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SummarySit. Stay. Hack.
The Good* Intriguing setting with timely themes explored
* Hacking is a neat mechanic
* Stealth and parkour are highly enjoyable.
* Nice atmosphere and visuals
* Cover system and combat work decently.
The Bad* Poorly told story
* Driving missions are no fun
* Too many side activities
* Bland soundtrack
* Forces a violent play style for some missions, but not for others.
The Bottom LineWatch Dogs is an action-adventure game which combines elements of stealth, shooting, and driving, along with light platforming and puzzle elements. It was the first big new IP of this generation, and easily one of its most commercially successful to boot, selling a mind-boggling 4 million copies in its first week alone solely off the back of a strong E3 showing.
The game takes place in an alternate-reality version of Chicago, where a surveillance and control system called ctOS has been set up. With it’s advanced crime-prediction and scanning systems, ctOS ostensibly helps to keep the streets of Chicago safe. However, in doing so, it is able to spy on everyone and knows all of its citizens’ deepest, darkest secrets. Under the watch of this eye in the sky, privacy is essentially non-existent.
Despite its rather clumsy storytelling, the game manages to touch on some timely themes of government surveillance and how our technology can simultaneously liberate and trap us. In the wake of the NSA leaks the year prior, the concept of an all-seeing surveillance system that’s in every camera, phone, drone, and laptop was scarily plausible, lending unexpected credibility to the game's setting. Disappointingly, it’s only skin-deep window dressing for a pretty standard revenge tale, mixed in with some vigilanteism.
In Watch Dogs, you take control of Aiden Pearce, a hacker and digital thief living in Chicago. Aiden gets caught hacking into the network of a fancy hotel to steal something important and has a hitman sent to attack him and his family, eventually killing his niece. A year after this tragic event, Aiden sets out on a revenge quest to teach the person who dared to harm him and his loved ones a lesson. Along the journey, he’ll interact with fellow hackers, crime bosses and gang leaders, and mega-corporations. It can be difficult to sympathize with Aiden given that he is forced to kill many anonymous people along the way, many of whom probably have families, yet only grieves when it’s his own family that is targeted. Otherwise, he seems to have no moral issues with killing whatsoever, and is a very cold character outside of his interactions with his family. Only at the very end of the game does Watch Dogs make any attempt to introduce some level of empathy and pathos, but it will probably be too late for most players. This is also not a game that you can go through non-lethally, since certain missions force you into combat without any choice. There are no non-lethal weapons available apart from melee, and you’ll just end up killing an enemy anyway if you melee with a gun equipped.
The main hook of Watch Dogs is hacking. Aiden’s phone can hack many objects in the world, including other people’s cell phones and cameras. At times, the hacking in this game can seem tantamount to magic. At the push of a button, pipes will burst and explode, blockers, spikes, and lifts will rise and fall, and traffic lights will mistime, causing an accident. Aiden can also steal money by hacking phones and ATMs. Other devices require completing a simple wire-connection puzzle in order to be hacked.
As a stealth game, Watch Dogs is actually quite fun. The cover system works very well. Aiden can hack into cameras to scout into restricted areas, finding access codes and marking enemies so that the player can see them through walls. It’s extremely fun to toy with enemy guards and hack objects to distract or even kill them without them ever noticing your presence. Some missions can be completed by just hacking cameras to get to reach a far-off switch, while others require a more hands-on approach. Many stealth mission areas have multiple pathways through them, encouraging the player to make use of Aiden’s hacking and parkour to find the best possible route. Sometimes, you’ll have to hack objects to move them into locations that Aiden can climb to. These mechanics can lead to some surprisingly clever puzzles, especially when hacking the various ctOS Towers dotted around the city.
Stealth does have some annoying aspects, chief among them being that you cannot move bodies, meaning that you have to make sure that you knock out or kill enemies in places where nobody can see them. The AI can also be a bit too forgiving on Normal difficulty, since their detection times are fairly long. Otherwise, the stealth missions are easily the best parts of Watch Dogs.
The combat, when it happens, is very standard, no-frills cover-based shooting. The addition of dynamic cover and hackable objects which move or explode does give it a bit of spice in some missions. There are many different types of guns available, and you unlock more powerful ones as the game goes on. During gameplay, you can activate “focus mode” to slow down time and highlight enemies in the environment. This is great for when you’re under heavy fire or high speed and need time to process things. The combat gets the job done, but its nothing that you haven’t seen before. It’s enjoyably competent, and I’ll leave it at that.
Other missions will require a lot of driving. Watch Dogs offers many different varieties of vehicles to drive through the city. You have different types of cars and trucks, as well as motorcycles and boats.You can “borrow” any of these vehicles at any given time, or you can order a certain type to a nearby spot. The driving in Watch Dogs isn’t as arcade-style as one might expect from this type of game, nor is it really a simulation. It sits somewhere in the middle ground between the two, requiring subtle control of the accelerator and brakes of each vehicle. It’s way too easy to spin the vehicle around in a donut, but that also makes quick getaways much more manageable. The faster vehicles and the motorcycles handle far better than the slower vehicles, making them ideal for the numerous chase sequences that occur during the missions.
The car chase missions, can be some of the most frustrating sections of the game. The enemy AI is extremely aggressive and will ram you at every chance it can get. You are supposed to make use of Aiden’s hacks to slow down or even take out these enemy vehicles, but your options are rather limited until later in the game, making early chase missions a chore. It also feels wrong that the cars Aiden drives can take quite a beating and still keep running. Even tiny electric cars can take quite a pounding before Aiden has to exit their flaming wrecks.
During chases, you can escape enemy vehicles by driving very far away from them. You can also try shutting the vehicle’s engine and lights off and hide in a back-alley or side street. If you can hide long enough, enemies will begin searching for Aiden, and you can try to escape by leaving a certain radius. An early “stealth driving” mission showcases this mechanic but doesn’t really explain that it only works if an enemy is not directly coming down the road towards you. Of course, driving into the water is ALWAYS a viable strategy, as police will generally give up trying to chase you.
Aiden can also craft different items to give the player an edge in both combat and stealth situations. Lures can be thrown and hacked to provide distractions. Grenades and IEDs assist in taking out large groups of enemies. Finally, blackouts and communication jams assist Aiden in making a clean getaway during chases. The interface for selecting and crafting these is kind of awkward to work with, and it’s far easier to just craft what you know you’ll want ahead of time.
In addition to the main missions, there are a number of side missions and activities available. The variety of extra stuff is impressive, to say the least, though its not always fun to do. You have time-trial driving missions, investigations, hotspots, investigations, and privacy invasions. My favorite side mission type is the gang hideouts, if only because it’s the only one that is focused on stealth rather than driving or shooting. In these missions, you are tasked with sneaking into a gang hideout and knocking out (not killing) one or more targets without being seen.
You can also work as a vigilante during your off-time. Most of the time, you’ll come across crimes happening on your map from cOS data. You can apprehend criminals lethally or non-lethally, and your decision increases or decreases your reputation meter. Sometimes, muggings and robberies will simply happen while you’re out and about. These are supremely annoying, as you usually end up taking the blame for the crime even if you did nothing wrong. By the end of the game, I was really fed up with this system, and I wish it was’t such a focus of the game.
There are several mini games available including chess puzzles, poker, slots, and cup scramble. If those sound too standard for you, there are also two augmented-reality games that Aiden can play on his phone - NVZN and Coin Run. If those still aren’t enough, you can take a walk on the wild side and try one of the Digital Trips. These mini games radically change the look and feel of Chicago and are clearly not meant to be taken seriously. One game has Aiden bouncing on top of flowers, while another game has a player mowing down zombies with a car. The craziest Digital Trip is easily Spider Tank, which explains itself in the name. All of these activities unlock skill points, vehicles, and weapons in the core game, so you’ll always be progressing Aiden in minor ways, no matter what you choose to do.
Surprisingly, Watch Dogs offers some multiplayer elements. The big one is “invasions”. At any point outside of the missions, your game can be “hacked” by another player. If you’re the hacker, the goal is to keep a low profile and follow the target to steal their data. If you’re being hacked, you have to find and kill the hacker before the hack is complete. On paper, this mode is quite cool and is no doubt influenced by a similar feature from the Souls games. In practice, however, this has some problems. For one, there doesn’t seem to be a way to opt out of it if you don’t want to do it, apart from simply playing offline. It also has an annoying tendency to happen before starting a mission, preventing you from doing so until the invasion is finished. This is extremely annoying, and there are have been times where I’ve just let the invasion play out since there aren’t any real consequences for losing other than losing your online rating. Finally, it can be very frustrating to find where the hacker is, since you are given no indication other than a purple circle on the map, which shrinks as the invasion goes on. I’ve seen some players tossing grenades and hacking every object in sight, which is weird since the hacker is not supposed to kill the player being hacked. There is also free-roaming and online races available, though these modes were not very populated when I played the game.
Watch Dogs’ graphics caused a lot of controversy on its release. The original demo shown in 2012 showcased some extremely impressive graphics, giving people an idea of what the next generation might look like. The final released version doesn’t quite reach that level, as visual features had to be sacrificed to get the game to run on the new consoles. Nevertheless, Watch Dogs remains a good looking game, especially when driving through the city during a rainy night. The puddle reflects, combined with the bright lights, look eerily photo-realistic at times. The city itself shows off a very impressive level of detail, with a lot of unique landmarks and a distinctive feel for each of its regions. I think that Ubisoft Montreal did a good job in depicting a Chicago that feels “alive”, even if its obviously not a 1-1 recreation. Some famous Chicago landmarks are changed or slightly tweaked due to branding issues or to work them into the game’s fiction, but they’re close enough that you still get the sense of visiting Chicago.
Watch Dogs’ sound design is pretty good. You’ll hear lots of pedestrian chatter as you drive and walk around Chicago, and the game delivers just the right ambience for a city setting. The game also has a soundtrack that you can listen to either in the car or through Aiden’s phone. It consists of rock, blues, jazz, soul, electronic, and hip-hop selections. It’s not the greatest soundtrack I’ve ever heard and seems like something that was only included to tick a box off of a list of features needed for a Grand Theft Auto-style game.
Watch Dogs was heavily marketed by Ubisoft as a competitor to the Grand Theft Auto series. In truth, however, Watch Dogs is actually at its best when it focuses on the things that distinguish it from Grand Theft Auto: the hacking, the stealth, and the platforming. When it reverts to the standard driving and shooting, which is in more of the missions than I would have liked, the game gets much less interesting to play. Watch Dogs is a buffet-style game that attempts to be all things to all players, and the things that I liked about it could very well be the things another person hated. The game is far too long with a poorly paced story and too many side tasks to complete. It’s an unfocused game that does some things very well and other things just average. There is a very good game somewhere in Watch Dogs, but I’m left with the feeling that it didn’t completely live up to its full potential. Still, it does enough things right to make it worth investigating for fans of stealth-based action games.