Like many people, the initial E3 reveal of Watch Dogs blew me away. In fact, I can’t remember many other games in recent memory that have gotten me quite as excited as Ubisoft’s sandbox hacker, and the wait has certainly been long. This wait may have taken the edge of the excitement somewhat, and worries that the game wouldn’t measure up crept in thanks to rumours of possible downgrading. Review embargoes may have also contributed to this, but I can now say that, thankfully, these worries are largely unnecessary. What we have here is a truly excellent GTA-clone that takes the sandbox formula in a different direction, whilst embracing all the things we love about the genre. It does all this, and looks great in the process.
I shouldn’t really need to outline the plot and the setting of Watch Dogs, so prevalent has the hype been leading up to the game’s launch, but just in case you’ve somehow managed to avoid all of this information, here’s a brief run-down.
Watch Dogs takes place in the city of Chicago, and casts players in the role of super hacker, Aiden Pearce. Following a harrowing experience for Aiden and his nearest and dearest, he embarks on a mission to find those responsible, which involves taking control of the city’s all-encompassing operating system, the CtOS, and delving into the seedy underworld of hackers, crime lords and other nefarious individuals, all of whom have a role to play in Aiden’s journey.
Like many GTA-clones, the game is mostly a third-person affair, including plenty of vehicle action and on-foot shooting, but here there’s a lot more depth to the world and the actions you can take, and this is mainly thanks to the game’s hacking mechanic, which is without a doubt, Watch Dogs’ crown jewel.
If you were concerned about the vaunted hacking system being little more than a gimmick, or being overly complex and bulky, fear not. The hacking mechanic here is blissfully simple, and you can pick everything up in minutes. For the most part, Aiden can interact with everything, be it traffic lights, bridges, road barriers, electrical transformers, or other people with a single button press/hold. This simple command lets you control the world around you in impressive ways, and it’s even possible whilst in dangerous situations. The various trailers we’ve already seen showing car chases brought to an end with skilful use of road barriers or bridges weren’t concocted set pieces, and it’s all possible here, with much more besides. And, when engaging foes in combat, or sneaking around stealthily, hacking is even more useful, and creates a cover-based combat and stealth system not seen before.
My kung-fu is strong
Via his mobile phone, Aiden has access to the CtOS system, and through this he can perform all sorts of actions. At the most basic level he can hack into and control security cameras, and whilst walking around he can instantly spy on people, revealing their names, occupations, pay grades and secrets. Many people can also be the victim of a hack, which opens up various possibilities. Some simply open up interesting phone conversations or texts, but others grant access to bank accounts, access codes and extra music tracks. This makes simply walking around the world interesting, and makes this digital representation of Chicago feel fare more alive than most other similar sandbox titles. Alongside this you’re constantly being bombarded with CtOS updates about nearby potential crimes, which you can intervene in to alter your reputation.
On the other end of his hacking ability scale, Aiden is able to break into security systems, control the traffic system, cripple helicopters, remotely detonate people’s grenades and even black out entire city blocks. There’s a wide range of these abilities open to players, with most only being usable after enough skill points have been earned to unlock them. These points are earned by completing objectives, missions and challenges, such as the main story missions, invading gang hideouts, hacking CtOS towers, performing ‘fixer’ missions and many others. There’s a vast amount of to do, that’s for sure.
This hacking isn’t always present, though, at least not until you hack into the region’s CtOS mainframe. Until you do this, the section of Chicago you’re currently in will remain locked, and you’ll have little to no hacking abilities. Once hacked, the region opens up.
The fact that most of this hacking is accessed via a single contextual button is impressive, and the dev team has done a superb job making sure the hacking mechanic works, and works well. It’s genuinely fun to perform all of Aiden’s actions, and when employed in other situations, such as a hectic car chase or dangerous gun fight, this system really comes into its own. Even the pipemania-style system hacking is good, and different enough to be interesting.
In fact, Ubisoft has managed to achieve something most other developers have failed to do for a long, long time, and that’s to inject some originality into both the GTA-clone sandbox genre, and the cover-based shooter. Admittedly, both elements contain plenty of familiar content. Indeed, there’s a lot of Watch Dogs‘ content that’s ripped right out of other games, such as Assassin’s Creed‘s free-running and Far Cry‘s comm towers, but at the same time there’s a layer of uniqueness covering the entire thing. Take the cover-based shooting and stealth. The core mechanics of shooting and running from cover to cover work well, and it’s complemented by a range of weapons and tools, such as grenades and decoys. However, add to this the ability to control the environment, such as distracting guards by moving machinery or sounding-off their mobile phones, as well as utilising cameras to survey and use the environment to take out entire groups without even being near them, and you’ve got a truly unique experience. It’s so rare to be impressed by something as well-worn as cover-based shooting, but Watch Dogs manages to surprise, and it’s all the better for it.
This imagination carries on in the open world exploration, which is not only on par with the mighty GTA, but is arguably better it in some areas. As you’re constantly reading people’s secret information, and listening in to their conversations, even hacking into people homes to spy on them, the world feels much more fleshed out. The various mini games and distractions are also of a far better quality than those in Rockstar’s title. These distractions come in many forms, including AR phone challenges, gambling, and the crazy digital trips.
The former of these includes mini games where you have to shoot waves of alien invaders or run around collecting giant gold coins, whilst the gambling includes fully fleshed out chess and poker games (where you can even cheat using camera hacks). The highlights for many, though, will no doubt be the digital trips. These are almost self-contained games in their own right, with each offering a different play style complete with their own skill trees, rules and challenges. For example, the spider tank game puts you in control of a giant robotic spider and tasks you with destroying targets within time limits. You can utilise various attacks, climb up and along buildings and even land on enemies to crush them. As you proceed you can enhance the tank with better weapons and armour. The game, Alone, is a stealth-focused challenge that tasks you with avoiding creepy robots in a blacked-out city, Metal Gear-style. This also has its own skill tree and progression. It’s impressive stuff, and these games, and many others all add up to a title that has a huge amount of content to offer. Even the collectibles, a game-padding tactic which often causes many to groan, are interesting, and not the normal, mundane offerings we usually see. In fact, all of the content here is fun, and even the driving mechanics are unique.
Watch Dogs has its fair share of vehicular antics, and although I admit the control and feel of vehicles isn’t anywhere near as solid or satisfying as in GTA, it’s still great, especially with the option of an in-car view that leads to even more immersion. There are elements of driving that are better than GTA, though, with the most obvious being police chases. Yes, the hacking options make a big impact, and where losing the police in GTA simply means driving fast and far enough away, here you can lose them in many and varied ways, which I mentioned earlier. This is great, but when you add in the stealth driving, you get a whole new level or possibilities.
Some missions enforce this stealth, but even when it’s not necessary, you can lose the cops using stealth tactics. This may be to hide down alleyways, ducking down in your car to fool pursuers, or it may be to stop the chase before it begins by avoiding CtOS scans. It’s a well implemented, multi-stage system, and all adds up to interesting pursuits.
Sadly, this stealth system is where one of Watch Dogs’ few problems rears its head. There are some missions in the game where stealth isn’t only advised, it’s enforced, to the point of instant game over if you’re discovered. This kind of strict rule simply doesn’t have a place in an open world sandbox title, and it’s pretty jarring. There’s no need for this, especially as the game has such a good pursuit system. Why remove this option in some missions, ones where it would actually benefit?
I’ve mentioned that Watch Dogs manages to apply a level of uniqueness to otherwise mundane game concepts, and this also carries over to the online invasion mode. This sees players invade other people’s games in order to hack them and steal data. This is handled very well, and can happen at any time. When invaded, you’re advised that someone is targeting you, and you have to find them before they can hack you. When the hack starts, the other player has to hide, either from sight or by blending into a crowed (they can even hide in vehicles), and you have to use your phone’s profiler to identify them. If you do, the chase is on, and the invading player has to avoid you until the hack is complete or escape entirely. Kill them, and the invasion fails. Let them get away, and they win. If you invade, the same rules apply to you.
It’s a very interesting multiplayer mechanic, and one that’s actually fun. Unlike games like Dark Souls where invasions can fill you with dread, here it’s often an enjoyable aside, and also one that’s challenging, for both sides. There’s a full online leaderboard and reputation system in place too, with other entertaining modes to boot, meaning this is another fully-fleshed out game system – a trend in this excellent sandboxer.
Hack the planet
The sheer scale and ambition found in Watch Dogs is impressive in itself, but the fact that, for the most part, Ubisoft has pulled things off, and done so with such skill, is just plain brilliance. In fact, unless you sit down and scrutinise the game, desperately looking for faults for the sake of it, there’s little to even worry about. As I said, the instant fail stealth is an issue, and in my time reviewing the game the Ubisoft servers have terribly unstable, but aside from this, and a relatively short story length for the genre, Watch Dogs is solid. Yes, it doesn’t look as good as the initial E3 reveal, but it’s still one of the best looking games out there.
We’ve had to wait a long time, and with that wait came an almost damaging level of anticipation, but Watch Dogs has managed to live up to the hype. It delivers all of the strengths of open-world sandbox titles, and adds a plethora of unique features not seen in other, competing releases. In a year where, so far, many major titles have failed to live up to their goals or have disappointed on some level, Watch Dogs is an exception, and is one of the first must-have releases for current gen, and really should be in your collection.
Please, if you can, support our charity horror stories ebook, Den Of Eek!, raising money for Geeks Vs Cancer. Details here.