Watch Dogs Review
Written Saturday, May 31, 2014 By Dan Webb
Surveillance, hacking, intrusion of privacy. These are all very sensitive and topical issues that have been dominating the column inches over the last few years, with the likes of LulzSec and Anonymous becoming household names in the interim. What we hear, what we assume, what we fear, what the media say, they all play a big part in what is quickly becoming a paranoia-fuelled society. This is Watch Dogs in a nutshell; but instead of being consumed by uncertainty and panic, you create it.
With Aiden Pearce as your avatar and Chicago as your open-world playground, Watch Dogs shows you what it’s like to have control over a city’s digital infrastructure, using its own technology against it for your personal gain. From hacking people’s phones and scanning them, to opening garage doors and blowing steam drains, Watch Dogs makes you feel like the ultimate bad ass hacker and that’s the game’s shining light.
Aiden is not above shooting a man in the back. Sod.
Watch Dogs tells the story of Aiden Pearce, whose lifestyle choices get the people he loves constantly into trouble. From the get-go to the very last minute, what ultimately unfolds is a tale of revenge, with a character who’s haunted by his memories and mistakes; a character who develops from a two-bit criminal into a full-on vigilante, as he tries to make amends and take responsibility for his actions.
To say the start of Watch Dogs is glacial is probably an overstatement, but if you were to judge the game on the first Act alone, you’d no doubt be disappointed. Act II is where Watch Dogs hits its stride and you feel like Ubisoft Montreal really gets into full flow. It’s this Act specifically that uses the hacking elements to create a completely new experience and dazzle the player with great set-piece after great set-piece. Granted, the game doesn’t really reach those dizzy heights again after Act II, but it ends strongly enough, mixing in some great puzzles, big plot twists and exhilarating, pressure-filled infiltrations.
Let’s just get this straight right now: if you’re going to treat Watch Dogs as an action-packed third person shooter, you’re not going to get the best out of the game. If you want to do that, you truly need to use the hacking as much as possible and revolve your experience around, whether you’re hacking cameras, creating distractions, taking down enemy soldiers or using Aiden's abilities to overload generators to create blackouts. It’s these instances when the game goes from being great to brilliant. It’s probably the best tactical-espionage game in quite some time. It effectively melds the open-world chaos of GTA with the infiltration and espionage of Metal Gear.
"Woo! Forget all that hacking! Today is a wheelie kinda day!"
I can’t say enough about the hacking in Watch Dogs. It becomes what defines the game and makes it so unique. It must be one of the first games in history where cameras are actually an ally and not an enemy. It’s not just a matter of using them to look, you can use them to plot paths, mark enemies on your HUD, to interact with the environment and lure in your potential prey.
That’s it on a granular level. On a wide-scale city level you can hack people’s bank accounts and steal money, fiddle with traffic lights to create a distraction, unlock shortcuts, close down roads whether offensively or defensively. And you can open up hidey holes for Aiden to use as weapons – especially when you blow up the steam drains. It’s such a cool idea and one that is expertly pulled off. If this is just the start of things, Ubisoft could – and more than likely will – have another truly triple-A franchise on their hands.
If the hacking’s not for you though, from a character growth perspective you can invest in combat, driving and crafting gadgets instead of focusing on hacking. You’d almost be mad to do that though, as the hacking deserves to take precedence.
There was always a concern that Watch Dogs might have descended into more of a tech demo, akin to what the first Assassin’s Creed was to that franchise, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It might actually start off that way, but the more you explore the world and get involved in the story, the more the game unveils its true potential. As for it being feature and content light? It’s in fact quite the opposite. Watch Dogs is huge and there’s probably a good 80 hours of gameplay in there if you want to see and do everything.
With hidden packages to collect that unlock secret missions, places to check-in at – yes, like FourSquare – augmented reality games to conquer, gang hideouts and convoys to take down, crimes to prevent, fixer contracts to take on, some amazing digital trip mini-games to experience and more, there's no shortage of content in Watch Dogs. I could be here all night if I was naming everything. If you’re just interested in the story, however, it clocks in at a whopping 20-30 hours, depending on how sidetracked you get. You could probably spend hours just looking for Easter eggs, of which there are plenty. Watch Dogs is value for money at its finest.
For everything the game does right though, you have to question a few design decisions. Not being able to blind-fire when behind cover, shoot your guns while in a car and jump – yes, you can’t jump – are all decisions that are frankly quite baffling for such an ambitious game. Sure, Aiden can freerun around Chicago and he gets around rather admirably that way, but it’s all very on-rails a la Assassin’s Creed.
Throw in some lacklustre waypointing and at times, some questionable checkpoints, and you can see that the game could probably have benefitted from an extra few months in development, scratching what would otherwise be an exquisite surface. It does have the best coat-flapping physics we’ve ever seen though, and that water… That water! It’s stunning.
Should players want, they can take the action online with a whole suite of options to get involved in. From invading other people’s worlds to steal data from them or trail them, decryption contracts – which is effectively a game of Oddball using hacking and proximity – races with hacking and online free-roam. If you fancy it as well, you can use the companion app and take control of the city’s defences while someone else tries to race through the city.
If these people aren't already afraid of spiders, they will be after this.
The multiplayer wasn’t for me personally, but it’s quite easy to see that the hacking in the racing could potentially make for some hilarious experiences and the open-world free-roam could prove to be as popular as GTA Online if all you want to do is enjoy creating mayhem with your friends. For me, Watch Dogs is all about the single-player experience, and that, my friends, is mighty fine on its own.
In terms of achievements, the list is definitely one for the completists, with it asking you to effectively do as much as humanely possible from a content completion standpoint. It’s a shame as well, because the game’s mechanics ultimately empower the player and offer such a creative and systemic sandbox to play in, you’d think that’s where the focus would have been. I know we say this a lot, but it’s a by the numbers list. Complete all of these, complete all of those, etc. There just aren’t enough achievements that play to the game’s strengths.
In all though, Watch Dogs can be seen as nothing more than a rousing success. With an interesting new mechanic that truly makes the game feel unique, and one that is almost expertly pulled off, it should be heralded for the new experience it brings to the market. Aside from a few questionable design choices and the slow start to the campaign, Watch Dogs is a rich open-world game that could potentially one day rival Grand Theft Auto. Yes, I said it.
I’m going to go out on a limb here: Watch Dogs’ score is one of the best I’ve ever heard. Genuinely. The radio (which is more of a song list) is leagues behind GTA’s though.
Watch Dogs on Xbox One is definitely inferior in terms of visuals to its PlayStation 4 counterpart, but that at no point detracts from the experience. Microsoft has its work cut out if it’s to bridge the gap between the two consoles, that’s for sure.
Despite the fact that you can’t jump, blind fire or shoot while in a car – things which should be standard in an open-world game such as this – Watch Dogs is a delight to control.
There is so much content in Watch Dogs, and if you complete it all you can delve into multiplayer. It’s all about the single-player story though, it’s just a shame that it’s such a slow starter.
By the numbers and one for the completists. Not terrible, pretty solid really, but it's a list almost devoid of creativity.
Watch Dogs is an unmitigated triumph, that’s for sure. Considering the game is a new IP, it does a lot of things incredibly well and lays the foundation for a franchise that has the makings of being a potential Assassin’s Creed beater. Despite a few puzzling design decisions and an almost glacial start to the campaign, Watch Dogs is worthy of your time. There’s no doubt about that.
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