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Watch Dogs review

Great
AT A GLANCE
  • The hacking system is simple and delightfully fun
  • Fantastic non-story content will keep you busy
  • Multiplayer is enjoyable and smartly-implemented
  • Generic plot driven by cliched characters
  • Lots of tedious chase / tailing missions

Watch Dogs is exactly what you think it is. It’s Assassin’s Creed 4 meets GTA 5 meets Batman Arkham City… but--despite the pedigree of its influencers--it narrowly fails to better any of them. Don’t misunderstand: it’s a great game that combines some smart ideas with an innovative setting, but it’s also one that arrives exhausted from its cross-generational birth. There are some wonderful moments and features in Watch Dogs; but also plenty of tired tropes and trappings that should’ve been left firmly in the past.

The plot focuses on the high-tech exploits of Aiden Pearce, hacker and self-styled vigilante. He’s a bit of a dullard, really, and prone to occasional bouts of hypocritical self-reflection (in between shooting men in the face, and running down hobos). Before the action starts we learn that Pearce and his partner Damien get involved in a risky hack job at a hotel, a mission that goes hideously wrong and ends up with an unknown villain retaliating against Aiden. His niece, Lena, dies in the crossfire and so begins a classic tale of one man’s quest for answers / revenge. For all the game’s reliance on tech, it’s the basest of human emotions that drives the story forward, which is either a clever nod from the developers or a lucky coincidence. Ubisoft Montreal, I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt on this one!

Story-wise, the game is mostly dud. All the characters are unimaginative stereotypes, with thin motivations and forgettable personalities. Hacker chick with piercings? Check. Sinister, elderly villain? Check. Gang leader with a stupid name? Check. The plot itself is a mixture of predictable twists, dressed up with strange leaps of logic and enough technobabble to make Bill Gates soil his beige chinos with delight.

However, while the overarching narrative is forgettable, there are some delightful set-pieces and micro-plots to discover. These more than make up for predictable story-beats. One mission has you searching for a secret bunker on an abandoned island, close to the city centre. The stirring Vangelis-style music mixes with a glorious in-game sunset to make it feel as if you’re genuinely uncovering a secret new world, right in the heart of the urban sprawl. Another neat little moment has you searching for a rival hacker in a nightclub. No spoilers here, but he turns the hacking system back on you, and changes the info you see when you scan other club-goers. It’s a wonderful role reversal, making you feel powerless, and forcing you to question Aiden’s motives much more than any downbeat monologue ever could. So you’ll enjoy Watch Dogs’ narrative in piecemeal, rather than as a whole.

At first glance, the game’s setting appears as shallow as its inhabitants. Chicago is a lively mixture of skyscrapers, slums, and the token ‘countryside’ bit--sadly inferior next to the wonderfully colourful, sun-drenched San Andreas of GTA 5. Look closer, though, and the city’s true beauty becomes apparent. It’s densely packed with details, hidey-holes, and some utterly dark secrets--many of which you only start to discover once you start poking around side-missions and optional quests. Perhaps my favourite moment in the whole game happens when I cause a mighty car crash, and see a couple of ghoulish pedestrians taking videos of the carnage on their phones. It really brought the game alive for me. The only real reservation I have about Watch Dogs’ Chicago is that--during the majority of my 40+ hour playthrough--it was either dark or dull. In rare moments of sunshine the game looks beautiful, really showing off its new-generation credentials.

It was vital to pack so much into Chicago itself, because the city is intrinsically linked to how this game plays. Unless you’ve been living under a hermit, who has been living under a rock, for the past three years, you know that Aiden’s phone can hack various things within the environment. This is what separates Watch Dogs from other open-world games, and it isn’t just a gimmick: it’s integral to everything you do.

Hacking cameras, for example, lets you probe and explore every inch of the city. There are cameras EVERYWHERE, and you can--if you want--traverse huge in-game distances by hopping from one hackable device to the next. It’s hugely liberating, and provides loads of strategic gameplay options. One sweet example happens when another player invades my game to try and hack my phone for secrets and cash. Instead of rushing after my attacker, revealing my position, I hack the cameras and jump between them until I’ve profiled him. I then quickly, quietly flank his hiding place before terminating his intrusion with a shotgun shell to the brain. Good night, and a truly unique Watch Dogs moment.

More Info

Release date: May 27 2014 - PS4, PS3, PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360 (US)
Available Platforms: PS4, PS3, PC, Xbox One, Wii U, Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Published by: Ubisoft
Developed by: Ubisoft Montreal
ESRB Rating:
Mature

A quick note on gunplay, then. It’s satisfying and robust enough to be a genuine option for most scenarios (some missions ask you to avoid detection, so er, easy on the shotgun blasts, yeah?), even if hacking and stealth are often the more obvious scenarios. Yeah, it’s fun to shoot someone in the head, but it’s even more satisfying to hack an enemy’s grenade while it’s still hanging from his waist… Boom. Towards the end of the game you’ll be savvy enough to combine bullets with hacks, decimating rooms filled with grunts--it’s a great feeling when you really bring it all together.

Aiden’s delightful phone (which never seems to need recharging, oddly) can also digitally steal cash and secrets from anyone in the city. It can overload power-junctions, move forklift trucks, and even vent clouds of gas from Chicago’s pipe network into the sky. While the act of using it is as simple as holding a single button, its functions are myriad. It’s admirably simple to use, even if sometimes you’ll end up raising a barrier instead of opening a door. Generally the context-sensitive commands work extremely well, though.

Sadly, the phone is all-too-often used as a solution to classic, open-world problems instead of driving innovation. This is largely down to the mission design, which is inconsistent. While there are enjoyable, innovative moments (like where you guide friendly characters to safety by jumping between security cameras, or when you remotely hack your way through a prison level to reach a target), there are also plenty of tedious chase / tailing missions, and ‘go here, kill this guy, escape the police’ style levels. And while I’m on the subject of escaping the police…

Vehicle handling is very heavy in the game, and unless you hop on a bike or high-end sports car, most rides feel the same. That’s no bad thing, as you’re less likely to fishtail out of control when you’re fleeing the fuzz. It’s also a little less twitchy than other open-world games to make on-the-road hacking easier to do--a welcome trade-off. There’s an immense joy in zipping through traffic lights, hacking them, and watching your pursuer smash into the confused drivers behind you. It’s so satisfying, that the game even cuts to a crash-cam when you’ve timed it to perfection.

Good job, really, because you’ll spend a lot of time in the car as Watch Dogs reaches its conclusion. Linear ‘do something, get chased’ missions become more frequent in the closing hours of the game, and instead of trying anything truly new to test the player’s skills, these stages simply ramp up the difficulty to patience-killing heights. Top tip to avoid putting your controller through your TV: unlock the perk that disables the police helicopter ASAP. There are loads of abilities to unlock as you progress, all of which expand your skillset, but I recommend maxing out your hacking as soon as you can.

Luckily, there’s plenty to fiddle with outside the main story, and it’s here where Watch Dogs really shines. There are 100 HotSpots dotted around the city, and checking into each one allows you to collect rewards (like money), and leave gifts for other players. Each HotSpot has a mayor--4Square style--and some hand out special badges. It’s a wonderfully creative way to approach collectables. Elsewhere, the investigation side-stories highlight the more interesting aspects of Watch Dogs’ world. One has you tracking a serial killer, while another tasks you with busting a human trafficking ring. Silly mini-games like Chess, Coin Run, and Poker? Yeah, they’re all here and they’re all perfectly OK. Juuust fine.

Then there’s the multiplayer, which is incredibly well implemented. Most features are integrated into the single player, and you get a pop-up message allowing you to accept or deny invites. Nice touch--sometimes you just want to be left alone. If accepted, other players enter your game to play one-on-one hacking games, races, or police chases (via the companion app). While multiplayer activities are slightly different to solo missions, they feel well connected to the overall experience. I mean this in the best way possible: it’s as if you’re not really playing online. There’s no disconnect, no server hassle… just the tension of playing cat-and-mouse with a real human opponent.

It’s these state-of-the-art thrills, combined with a genuine desire to investigate and fiddle with every inch of Chicago, that’ll push you to play until the bitter end; until the game has spilled all its secrets. The story is unlikely to keep you logged in, and the missions will often feel annoyingly familiar, but if you connect with and really explore this high-tech world, there are plenty of virtual--and emotional--rewards to harvest.

Watch Dogs’ interconnected world is a wonderful, explosive, high-tech playground. Shame the people who inhabit it are so forgettable.

This game was reviewed on PS4.

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42 comments

  • candylarry - 55 minutes ago

    That is only for occasions.
  • Boongabongava - August 25, 2014 5:38 p.m.

    UBISOFT: PLEASE FIX When I am playing Online Contracts and I "lose connection" or my opponent quits during a match on any of the 4 options of online contracts, I still lose notoriety points, this is especially a pain on tailing and hacking when I lose upwards of 170 points It would be a great help if this could get fixed, thanks
  • ryan-dreisbach - June 23, 2014 12:16 p.m.

    isnt that great really graphics could of been way better and its really hard and some of the parts get a little boring
  • leonardosky - June 20, 2014 12:38 p.m.

    This game is poorly optimized in pc ubisoft should hire more competent programmer and stop being greedy and whats with the crap that its because of the 8 gig thingy of the new console if that is the problem then why PS3 can play it and the pc problem is pretty ovious from the start its bad optimization for example if i just stand and not do nothing i get 40/50 fps and gues what happened when i start moving the fps drops to 15/5 fps so its oviously bad optimization and it still happen even in 800x600 in lowest setting so stop giving us your BS explanation. this also happened in AC4 after at 1st its barely playable and after some patches its even playable now in a dual core computer with high setting
  • bbreakervideo - June 8, 2014 6:19 a.m.

    Lego City Undercover has way better hacking and a far more robust hacking system. Highly recommended. Lol, but seriously that Lego game is dope. Lol.
  • dry_gold - June 4, 2014 9:01 a.m.

    Just wanted to share my finding so you can use it toward you purchase of Watch Dogs. You can grab a free $10 gift card for buying Watch dogs or any other game over $25 at Target.com or Walmart.com. Check it out here while it's stil lavailable: http://goo.gl/Y6S4Bi
  • Sleever44 - June 4, 2014 8:26 a.m.

    I'm happy with it thus far, 35%, in to the campaign. I do like the fact i wont have 2 grind 3 days 2 be able 2 purchase good gear, and whips. Gonna check out some online stuff this evening 2 see how it's running so far.
  • starwar66 - June 2, 2014 7:19 a.m.

    The 2012 reveal made the game look amazing but with the outcome of the game its a shame. The game is fun with the hacking and all but the world is not all that big and probably will be memorized in a little over a week. In every mission there is a hacking, stealth, or a full out blast through the place option you could use. The hype for the game was way too high and the game doesn't stand out, GTA 5 that came out around a year earlier has better graphics and a better feel an world than this game. This game is a fail and there is nothing they can do to fix that.
  • luckie787 - June 2, 2014 6:48 a.m.

    I was disappointed bought the game when it came out and 4 days later i was done with it. GTA 5 was def a bterr game
  • elektre-martin - May 29, 2014 2:29 a.m.

    after releasing the game Watch Dogs every one want to play this game in this way all the PC are ready.this will be a interesting game now i also want to play this game but my PC is no well now.. when i saw the first video i inspired with it very much & get the Watch Dogs Coat wearing in this game by Aiden Pearce, any followers want to get this outfit then visit "Famous Jackets".
  • shawksta - May 29, 2014 12:23 a.m.

    Pretty great so far, ill check it out at some point, though i also want to give the game a second playthrough when Ubi finishes the Wii U version.
  • cobble75 - May 28, 2014 11:27 a.m.

    There are so many examples in the write up where things fail to hit, or are a dud, or are overused yet the game still gets 4 stars. That's why I don't trust the review scores, especially when the score doesn't match the review.
  • stelajohnson84 - May 28, 2014 11:17 a.m.

    I'll wait if it indeed comes out, since I prefer to play there than in my 360. Anyway hype almost http://goo.gl/nd32l4
  • yonderTheGreat - May 27, 2014 9:37 p.m.

    Best Spoiler Warning ever!!
  • Brett35 - May 27, 2014 6:05 p.m.

    I am enjoying the game so far and am extremely impressed by the rumble in the triggers in the xbone controller. I was waiting for a game to take advantage of that and the gunplay is very immersive with the help of the trigger rumble.
  • talleyXIV - May 27, 2014 2:19 p.m.

    7 or 8/10 is fair for it. It is technically less impressive than Grand Theft Auto IV but the hacking is kind of fun. Definitely something you can have a lot of fun with for $15-30, full retail might disappoint a lot of people.
  • Redeater - May 27, 2014 11:43 a.m.

    Can we talk about what an awful character design they went with? I never noticed how terrible it was until I started playing it. A buckled trench coat with a thick fleece sweater that inexplicably hooks into the hands? What?? Actually, that isn't my main gripe. My biggest problem is the video artifacts that are present EVERYWHERE along with the accompanied soundtrack of a 90's modem squealing.
  • BladedFalcon - May 27, 2014 5:34 a.m.

    Sounds fun, but definitely not nearly what the 2012 Demo had promised us. Also, hearing the story isn't worth writing home about ensures I'll not be rushing to get this game any time soon.
  • Vonter - May 27, 2014 9:19 a.m.

    Still the game world looks like it's alive, and has personality. I mean if this game had a customizable MC, I suppose you would spotlight that more. Also yeah, that's the problem with Ubisoft lately (Far Cry boxart), I was kinda looking for this to be terrible because they didn't show that much for a long time and the last two weeks footage seemed desperate as to only show "the good parts". And having interviews already talking about sequels *face palm*. It's by no means a revolution, but at least I can hope is more fun than Assassin's Creed. (This game has spider robots, silly minigames that I think are supposed to be AR simulations (in the game), and from what I've read the supporting characters are more fleshed out).
  • shawksta - May 29, 2014 12:26 a.m.

    To be fair, there are some promises on a demo that werent fulfilled but substituted with something else entirely that turned out better. Take The Last Of Us for example, when it was revealed and explained, it had a high emphasis on how the enemy AI was gonna be smarter and doing things like calling friends, holding you down while others shoot and such, the final game didnt have as advanced AI as the initial demo promised but the game itself was still an incredible experience worthy of GOTY. This has nothing to do with Watch Dogs but something to take note of.

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