While GTA V and Watch Dogs are clearly different games, their open world environments, mission-based structure, and character-driven storylines result in their gameplay often intersecting. With that in mind, I thought I’d examine how they compare and contrast when they do.
My comparisons are based on almost five hours of playing Watch Dogs (and of course many, many hours playing GTA V), so this is not a definitive comparison by any means. Rather, it’s more of snapshot of how it feels entering Watch Dogs’ Chicago environment after spending time in Los Santos.
I will update this article after playing our review copy of Watch Dogs to make a more in-depth comparison.
City and Environment
Watch Dogs' environment certainly looks stunning, especially running on PS4. From the weathering of road signs to the subtle filtering of light reflecting off buildings, Watch Dogs presents a crisp, highly detailed, fully-realized, and utterly convincing world. The more you look at it, the more you can appreciate the incredible work that has obviously been lavished upon it.
In terms of size, it doesn’t feel as big as Los Santos, and it doesn’t have the dramatic variety of terrain either. Some of this is simply due to location. GTA V's designers had a more varied topographic palette to draw from. Los Angeles, upon which Los Santos is based, comprises sea, city and mountains – each of which is used to outstanding effect.
Conversely, the fairly flat terrain of Chicago and Lake Michigan’s surrounding shoreline somewhat limits the opportunities for breathtaking landscaping. I climbed to what looked like the highest elevation on the map, and while I had a terrific view of Chicago’s skyline, it was nowhere near as impressive as some of GTA V’s magnificent vistas.
Aesthetically, GTA V presents a huge, comprehensive, and believable world that begs to be explored. Watch Dogs is similarly compelling, but it doesn’t feel quite as expansive or as varied. It’s beautifully detailed, sure, and its lighting effects are exquisite – as one would expect from a next generation game. But even so, GTA V holds its own, and what it lacks in subtlety and definition, it more than makes up for by simply being fabulous to look at.
In a way, comparing the two is like comparing a technically outstanding picture to an artistically outstanding one. Both have merits, but when it comes down to it, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Tone and Style
This might sound like an odd category, but one of the big differentiators between the two games is the way they present themselves.
Both games are violent, gritty, and feature many lines of mature dialog. But where the two diverge is in the way they convey their worlds and its characters. GTA V is a little more humorous and playful, albeit in a dark way. Much of what is broadcast or displayed in game is satirical in nature, and although the humor is often sick and twisted, it provides a nice contrast to the more brutal aspects of the game. GTA V has character, and often elicits a grin when you see or hear something new.
Watch Dogs is devoid of that humor and satire. It plays it straight, which for me took a bit of getting used to. I stopped at a magazine stand to see what I could find, and there was nothing really of note. Just detailed recreations of magazines, but no real creativity. Likewise, store names are sensible and realistic, and radio broadcasts are functional. This tone also extends to the dialog. Conversations are fairly dry, and lack the repartee of GTA V. Admittedly, I haven’t seen a huge amount of character interaction as of yet, but certainly over the first few hours of the game, I didn’t hear anything that really drew me in - something that's critical for a game that doesn't make you laugh.
Storyline and Character
Watch Dogs has some very tough competition in this category. The quality of GTA's writing and dialog has consistently improved from game to game, and its fifth outing continues that trend. Its characters have depth of personality, and their interactions with one another are rich and interesting. There’s a high degree of sardonic humor, and conversations often reveal additional insight into characters' lives and modus operandi. The way GTA V's story unfolds is also very compelling.
Whether you love them or hate them, GTA V’s characters command your attention. The game’s storyline helps you understand their motivations, and even if don’t necessarily agree with them, you at least understand why they’re doing the things they do.
Comparatively, Watch Dogs feels a little lacking. I’m hoping that its story will continue to play out so you do eventually fully understand the protagonist Aiden, but so far his character feels a little two-dimensional. The dialog just doesn't quite have the sparkle that GTA has. It all comes across as flat and perfunctory.
But obviously this is just an initial take on things, and I’m looking forward to exploring the game further to see whether Watch Dogs’ story and characterizations start to build more compelling momentum as the game progresses.
The City's Residents
Both games have busy, living environments filled with pedestrians and traffic. Watch Dogs ups the ante by enabling you to hack the phones of what seems like almost all residents, so you can gather data on them. It’s an interesting mechanic that lets you see a person’s job, salary, and even trivial information about their lives. It adds a degree of richness to the environment, because it helps reinforce the notion that Watch Dogs’ residents are all individuals.
While walking around Chicago, snatches of realistic conversation can be heard, and generally speaking, it all feels quite convincing. GTA V obviously lacks the hacking aspect, but it treats its residents in a similar fashion. They go about their business in a fairly natural fashion – as long as you don’t stick around too long and watch them "loop". However, conversations between citizens are often humorous, and perhaps more interesting than what I overhead while walking around Chicago.
Residents react in similar fashion when you brandish a gun, and run off or cower, depending on their disposition. But in Watch Dogs, they are far more athletic when it comes to jumping out of the way of your vehicle. In GTA V, it’s far easier to run people down, should that be your thing. In Watch Dogs, I really had to work hard to mow down those pedestrians.
Watch Dogs and GTA V follow a similar story-driven mission structure. As you might expect with worlds that have vehicles and weapons, there is a crossover in terms of things that you do, especially when it comes to stealing and racing cars, tailing people, or shooting your way into or out of situations.
However, Watch Dogs’ hacking aspect adds a whole new dimension to the typical GTA-style missions we’ve seen in the past. While GTA V did mix things up this time around, many missions trod familiar territory. Watch Dogs really does bring something new to the table. Not all of the time, as I just said, but some of the hacking/puzzle and stealth/evasion missions I tried definitely felt exciting and fresh.
Misbehave in either game, and you'll soon attract the attention of the local PD. Both games use the same evasion rules – if you can outrun the cops and lay low for a minute of two, they’ll give up and go about their business, and you can go about yours.
What I did notice is that Watch Dogs’ police are not quite as aggressive as those in GTA V. They pursue at speed, but I found that when they were right on my tail, very late braking into either a left or right turn will often fool them, and they’ll continue down the road a little before attempting to turn around. This helps buy time and put some distance between you and your pursuers. In GTA V, the cops aren’t quite so easy to sell on those kinds of cheap tricks.
I’d also fancy my chances more in a shootout between Chicago PD and myself than I would with Los Santos’ finest. It’s a close-run thing, but either Aiden Pearce is stronger than GTA V’s protagonists, or the police aren’t as accurate. Either way, I had a lot more fun trading lead in Watch Dogs, because I was able to survive longer.
Vehicles and Driving
The cars in Watch Dogs are simply outstanding. They’re all based on actual production vehicles, (sans badge obviously), and the attention to detail is fantastic. There seems to be a vast range of cars that runs from sub-compacts to Fire Engines. Amongst the ones I drove were a Fiat 500, Golf GTI, Mitsubishi Evo, Subaru WRX and a Range Rover. I also stole a few motorcycles, including a Ducati Hypermotard-a-like and what looked like a Triumph Daytona. Obviously the vehicles are not absolute replicas of their real-life counterparts, but they are clearly copies that do bear an uncanny resemblance. A special mention goes to the cars' paintwork and reflective surfaces, which look quite spectacular - especially at night or in the rain.
GTA V’s autos are a little more fantasy-oriented. They ape real-life cars for sure, but they feel much more like original creations than Watch Dogs’ clear sourcing of genuine vehicles. In terms of driving, I found the cars in Watch Dogs were generally a little tighter and less lurid when pushed to the limit. GTA V is more over-the-top and, to be blunt, a little more fun. GTA V cars drive larger-than-life, and it’s easier to drift around corners and hoon it up.
That said, Watch Dogs’ precision does make it a more appealing prospect when you’re driving on a mission or escaping cops. That extra degree of control can help avoid drifting into a lamppost that under similar circumstances in GTA V, you might well have hit.
Watch Dogs’ multiplayer approach is a novel one. There are ways that you can essentially invade another player’s game and challenge them to a hacking duel. It’s interesting, and I’m looking forward to experimenting more. There are also car races, and other one-on-one activities like tailing an individual in an attempt to get information from them. However, none of this compares to GTA V’s far more comprehensive multiplayer system that supports a vast range of activities and possibilities.