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Watch Dogs game review: Hacking combat ripe with potential

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Calum Wilson Austin

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Watch Dogs is the best reason yet to own a next generation console.

Hacked: Players create havoc in <em>Watch Dogs</em>.

Hacked: Players create havoc in Watch Dogs.

Watch Dogs
Rated: R
Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC
RRP: $89.95 (Xbox 360, PS3, PC) $99.95 (Xbox One, PS4)
Reviewed on: PS4
Reviewer's rating: 8.5/10

After watching the twentieth person, thinking they're safe in the privacy of their own home, engage in some deviant activity, I thanked my lucky stars that we don't live in the world of Watch Dogs. Then I realised we're speeding towards a situation where our digital footprint can be traced and recorded and I have decided to throw a towel over my Kinect from now on. For those that enjoy being on the other end of the webcam, Watch Dogs has been a long time coming. In development since 2008 and announced at E3 2012, we were expecting to the hacking madness to begin on November 19 last year, but the game was pushed back until now to allow for extra polish. You can't argue with results. Not these results, anyway.

A screenshot of <em>Watch Dogs</em>.

A screenshot of Watch Dogs.

Watch Dogs is an open-world game set in near-future Chicago that follows the hacking exploits of Aiden Pearce, a techno wizard, part-time criminal and general psychopath who uses his very specific set of skills to take revenge on those responsible for the death of his niece. These skills translate into the ability to control much of your environment through CToS, the operating system that keeps Chicago running on time. Want to raise that bridge while your target is escaping over it? Well you can and his day will be thoroughly ruined. It's as easy as a button press to cause havoc playing with traffic lights, raising bollards in the street and wantonly skimming bank accounts. 

While the system is very fun, Aiden comes across as a very unlikeable protagonist. There's something to be said for the results he gets but the number of people that die and types of activities he engages in are hardly justified. Being able to profile any non-player character (NPC) on the street to see a snippet of their life is a fun addition and helps to sell the power fantasy, but it rarely has the intended effect of humanising the pedestrians or enemies. Seeing that a gang member recently had a child won't make you spare his life, it might elicit a "whoops" as you send a grenade towards his face, but little else. 

As far as the story goes, Aiden spends most of it trying to keep his remaining family, his sister and her son, out of the way of the harm he put them in. This has the double effect of making Aiden seem like a remorseless sociopath but also focuses the plot in that direction rather than the far more interesting clash between DedSec, a mysterious hacker group, and the Blume Corporation, the company that created CToS. Should you be inclined to collect the multitude of extra information scattered around the city you'll get hints at Blume's sinister sci-fi plot but the tantalising details take a back seat to Aiden's story. It's hardly a surprise. Ubisoft obviously plans to turn Watch Dogs into a series and – similar to the first Assassin's Creed – most of the larger conspiracy is being kept close to the chest to, presumably, develop later. 

A screenshot of <em>Watch Dogs</em>.

A screenshot of Watch Dogs.

While much of the story is there to put Aiden in situations where he has to hack and murder his way out, Watch Dogs justifies this by making the combat extremely fun. The AI is not particularly smart, but discovering all the ways to manipulate it and control the situation is 50 per cent of the reason to buy the game (the other half is the multiplayer but we'll get to that soon). There are light stealth elements but the focus is on a form of active stealth, similar to Assassin's Creed. There is no penalty for taking the loud route either and I often found myself letting guards call reinforcements in just to escalate the situation. Say you want to stop a convoy of enemies driving through the city. You could just ram the car with yours and start blasting away, but you could also cause a car accident over an intersection, place remote explosives and find a vantage point to snipe from. Doing this can turn a difficult battle into a precision blitz attack, over in seconds. It's really up to the player how they want to approach most situations. Some don't even require direct intervention as you can park nearby and access the multitude of surveillance cameras set up across the city. Through the omnipresent cameras you can follow your target, steal information from anyone you can see and even take characters out if they have grenades or walk too close to a vulnerable CToS hacking point. The more inventive you want to be, the better, as Watch Dogs wants you to play your way.

Though Ubisoft Montreal's technical director of graphics, Sebastien Viard, stated back at the start of 2013 that the game would run on the new "Disrupt" engine rather than Assassin's Creed's "AnvilNext", it's easy to see some technical and design similarities. Aiden's movements are fluid while moving but can be imprecise when attempting more complex manoeuvres, especially without a run up. Anybody who has played an Assassin's game will be familiar with this. There's also the recurring gameplay loop of unlocking an area by clearing out a base. This is more similar to Far Cry 3, in which fast-travel and points of interest were unlocked in a similar way, though from a design perspective this can be compared to Assassin's viewpoints as well. This isn't really an issue as Watch Dogs has enough differences that many players won't even notice these connections and Ubisoft's gameplay loop is one that encourages exploration, so it never becomes a problem.

It's just a shame that the driving isn't as well implemented as the combat and hacking. There's a decent selection of cars, though many that you won't ever use as sports cars are fairly common, but the driving falls a bit flat. After the believable weight that GTA V's cars had, Watch Dogs feels like Chicago's roads are coated in ice. Even more so when it's raining. It's really a surprise that the Chicago PD can't find Pearce as he leaves a trail of destruction behind him whenever he gets behind the wheel. It's lucky for him that almost every object on the street will fall to pieces as soon as the car touches it (except the occasional invulnerable tree). In the single player, the imprecise driving is tempered by Aiden's "focus" ability that allows him to slow down time and navigate the crowded streets without killing too many pedestrians. The difficulty curve goes up significantly in the multiplayer as focus no longer slows down time, though it does still highlight enemy players and reduce gun recoil. To compete online requires a solid grasp of the driving mechanics to even be competent and some players will probably avoid the racing altogether because of this. 

A screenshot of <em>Watch Dogs</em>.

A screenshot of Watch Dogs.

After you finish the single player, you have two options available: collect all the extras or multiplayer. The collectibles and side missions in Watch Dogs are a mixed bag, but a very large bag nonetheless. Finding QR codes, discarded phones and other objects of interest unlocks extra tidbits about the world, some vehicles and weapons unavailable otherwise and gives you extra missions once you've collected all of each type. These are well worth doing as it's where you'll find the hints at Blume's overarching plan for CToS. Other than that you've got side missions which come in three varieties. The gang attacks, which are easily the most enjoyable as they let you take down a group of enemies any way you desire. Criminal convoys, which are also an exercise in pre-planning and gleeful destruction. The third is the fixer contracts, which are the weakest of the group. As they're driving-based, they lack much of the interesting aspects of the other two and force you contend with the driving mechanics. For some reason, there are many more fixer contracts than either other type of side mission. Even if you're not a fan, you might find yourself doing them anyway for something to do once you've finished the story and other side missions. The city is quite devoid of enemies once you've completed everything and killing police quickly drags your morality rating down. Far Cry 3 and Far Cry: Blood Dragon had the same problem but Ubisoft rectified it by releasing a patch that allowed you to reset the bases. It wouldn't surprise me if we got the same thing for Watch Dogs before long.

If you're not a collectible hunter, there's always the multiplayer and it is easily the best part of the game. Take all the mechanics and hacking fun of the single player then add other players. If your console is connected to the net you'll find yourself being occasionally hacked by other players as you go about your business. This works similarly to Dark Souls 2 as you have no choice over who you invade. You're given a timer to find them in a radius around you, which can be difficult as they look like a random NPC. The trick is trying to mimic the NPCs around you to stay hidden. These battles can be frustrating, tense and great fun in equal measure. Playing as the hacker and the hackee are both highly entertaining and I expect this will be one of the most popular modes. (Protip: If your focus no longer slows down time in single player, you're about to be invaded.) The other highlight is the online decryption. This is Watch Dogs version of capture the flag, with teams of up to four competing to steal a file from the other team. Though it was hard to find a full team online before release, I expect that won't be a problem once people get their hands on the game. Decryption is excellent because it combines skill, teamwork and tactical thinking. You won't have much chance of winning unless you play smart. 

Apart from this there is online racing, tailing, free roam and the mobile app integration. While racing and tailing are fairly self-explanatory, the eight-player free roam will keep players entertained for hours. Though the world is strictly unstructured, so be prepared to make your own fun. It could be greatly bolstered with some co-op activities such as gang attacks or convoys, but that could easily be introduced in a patch later. The only real detractions from the fantastic multiplayer is that there are not enough modes. The ways that the world and hacking could be applied to different game modes is endless and is not done justice by the few available. Apart from that, some more efficient matchmaking would go a long way but these things will likely be refined when sequel time rolls around.

As a brief aside, the mobile app mode is an interesting way of managing a second screen experience. Instead of just extra information, the app allows you to act as a CToS controller, dispatching police and controlling the city to stop someone trying to escape on a console. While the mode doesn't trump playing the full game, it's a satisfying mobile game in its own right. As far as a second screen experience goes, it probably what we can expect from the future of these sorts of games. Another upcoming Ubisoft game, The Division, has a similar way of allowing tablet players to interact in real-time with console players, having you play as a drone that can actively help in a fight. These sorts of extra mini games actually justify the existence of companion apps, which is a nice change.

Watch Dogs is the best reason to date to own a next generation console. The sheer amount of player choice is exciting but once you start to cause mayhem you'll see where that extra polish time went. The number of moving parts and active AI on screen at one time can be bewildering to behold but the game only occasionally has hiccups. Combine a solid and fun world with some of the most entertaining next gen multiplayer yet and it's easy to overlook some of the game's detractions. This is a very solid beginning to a franchise you can bet we will see again. In the same way that the original Assassin's Creed introduced the gameplay loops and hinted at a larger conspiracy, Watch Dogs feels very much alike in that respect. The hacking mechanic is ripe with potential and the hints at where the story will go are exciting indeed. Hopefully Aiden doesn't develop a conscience before Watch Dogs 2 or it could be a much more benign game.

1 comment

  • I played this for a few hours last night - it certainly has promise. After a brief tutorial level though, I was left with virtually no idea about what I'm expected to do next. No main mission icons on the map, no explanation of the various side missions (which I don't mind as much as it might sound as I'm working them out but there seems to be a huge gap between what I know about the world and what Aiden does)

    So other players are able to jump into my game during single player? I guess it fits the theme pretty well but all the same, not sure if I like that idea.

    Commenter
    singo the dingo
    Date and time
    May 28, 2014, 8:33AM
    Comments are now closed
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