Platforms PS3/PS4/360/Xbox One/PC/Wii U (at a later date)
Developer Ubisoft Montreal Publisher Ubisoft
Genre Action-Adventure Platform Played PS4
In this digital age our most valuable information can be found on a variety of social media networks. Major online infrastructures are being hacked, and our most delicate information, such as bank details, passwords and more are ripe for the taking to those who have the power to take control of digital platforms. So what would happen if a city was controlled by a single central operating system, one that provided those in control with access to all the electrical infrastructure of the entire city? Watch Dogs aims to showcase the dangers, and vulnerabilities a system of this magnitude could encounter. Watch Dogs may have a deeper message regarding the topic at hand, but it also produces an exciting, intriguing and unique experience that allows the player to use this power as they see fit.
Watch Dogs takes place in the city of Chicago and follows the story of hacker and vigilante, Aiden Pearce, who seeks vengeance for the death of his six year old niece. These elements provide Pearce with a human element, one that allowed me to empathise with the character. Pearce blames himself for her death and has become a shell of his former self, his inner thoughts constantly showcasing how damaged and worn his life has become. Pearce is no saint, and his methods of bringing people to justice can require a brutal touch; but deep down his good intentions shine through.
Pearce is surrounded by an abundance of interesting characters, from the hired gun who is as confident as he is deadly, to the expert hacker who loves creating some astounding contraptions. Watch Dogs ensemble cast of characters are impressive, and although the story had some predictable moments, each character felt fleshed out and entertaining in their own way. These elements continued to push me forward, excited to see where the story and the characters would end up. The hacking aspects of the narrative also allows for some memorable missions, with my personal favourite coming at the climax of Act I. These moments stress the unique nature the world of Watch Dogs can play with, and these moments are where Watch Dogs truly shines.
Though some missions suffer from the archaic nature of instant fail. Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Hitman: Absolution have allowed players to think on their feet after being detected, however Watch Dogs insists on punishing the player. This can be extremely frustrating, when there were many times where I would be detected without any indication I was close to being seen. Watch Dogs emphasises using stealth tactics to take advantage of your enemies, for instance hacking cameras to get a view of your surroundings, while also hacking your enemies and interacting with the environment to take them down. The smooth movement from camera to camera, allows Pearce to hack grenades and set off explosives, creating a tremendous sense of empowerment. Which made clearing a group of enemies from a distance even more satisfying.
If you decide to take the ‘loud’ approach, Watch Dogs also provides some smooth third person shooting, which features a bullet-time mode that allows for some satisfying headshot kills; coupled with an easy to use cover and vaulting system. Enemy AI will act like normal humans and close on your last seen location, which allowed Pearce to utilise the cover and vaulting systems to flank their position. The AI can also be quite questionable, to the point where enemies will not react when seeing seven fellow gang members dead, all in one location. There are certainly good aspects to the realistic human behaviour, however it didn’t translate well when discovering bodies.
Like any open world city, driving the array of vehicles throughout Chicago becomes an important aspect of Watch Dogs. Though driving in Watch Dogs certainly has a learning curve when mastering the roads of Chicago, it ultimately provides a strong performance that sits neatly in the middle of the over-the-top arcade style driving of Saints Row, and the more realistic driving aspects of Grand Theft Auto. Driving around Chicago is a pleasurable experience due to the lack of (for the most part) indestructible fences and bushes, which seems to plague many open world experiences; which helps keeps the action going. If driving isn’t your thing, there are a number of fast travel locations to be unlocked, which are impressively fast to use and are spread out well across the map; always getting you close to the location you wanted to visit.
One of Watch Dogs biggest flaws is the lack of being able to shoot while behind the wheel of a vehicle. This flips the empowerment I felt when hacking cameras, and instead making me feel weak and powerless as I drove. Pearce can hack pieces of environment to take down his pursuers, such as traffic lights, steam pipes and even bridges; but ultimately you always feel outgunned. The lack of shooting also makes each time you’re chased in a vehicle feel like going through the motions; wait for traffic light, slam the square button, and repeat. It doesn’t help that Watch Dogs is obsessed with showing the damage you’re causing, when taking down a vehicle the camera switches to show what happened to the vehicle in question; which constantly made me crash and lose control of my means of transportation.
From a design stand point I understand why Ubisoft choose to not allow Pearce to shoot while he is driving – Pearce is always using one hand to hack the city of Chicago. Realistically, it makes sense that he couldn’t hack, drive and shoot all at the same time. It also doesn’t make sense Pearce has an endless supply of guns on hand, within his bottomless trench coat pockets. I understand presenting a sense of realism within the world of Watch Dogs, but when one contradiction is made to allow the player to have more fun, why not go all the way and skip reality and instead focus on providing a fun experience.
The digital world created in Watch Dogs helps provide each NPC in the city with their own story. While Pearce ventures throughout Chicago we are able to profile each citizen to see their occupation, interests and income; even steal money from their bank account if we so desire. The problem is you may be stealing money from a cancer survivor, or someone who was recently divorced. These are minor decisions that may not have repercussions in the game, but they offer morale quandaries and conflicts of their own.
Would I steal money from someone on hard times? It is a simple system that does an excellent job at making you question whether or not stealing their money is a righteous decision. While many open world games offer an endless amount of empty NPC husks throughout the world, Watch Dogs provides a sense of character to these citizens that I haven’t experienced before. Though Watch Dogs does offer a reputation system that will suffer when killing pedestrians, it feels underwhelming and pointless since the effects of either positive or negative reputation have little impact on your experience.
Watch Dogs looks amazing and produces a picturesque Chicago that feels alive, from the chatter of NPC’s throughout the streets, the random car accidents drivers can cause and the attention to detail in every corner of the city. The phenomenal visual display is showcased during the brightly lit sunsets and the dark gloom that a rainy day delivers; it is a beautiful sight to behold. Each district in Chicago does an excellent job at feeling varied and unique. The busy business district in the Mad Mile is surrounded by expensive vehicles that look in pristine condition, while the poor area of The Wards will have cars in worse condition, either dirty or old; the attention of detail to make sure these areas feel real is appreciated.
Like any open world adventure there are a plethora of side activities to indulge in, aside from the main campaign. These range from small instances to more unique digital experience like Coin Rush, which has you finding digital coins, or NVZN, which has you shooting down waves of digital aliens. There are a more substantial side activities and collectibles that when completed will offer a bonus mission, while the Progression Wheel also emphasises which tasks will unlock new weapons, vehicles or abilities. Watch Dogs does a great job at incentivising players to try each activity at least once, and while some are fairly sub-par there are some worthy experiences to be had.
Privacy Intrusion’s were among my favourite side activities, which has the player hacking into homes to spy on their inhabitants. These offered some good laughs and even an emotional scene or two that provided a tug on the heart. Alongside these missions, players can also experiment with their combat/hacking skills in Gang Hideout. Players are tasked to take down all enemies and knock out their leader, which not only offered a unique challenge but also helped increase my skills during combat sequences. Watch Dogs also provides some Digital Trips, and although these are simple diversions the option to control a Spidertank and destroy the city of Chicago or bounce from building high flowers are fun experiences that allowed me to blow off steam between missions. There is an abundance of side activities here that compliment the 20 hour narrative, which can allow players a worthy excuse to stay in the beautiful city of Chicago.
Watch Dogs also has its own unique multiplayer suite, but also offers the typical online racing and capture the item mode structure, alongside a Free Roam mode for those wanting to mess around with friends. Players are able to enter other player’s worlds and either tail or hack their opponent, while the defending player must find the hacker amongst the NPC population and take him down. There is an interesting cat and mouse mentality to these modes that provide a satisfying sense of intensity as you try to outwit your opponent. Impressively returning back to your own game is a smooth transition, one that blends both worlds together seamlessly.
Watch Dogs is an excellent game, albeit far from perfect. The hacking abilities introduce a new way to play and provide an empowerment few games can match. Aiden Pearce is a likeable protagonist that is humanised during his journey; where we also encounter a number of memorable characters. Though Watch Dogs problems lie in some questionable AI and archaic mission structures, the main problem is the lack of shooting when behind the wheel; making chases feel much more repetitive than they need to be.
The digital age is here and Watch Dogs handles that topic well, offering a Chicago that feels alive, while also showcasing the dangers of a central operating system. Watch Dogs is a solid addition to the open world genre, one that could become a stellar franchise if Ubisoft can iron out the kinks future instalments.
+ Hacking abilities.
+ Plethora of content.
+ Strong cast of characters.
+ Produces a new way to look at NPC’s.
– Questionable AI.
– Instant fail missions.
– Lack of shooting while driving.