Watch Dogs review

“Everything is connected, and I’ll use that to expose, to protect, and if necessary, to punish”

I was going to start this review by not mentioning that E3 2012 demo, but then I thought how can you not? Honestly, it’s like the game’s unwelcome ghost that hasn’t been laid to rest, thanks to the swirling hysteria of a public perception that the visuals have been ‘downgraded’. Okay, *clears throat* Watchdogs does not live up to the jaw-dropping promise of its reveal or the ridiculous hype generated by its blockbuster marketing, nonetheless this should not detract from the overall enjoyable gameplay experience that Ubisoft has managed to craft throughout the game.

You play as master hacker Aiden Pearce, making your way around the sprawling Chicago area to seek revenge on the mob that caused the car crash killing his niece. Apart from having a voice so hoarse that I even felt the need to down some cough syrup for him, Aiden is pretty much the personification of a complete black hole of human morality. For instance, he relentlessly picks confrontations with the mobs despite the pleas from his own family telling him to move on with his life, puts his family repeatedly in needless danger throughout, hacks accounts of ordinary citizens for no real reason and despite his hatred of gang violence and its public ramifications he seems to have no problem ruthlessly executing his enemies in broad daylight. You know, that wouldn’t be all so absurd if the game didn’t keep attempting to hammer home that he’s a man of principles and not some kind of dead-eyed sociopath which in fact is what he is.

What’s more is that its constantly reiterated that Pearce is a ‘master hacker’ and whatnot but to me it seemed like it was more a sociopath with a magic phone. It’s difficult to accept that Pearce is a bit of a tech-wizard when all he seems to do is press a button on his phone all the time, he’s not the one working the computers for instance. It would have been much more interesting to see Pearce gradually learn the weaknesses of the CTOS system rather than being able to do everything already. His former partner-in crime even said he taught him what he knows, so if we could have got a few flashback missions with them taking scores in the early days of the system, that would’ve been quite compelling.

Aiden isn’t alone in this disinteresting tale, there’s a variety of other characters you’ll meet along the way such as infamous Irish gangster Lucky Quinn, who really is the obscene pantomime villain, Clara a French hacker with loads of tattoos, great how Ubisoft re-used the character model of Citra from Far Cry and hoped we wouldn’t notice. There are a couple of other characters that fare better however, T-Bone a no-nonsense rogue hacker who takes a special interest in old junk scrap and Iraq, leader of a local gang faction who uses the CTOS system to keep the law off his back through blackmail and extortion. Then there’s Aiden’s family, his sister … man what was her name again? Ah, never mind and her son… erm…                 oh yeah it’s Nicole and Jackson and I did not need to use a google search to remember their names at all…

Again, these characters are just atrociously written and presented throughout the game, Jackson is the typical disillusioned child who hasn’t gotten over personal loss and Nicole seems to be the only person in Chicago that doesn’t know that Aiden, her own brother is the vigilante. Do they not watch the news or have a phone?

What makes the floundering main narrative all the more bizarre, is that the wider narrative is actually pretty damn good; in a world where more and more surveillance is being installed in public and growing concerns over internet privacy, the premise of Watch Dogs is absorbing. The wider world of Chicago is compelling too, with hacked texts and phone calls all shedding light on extra little details on what would be any other NPC. Furthermore, the Anonymous-esque hacker collective DeadSec provides another angle with its aim to bring down the network to in their book, restore rights to the citizens. Audiologs and hidden codes provide info on the wider conspiracy that is at large in Chicago and it really does add to the game as a whole. It’s a shame then that this is put in the shade by the truly dire main storyline.

Enough of that now and back to stuff that you really care about, so how does it play? Well, its largely a familiar yet (usually) delicious combination of driving, shooting and stealthing but on this occasion coated with an exotic hacking glaze. Mmmm…

Well anyway, yeah so if anyone’s played a GTA game before, you’ll be right at home here no doubt, Watch Dogs’ party trick is the ability for the player to manipulate the connected infrastructure of Chicago at the touch of a button. So, you can hack electronic gates to take short-cuts, raise bollards to block enemies, overload transformers to blow up enemies and even initiate a whole city black-out for a short amount of time. These skills are quite fun to use but the repetition of the mission design means it isn’t as perhaps exciting as it ought to have been. Once you’ve worked out that the underground steam pipes will completely annihilate a convoy of enemies, you’ll just bide your time for that opportunity, rather than go through the multiple more time-consuming scenarios.

I can’t really stress enough how much Watch Dogs is centred around this mechanic, the ‘Profiling’ system enables you to learn details about any NPC in-game. Many of these details are just completely random and usually serve a purpose no more than to serve the player’s morbid curiosity through intercepted texts and phone conversations. You’ll initially feel a pang of guilt when you accidently hack the bank account of a struggling mother. Then you’ll get over it because there’s no morality penalty and the game doesn’t seem to care. However if you profile a shady character, it could trigger a random crime lead in the nearby area or you can get a location for some materials needed to upgrade equipment. Overall, it’s a cool feature and it has the effect of humanizing what would be just any other NPC, although like all things in this game, it’s dulled from sheer repetition.

Map synchronizations are a much derided aspect of Ubisoft open-worlds and they make another appearance here in the form of CTOS towers. These play out in open-ended ways, so you can either go in there machine guns blazing like a man possessed or do things quietly or even hack your way through without even setting foot in the compound via cameras and other devices. You’re most likely to adopt a fusion of all three to complete them all.

Side note: The profiling system could have been used to cool effect in situations like these, for instance one guard could have a young family or whatever. However the game cops-out with every guard either being a deranged killer or some other kind of monster. Shame.

It has to be said, that although the mission design is okay, it is pretty repetitive with only a few real stand-out missions that definitively break with the rest of the game. A mission where you have to identify a playboy hacker in the middle of a pulsating nightclub is one and a mission where you have to hack the cameras all the way up to the top of a gang-infested tower is another. It’s odd because I don’t want to sound overly harsh on the campaign because I did enjoy the missions when I was doing them (except auto-fail stealth sections) but when I look back, there really wasn’t a lot of variety there and the potential of the hacking mechanic isn’t fulfilled.

The handling of the vehicles is likely going to come as a shock for many, I found it pretty difficult at first to get a handle on them, but as opposed to the common view that it’s utter shit. I actually thought it was pretty good, sports cars really roar around corners and nippy little hatchbacks glide through the lanes. I realize I’m in a real minority here mind and not being able to shoot from vehicles is a real mind-boggling decision.

The gunplay is solid too, with precise aiming and a decent cover mechanic. Aiden also has the ability to use a ‘focus’ ability so he can slow down time, enabling you pick off headshots in a few seconds. It’s a cool feature but once you’ve upgraded it, Aiden is pretty much the terminator.

Stealth is a bit strange because there’s no actual designated crouch button, instead the player has to get inside a ‘restricted area’ then Aiden will automatically crouch into ‘stealth mode’. Once you’re in this mode, sneaking around cover is relatively okay, although why they didn’t just copy and paste Splinter Cell Blacklist’s excellent cover mechanic I’ll never know. I had a lot of trouble with the stealth at the start, but once you get your hand around the mechanics and enemy alert timings, you’ll be okay.

An aspect that Watch Dogs does not hold back on, is the amount of content it has for its players. I mean, the amount of icons on your map can sometimes be genuinely overwhelming, a simple journey to the next mission icon can soon turn into a 2-3 hours of completing side-missions on the way there. It’s insane how much stuff there is to do in this game. The good thing is that, some of the side-missions are actually really interesting, from tracking down victims of a serial killer, tagging illegal firearms and breaking up a human trafficking operation; all of which have deeply underwhelming conclusions sadly.

There’s also QR codes, privacy invasions which can be seriously hilarious, mini-games, AR-games, races, criminal convoys, gang-hideouts and so much more. I must’ve spent at least 25 hours on this game, yes it can be quite draining in its repetition but I’m a Ubi-collectable groupie and I can’t resist the temptation…

I suppose, the big next-gen feature about Watch Dogs is the online mode, where other players can come in and hack you. *Whispers* “I hate multiplayer on predominately single-player games so I hardly bothered with it”….

But on a couple of occasions my friend did hack into my game and it was a lot of fun, you have to stop the hack before it reaches 100% but identifying the culprit can be tricky, especially considering they look like any other NPC. So you’ll often be running about like flailing idiot pointing your gun at anyone. It’s tense, exhilarating stuff and I kinda wish I used it a bit more, there are also other online modes such as racing but I never played them so I can’t comment on its quality.

I’ve already mentioned it but we’re at that point in the review now, so again Watch Dogs doesn’t look as amazing as that E3 2012 demo; however that’s not to say it looks terrible, in fact it can look pretty great at times such as when you’re travelling through the city at night in the rain. Furthermore, Chicago is expansive and packed with diverse, interesting locales to explore full of really neat little details. For instance, when you make your way to the gang-stricken neighbourhoods, you’ll notice the houses are more degraded in their appearance while the cars are all beat-up, contrast this to the main ‘Loop’ area for instance where the architecture is crisp and ultra-modern. Furthermore, the animation is top-notch, Aiden will slip and slide through cover with a great degree of realism, while the transition from ‘normal’ to stealth mode if you will, is absolutely brilliant with Aiden pulling his balaclava over his face and adopting a more measured approach. Overall, Watch Dogs is a fine-looking game with a convincing realization of the Chicago area even in light of its clear disparity from the 2012 footage.

Audio meanwhile is a real mixed bag, the guns sound punchy enough as does the roar of the more exotic vehicles, but lord the voice acting is really poor and not just from good ol’ sandpaper throat, none of the performances carry any sort of weight. Additionally, if you’re hoping to get a good radio selection, you won’t find it here. There’s only one station that plays a ridiculously eclectic selection of tracks, so it goes from heavy metal to classic to hip hop all in a few skips, could they not have created separate stations or something?

It’s quite difficult to sum up Watch Dogs in many ways since it stumbles through its main narrative and is guilty of severe repetition, yet there’s still plenty of enjoyment to be had in the core gameplay experience. A solid foundation has been laid here, hopefully the sequel will be the experience to truly realize the potential of this franchise.

7/10    

Chicago is a great open-world setting

The Hack, shoot and stealth combination is good fun

+ So much content

Awful narrative

Really odd design choices

Way too much repetition.