively moderate amounts compared to the heaping helping of assist GTA dumps on players. GTA 5 used so much auto-aim it was almost comical, where you could literally hop in and out of cover and have your sight snap to an enemy’s center mass even if you were looking ten feet to their right initially. It took nearly all the challenge out of the game’s abundant shooting sections, while Watch Dog relies a bit more on the player to think on their feet during enemy encounters, rather than giving them the ability to kill any enemy instantaneously.
While Watch Dogs’ use of hacking in ground combat may amount to little more than the player setting off premade traps, it still gives it a bit more dimension than GTA. Yes, you can blow up cars which kill enemies in that game, but that’s really the extent to which you can use the environment in GTA’s combat. Watch Dogs lets you overload fuse boxes, raise and lower cover, jam reinforcements and comms, or even remotely set off grenades. Not to mention all the fun little tool hacks you have available like total blackouts or radar scans. While I wish Watch Dogs had less run and gun combat and relied more on hacking and stealth, overall the system is more effective than GTA’s, and more fun.
Losing the Plot
It’s impossible to ignore the role of story, writing and characterization in this day and age of gaming, even in sandbox shooters. And here, both games struggle in different ways.
Grand Theft Auto 5 in particular did a great job of creating memorable characters in the form of its three leads, Michael, Franklin and Trevor. Franklin was essentially the straight man of the group, with Michael a halfway to being a sociopath, and Trevor past that line and then some. Each of these three had fantastic voice acting and great writing to go along with them, and were the comedic and dramatic highlights of the game.
The overarching plots of Grand Theft Auto games are pretty murky, however. While I can give you a pretty accurate summary of the story of most games I play, trying to recount everything that goes on in GTA games is nearly impossible. The missions and characters might be memorable, but the story they’re telling usually isn’t. In GTA 5, I remember the central trio being used by the FBI and CIA to…rob things? And then eventually they…turned on them? Even after fifty hours of gameplay, that’s the most I can recall, other than select scenes of Trevor’s debauchery or Michael’s family drama.
Watch Dogs isn’t any better, however, and may actually be quite a bit worse. It relies on not one, but two overused tropes, a young girl dying, and the lead white male seeking revenge, and a woman being kidnapped, and the lead white male trying to get her back (and seeking revenge). It also doesn’t help that Aiden Pearce is as generic a hero as they come, so much so that the game even has to explain that away by saying he’s “masking his personality” to stay incognito more effectively. But all we see as a player is a boring guy with relatively flat voice acting utilizing an uninteresting script.
Watch Dogs had a few good supporting characters, most of which are killed off by the end of the game unfortunately, but they really dropped the ball with protagonist Pearce, his Lisbeth Salander-lite hacker girlfriend and his former mentor/new archenemy. The most important characters are the least interesting and developed.
Outside of central pair of revenge plots, the rest of Watch Dogs isn’t well-scripted or persistently dark enough to be an effective noir tale. The game has you going from attending a sex slavery auction (super dark) to blowing up a hacker DJ’s car while he wears a goofy rodent helmet in a Saints Row-level parody of real life EDM star, Deadmau5. The tone of the game is all over the place, and the central mystery isn’t interesting enough to redeem the game’s boring leads.
In terms of which game is better or more enjoyable, it’s honestly pretty damn close, and that could spell trouble for Grand Theft Auto if Ubisoft manages to make Watch Dogs a frequently released series.
Despite all the build-up for GTA 5 and the fact that the game is physically larger and longer than Watch Dogs, I honestly can’t say if it was all that much better than Ubisoft’s debut. In this case, I’m not sure how much size matters. Ubisoft has managed to create a game to compete with Grand Theft Auto, even though it’s not quite as expansive or ambitious. If they can in fact pull an Assassin’s Creed and create compelling sandbox shooter experience once every year or two, and maintain the same level of quality, maybe next time around, GTA VI will debut in five years and not seem quite as impressive.
I wish Watch Dogs wasn’t directly trying to compete with GTA, and did more with its own concept, but from Ubisoft’s perspective it makes sense to try and pose a threat to a series that proves there’s a lot of money on the table for a compelling sandbox experience. Now, GTA isn’t the only AAA game in town that can craft an effective sandbox shooter, and in a few ways we’ve just examined, Watch Dogs actually surpasses them. And while the upstart series might be miles away from matching its rival’s numbers, I expect we’ll see a Watch Dogs 2 long before a Grand Theft Auto VI.
Those are my thoughts. How do you think the two compare? Is one a clear victor, when you compare them side by side? Can anything actually pose a threat to GTA, or is Ubisoft dreaming?
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