Watch Dogs Review – No Hack Job

Developed by Ubisoft Montreal. Published by Ubisoft. Released May 27, 2014. Available on PC, PS3, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox 360, Xbox One.


Watch Dogs is seen by some as the true herald of a new generation of videogames, a view that Ubisoft itself has done little to discourage. An open world game sold on impressive visual quality and the unique promise of “hacking the world,” this story of cyber crime and info brokering is not quite the revolution it may first appear to be. It is, however, a slickly produced, highly polished example of sandbox gaming with an embarrassment of riches in the content department.

You are Aiden Pearce, a shady hacker with an allegedly Iconic Baseball Cap and a magic cellphone that can interact with the online mainframe running almost every scrap of tech in Chicago – ctOS. After an infiltration job goes horribly wrong, Pearce finds himself on the wrong side of some very dangerous men, getting his family caught in the crossfire. Exploiting ctOS to his own ends, Pearce turns vigilante, dishing out justice to evildoers in his own violent manner, and placing himself in the sights of some very scary men indeed. It’s the done thing.

While the story plays out quite a few overused tropes, there’s something of the 1990s movie scene – where the “information superhighway” was once thought capable of literally anything – about the conspiratorial narrative. The story is told with an impressively stylish presentation, and it’s hard not to get personally invested in Aiden’s adventure. It says a lot about a game when one is into its plot enough to feel a need to see the villains taken down, but Watch Dogs‘ cast of bad guys is vile enough to invoke such a feeling. I wish Aiden himself had a bit more personality outside of “gruff wronged man,” but sadly we have an industry-wide epidemic of that stock character.

It has to be said – a baseball cap is not iconic if yet another growling photogenic white guy is underneath it. You can’t just baseball cap your way into the history books, Ubisoft!

In any case, the campaign – which comprises five lengthy chapters – starts small and grows into something intriguing, paced out perfectly and helped by a fantastic soundtrack to sell the game’s most evocative moments. At times the story swims in banal waters – a particular kidnap plot reeks of played out writing – but individual plot points are very well told indeed. The missions involving rival hacker Defalt are a particular highlight, and the “big reveal” toward the end is sublime as it highlights the pettiness of Chicago’s evildoers.

For the most part, Watch Dogs is almost surprisingly mundane in its approach to open world adventuring – in fact, it suffers somewhat from the near-total homogenization and uniformity Ubisoft encourages in all of its games. As players travel Chicago and unlock new things to do, the game can be seen as something of a Frankenstein’s Monster of previous Ubisoft titles. Whether you’re parkouring around the city a’la Assassin’s Creed, cracking data towers to open up the map like FarCry 3, or enjoying the kind of gadget-based stealthing Sam Fisher employs in Splinter Cell, this hyped herald of a new generation feels distinctly like a case of “been there, done that.”

This is not to say that what Watch Dogs does is particularly bad – in fact, Ubisoft Montreal has quite comprehensively cultivated some of the best examples of open world gameplay and pulled it off quite well. The main missions are fun, the optional quests are highly addictive, and everything has a level of solidity and competence that surpasses many other big budget titles. It should be noted, however, that if one goes into Watch Dogs expecting a breath of fresh air, one is in for a disappointment. Despite its hacking gimmick, Watch Dogs‘ content is mostly notably “normal.”

The central hacking gimmick is pretty fun, though. Using his ever-present cellphone, Aiden can manipulate the world around him, interacting with technology to suit his needs. While in “Profile” mode, players can pry into the lives of everybody around them, with names and personal secrets appearing onscreen at all times. Some NPC phones can also be hacked, allowing one to listen in on conversations, gather information on crimes in progress, or steal software keys and cash from bank accounts. There’s something fun about simply wandering the streets, seeing who isn’t allowed near schools or who ran with the bulls in Spain. While the data is prone to repeat with enough playtime, there’s enough variety to where it won’t repeat very often, even after hours upon hours of play. The amount of phone call audio and text message logs that one can uncover, stuff that really means nothing to the game itself, is staggering, and all contributes to the creation of a believable world.

As well as spying and stealing, Aiden’s phone can be used to remotely control devices, be they computers, traffic lights, road barriers, or even helicopters. Players can also craft gadgets that screw up enemy comms systems or create a block-wide blackout that allows for effective night-time stealth. All this is done with the simple press of a button in the right context (Ubisoft’s love of simplicity is in full effect!), and while one may sometimes accidentally set off a nearby explosive when trying to merely hack a surveillance camera, the hacking system is mostly elegant, allowing for fast and efficient control over the world.

With prompted commands, one can create traffic chaos, burst sewer pipes, and raise spikes in the road when pursuing, or being pursued by, enemy vehicles. One can craft and hack devices that make noise, luring enemies into the right spot for a quick takedown. By hacking cameras, then using his new vantage point to hack more cameras, Aiden can get a full view of an area before infiltrating, tagging opponents or exploding grenades and circuit boxes to level the playing field without getting his hands dirty. While the controls are quite basic and a bit more limited than one might hope (exploding things only gets so varied), a significant sense of empowerment is hard to argue with, and the interface is so fluid that even a simpleton can feel like a master hacker. It feels cool, that’s for damn sure.

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Watch Dogs holds up the non-hacking end impressively, too. Whether one chooses to sneak around under blacked out darkness, or take it to the thugs with assault rifles and grenade launchers, both stealth and combat are as flowing and quick-paced as the digital tomfoolery. Snapping into cover, taking down criminals quietly, and causing gigantic explosions feel quick and painless to grasp, though Aiden’s fragility and the need for spatial awareness means that combat isn’t always going to be easy for all its convenience. Watch Dogs strikes a nice balance between ease-of-use and challenge, something that’s quite difficult to pull off.

Cars handle well on the road, and cruising around while continuing to hack the outside world is pretty enjoyable. Car chases often feel exhilarating thanks to the ability to not only take out cars, but turn off the engine and sink into your seat to fool pursuers. The vehicular stealth is limited, but rewarding, as is tearing around town to avoid the ctOS scanners that cover the maps when the police are trying to find you.

There is an absolute ton of content to chew through. If I were to use any single word to describe this entire game, it would have to be “dense.” The amount of stuff to do is near overwhelming, ranging from simple things like checking-in to hotspots like FourSquare or apprehending thugs, to undertaking side missions and clearing out gang hideouts, there’s so much to do that I actually wasted an entire day of review ignoring the campaign and undertaking Fixer missions. Missions have scads of variety, too – from distracting cops to chasing down criminal convoys to stealing and relocating cars within a time limit.

Some of the distractions border on the utterly ludicrous. Various “ARG” experiences allow Aiden to partake in parkour races or summon digital aliens to blast with a laser pistol, and there are men in alleys selling “digital trips” – hallucinogenic experiences that see players bouncing on flowers or taking on robots in a desolate, darkened landscape. Impressively, Watch Dogs is filled with optional gameplay that a player could miss entirely, leading to a wealth of variety that should stop almost anybody being bored.

Then there are the little touches. It was hours into the game before I found a random crime being committed – not as part of an official mission (for there are specific crime prevention ones), it just happened in the street and I could take the perpetrator out in exchange for reputation points. As you hack phones, you may get to download new music to play while driving. There are ways to hack into peoples’ homes and pry into private lives – getting to see totally inconsequential cutscenes that range from funny to downright dark. Just for the hell of it, you can hack singing plastic bass decorations, joke-telling moose heads, and BAAAAWing Rabbid dolls, too. Because why not?

Watch Dogs‘ ultimate triumph is in just how alive it makes Chicago feel. More than Saints Row, more than even Grand Theft Auto V, Ubisoft’s Chicago feels populated, thriving, buzzing with life. There’s an ambiance to it, a sense of belonging to the world that no other city-based game has managed to capture as well. From the amount of civilians on display, to the random snippets of conversation and the bundles of optional content and dialogue, Watch Dogs‘ world is satisfying to simply be a part of.

Obviously, in a game about hacking, there is an obligatory Hacking Minigame that shows up frequently, as players will need to swivel wires to complete a circuit, sometimes within a time limit. It’s fairly tedious, and takes one out of the game. The overall action itself can suffer from tedium at times, because there is so much content to chew through, and one can become quite exhausted of yet another romp through enemy territory, hacking the same old cameras and remotely bursting the same old pipes. It’s awesome that there’s so much game to play, but the opposite edge of that sword is in how tiring it can be to play through multiple missions at a time.

Multiplayer helps shake things up, with a Dark Souls style emphasis on “invading” the worlds of other players. During the course of your travels, you may be infiltrated by another player who is secretly tailing you to download personal details, or you could be warned that someone is attempting to hack your phone. Tracking down these rogue players is an intense game of cat and mouse, as you try to scan the area and profile the bad guy. You can, of course, invade someone else’s world and do the same, all in the name of earning notoriety points that can be used for more upgrades.

Like with everything else on offer, there is a lot of variety in the online offerings. From races, to capture-the-flag style multiplayer, to the aforementioned invasions, there’s a lot to try out, and it’s all seamlessly integrated into the main game. Simply use Aiden’s phone to move swiftly into the online world, or confirm when a pop-up offers an online opportunity. At the very least, the invasion-style missions are well worth indulging in. They’re a lot better than I expected them to be.

Running on the PlayStation 4, WatchDogs looks very pretty in motion, especially when the environment starts raining at night and the reflections on cars and water come out in full force. It notably does not impress as much as it did when Ubisoft showed it off two years ago, but it’s still quite nice. As I mentioned earlier, the soundtrack is perfect at building tension and atmosphere, though the selection of licensed tracks didn’t speak to me like other open world games’ have. Voice acting is pretty good across the board, with the bad guys in particular hamming up their dialogue to an effective degree.

Also, Jordi is a brilliant character.

Bottom Line: Polished to a mirror sheen, and bursting with content, Watch Dogs is a great looking game with a thriving open world and an empowering premise. It suffers from being an amalgamation of every other major Ubisoft game, to the point where it doesn’t feel as fresh as it deserves to, but it’s still a varied, rich, thoroughly dense experience.

Recommendation: It’s perhaps the most believable open world game out there, and it’s pretty damn fun to boot. Sandbox fans will miss out if they don’t scope it.


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