Watch Dogs Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Microsoft Xbox 360, PC, Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox One
As you walk around Chicago, lumbering over the sidewalk and not really looking where you’re going, you take in a gigantic amount of information. You’ve got your smartphone out, you see, looking at that whilst going about your business just as everyone does these days in many cities, including this one. The difference with what you’re reading is that it’s information about every person walking and driving around you. Who they are, what they do, what their salary is and how much money they have available via ATM. In many cases you’ll be able to hack that person’s phone and see some text messages or listen to their conversation. It’s simple to do, all you need is to press and hold the square button for a while. All of this mightn’t sound much but this scenario is entertaining and that one button will enable many things throughout your time in Watch Dogs, bringing a fresh approach to an otherwise familiar but engaging and ultimately tired open world title.
You play as Aiden Pearce, an expert career hacker who gets caught during one particular heist and has a cleaner sent after him. Unfortunately things don’t go as anyone would have wanted and we then skip forwards in time to one year later. Aiden is on a revenge mission trying to find out who ordered that attack and who he needs to get as payback. It’s standard blockbuster fare then, but it does provide a narrative within which you don’t feel totally out of place hacking security centres, shooting bad guys and generally being a very unpleasant man.
The structure of the game itself is very much like a Grand Theft Auto title. You have an open world Chicago and you can get around it by foot, car or latterly by the train that runs across the city. You are welcome to tackle story missions at any time in a linear progression, or to explore the environment trying out the various mini-games, side missions or just taking everything in. There is an awful lot to take in. Ubisoft have seemingly come at this first iteration of Watch Dogs in the same way they tackled each and every episode of their new IP for the last generation of consoles, Assassin’s Creed. They’ve thought up a fantastic number of ideas and put all of them into this game. As with the above named franchise a lot of these things are good fun - great even - but others are very much failures. For instance there are thirteen ctOS towers (where ctOS is what controls Chicago, and by extension allows you to control Chicago) which you need to locate, find your way inside the security barriers and hack. Getting into each of these is a puzzle which can be solved by simply finding the electronic door lock switch via hacking a camera, or by something more complex, like driving a car into a cargo unit, lifting said unit, and driving over the security gate. These towers act like viewpoints for the assassini, and unlocking each of these is a compulsive and eternally enjoyable pursuit. One minigame sees you shooting aliens in Chicago after activating an augmented reality hotspot. This is much more throwaway. Drinking games (where you just need to put away more than your opponent - who isn’t Marion Ravenwood, upsettingly) are morally reprehensible or incredibly fun depending on your viewpoint. The point is that although we have a glut of content and that should be applauded despite the failures within, it can’t help but highlight the thought that time spent here would have been more useful on the main game and action mechanics which aren’t a complete success.
Main game missions are varied in their overall objective as you would hope from such a big and sprawling game (around twenty hours will see you complete the forty or so main missions, with one hundred percent completion taking you upwards of forty hours) with examples being hacking of ctOS security centres to tailing missions to simple find and kill affairs. The key tools you’re encouraged to use on this journey are the ability to shoot and kill combined with the ability to hack, and kill in more entertaining ways. There is a tendency to force the player to pull a gun out and finish the job that way - at times it is the only route - and this in itself feels unfair and irritating. Akin to the furore surrounding the epic failure of Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s developer’s need to implement boss fights forcing you into combat, here you're forced to fight rather than continue using that square button and your trusty smartphone. In other missions, like the ctOS hacking mentioned above, you get to complete the mission purely by hacking and inventive cybercrime at that. If you want to. As an example, on approaching the centre’s location you can go in all guns blazing in order to get to the system you want to p0wn. But given there is normally a vast array of guards you might not feel confident doing that. So you can use the environment, and ctOS to your advantage. Raise barriers and move bridges to enable you to stealthily move around. Hack the guards and distract them by text or blow them up by making their explosives go kablooey. Open the water supply valves and make the security gates go up and down. Generally mess with their heads to create the opening. Or maybe do it for fun to see how many you can make explode in one go whilst searching for cameras to hack until you can see the system you want control of, allowing you to complete the mission without having set foot inside the compound. There are multiple iterations of this type of mission and each one is an exciting, challenging and complex puzzle. Which is then bookended by a car chase where once making the guy jump out of his car you’re forced to gun him down. With lots of people gunning you down.
In terms of action mechanics the gunplay will be familiar to anyone who has played any third-person action adventure since Gears of War first came out, with the inimitable cover system in play. Moving around when walking seems interminably awkward when you’re doing fine then suddenly veering from side to side like a drunken lunatic. It’s the driving though that will most resonate amongst players long after they depart Watch Dogs’ Chicago thanks to its memorable beginnings. The first time you pick up a car and try to drive it you’ll have flashbacks to the most horrible driving games you can think of as every slight turn leads to a destructive yank of the car towards something hard and immoveable. As you find slightly better cars though you’ll start to get to grips with the handling of what is clearly represented as a square box that slides around in terms of how the game’s code is thinking. You learn what is needed to go a little bit left or a slight turn to the right. You get to grips with how much brake is needed and the handbrake does what you’d expect it to. It’s not going to win awards then and it’s nothing like that you would find in a racing game, but it is around the quality of driving in Grand Theft Auto IV which is pretty much all you need for a game like this. If you choose to ride a bike rather than drive a car you’ll generally have a much better time of it from start to finish.
Online multiplayer takes its cues from Dark Souls in that whilst you’re going about your business you can get invaded by another hacker trying to install a backdoor into your network. Your aim in this situation is to locate them, profile them using your smartphone and stop them by whatever physical means necessary. You can do this to others, too, after an early mission by accessing online contracts via your phone. You aren’t just restricted to hacking. You can race against others or work with a team to decrypt a file ahead of another team. A further game mode sees you attempting to outrun the police where the police are controlled by someone on their real-life phone using the ctOS app. The multiplayer is really-well thought out and the app integration is a nice touch that actually works, too. You can gain notoriety points for doing well online and use these to upgrade skills which improve your abilities. This is similar to the single player game where you earn skill points and can use these to upgrade various your hacking, combat or driving. The skill tree is well laid out and it enables a player to choose their preferred path similar to an RPG (do you want more control of Chicago or do you want a bigger gun?).
We’ve mentioned before there are many things to do in the game. It covers many bases too. You can steal money from folk to buy new outfits or weapons. You can use components lying around or bought to make varied devices such as a communications jammer or more. You can play chess, poker or drinking games and you can go hunting for collectibles. You might choose a digital trip where you’re a giant mechanical spider tank blowing the city up. Or you can investigate a series of murders and then invade various gang hideouts. There really is a lot to do and there will be something fun for everyone. It’s unlikely you’ll get bored in Chicago due to lack of things to do before you get bored of the game.
Fundamentally that’s the overriding feeling of Watch Dogs. It’s a game that has so much to offer and so many things to do that it can’t fail to engage you as a player. But eventually you’ll realise it’s not all good and what you find interesting is done. There’s little to compel the player to finish in terms of the way it does things, aside from that square button which allows magical occurrences to happen. With this introduction to the world of hacking Ubisoft have created a behemoth of an IP, one that promises much. Like its predecessor though, we’ll have to wait for the tighter and more focussed second iteration, removing what didn’t work and improving that which did, to realise that full potential.