Review: Watch Dogs
Watch Dogs was first showcased nearly two years ago at Ubisoft’s E3 conference and took home the gold medal for most anticipated new IP. A couple of delays and a whole lotta hype later and we finally get to experience Ubisoft’s latest creation. Here’s how it lives up to expectations…
Watch Dogs follows the story of Aiden, a former criminal turned hacker with a conscience. After the death of his niece Lena and the law’s failure to apprehend her killer, Aiden decides to go after her killers with his own brand of vigilante justice.
Set in a near-future version of Chicago that is digitally controlled by a supercomputer called CtOS (Central Operating System), the game looks at all manner of issues around information security, our increasing dependence in technology and the morally grey areas of covert surveillance. With CtOS being linked to all aspects of the city (from traffic lights to every citizen’s smartphone), Aiden is able to manipulate the system to get the upper hand on his enemies in any situation. Despite sounding like he’s doing his best Batman impression sometimes, Aiden is a likeable character with some really well crafted friends and enemies.
The core mechanics of the game like shooting and free-running will feel familiar to those of you who have played an open world game in the last five years. These elements are of course solid, with fluid movement and climbing animations that could be borrowed directly from Assassin’s Creed, coupled with slick cover-based shooting akin to a Rockstar title. However, it’s in the game’s hacking mechanics where players will see the greatest innovation.
Using his Smartphone Aiden can tap into information on every NPC in the city giving useful insights into their personal and professional lives. You’ll occasionally be able to tap into a person’s text/instant message conversation which will reveal the location of something valuable that they have stored somewhere or a useful tip on an upcoming crime. With the latter you can make a decision whether you wish to go and intervene in this crime to gain money and build on your reputation as Chicago’s masked vigilante. Alternatively you can abuse your power by hacking into NPC’s phones to retrieve bank data and steal funds as well as unlock new cars, weapons, and in-game music.
Your phone can also be used to manipulate the city environment like traffic lights to cause collisions, raising bridges to aid your escape during a chase, cause blackouts and create diversions to distract unknowing enemies.
As well as it’s tight shooting mechanics, the game also allows you to get a bit more hands on with enemies using Aiden’s telescopic truncheon (by no means a euphemism!). Hand-to-hand combat with your foes utilises a combination of stealth components and parkour with the ability to use hacking to eliminate opponents, create diversions, or create cover. It can also be used as a stealth tool to help you to sneak past guards.
Then there’s the driving. A large city like Chicago would be dull to navigate without a healthy selection of cars and super bikes at your disposal. Unfortunately, car-handling is one of the games weakest attributes meaning that getting behind the wheel feels a bit more hit and miss than in GTA. However, potentially iffy car chases are really well mitigated by the ability to hack the environment in real time like raising bollards and ramps to foil your pursues. This makes for some really cinematic chases and some great alternatives to simply driving around the block a few times until the police get bored.
As you progress through the game you can upgrade Aiden’s skills either by spending skill points or earning perks by completing side missions and collecting various items from the in game world, such as finding QR codes on the sides of buildings or finding CtOS servers and collecting information on the people of Chicago.
Part of what makes Watch Dogs so special is the living, breathing city environment that Ubisoft has created. Chicago and its people go about their everyday lives in a way that is believable and more fascinating to watch than any other open-world game that you’ve played. You can hang out and watch a couple of guys beat-boxing on a corner or follow a scientologist around the streets to see what they get up to. With the random interactions that you encounter, coupled with the optional content floating around, Watch Dogs’ world is simply a joy to be a part of.
Where Watch Dogs will really surprise you is in its bundles of extra content. The main story missions are just the beginning and you’ll find yourself sinking hours into the game’s extras. There are various mini games to take part in like Chess, drinking games and a FourSquare like check in game at various locations across the map. The latter of these is easily avoidable but shows Ubisoft’s dedication to including as many references to digital and social media in their world as possible. A great little extra.
The most interesting side activities on offer are Watch Dogs’ in-house version of video games. Called Digital Trips, these games allow Aiden to hallucinate and take part in a variety of different games. One game will have you soaring through the city skies and bouncing from giant psychedelic flowers to grab a high score. It’s absolutely bonkers but a whole lot of fun.
Another Trip sees you behind the wheels of a Carmageddon style death race, as you harvest the souls of pedestrians across the city. My personal favourite Trip has to be Spider-Tank though. This one puts you in the cockpit of a giant mechanical spider equipped with missiles, machine guns and the ability to scale skyscrapers as you try to take down as many enemies as possible while leaping around the city like a deranged tarantula. It really is 100 times as fun as it sounds. Pure genius.
A bit like a Dark Souls game, Watch Dogs allows you to step into the open world of another player to cause mischief for fun and financial gain. By doing so, the other player is alerted that an enemy hacker is in the vicinity and is attempting to hack Aiden. You will appear as an ordinary NPC and your opponent will have a limited time to track you down before the hack is complete. If discovered you need to escape the other player before they gun you down.
The one on one nature of this mode is really interesting and can lead to some really tense but focused battles for hacking supremacy. It’s not so dissimilar from the concept of Assassin’s Creed’s multiplayer but a welcome addition to spice up your free roam time in between missions.
To sum up
In a world of increasing sequels, prequels and off-shoots it’s truly refreshing to see the birth of a new franchise with so much to offer us. Filled with content and an abundance of replay value I found myself having a tremendous amount if fun with Watch Dogs.
Despite a couple of gripes, Chicago is an ambient open-world setting that I simply couldn’t get enough of. Filled with hundreds of references t popular culture from Halo to Slenderman, there are endless crowd pleasers to discover through exploration. I can’t wait to see where Ubisoft can take the concept next. Did I mention Digital Trips?!
Version reviewed: Xbox One
Watch Dogs is available now on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360 and PS3.