For those of you who have been living in a cave and know nothing of Watch_Dogs, allow me to offer a brief introduction to bring you up to speed:
Watch_Dogs is a third-person, open world adventure game from veteran developers, Ubisoft. You play the role of Aiden Pearce, a hacker and masked vigilante with shady and tragic past. Fueled by his anger, Aiden uses his elite hacking, driving and combat skills to hunt down the people he holds responsible.
WATCHDOGS VIDEO REVIEW
The story takes Aiden through the city’s ups and downs, through its high rollers and its low-lifes on his quest for vengence. There are the pre-requisite twists, turns, discoveries, conspiracies and heart breaking memories that coalesce into a pretty awesome ride from start to finish.
Set in a near futuristic Chicago, Aiden uses his super-powered mobile phone to hack into ctOS (the security and electrical infrastructure that controls this version of Chicago), allowing him to do anything from raising and lowering bridges, hacking into security cameras, changing traffic lights or even causing a blackout by disrupting the electrical flow to a particular area.
It’s this tool that really sets Watch_Dogs apart from other similar games in the genre. Comparisons to GTA V or Assassin’s Creed will come thick and fast, but no matter what you say, the city plays a bigger role in this game than any other.
Along with the ability to hack the city’s infrastructure at every turn, Aiden can also hack into people’s lives. Using the profiler app on his phone, Aiden gets a window into the lives of all the people in the city. A bitesize biography of every single non-playable-character (NPC) in the game. Every. Single. One.
These bios give a quick rundown of their name, what kind of activity they have most recently been involved in, their job or status and their income. It’s massively varied too, you can wander around for hours and still be surprised by a new job or recent behaviour (from the guy who ‘recently discovered he has cancer’ to the man ‘cheating on his wife’ to the woman who ‘frequently watches internet porn’ – the behaviours are as varied as finger prints).
Most importantly, the profiler helps Aiden to identify potential criminals or potential victims. When prompted, you can choose to follow any and all of these would be victims / criminals until the either get into or cause trouble. Then it’s time to act. If you are quick enough, you can halt any crime before it takes place, gaining notoriety points as a protector of the people or a menace to society – depending on what you do and how you do it. You CAN, for instance, take down a criminal in a non-lethal manner, but you need to be close enough to do it. Alternatively, you can shoot the criminal down, saving the victim, but panicking other innocent bystanders. This nets you less points towards being a protector, but still some. Your final option is to just watch the crime take place and do nothing… but that’s just mean.
A lot has been made of Watch_Dogs graphical prowess. Comparing it to what we saw in the e3 trailer back in 2012, or worryies about the lack of 1080p and 60fps (it runs at 900p on PS4 and 792p on Xbox One for anyone who cares to know).
There’s good news here overall. Especially if you’re playing on the PS4 (version reviewed). The game is locked in at 30fps pretty much all the time (a few issues on the Xbox One with screen tearing, but these are only occasional). On PS4, it ran very smoothly at all times. Graphically it’s still very impressive, especially in the heat of action. Smoke and particle effects are stunning, textures are gorgeous, especially on the character’s clothing and the buildings.
There are areas where compromises have had to be made. One example would be in the facial features. Some cut scenes use the in game engine and there are some characters (especially Aiden’s sister) whose facial fidelity is very simple compared to others – this makes the faces a little harder to read. There is also the issue of the refelections in every building’s windows showing long empty street, regardless of what should actually be in the reflection.
What Watch_Dogs may lack in character animation it more than makes up for with a stellar script and great voice work. The characters feel more alive and well rounded the more time you spend with them. Aiden is gruff and serious, but not humourless. Jordi is eccentric and comical, but without being a caricature. Clara is every bit the stereotypical tattooed hacker in a visual sense, but brings more than that through her voice and emotion. All the characters that play an important role are convincingly voiced and well scripted.
As for the games’ mechanics, the actual nitty-gritty of playing the game, I am only too happy to report all the different strands of the game’s systems work very well in tandem with each other. The game can be broken down into distinct aspects: Hacking, Stealth, Combat and Driving.
Hacking is the game’s main focal point, and it’s awesome. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be using it alongside anything and everything else you do in Watch_Dogs.
In order to gain access to every electronic device in a given area, Aiden must first hack and install a backdoor into the ctOS server or main hub in that area. These can be accessed through a combination of physical and digital exploration. The larger, main servers are usually well guarded and take a mixture of Aiden’s skills to access – including hacking, causing distractions and occasionally good old fashioned shooting it out.
The best hacking paths when infiltrating the ctOS are when you never actually set foot inside at all. Once you hack into a camera, you can hack into anything that camera can see. That might include creating a distraction by operating a forklift, opening a new path by raising a hydraulic lift, or even hacking into a new camera. Early on, it’s possible to use a series of hacks to distract guards, gain access through locked doors and install the backdoor into the server without so much as getting out of your car, let alone having to shoot your way through a restricted area (though that’s an option too).
Aiden’s hacking skills can be upgraded through skill trees available through the menu. As you gain experience, you also gain ability points and these can be spent on upgrading things like the types of hack available, the battery life of the phone and more.
When it comes to stealth, again the mechanics are spot on. Aiden slips in and out of cover at the push of a button, can swap between cover just as easily and adopts a lowdown, crouch walking position that makes him harder to spot. It’s slick and intuitive. There are elements to the stealthy play style that can also be upgraded, like being able to move quicker without attracting unwanted attention. Additionally, you can combine hacking with stealth by dynamically creating both cover for hiding and creating distractions.
When stealth breaks down, or you just get an itchy trigger finger, the gunplay is awesome. Aiden can purchase weapons, craft explosives, pick up weapons and ammo from fallen enemies and is rarely found wanting for bullets. His shooting skills (accuracy and recoil etc.) can also be upgraded. All of it works supremely well, guns have a weighty impact, aiming is precise enough to rip off head shots with your pistol, and this can be further supplemented if you spend your ability points on the focus skill – which grants slow-mo aiming, the likes of which we saw in the trailer back in 2012!
The cars handle fine, there are massive variations in the responses from vehicle to vehicle and yes, some of the bigger, lumbering models of car DO handle like boats. However, the sports cars handle well at high speed, as do the tiny nimble cars (but don’t expect much high speed from them). Motorbikes are very responsive, but offer zero protection. Driving mechanics have never been my highest priority in open world games, even when developers get it spot on, I still have a tendency to bury my car into the nearest wall.
A handy tip to get the best out of driving is to unlock the focus skill early! You can also use it for precision driving (a fair comparison would be Franklin’s unique ability in GTA V), which is a life saver for those whose driving skills mirror my own.
Similar to Assassin’s Creed IV, Watch_Dogs does a nice job of presenting us with a character in a world where occasionally veering off the story missions actually makes sense. Aiden often needs to wait for one of his contacts to come back with some vital information before he can carry on his manhunt. Aiden is not the type to just sit and brood. He needs to be active. His past haunts his dreams, he needs to block out those memories by making a difference in his world. Unlike other popular open world games, for the most part, the side questing and challenges make sense without breaking the narrative in two (ahem, I’m looking at you GTA V).
Side quests are plentiful and quite varied, from the random prompts on your profiler sending you off to disrupt an active or potential crime, to letting local gangs know who’s boss on their home turf, and more besides. There’s plenty to keep you entertained, allow you to gain skills and improve your abilities. Though they perhaps lack much variation – once you near the end of the game, there are few surprises left in the side quests.
The digital trips are fun and are a nice change of pace, again a little at odds with the tone of the game, but I can imagine Aiden needing a change of pace himself. All that brooding and talking in a gruff voice must get exhausting, why not mix it up with an 8-bit coin run?
It’s a strange parallel that the digitally enhanced Chicago draws with drug addiction and dealing. You don’t take part in digital trips in arcades, you approach seedy street dealers down alleyways and then engage in digitally enhanced ‘hallucinations’ – and some of them do get trippy. They’ll have you facing an apocalypse, bouncing around on huge flowers, even taking on the Chicago PD in the form of a massive mechanical spider.
As escapism goes, they are certainly worthy distractions for Aiden to get away from the anguish and guilt he feels over his niece’s death.
He can also engage in games of chess around the city (completing ten of these will unlock another skill, so there is actually a point to the games). Alternatively, he can take part in games of poker (Texas Hold ’em) to gain some extra cash. Though hacking NPCs bank accounts is the easiest way to make some quick cash early on, entering into high stakes poker games (and then totally cheating by hacking security cameras) is a good way to dramatically improve your funds later on.
There are one or two niggles with the game that it would be remiss of me not to mention. Though they are relatively minor, they do crop up often enough to be noticeable. The streets aren’t as crowded as in the e3 trailer from 2012, so I had worried it would feel to sparse or lifeless. Thankfully this isn’t the case, it feels well populated in most areas. However, when you get out amongst the good people of Chicago, it doesn’t feel as alive as other open world games. Some NPCs barely notice you’re there until you’re standing on their foot; incidental dialogue is repeated too frequently – as are the radio news soundbites.
Part of this is down to the player, if you progress through the story quickly, the radio announcements do change to fit what’s been happening. However, with a game that encourages this much exploration and investigation through side quests, I’d be surprised if you didn’t hear the same news bulletins cut across your music less than four times. The news announcements also cut in through silence if you have the radio off (though I’m giving the game the benefit of the doubt and assuming that ctOS would want to make sure every citizen heard news regarding their safety).
The other thing that struck me was the situational dialogue was sometimes at odds with the situation. To give an example, early on in the game you find yourself trapped in a smallish, controlled interior area where a number of corrupt cops are trying to coordinate their attacks and take you down. Bullets rained down as the NPCs shouted instructions to each other. It was awesome and intense, they were telling each other to push up on my position, not to let me flank, etc. Eventually, I’d whittled them down and a loan heavily armoured gunner was sent in to sort me out. At this point, expecting an intensified, but silent standoff as I intended to use the surroundings against him, I was surprised to hear many of the same calls for tactics go up – to an empty room. At one point the guy told himself to ‘watch out for that sniper’? This was a close combat scenario in a flat, closed area and I had only the shotgun I came in with – why a sniper was mentioned was beyond me!
None of this was remotely game breaking, but when the rest of the game felt quite tightly tied together, moments like this did affect the level of immersion.
Overall, Watch_Dogs isn’t perfect. It doesn’t look frame for frame like the 2012 e3 trailer and does have some screen tearing issues on the Xbox One. This is, however, a fantastic game that brings something very fresh and new to the open world action genre. All the things we’ve done and enjoyed before, like shooting, driving, using cover or being stealthy, all work just as well if not better than other games in the genre. Only now we’re also hacking everything as we go. I think it may be hard to fully appreciate just how much that one button hacking tool has changed your world until you go back to your Grand Theft Auto V or your Assassin’s Creed IV and realise you can no longer hack anything. The world doesn’t dynamically change in accordance with your whim. Then and only then will it hit you just how awesome Watch_Dogs really is.
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.