After a slow start, I ended up having a lot of fun with Watch Dogs. The characters are appalling, but the world looks stunning, the hacking system rejuvenates the sandbox shooter and the multiplayer demands recognition as genuine innovation, even if it does become a little tedious.
Yet, for all that it does right, Watch Dogs is very much like the original Assassin’s Creed: a bevy on intriguing ideas that never quite reach their potential, ensuring the sequel is destined for greater things.
“Hacking as a weapon” is a bit of an overstatement, as a majority of the hundreds of murders I committed in Watch Dogs came at the hand of my silenced pistol or AK47, with regular frag grenades thrown in for good measure from behind a cover system. The core of Watch Dogs’ third-person open-world gameplay is very familiar, but the hacking elements add just enough point of difference to make it feel fresh. Jumping between security cameras to spot guards, find access codes and plot a stealthy route of infiltration makes the path well planned worthwhile; although running in guns blazing is almost always just as effective.
The open world of Chicago is stunning, with the bustling streets countered by the rural areas of Pawnee. It’s not as expansive as other open worlds, but what it has is full of life and vigour. As you would expect, it looks best on PS4 and Xbox One, but the last-gen PS3 and Xbox 360 versions aren’t far behind. This isn’t a game you need a new console to play.
Hacking is executed by holding just one button in conjunction with a single mini-game that progressively becomes more challenging. Limiting players to a single hacking puzzle game, and quite a good one at that is the smartest design of Watch Dogs. The learning curve dissipates early, leaving you to focus on solving the challenge, often under a tight time constraint.
The more you allow yourself to be consumed by Watch Dogs’ protocols, the more you’ll resonate with its quirky ideas.
Outside of combat, Watch Dogs is comparable to its genre brethren but ensures its unique twist takes center stage. The driving mechanics are fairly bland — initially it feels as if you have almost no control, as vehicles veer into obstacles, particularly trees as if they’re magnetized towards them. The underwhelming vehicular control opens the door for police to be more than competitive. From the ground and the air, they’ll astonishingly keep pace as you bounce around the city, ensuring certain failure during the tutorial mission; and it only gets more intense. The cops’ superhuman determination is countered by hacking into garages and hiding in a parked car to escape their luring gaze, but that too is offset by high tech scanners foiling attempts to remain stationary for too long.
The flimsy driving controls become less of an obstacle with practice, as you become accustomed and almost automated to their limited intricacies. Once you’ve mastered the art, the frustrating issues of the opening missions fade away, freeing you to focus on hacking traffic lights and underground pipes to evade overpowered pursuers, while keeping half-an-eye out for nooks and crannies to park and hide in your car to get them off your tail. What begins as incessant frustration becomes an art of cat and mouse, but one you’ll never be entirely comfortable with.
The more you allow yourself to be consumed by Watch Dogs’ protocols, the more you’ll resonate with its quirky ideals. Scanning a courtyard of innocent bystanders looking for criminal activity, and hacking their bank accounts in the process based on key information — are you really going to steal from a cancer patient? — is an invigorating power trip, and the investigative side missions are well placed to give the illusion that fugitive hacker Aiden Pearce is a good guy.
But therein lies Watch Dogs’ biggest weakness: Aiden Pearce is a bland, unlikeable protagonist; and he’s not alone. With the exception of one hacker buddy, T-Bone, the supporting cast is just as meaningless. In the end, I couldn’t care less who lives or dies, and come to think of it, I’m not really sure of Pearce’s motives.
He’s masquerading as a do-gooder vigilante ridding the town of dastardly evil, but the police have strong motive to chase him. In the main story missions, Pearce is a ruthless serial killer, in the name of rescuing a hostage who appears to have been taken, putting him in a Liam Neeson-esque situation, for all the wrong he’d done in the past. Pearce is presented as a good guy in a bad situation, but he’s worse than Jack Bauer when it comes to ignoring the law when it’s inconvenient and wondering why government agencies don’t understand.
If you can ignore the failings of the vessel, the scenic journey is superb. Even as a cross-gen game (surely so much more can be done if the sequel is current-gen only), the lighting on PS4 dazzles, as demonstrated by the sunset reflecting off the towering skyscrapers onto the buzzing world below. I’ve not been to Chicago, but I’m told the active buildings and iconic monuments, which can be checked into through in-game social media, are eerily accurate.
That’s where Watch Dogs shines as its own beast. The near future Chicago is always connected through the city’s ctOS system, providing the data on each citizen, and it’s full of nods to our own always-online culture. From check-ins, to using text messages to distract guards, and even a media app that plays songs in and out of cars, rather than the open world trope of radio stations; it entrenches Watch Dogs in the modern world, where smartphones and digital screens rule society.
There are plenty of awesome Easter Eggs and camo appearances throughout Chicago.
The connected philosophy flows into the multiplayer events, which prompt you to join during single-player unless you opt out. These range from simple races to the bread and butter infiltration mode, which has one player enter another’s game and try to hack them without being caught. Both players are disguised as NPCs, forcing you to look for unnatural movements that could only be possible by human commands. It’s a rather exhilarating experiment, as a week after release players are still learning new ways to hack without being discovered, and some of them are hilariously ingenious.
While perpetual prompts to join a multiplayer game when you’re trying to blitz through the convoluted main story can become taxing, which is why it can be turned off, the impromptu multiplayer is more “next-gen” than anything else in Watch Dogs. As it turns out, it’s actually cross-gen and has always been possible on PS3 and Xbox 360, but it still feels like it’s offering something fresh, laying the foundations for something spectacular in the sequel.
The Final Verdict
Watch Dogs borrows a lot of tried and tested concepts, adds a healthy dose of unique uberhacking and rounds out as an enjoyable game that’s laid the foundations for a sequel to blow us away. The characters are boring, the story just fizzles out, but the action is entertaining and the world is a joy to explore as other players invade your world in always connected multiplayer. Watch Dogs is full of enough unique ideas to make it a more than worthwhile cross-gen experience.