Watch Dogs (Review)

Watch Dogs is a game based around exploiting the possibilities made available by hacking our increasingly digitally reliant world with an exceedingly smart phone.

There is a story, based around revenge and private company conspiracies, but it’s simply filler material between missions. The lead character, Aiden Pierce is a moody git with a gravelly voice where you might usually find a personality and he comes across as rather unlikable. Thankfully, the supporting characters, including his sister and the (Lisbeth Salander rip-off) hacker Clara, do their best to give you someone else to listen to occasionally.

The promise of those tantalizing hacking skills is why we were all excited about Watch Dogs though. It’s the unique selling point to differentiate it from all the other open world games like GTA or Infamous. The unique skills available through Aiden’s phone play key roles throughout, be it on foot, driving, during shootouts or even stealth sections.

Clara laughs at Aiden's Flappy Bird score.
Clara laughs at Aiden’s Flappy Bird score.

On foot, you’re mainly sneaking into private buildings, warehouses, compounds and other standard gaming locations. Thankfully, Aiden’s smartphone brings these dull settings to life. Nearby security cameras can be hacked. You can then move them and even hack into any other camera in sight, allowing you to move deep inside a building, often without even leaving the sidewalk outside.

After playing so much Assassin’s Creed lately, Aiden’s not the most agile of guys, although he can vault over low objects with a pleasingly fluid motion. Don’t expect to climb up any window ledges though. If you can’t make your way up somewhere, it’s probably because there’s a nearby camera you should be hacking instead.

Hacking isn’t just for observation, you can go on the offensive with enormously satisfying results. There are multiple opportunities if Aiden (or a camera) can see them. A soldier’s grenades can be activated, electrical grids exploded, headsets buzzed, pipes burst, cranes dropped and so on.

Aiden disrupts a guard's headset via his phone.
Aiden disrupts a guard’s headset via his phone.

I was surprised and pleased at just how large a role stealth plays in the game. Offensive hacks are judged to be accidents by the enemy, so you’re able to remain undetected for much of the game if it’s played right. Stealth melee takedowns and a silenced pistol allow you to get more involved too. The slick cover system is vitally effective for remaining undetected and moving between cover is as simple as looking at a destination and tapping X.

Later on, assault rifles and grenade launchers are introduced and it is tempting to take this vulgar option when you fumble a stealth section. You can feel pressured into playing Watch Dogs like a regular shooter, as playing with a stealth style is much slower and some missions feature instant fails, sparse checkpointing and lengthy reload times. It seems strange that XP rewards are generally balanced towards gunfire over hacking too. Some mission reloads place you within three seconds of instantly failing again. Throw this in with the loading times and you realize that Watch Dogs is often incredibly annoying.

You won’t last long on foot when being pursued by the police as even a level two wanted status sees multiple cars and a chopper tailing you with what seems like excessive force considering there are five levels of heat. However, careful use of the show-stealing blackout hack, which kills all power for a few city blocks, can confuse even large groups of police long enough for you to do a runner.

The last-gen versions of the game aren't great to look at.
The last-gen versions of the game aren’t great to look at.

Hacks play their part behind the wheel too. All traffic signals at a junction can be set to green to cause a smash behind you, but I rarely found this to be a useful trap. Much more effective are the pop-up bollards that you can trigger just after you pass them. Time it right and you’re rewarded with a slow-motion viewpoint showing your chaser being flipped into the air.

To be honest though, car chases go on for far too long. Aiden can’t shoot while driving and annoyingly, the helicopter spotlight hack can only really be used if you get out of the car (thanks to the camera angles available), which defeats the purpose of trying to escape the other cars too. The best tactic for choppers seems to be to head under the L-train tracks, try to lose the cars, pull over and hide by turning the engine off.

Granted, it feels great when you do manage to find a neat hiding spot and you watch the countdown meter tick down towards the point where the cops give up, but it’s generally preceded by a lot of frustration. When it’s so easy to rack up a wanted rating between missions, performing side-missions becomes a pain as you can’t start them with any heat and pedestrians are all too keen to get under your tires when you take a diversion over the sidewalk.

Aiden's terrified of baseball fans.
Aiden’s terrified of baseball fans.

There are of course many similarities with GTA’s open world, but thankfully, there’s much less of a lengthy commute to missions. Chicago’s just about small enough to not need the fast travelling options provided by the L-trains either.

In between missions or during the endgame there’s plenty to do in Watch Dogs, but your interest may only last as long as your desire to collect all the Trophies. CtOS towers are the direct equivalents of viewpoints syncs or radio towers in Ubisoft’s other big franchises. However, you usually use cameras and trace powerlines to break into locked areas instead of climbing them.

You can also hack into homes and see what the locals are up to. They may be perving on the net, plotting to kill their wives or one amusing meta moment sees a son playing Assassin’s Creed while explaining it to his confused dad. Citizens on the streets can also be hacked and have money stolen from their accounts.

This guy would have been a much more interesting lead.
This guy would have been a much more interesting lead.

One home camera hack stayed with me for a while afterwards. It showed a devastated couple trying to work out how to pay the bills for the husband’s cancer despite the wife working two jobs. Ubisoft had the chance to make Aiden a hero here, but instead of being able to donate some of the thousands he’d stolen, the only option is to swipe a few dollars from their phone too.

Random street crimes appear on your map, with you usually having to take down a mugger or violent spouse. There’s not much variety with these tasks though if I’m honest and they always have the same outcome. Fixer convoy missions see you tasked with taking out targets from a line of vehicles with the best option usually being set IED traps on the road and lie in wait with a rocket launcher as backup. The only variety here is when you have to take the target alive, which is a huge pain in the ass when he’s surrounded by armored guards and you have to put away the rockets for a change. Other Fixer contracts you can pick up involve assignations or stealing vehicles -originality really isn’t much of a theme beyond the hacking.

Digital Trips are crazy video games within Watch Dogs, the obvious highlight being causing carnage with a giant robot Spidertank. Driving Satan’s car over lost souls in the apocalypse is fun for a short while. Another game fills the city with fog and sees you trying to survive between checkpoints as creepy robo-people stalk you through the gloom – atmospheric, but very limited in scope. You’re best avoiding the psychedelic flower-bouncing minigame too.

Cutscene character models are much more detailed than in-game ones.
Cutscene character models are much more detailed than in-game ones.

Throughout Watch Dogs, you’ll notice a reputation meter bounce around, going down for mowing down civilians and going up for non-lethal takedowns on muggers. One neat design touch sees you opening car doors and ushering civilians away from a gunfight they’ve suddenly been caught up in (because you fired a grenade at a convoy). Overall though, I found this meter to be a cosmetic waste of time.

Graphically, Watch Dogs is a mixed bag on PS3. Cutscenes show off some detailed character models that aren’t far behind their richer PS4 cousins, but in-game models are much fuzzier. Chicago is a bland collection of textures that make it difficult to enjoy. The rain effects are excellent though with every drop viewable as they land in mesmerizing puddles. Click R3 to enable focus mode and you get a neat bullet time effect showing each raindrop suspended in mid-air. It’s easily the best rain you’ll see on the last-gen machines.

The multiplayer side of the game feels somewhat under-developed but there’s a rich vein of potential running through it for a sequel. The bland driving model makes racing an unappealing proposition, but having another player control the police from above with a tablet/mobile app can be entertaining as you try to reach a series of checkpoints within a time limit.

Can we have more Spidertank levels please, Ubisoft!
Can we have more Spidertank levels please, Ubisoft!

You can invite other players to try to hack Aiden’s phone while you’re between missions in Chicago. Essentially, they have to stay within range of you (dressed as a citizen) undetected while you try to find out who/where they are. It’s very similar to the paranoid multiplayer of Assassin’s Creed IV but lacks depth for extensive play. It’s not helped by some dodgy connection issues though that sees you waiting for minutes at a time for a connection only to fail.

Usually when I finish the story in an open-world game like Assassin’s Creed IV, Far Cry 3, or Saints Row IV, I can’t wait to go back and tick off the extensive extras. With Watch Dogs though, I felt a distinct lack of enthusiasm to do so.

For the length of the story, the unique hacking opportunities will keep you hooked, as there’s nothing else quite like it out there. But outside of the hacking, police chases go on too long, side-missions feel repetitive, the audio diaries or home hacks aren’t that interesting and never try to form a bigger picture of the story a la Assassin’s Creed’s extras and there’s frankly too much of everything to even consider farming a Platinum Trophy. It’s a shame, as the game undoubtedly breaks new ground with the hacking opportunities both behind the wheel or when sneaking around on foot. Much like the first Assassin’s Creed, the game has struggled with its own hype, but as history shows, Ubisoft are more than capable of turning this into an essential series if they can make the world and the gameplay around the hacking more interesting too.

Pros

  • Excellent stealth hacking
  • Solid cover system
  • Destroying cars with bollards
  • Sequel could be immense

Cons

  • Generic mission tropes
  • Aiden’s a Grade A douche
  • Pointless reputation system
  • Multiplayer is paper-thin

7/10

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