Watch Dogs has been shrouded in mysteries and questions since it was unveiled at E3 2012. Was it next-gen? Was it related to Assassin's Creed? Why was it delayed? Over the course of its development, all of these have been answered to varying degrees of clarity, but one major mystery has remained: How does it actually play? However much we have and haven't seen of Ubisoft's new open-worlder over the last couple of years, the real implications of its world-manipulating, 'hack-anything' mechanics have never become clear. Until now.
You see I've played 4 hours of Watch Dogs. I've done and learned more than a few cool things during my time as techno-vigilante Aiden Pearce, and now I'm ready to dish up the fruits of my experience. So here's exactly what Watch Dogs is like, via 26 Things I Did.
1. Mastered the remote-control cover system
First things first. Before you start bending entire cities to your will, you’re going to have to get the basics down. Things like walking and running and hiding--y'know, getting around. It turns out that Watch Dogs is pretty slick in that respect, augmenting the usual “press button to not get shot” cover-system with directed, point-to-point control. Aim at nearby cover from any angle, hit the button, and Aiden will dash towards it and lock-on exactly as instructed. It’s like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but in real-time. And with no aliens. And a mobile phone instead of power-armour. Other than that, though, exactly the same.
2. Used a barking dog to distract a guard
My first bit of techno-subterfuge is perhaps slightly less impressive than it could've been. But let’s face it: Not every situation is going to be solved by shutting down an entire city block before escaping on a hijacked train under cover of darkness. Sometimes, you’re just going to have to hack someone’s phone to make it sound like a yapping dog so that you can sneak past while he’s distracted. This was one of those times.
3. Did an extravagant door-hack, felt like the all-seeing god of doors
My second bit of techno-subterfuge is far more interesting. This time round I have to unlock a door in order to escape the behind-the-scenes area of a sports stadium. Problem: The power generator for the security doors is in another room. Solution: Aiden can hack anything in his field of view, even if he can only see it via a camera feed. To be fair, I’m not sure whether that means he’s actually hacking these devices or possessing them like some kind of Eldritch hellspawn (late-game plot twist conformed!). Either way, I use Aiden’s magical possession-vision to daisy-chain between security cameras, leaping from one to the next by hacking each in turn until I find the door switch. A moment later I’m sauntering out. Stupid doors. No match for the awesome power of looking at things.
5. Crafted a lure, went fishing for guards
A little later on, I started spotting random, collectible piles of techno-craft lying around. I sniffed the whiff of a crafting system on the air, and lo I was proven right not five minutes later. High-five, past me. Crafting in Watch Dogs is a swift, streamlined system very similar to that of The Last of Us. As long as you have enough materials, you can quickly use the weapon wheel to cobble together any bit of kit you have the blueprint for. In the early stages of the game, the main item I use is an electronic lure, which emits a mook-attracting sound when thrown. Later on, all kinds of creative (and explosive) tech becomes available.
5. Caused a blackout, ruined a football game
During the final stages of my escape from the stadium, a bigger act of digital sleight-of-hand as I tackle the crowded front-of-house area. The solution? A total power-outage. This requires me to use a combination of everything I’ve learned so far. Using the cover system to stealth my way to a good vantage point, I hack the mobile phone being carried by a nearby security guard in order to grab his access codes for the building’s main computer. After safely sneaking away, I find a quiet corner from which to jump between the next set of security cameras and find the mainframe. From there, I’m one simple hack away from shadow-shrouded chaos and a quick getaway. Well, nearly. Things are going to get a whole lot more complicated once I get outside…
6. Hid under the dashboard of my car like a scared child
Outside the building, I subtly make my way through the panicking crowds and towards the car I have stashed in the downstairs garage. However, cops are crawling all over the place, and already looking for my notorious self. Tearing straight out of there isn’t a smart choice, so instead I make use of Watch Dogs’ neat little ‘hide in car’ function. Effectively an upgrade of Grand Theft Auto 5’s option of laying low out of sight during police chases, Watch Dogs’ take allows you to hit a button to make Aiden slide down in his car seat, becoming less conspicuous to passing cops. Having let a patrol pass by, I make a break for it. But alas, my break is not as clean as I’d hoped…
7. Escaped the cops, via the medium of car wrecks
Within no time at all I have a handful of patrol cars on my tail. Watch Dogs’ police pursuers are a hell of a lot faster, more organised, and more aggressive than you’re probably expecting. Fail to keep up the pace and they’ll be all over you. Duck down an alleyway to hide, and if you haven’t ensured a really good lead, they’ll be straight in there after you. And that’s before they bring in the helicopters. Realistically, the only way you can be sure of making a clean getaway is to use of every hacking trick you can improvise. Early on, that consists primarily of jacking traffic lights on the fly in order to cause pile-ups behind you, but eventually gas pipes, traffic bollards, electronic gates, and even river-spanning drawbridges can be tinkered with. Causing a big smash of police cruisers is fun, but penning an entire fleet into a gated carpark, or sending them skimming into the drink? That’s hilarious.
8. Discovered that Watch Dogs is definitely NOT Assassin’s Creed with cars
If you have any lingering suspicions that Watch Dogs is a reskinned, modern day Assassin’s Creed, they’ll drop the second you start running around Chicago. Aiden uses a version of free-running, but it’s far more grounded and much more hands-on than that of the Assassin’s series. Aiden moves, climbs and vaults with buttery smoothness, but also an enjoyable sensation of weight and momentum. Mantling over objects requires a well-timed manual button-press, rather than subscribing to AC’s ‘hold down RT FTW’ approach. And don’t expect to be clambering over box and building alike with the greatest of ease. Although quick and capable, Aiden handles much more like a traditional third-person action hero than the magnetic wall-crawlers of Ubi’s other urban open-worlder.
9. Killed a pedestrian, got a slap on the wrist
Before going into Watch Dogs, I’d wondered how the game would handle the innocent populace at large. After all, unlike GTA’s protagonists, Aiden is an out-and-out good guy. But Chicago could hardly be stripped of its tertiary NPCs, Arkham City-style, so how was Ubi going to dissuade me from injuring the walk-on players? Turns out, it wasn’t going to bother. I discovered this during that first chase, when I accidentally swerve straight into a pedestrian while tearing around a corner. He interfaces with metal at high speed. He dies. The game briefly lets me know, but then otherwise allows me to carry on about my business. There is a brief flash of a ‘Citizen rating’ meter, which may well tie into some morality-based interaction changes later on--but otherwise, feel free to get to splattering.
10. Hacked a CTOS tower
Another Assassin’s Creed alarm bell went off when I spotted a CTOS tower (the communications hubs of the game’s sinister surveillance clique) on the map and was invited to hack it. A network of towers? The promise of new map detail upon overcoming each one? Sounded like Ubisoft was reworking the old synchronisation/radio tower mechanic from AC and Far Cry 3. But not so. They’re actually much smaller structures, designed not for climbing challenges, but spatial puzzling. They’re all about obstacle traversal, detective work and daisy-chaining equipment hacks to gain access to their central controls. Sometimes you need to make a navigable path through their fenced-off grounds; sometimes you’ll be able to do the whole thing almost without moving.
11. Got spotted with a gun, failed to stop the resulting call to the police
It turns out that Watch Dogs’ city is really reactive to your behaviour. It’s also very systemic, with a whole mess of layered gameplay mechanics allowing those reactions to snowball very quickly. Pull out a gun in a peaceful residential area, and you won’t just get the usual array of ambient gasps. There’s a good chance someone will call the police to your immediate position. Fortunately, those systems work for you too. Disappear into the crowd, and if you identify the caller quickly enough, you can hack their phone and interrupt before they get a chance to drop you in it. It takes fast, reactive investigation, but when you pull it off, the sense of professionally owning a situation is palpable. (At least, I imagine it is. I totally screwed it up and had to run away.)
12. Accidentally robbed a charity worker
Experimenting with hacking the phones of innocent passers-by, I spot one whose bank details are freely available. Naturally, in the name of researching how easy it is to make a quick buck in Watch Dogs, I lift them and headed to the nearest ATM to cash in. Only as I complete the ‘transaction’ do I notice that the woman’s further character details explain that she’s a volunteer charity worker. But by then, I’m committed--and besides, there’s research to do.
13. Found a citizen who's made college porn
And a clown fetishist. And a robot fighting enthusiast. And an advocate of human cloning. And a parapsychology enthusiast. And a professional philosopher and former polygamist, who just so happened to be looking and acting exactly like a drunken hobo when I happened upon him. You can dig up some very interesting details by scanning Watch Dogs’ NPC citizens at random.
14. Went full-Batman stalking an imminent murderer, totally failed to stop a murder
Amid Watch Dogs’ vast, throbbing multitude of side-missions and spontaneous amusements, it’s possible to pre-emptively tackle street-crimes, Minority Report-style. It’s up to you to stalk the perp, find the victim, and then go Batman on that situation. In my case, a chap with a violent past is loitering around an alleyway, and a hapless innocent is wandering toward him. Careful not to spook the mook, I tracking and locate him unseen, before getting close enough to what I suspect will be the scene of the crime. Unfortunately, in my efforts to stay out of the way, I leave it too long and the victim gets stabbed right up. But still, I eventually chase down the criminal and smash his face into the pavement, so justice, right?
15. Did a whole lot of traffic light trolling
I know I’ve already mentioned this, but seriously, once you start you won’t be able to stop. For the first couple of hours you’ll be hacking every set of traffic lights you drive through, just because you can. I figure that Ubisoft wouldn’t have given me a rear-view driving camera if they didn’t want me to enjoy speeding away from a whole lot of self-made carnage, so I had at it at every opportunity. And you will too.
16. Discovered how varied and realistic the car handling is
Watch Dogs’ car handling takes a fair bit of getting used to, in that it’s somewhat weightier and more demanding than we’ve seen in open-world games of late. We’re not talking Gran Turismo levels of driving sim, but WD’s cars are rather more realistic than expected. But road-play is a much richer, more varied experience for it, with some interesting pros and cons balancing out its various vehicles. Sports cars are fast and sexy, but handbrake turns can transform your steed into a horizontal Catherine Wheel on the spot. Family cars are slow and heavy, but use the weight to your advantage, and you can (partly) make up for their lack of pace with cornering control. It’ll take a while to get used to, but the extra texture to Watch Dogs’ driving should make things pleasingly tactical, not to mention creating a few ludicrous accidental set-pieces.
17. Hacked the freeway roadsigns
What do you do when you find yourself on a freeway with a blown-up car and a long walk back home? You amuse yourself by hacking the roadsigns, to make them say something more interesting. Aiden himself seems to have a particular penchant for internet memes and pop culture references of the ‘80s and ‘90s. So far I’ve had "Honk if you luv the vigilante", "Be excellent to each other", "Son, I am disappoint", “Do a barrel roll!”, “Longcat is long”, and “Oh God. not the bees!”. Yeah, there is a blatant Nic Cage reference in Watch Dogs. Game of year. Every year.
18. Trolled a guard with a 'haunted' forklift
Tasked with infiltrating a CTOS base masquerading as a building site, I have multiple means of infiltration at my disposal. I have lures. I have guns. I have explosives. I have the facility to recon the entire site via security cameras, and I can tag each patrolling guard onto my HUD in the process. But I don’t, because I’m having far too much fun fucking with one lone security guard. Noticing a hackable forklift truck on his patrol route, I give it a blast, raising its forks with my magic universal remote. He freaks out. A minute later, I’m still at it, a Homer Simpson mantra of “truck goes up, truck goes down” endlessly looping in my head. It’s silly and pointless, but it’s also a great example of how the dense layering of Watch Dogs’ hacking mechanics make the sheer joy of tinkering so fundamental to every part of its world.
19. Performed a beautiful, nearly disastrous stealth escape on a train
Making my way into the building site, I quickly notice that a grenadier on the gate. I can hack his ‘nades, so I do. The hapless guard suffers a few seconds of panic, and then suffers no more. One man down, but more importantly, his vapourisation has caused one hell of a commotion. Climbing up into the main building as everyone runs the other way, I quickly find the data pack I need. Hankering after a quick getaway, I fire at the window. It’s bullet-proof, and the sound of gunfire draws everyone towards me. I’m boxed in, but I notice a mobile phone at the other end of the room. I activate it, creating just enough of a distraction to stealth past. I calmly walk to the railway station across the road, hide in the crowd, and wait for a train. A moment later, I board my rail-bound chariot and speed away, the sound of a frantic search still echoing through the streets behind me.
20. Got psychedelic, drove a spider-tank
While we’re on the subject of silliness, later in the game it’s possible to find street dealers selling ‘digital trips’; effectively augmented-reality hallucinations. In practice, they play out as utterly mad mini-games with no respect for the near-future realism of the main game’s setting. And they’re brilliant.First up Watch Dogs turns into Carmegeddon, as I tear around a post-apocalyptic version of the city in a souped-up, Mad Max-style deathwagon, ploughing down flame-headed zombies for score multipliers. After that, I’m piloting a spider-tank, running, jumping, climbing up buildings, and shooting the crap out of every vehicle that comes within firing range. Yeah, Watch Dogs is a fair bit sillier than anyone thought it was going to be. And that’s great.
21. Went train surfing
I’m wandering the streets on a bit of downtime between missions. For some reason I investigate an alleyway down the side of one of Chicago’s metro stations. I find another forklift truck parked right next to the station wall. Knowing how video games work, I find this forklift suspicious, and investigate. A couple of hacks and a bit of climbing later, I’ve scaled the side of the station and made my way to a high platform overlooking the tracks. I hear a train coming, and have an idea. 20 seconds later I’m surfing away from the station on that train’s roof. Best part? There’s not even any need to wait for the next stop. When I want to get off I just hack the train’s engine, stop it dead, and hop off to the next thing that takes my fancy.
22. Played chess, drank a guy under the table
As it turns out, the next thing that takes my fancy is a bar. And, in true GTA fashion, it turns out that there are games to be played inside. The first is a stripped-down version of chess--because it wouldn’t be an open-world Ubisoft game without a bit of cerebral board game action--playing out over a series of defensive challenges rather than a full game. After that, I find a booze-addled old soak demanding that I join a drinking game. A few minutes later, after lining up a series of increasingly wobbly crosshairs, he’s under the table and I’m staggering away from it, replete with customary blurry-cam visuals. Time to try a bit of advanced parkour.
23. Briefly did the Mario
Investigating Watch Dogs’ side-missions further, I find a coin-dash challenge. Again, augmented reality is the excuse. I spend the next couple of minutes navigating a street-based assault course littered with big, day-glow, 8-bit coins to collect, skulls to avoid, and an ever-present timer ticking me down to leaderboard glory or failure. Watch Dogs, you really are very silly.
24. Turned traffic barriers into car-launchers
Back in a car, I decide to find out just how creative I can get with the city’s various gizmos. I start to wonder if those raisable traffic bollards need not be a prison, but could rather provide an avenue to greater heights of freedom. It turns out that they can. It takes me a few goes to get it right, but by barrelling along the road at a high enough speed and raising the posts underneath my car just before I pass over them, I manage to boost myself into the air, flying over a couple of cars and landing on top of a third. When I learn to weaponise this effectively, things are going to get really interesting.
25. Used detective work and tactical malice to set up a great combat ambush
Tasked with ‘interrupting’ a gang meeting, I arrive early and take a minute to prepare the scene. I hide bombs behind window shutters, to be triggered later on. I note the steam valves I can burst, after pulling enemies towards them with lures. I get onto a raised platform, giving myself a clean line of sight to all of the roadblocks I can raise and lower in the middle of the area to throw my adversaries into chaos. Most rewardingly, a bit of quiet detective work reveals tyre tracks at each end of the area. I wonder if Ubi has dropped these in as clues to where the incoming cars are going to park up. I throw down some bombs and hope for the best… then 30 seconds later, cars are exploding, windows are opening to reveal incendiary surprises, mooks are tripping over previously non-existent obstacles, and others are staggering away from walls with scorched faces. And then I start firing. It’s beautiful.
26. Expanded Aiden’s record collection
Watch Dogs’ in-car soundtrack comprise a wide mix of stuff, not quite yet evoking the full gamut of cutting edge obscurity and retro-hipster cool enjoyed by GTA, but being rather damn listenable nonetheless. It also seems that music will play into the game’s inevitable collectible quota, with certain tracks being unlocked by fulfilling certain criteria. For instance, a few hours in I gain access to the Wu-Tang Clan’s C.R.E.A.M. Aiden is nothing if not eclectic.
So that's Watch Dogs, as I currently see it. And I currently see it as great. It's a big, beautiful, and batshit game, both brainy and breezy in equal measure. But enough of this accidental alliteration (Damnit). What do you think? And what's more, what else do you want to know? Let me know.
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