Ubisoft first wooed punters at E3 2012 with what we all presumed to be our first real taste of next-generation gaming. The dust has since settled on our shiny new consoles and our fingerprints have long sunken into the glossy exteriors. After a lengthy delay Watch Dogs has hacked its way to release (it was originally planned to be a launch title). The big question hanging over its head is – does it live up to the copious amounts of hype leveled at it?
The game’s mature story sets the tone almost immediately, thrusting players into the thick of it in the guise of a lengthy tutorial. Your character, Aiden Pearce is apparently rather good at hacking, as well as being a dab hand with fire-arms, which has clearly landed him and his accomplice in serious trouble with some clandestine shady characters who remain unknown at the game’s opening.
After the introductory pleasantries are out the way the Watch Dogs story begins proper in a dimly lit baseball team changing room with Aiden interrogating a hit-man who some years earlier mistakenly kills his young niece in a traffic accident. After a scuffle and a mighty K.O, Aiden hacks the assailant’s phone for additional info before stepping outside into a hallway where the local Police are scouting after gun shots have been exchanged between them and a local gang. Sneaking past, Aiden hacks into the stadium security camera network with his mobile phone and in doing so unlocks an electronically controlled door. There’s an abundance of police to get past, but with a little help from unseen friends, Aiden is able to temporarily cut the city’s power, shrouding the building in total darkness. Aiden then makes his way outside, blending in with the crowds of panicked and confused baseball fans before losing the cops and leaving the area – which can be accomplished via vehicle or on foot. The introduction highlights one of the best approaches to many of Watch Dogs missions, but when all else fails, running out guns a blazing is the order of the day – although combining a mixture of stealth and action is where the experience is at its most enjoyable.
Watch Dogs is an almost faultless action game comprising of Ubisoft’s key strengths lifted from their other big franchises, and featuring familiar open world gameplay mechanics as seen in Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry 3. For example there are “ctOS” towers to hack which highlight key locations and collectibles on the map. There are stealth elements from Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon, with familiar mechanics for identifying targets with cameras and a useful HUD to mark civilians and enemies whilst using Aiden’s smart-phone. In this respect Watch Dogs can be considered a very smart outing, the only disappointment is that aside from a more daring online feature-set, much of the core game just feels a bit too safe and by the numbers.
Based on tried-and-tested gameplay mechanics Watch Dogs should be fun to play and it is, what it does do, is vitally offer up choice in how to proceed with many objectives. Typically there is some hacking involved in most cases, but how much you use the tools to do so is up to you. Aiden might be tasked with entering an area full of guards and required to hack a computer server; from here he can choose to go in guns blazing, making use of cover to dispatch enemies before approaching the computer. Alternatively he could hack a nearby camera enabling him to jump to a another, and so on until the computer terminal is in view and hack it remotely without having ever been seen. These moments are quite clever and act as mini puzzles in themselves as you work out how best to infiltrate without moving a muscle or breaking a sweat.
There are a few instances in the story where you’re forced either way to follow what is dictated, but many of the missions are rather too familiar in this regard, and it all becomes a bit repetitive. As the story progresses there are several scenarios which feel identical, although the game does attempt to break the repetition by offering some choice in how you approach them. As you drive or run through the Chicago streets to your next mission you may see a prompt for a nearby random crime or some other activity which can be marked on your map. Crimes can be tackled by tailing victims and taking out the suspect either using guns or a more up close non-lethal approach which then earns skill points (which can be spent on upgrades) and increases your reputation within the city. It’s a black and white system where obviously shooting up innocents means you’re not going to be regarded as a good vigilante character if that makes sense. That said, there’s little consequence to being bad or good which makes the idea a bit redundant bar a few inconsequential penalties here and there.
The game-world itself feels like it revolves around Aiden as everything is just there waiting for you to interact, instead of occasionally smacking you in the face with a surprise to throw you off guard. In the story a group of misfits want Aiden dead, yet there’s no sense of threat or danger going from mission-to-mission as you’re free to roam as you please bar the presence of cops who tirelessly track you down should you misbehave too much. The introduction set the ground-work for what seemed like a more dynamic mission-structure, though Watch Dogs ultimately sticks to the tried-and-tested in this regard too which is a shame.
What’s more strange and unexpected in the context of this extremely serious world are Augmented Reality mini-games and Digital Trips – drug induced experiences. Aiden can go on a mad-dash collecting pixel coins, or navigate the dark city streets avoiding aliens, even jumping in a giant robot spider tank and demolishing the Chicago streets for massive points. Clearly these offer up a little light-hearted fun for a game that carries an otherwise serious tone throughout, but in context of the game are quite jarring.
If you’re playing on Xbox One, PS4 or PC the game’s presentation is a clear delight with an astonishing attention to detail. While not on par with its E3 2012 reveal, it’s close enough. Roaming around Chicago at night in the pouring rain is clearly where Watch Dogs is at its best visually – with car headlights popping and scattering across the wet roads, to Aiden’s trench-coat, getting… drenched. Water never looked so good, it’s so good it’s literally impervious to bullets.
NPCs look drastically more detailed than they’ve ever been to date in an open world game, where every person owns a mobile phone which can be hacked showing their name and details about them. They can have their bank accounts emptied to provide Aiden with cash, or even allow you to listen in on their conversations which may lead to a potential crime or some other sordid discussion. NPCs seem to have their own animations which lead to some believable random scenes such as people arguing, being drunk, and even playing badminton in a park, but there’s little interaction with Aiden other than running away when a gun is pulled in their faces. The game world does look the part with a faithful recreation of a metropolis but somehow feels like it’s devoid of much character and could have made for more random elements – although there are a few of these which repeat a bit too frequently. The new generation of gaming seems to push lighting effects over all else, and Watch Dogs certainly impresses in this regard. Playing during daylight is less striking, though there are some nuances such as lens flare which still make a visually pleasing impression.
Aiden can listen to music in vehicles or on-foot from a selection of licensed music across multiple genres with his handy smart-phone, which is neat, but it’s the Xbox 360 version that’s rocking a most desired feature with its Custom Soundtracks. There’s a mission early on where you have to drive a crook to his destination, this merely acts as an introduction to how to evade the police whilst they are in pursuit and how to best avoid being spotted during a cool down search – such as pulling over to park or driving into an alleyway and cutting the engine to avoid detection. If you’ve ever seen the brilliant film “Drive” then this will sound all too familiar; the Xbox 360 is a fortunate platform that can handle police pursuits with such a fitting soundtrack.
What’s more intriguing and without doubt Watch Dogs’ most unique feature is its online functionality. Much like the random crimes and gang related activities to grab your attention, an actual player can invade your game world – that’s your single-player game – with the objective of tailing or hacking you. He’s not there to kill you, just to observe and/or retrieve information. It’s this aspect that I’ve enjoyed the most, online hacking brings about a sense of intensity as you have a large area to search for the hacker, which grows smaller on your map the closer he is to retrieving 100% of your data. Admittedly it can at times prove frustrating if you’re already in the process of doing something else, such as driving to initiate a story mission, to then be told you’re not alone, and someone’s hacking you.
Online Invasions can be disabled, but for the few grievances they cause it’s Watch Dogs best feature, even more so when you’re the one doing the hacking or tailing. As you jump into another player’s game he is unaware of your presence until you’re ready to begin. So, in either case every gamer is playing as Aiden, but on their screen you look like a random civilian – sudden movements, sprinting, climbing, going in/out of cover are a dead give away. It’s extremely amusing to locate and hack the player, and before initialisation you’re given some time to find a good hiding spot, such as a parked car or in plain-sight with a group of civilians, and then watch your victim dash around trying to find you.
ctOS Mobile Challenge is yet another 1 vs 1 online game mode. It’s basically a race where the console player has to drive through a set amount of checkpoints, while a Tablet player has a map-view with hacking tools at his disposal. Having to keep a birds-eye view over the player with a helicopter, unlocking points to call in police, raise bridges, roadblocks, and just do everything possible to ensure Aiden does not get through all checkpoints in time.
With my time online I’ve found that the 1v1 modes – Hacking, Tailing and ctOS Mobile modes all work exceptionally well and compliment the game’s rather unique hacking concept. What has been much less reliable are the more traditional competitive modes which feature up to 8 players.
8-player Racing and Free-Roam are available, but it’s Decryption that is the stand-out competitive multiplayer mode. It’s 4 vs 4 with a Data File on the map for both teams to fight of possession over. If team-mates are near the carrier it will decrypt faster, if an enemy has the File then you can download it by merely being within range – you do not have to kill or pick it up, though that does work as well. It’s an entertaining mode where a small section of the map is playable, so it’s rather like confined chaos. There’s vehicles still too, so that includes drive-bys, and a strange ability where a friendly can stand on the roof of your car (sticky feet?) and shoot away without falling off.
Where the 8-player modes ultimately fall short is in regards to latency, since release it’s been very inconsistent – one moment you can have a fine quality match, the next it can be absolutely terrible to play which really does mar the overall experience. Furthermore there’s a horrific game-breaking bug related to online-play that resets your abilities blocking things such as hacking, which is required to carry on with single-player missions and side quests, as well as blocking access to multiplayer completely. Granted, this will not be experienced by all players, and Ubisoft is aware of the bug which should mean a patch is imminent. Fortunately I finished the main story for review, but did not fully complete other side objectives, nor can I now until it’s patched. Ultimately I resorted to playing on a different account to re-access the multiplayer modes to complete this review, and shall hope that once patched my save file will continue to work as normal again.
Much like the opening of the game I was hoping more to be surprised, be thrown into the thick of it unexpectedly, have something spontaneous happen with regards to the story and be forced to react when going from A to B. The only sense of surprise is achieved with Online Invasions, but even those, while entertaining, you know exactly what’s going on and needs to be done – despite being caught off guard a little each time.
While the story presents some solid acting performances throughout, with its gritty, mature look at the criminal underbelly of a fictitious re-imagining of Chicago, in terms of gameplay there is little here to make Watch Dogs a truly memorable experience. It’s simply too safe, despite some excellent mechanics put to good use. Where Watch Dogs offers the most thrills is its unique take on multiplayer with the Online Invasions which I thoroughly enjoyed the concept. For a game with so much potential and perhaps unjustified hype – Watch Dogs is merely “good”, but is well worth playing. With so few games available on Xbox One and PS4 at least, in this now current generation maybe simply being “good” is enough.
Score – 7.5/10 – Review by Wayne Julian.
Review Code supplied by Ubisoft/Xbox.