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.