Watch Dogs is a very ambitious take on the open world action game. Its initial reveal showed a lone vigilante able to hack into the environment and exploit it to escape police, and it left gamers stunned. After a controversial delay and a development process shrouded in mystery, Watch Dogs has finally been unleashed on the masses to enjoy. And enjoy it you will. You have to be a very cynical gamer not to elicit some entertainment from the final product, despite its failure to meet the gigantic expectations it set for itself.
The story is set in motion by a heist gone wrong at a hotel between odd-couple partners Aiden Pearce and Damien Brenks. As punishment for the botched job, Pearce is targeted for assassination, which he survives but which results in the death of his 6 year old niece. Out for revenge, Pearce tries to hunt down those responsible for her death while simultaneously trying to protect his sister and her son from harm.
Aiden Pearce operates as a cross between James Bond and Batman, except without the charm. We do not know much else about Pearce and how he came to be involved in this high stakes world of hacking and vigilante justice, except that he is more attached to his phone than a gossip obsessed teenage girl. His horrendous fashion sense, which I imagine was inspired by Tom Hanks’ look in the movie Philadelphia, sees him donning a baseball cap, jeans, and a brutally ugly overcoat for most of the game. Thankfully Pearce’s demure personality is counterbalanced by a host of interesting supporting characters of hackers, crooks and scoundrels.
The secret abduction of the suspected hitman and subsequent evasion from the police at a packed baseball stadium sets the stage for a lengthy campaign that mixes stealth and third person shooting. The gunplay is enjoyable and easy to master but not necessarily strong enough to constitute the central component of the gameplay. In your arsenal are pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, grenade launchers and a sniper rifle. You can select between these munitions by holding L1 to bring up the weapon wheel. Most missions give you the freedom to either approach your point of attack stealthily or with outright force. I found quietly eliminating the roaming sentinels one by one with headshots from my silenced pistol to be the most satisfying and effective approach.
You can take down opponents by pressing the circle button, which is a combination between a melee and grapple attack that can incapacitate an enemy in one blow unless it is countered. By pressing R3 you can activate focus, which slows the gameplay down to bullet time. It is useful for getting out of tricky situations when you may be pinned down by a nearby gunman and allows you to better control objects in the environment while evading pursuit in a car.
Watch Dogs features an impressive array of gadgets and technological powers to exploit. Using Pearce’s phone you can do everything from change traffic lights, to temporarily disable helicopters, explode steam pipes, and much more. The most common use is to hack into security cameras placed nearly everywhere in the city. From the view of a camera you can jump to another camera, hack into secure locations from a distance, and dispatch enemies by detonating nearby explosives. It is smooth and forces you to think both practically and tactically.
Hurling grenades and other hand thrown projectiles takes a while to get used to. Unlike regular ammunition, you won’t be able to replenish your stock of gadgets and devices just from scavenging the bodies of your fallen enemies. Gadgets such as Jam Comms, which allow you to interrupt electronic communication systems among enemies, and the blackout generator that knocks out power for a short amount of time, have to be crafted from spare parts you can buy at pawn shops around the city.
Driving controls are smooth and effective. The variety of vehicles you can commandeer include motorcycles, trucks, sport cars, and boats. Using the car-on-demand app on your phone you can order any car you want delivered to a nearby location, though the service is not available during missions.
Oftentimes missions end in cat and mouse chases with a target that you have to take down then subsequently escape from the scene or dispose of the protective members of their convoy. There are also escort missions, stealth missions, and parkour-esque chases on-foot. Watch Dogs will have you doing everything from breaking in and out of prison, to playing poker, and trying to drink another character under the table. These diverse objectives keep the game from feeling too predictable. One objective you do have to repeat for each district of the city is sneaking into a Blume security facility in order to hack into the local ctOS station, thereby granting you access to the grid in the area. These missions feel like a way to pad out the length of the campaign and differ very little form one another.
It is a shame that so many missions devolve into prolonged shootouts with a swarm of enemies and high speed chases through the streets of Chicago. The stealthy approach of jumping from camera to camera is fun at first, but the novelty soon wears off and I found it more expedient to just tackle such situations guns blazing.
The hacking minigames involve toggling circuits to redirect beams of energy to ensure that a signal is able to reach locked nodes. The mechanics of this minigame are simple enough to master and in later stages the challenge ramps up to truly puzzling tests. However, you spend so much time hacking in this fashion that I started wishing the developers had come up with more inventive ways to represent digital code breaking.
Using skill points you earn for leveling up through your actions you can upgrade Pearce's abilities on a skill tree. The four areas of improvement are combat, driving, hacking, and crafting. Upgrades provide you with new abilities like enhanced focus boosts, the ability control bridges, and increased weapon accuracy. It is a rudimentary system but there is some small satisfaction to be had in completely maxing out your skill set.
The campaign is comprised of 39 missions spread out over five acts. Pearce’s motivations at the beginning of the game are vague. As the story progresses he is burdened by the guilt of the loss of his niece and his main motivation is saving his kidnapped sister for most of the game. I take issue with the fact that between missions the story is always pushed forward by a phone call. Pearce also explains everything to himself in his gruff demeanor that could not help but remind me of Cartman donning the cowl of The Coon and philosophizing about how much his city needs him.
The kidnapping plot lost my attention pretty quick but there is enough going on elsewhere in the narrative that captivated and even surprised me. In this age of technological dependence and concern about electronic surveillance, Watch Dogs has something tangible and thoughtful to say about real life issues. It tackles very mature themes in a serious manner, which is refreshing at a time where videogame storytelling has come under greater scrutiny. Equally, the writing is sharp enough to provide a few witticisms and barbs for its characters to exchange and there is a great deal of voyeuristic pleasure to experience while invading the most intimate and often embarrassing details of those around you.
Chicago feels like a living breathing city. It is nice to explore a city other than one inspired by New York or Los Angeles. The map is large enough to feel unrestrictive but not so big that it will take you more than a few minutes to travel between points on an automobile. A looping subway system with optional fast travel is available and comes in handy during escape attempts. The NPCs are all infused with unique personalities and you can access their secret information quickly via their cellphones. You can listen in on phone conversations, snoop on text messages, and also steal bank account information and then later access those ill-gotten funds through an ATM.
A morality system is at play in Watch Dogs. Pearce is known as “The Vigilante” to the press and the public and you will be known as either a Protector or a Criminal depending on how you play. Things like stopping crimes with non-lethal force and breaking up gang activity will add positively to your reputation. Things like killing cops, injuring civilians, and taking down criminals with excessive force will make the public more likely to fear you. Some overeager civilians will alert the police to your presence if you happen to do anything illegal.
Online interactions with other players are well integrated into the game world. Several times I would find myself cruising along minding my own business only to find out another player was trying to hack into my phone. This starts off an impromptu scramble to identify the hacker and eliminate them before they can complete downloading your information. This is a tense, challenging, and exciting twist on traditional open world multiplayer gameplay. Other times you will be given to option to target your own hacking victims or accept online racing challenges, and so on.
Graphically, Watch Dogs is a very attractive game. The visuals do not seem to push the hardware to extreme lengths but the level of detail is engrossing and accusations of a visual downgrade seem somewhat overblown, even if its cross-gen roots are evident. The CGI cutscenes are well directed but the animation feels a bit stiff as the visual style is distractingly distinct from the in game graphics. The game world runs on a 24-hour day cycle and most missions can take place in either the day or the night. There are stunning lighting effects to behold and there is a beautiful grittiness to watching Pearce’s hideous coat sashay in the rain at night. NPC character models repeat, but not very often. Given their unique identities and personalities they, for the mostpart, feel organically like distinct individuals.
The soundtrack is a mix of an original score, the likes of which you would find in a Hollywood thriller, and licensed tunes from acts such as The Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, MGK, and more. The audio design has a real impact on the gameplay, as you will have to listen out for approaching guards and try to cut them off before they can call for reinforcements. Hidden audio logs found on phones, computers, stereos, and other devices reveal useful information. The voice acting is also top notch, other than Pearce’s gravely, one-note performance (yes, if you can’t tell by now I really dislike Pearce).
Other than a few collision detection issues I encountered virtually no technical hiccups. My only real complaint is the lengthy load times that occur between failing and restarting a mission. After the release date delay and the limited hands-on time Ubisoft gave the press before launch, I had a sneaking suspicion that Watch Dogs would be a technical mess. Color me surprised, then, that the game works as advertised. The production values are top notch, and the creativity and ingenuity on display when it comes to interacting with the city technologically are eye opening and my favorite part of the game.
On PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3 you have access to four exclusive missions that add up to about an hour of extra gameplay. Of course the season pass model of downloadable content is in full effect and promises new missions and other gameplay elements in the months following release. The campaign took me about 15 hours to complete. There are plenty of side missions spread throughout the Windy City, and you can keep track of your progression directly from your phone with the road to 100% completion looking long but doable for those who like to leave no stone unturned.
With monster first week sales, Ubisoft seems to have a new burgeoning franchise in Watch Dogs. The ending leaves many options open for a sequel and I suspect they will follow the model set by the still-popular Assassin’s Creed series of changing the setting to some other metropolis. Hopefully, as with Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft decide to swap out the protagonist as well, and provide someone more likable. Watch Dogs satisfactorily fulfills its premise but not quite its promise. It is not a game-changer by any means, but it is well-crafted, high-quality, adult entertainment.
This review is based on a retail copy of Watch Dogs for the PS4