Watch Dogs Review


Think back to 2009 and you’ll remember the original announcement from Ubisoft’s own Creative Director Jonathan Morin talking about how their newest IP would “go beyond the limits of today’s open world games”. Fast forward 5 years, past the launch of the latest generation of home console and past the 6 month delay and we finally have Watch Dogs in our lives. Was the wait a worthwhile one? Let’s dig down and find out.

A bit of history first: In the backstory of Watch Dogs, it was discovered that a computer hacker was behind the Northeast blackout of 2003, which lead to the tragic deaths of 11 people. This prompted the Blume Corporation to develop ctOS (Central Operating System). The ctOS supercomputer connects to everyone and everything including personal information, security cameras, laptops, mobile phones, webcams and traffic lights to name only a few. As time progresses the US Government roll out, with Blume’s assistance, ctOS supercomputers across multiple cities.

Set in a present day fictionalised version of Chicago, Illinois, Watch Dogs follows the story of Aiden Pearce, a vigilante hacker with revenge on his mind. Aiden with his mentor and partner in crime Damien previously launched an electronic robbery at the Merlaut Hotel, with Aiden transferring the funds through his smartphone. They come across a strange file and alert another hacker whom Damien tries to track down but ultimately, gives them both away. Aiden, fearing for his family, decides to drive them to safety under the guise of a surprise trip. However, on the way, two hitmen hired to take Aiden out intercept the car. One of them fires a shot that crashes the car and kills his niece Lena.

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The game starts 11 months later with Aiden having finally tracked down Maurice Vega, the man responsible for firing the shot that killed Lena. The interrogation is cut short and we the player are quickly placed into the action and instructed in the basics of hacking to enable our quick escape from the baseball stadium Maurice was tracked too.

The game actually does a really good job of ensuring you are quickly skilled up in the fine art of hacking within the first couple of hours of gameplay. One of the things you’ll learn even quicker is that a gun is probably the least useful tool in Pearce’s arsenal. This is one of the most refreshing aspects to Watch Dogs as just like in real life, knowledge is power.

Aiden has the ability to hack into various electronic devices tied to the city’s central operating system (CTOS), opening up various methods and directions in which we the player can then solve numerous objectives. The hacking mechanic is controlled directly in the game via Aiden’s smartphone, which is equipped with multiple applications, namely the Profiler and the Crime Prevention System; the former is described as facial recognition software and allows you to quickly learn key information about NPCs. During the story missions, this can be used to your advantage. For example, you can distract a guard by sending a false message that his mortgage has been denied. While the latter notifies the player when a crime is likely to occur in the vicinity opening up side missions to gain notoriety as the Vigilante, money and additional items.

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Aiden’s phone is also equipped with additional applications that interact directly with the environment around him. My favourite has to be the changing of traffic lights to cause collisions and chaos on the roads as seen on the TV adverts.  Other examples include the ability to hack into NPC’s phones to retrieve bank data and steal funds as well as unlock new cars, weapons, and in-game music. Other functions include summoning cars and bikes, stop trains, raise/open security gates, scan for enemies and most fun of all cause a city wide blackout – great for those moments when you’re surrounded by cops.

Although the game wants you to focus on hacking, the developers didn’t scrimp when it comes to guns. There are 4 categories of firearm available; Handgun, Shotgun, Assault Rifle and Sniper Rifle, with plenty of different models to unlock and choose from. The gunplay mechanic in Watchdogs is simple yet effective without feeling too much like a secondary solution. Guns can either be purchased from firearm stores dotted around the city or picked up from fallen enemies. Once you’ve picked up/purchased a gun it won’t disappear from your inventory, all you need to do is ensure you’ve ammunition enough to last a mission.

Completing missions in Watch Dogs is actually an exciting mix of stealth, parkour, hacking and when required cover-based-third-person shooter. The stealth aspect happens in both the traditional sense of navigating around guards, sneaking from cover point to cover point and just generally trying to stay out of sight but you can also use your hacking ability and expertise to bring things into the 21st century. Instead of running mindlessly in to a new area, you can recon by hacking your way into local security cameras. By jumping from one camera to the other, you can recon an entire area, profile (and tag) enemies, create distractions and cover points and even complete mission objectives without ever leaving the safety of your hiding spot. To do things this way will require patience and determination, but having the option there is fantastic.

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A massive part of Watch Dogs is the city itself and the interaction we as the player have with everything going on around us. The sneaking around, hacking aspects of the main game carry across to your main mode of transport in the game, cars (and bikes). As you drive around Chicago either leisurely or in an attempt to outrun the cops or enemy gang members, it is possible to hack various parts of the environment based on what the player has unlocked in their technology tree. You can raise barricades as your go by them causing pursuers to crash. Remotely open garage doors on the fly and use private, underground car parks as shortcuts whilst trying to avoid the cops. If you need to lay low then pull into an alley or under a bridge, cut the engine and shrink down in your seat to hide. As long as a patrol car or officer doesn’t come up next to you, you’re as good as invisible. Of course using the city blackout ability could really help here too.

Talking of the tech tree, Watch Dogs comes with a simplistic levelling system involving 4 main areas; Combat, Driving, Hacking & Crafting. The Crafting tree is the smallest of the pack, splitting immediately into three branches – Focus Boost, Frag Grenade, and Jam Coms. Combat begins with “Quick Switch” allowing you to switch weapons with speed, and moves to Pistol Expert and Shotgun Expert, beginning to split into separate branches from there. Driving begins with Car Unlock which automatically disables vehicle alarms and doors and moves into areas like Offensive/Defensive driver and escapist artist. Hacking is split into several categories, including Traffic Lights, Utilities, and “Hackers Tool Kit.” Together they make a unique blend of mischief-making skills. Skill points are earned completing side missions and following the main campaign.

The campaign is fantastic but to really experience everything the game has to offer, you really need to explore the side missions as these are at times some of the most exciting aspects to the game. They open up organically as you play through the game and appear as onscreen contracts via your smartphone. They are normally triggered by driving past certain locations or snooping on specific people with either your Profiler App or hacking into laptop/webcam via the ctOS system. One side mission might have you trying to keep a criminal from getting to a certain location (Criminal Convoy), while others might have you tail and protect an innocent (Potential Crimes). There are also Gang Hideouts to discover and shut down. Of course being an Ubisoft game, there are also a selection of minigame and collectibles dotted around the city to be found also.

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One feature that isn’t quite a minigame but is well worth a mention is the ability to “check in” to city hotspots or points of interest using a system closely resembling FourSquare. Every time your check in you can check out general information on the location, see the last player to check in, collect gifts left behind by other players (including money and ammunition) and leave behind your own gifts. The most active player checking into a specific location the most earns the title of Mayor, however there is a wait time of 60 minutes between check-ins to prevent someone from just sitting on a tile and spamming the action button.

Taking Watch Dogs online is an interesting experience and at times resembles the online modes present in Assassins Creed and at other times provides a completely new and fresh experience. Online mode is completely asynchronous with the single player campaign. One element to the multiplayer mode is a one-on-one interaction, in which one player secretly joins the single-player experience of another player and attempts to install a “back-door virus” onto their smartphone. In addition, the game features an eight-player free roam mode. Other multiplayer modes include car races, competitive decryption combat, and a CTOS mobile challenge. Talking of mobile, there is a mobile application also available for smartphones and tablets that allows players to challenge another player in-game and use hacks that triggers traps, in an attempt to stop them from succeeding.

When I play Watch Dogs I think of two of my favourite IP’s; Assassins Creed and Deus Ex. Watch Dogs feels like Ubisoft have taken features from both and put them together in a truly next generation open world, living and breathing city for us to enjoy. For all of the minor glitches and bumps in the road, Watch Dogs is to date the most enjoyable game I’ve played on Xbox One.

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