This is a review of the online component to Watch_Dogs, to read our full review of the main game click here.
As promised, the online modes in Watch_Dogs are, for the most part, seamlessly integrated into the story. Just as with the side quests, the result is that these online challenges feel very much a part of what Aiden would naturally be doing – especially when being hacked by other players. Modes are nicely varied, offering a range of challenges: hacking other players (Online Hacking / Infiltration Modes); trailing other players without being seen (Online Trailing); teaming up with others to decrypt a file before another (Online Decryption), player controlled team, is able to (closest to team deathmatch as Watch_Dogs gets); racing other players (Online Racing) and taking on a player who is using the separate mobile app to direct the police and close you down on the mean streets of Chicago (ctOS Mobile App). There’s also a free roam mode where you can join your friends and explore or take on online challenges together.
The online hacking is definitely my favourite of the modes on offer. Your involvement can occur in one of three ways. You can be walking around and be offered an online contract out of the blue, which you can accept or decline. You can specifically request an online mission, then the game will go hunting a contract down for you (and give you an average wait time, which was a nice touch. Typically the waiting times were around 2/3 minutes when I played). Again, the game will prompt you once it’s found a target to hack into, you then confirm or decline. The final way is to be hacked yourself. This you have no control over (unless you switch the online features off entirely) but it will never interrupt you mid-mission, so it never feels like a real intrusion.
Once in the 1 vs 1 hacking situation, you must find your target, then initiate the hack. Once the hack starts, you have to maintain your cover and stay away from your opponent’s profiler until the hack reaches 100%. It gets really intense as after each 25% block of the download is completed, the distance you can be from your target gets smaller, meaning they have a smaller area to search and greater chance of spotting you (you’ll look just like a random NPC on their screen, not like Aiden).
If spotted, your objective switches in an instant. Now you must escape before they take you down. A successful hack, or a partial hack and escape, will gain you some online notoriety points and in game experience points to use on developing the skill trees.
Conversely, if you’re the one being infiltrated, your job is to use your profiler to spot the hacker, then chase him down and take him out before he gets away with any information. It’s digital hide and seek, but it’s awesome and incredibly addictive.
Online Trailing is a similar premise, only you don’t have to execute a hack, you simply need to keep a line of sight clear between you and your opponent. Or try to break the line of sight if you’re the one being trailed.
The only slightly incongruous modes are the online racing and team decryption modes. They’re fun, sure enough, but I just don’t know why Aiden, a very solitary and stealthy figure for the most part, would take time out to join a larger group to race along the busy streets or engage in team based decryption. In the story, Aiden rarely seems happy about having to accept help or work with anyone. Socially, it’s great that these modes exist, but narratively they don’t quite gel.
The Online Decryption mode is perhaps the most frustrating. There’s a great idea here. Two teams of up to four must battle to take control of a file and access the information from it – which takes time. The delicate cat and mouse game play whereby one team takes control and must hide and protect the player holding the file is, in theory, brilliant. You can choose between keeping your team together to decrypt the file quicker, but leaving you susceptible to a blitz attack, or set up wider defenses, that give you better protection and split your enemies focus, but slow down decryption.
Sadly what ensues is nothing like the cool trailer we saw a few weeks ago. Instead we typically get a frantic free-for-all were players smash into each other with cars, while a sniper stands on the roof of the car; one guy throws all of his explosives everywhere as another just randomly hacks every steam pipe and traffic light they see. It’s currently a confusing mess and, though still hilarious, it isn’t really in keeping with the rest of what the game offers. Hopefully, over time this mode will develop into something great (like when people realise if you sprint everywhere you show up on the radar…).
Online Racing is pretty straight forward. Races are either hitting a series of checkpoints going from A to B, or involve a number of laps of a city circuit. The hacking opportunities are all as present as they would be in single player, so employ all the dirty tactics you want! It’s not quite Mario Kart, but popping a steam cover to take out the leader is almost as satisfying as hitting someone with a blue shell.
Battling against people using the mobile app is especially challenging. It could be that I just kept coming up against some highly skilled players, but fortune seemed to favour the app users. It was incredibly difficult to shake them completely, still fun, but got frustrating after a while and it was hard to see me returning to it frequently.
Ubisoft really want you to try their online modes and once you do, it’s easy to get sucked in. Achievements online affect your online notoriety score, which can unlock extras, but it also grants you experience to upgrade your skills in the main game (more of that blurring of the line between single and multiplayer). It IS possible to turn the online features off entirely and never have your session infiltrated by another player. However, if you do this, any progress you have made online so far is entirely reset – meaning you don’t get to pick and choose. You’re either online all the time, or you’re offline.
Unfortunately, at the time of writing there are people gaming the system and exploiting a flaw in the system. When you’re hacking or trailing someone else, you are not allowed to harm them in any way, which is fine, you’re trying to avoid being profiled, so staying out of their way is a natural way to act. However, some players have taken to getting themselves killed – by the cops or something similar – just as you’re about to complete the hack. This automatically causes you, the hacker, to lose the round – even if you didn’t touch the other player, you are condemned for their death.
This really cripples the enjoyment of the online modes and needs to be dealt with swiftly by Ubisoft. Hopefully an update and fix is in the works as without this you could end up surrendering a lot of notoriety points just for playing well against a sore loser.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the online features of Watch_Dogs, I didn’t think they would suck me in, but the reasonably seamless transition had me hooked early on – and I just seem to keep going back for more. I relish the opportunity to track down a would be hacker and regularly accept the random online contracts that pop up every so often. It’s definitely different, but well worth your time and attention – once they get that bug fixed.
Richard is a father, teacher, gamer and writer. He believes that The Last of Us and Olli Olli 2 are the finest games ever made, feels that the StarWars Saga should only be watched in ‘the Machete order’ and once cleared Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in one sitting. Took him 20 hours, four cups of tea and a sausage roll. You can follow him on twitter @TLOUFactionsMP or @VigilanteSanta and view his occasional twitch outbursts on twitch.tv/spooklebeans.