Watch Dogs review journal #1: Welcome to Chicago

By Dave Cook, Tuesday, 27 May 2014 08:01 GMT

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Watch Dogs is out today, and because it’s a big game Dave Cook has decided to do it justice with a review journal that covers everything. Has the wait been worth it? Find out inside.

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It’s finally here.

After its show-stopping reveal at E3 2012, many gamers have looked to Watch Dogs as a benchmark for the new generation, and although Ubisoft’s five-month delay was met with concern, the decision to fine-tune the project was certainly wise. This looks and feels like a next-gen release, and it’s clear that the publisher has a new blockbuster franchise on its hands. It’s here to stay.

I’ll be open about this; Ubisoft’s review copies hit a snag, and we – along with many other outlets – received our discs just a few days ago. Given that Watch Dogs is a large game comparable with the GTA series, there’s no way that rushing out a slapdash review would cut it for this one, so I’ve decided to do this as a multi-part appraisal that covers everything, instead of tackling the game in broad strokes.

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Welcome to Chicago

While it’s easy to call Watch Dogs ‘Grand Theft Auto with hacking’ I was quickly surprised at how Ubisoft has used Rockstar’s template to expand on the sandbox ethos. While San Andreas and Vice City are clearly parodies of American culture this game wears a much straighter face, and I was initially concerned that trying to make something gritty and more realistic in this genre would leave it feeling cold. I was wrong.

”This is a socially-connected, digitally-enhanced environment, and although Chicago isn’t as comedic as Los Santos or Liberty City, it manages to communicate a genuine sense of place.”

What Ubisoft Montreal has done with its interpretation of Chicago is simply wonderful. It feels like a tangible place that is both alive and reactive to your presence, and that only heightens your role as a saboteur capable of ruining lives or creating chaos with just a few lines of hacker code. If you kick the city by causing a rolling black out or triggering a gunfight on in broad daylight it will kick back. You feel valid, important.

I’m playing on PS4, and without a shred of hyperbole this is one of the most visually impressive titles I’ve played to date. There are inconsistencies of course, given the colossal strain of rendering the game’s detailed open world, but if you take a moment to just stop and watch the world ticking by you’ll appreciate just how much is going on in there. As I write this I’ve just left Aiden idling in a back alley which, by all accounts, should be drab and boring.

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Steam is hissing out of a nearby vent, while a hanging road-sign swings back and forth in the wind overhead. At the mouth of the alley I can see passers-by walking back and forth – some striding with purpose – others tapping away on their phone or sipping from a coffee cup. The wind kicks up as night falls; trees sway as the gale hits followed by rain that slashes through the air with force, soaking Aiden’s jacket a dull shade of brown. It’s a remarkable technical achievement.

The concept of a smart city regulated by the ctOS network isn’t too far-fetched either, and this network serves as the backbone of just about everything you do in the game. If Watch Dogs is a parody of anything, then it’s a statement about how susceptible we make ourselves by leaving a visible digital footprint. As Aiden Pearce you can filter money from passers-by with one button press, spy on their homes by hacking security consoles or simply engage in social activities.

”Aiden’s a likeable character, both brash and driven by his quest for answers, but away from the mission he’s a sad, broken man trying to settle a score.”

Watch Dogs even has its own version of FourSquare that lets players check-in to Chicago’s places of interest then leave ammo, money or health meds as a gift for the next person who does so. Check in enough times and you’ll become mayor of that particular place.

You can even scan QR codes with the in-game phone to execute side-quests and activate augmented reality markers to play AR games that see you shooting virtual aliens or grabbing 8-bit coins dotted around the environment. There’s so much to do.

This is a socially-connected, digitally-enhanced environment, and although Chicago isn’t as comedic as Los Santos or Liberty City, it manages to communicate a genuine sense of place. It feels organic and at your mercy, even going so far as to make statements about internet privacy in real-life. Thankfully, there’s a solid story and a wide range of activities waiting for you on every street.

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Man On a Mission

Watch Dog is a story of revenge set 11 months after Aiden’s niece is murdered following a botched hacking assignment. He’s a likeable character, both brash and driven by his quest for answers, but away from the mission he’s a sad, broken man trying to settle a score. I won’t spoil the plot, but there are some great moments early on that suggest his quest has created distance between those closest to him, and that every time he tries to walk away he keeps on getting sucked back into the hacker life.

”The stealth mechanic works well as you crouch behind cover and take out guards with Aiden’s night-stick, but shooting your way through a mission is just as enjoyable, although admittedly less rewarding.”

You’ll meet some pretty loathsome scumbags through the campaign missions, and Aiden’s acquaintances are a punky bunch of coders and gangsters that jump between eccentric weirdos to intimidatingly straight-faced killers. I’m not talking Brucie from GTA 4 levels of madness here, but there’s enough narrative drive and character to keep you going between one mission and the next. Best of all; there’s a noticeable lack of uninspired fetch and courier quests between the big plot points, which is a major plus in my book.

During gameplay you can open Aiden’s hacking options by booting up his Profiler app. This lets him obtain details on civilians – from their occupation, spending habits, fetishes and other funny facts – steal cash from their account or even download new songs from their phone. The app is also used to hack elements in the world, such as raising a bridge to give pursuing cops the slip, opening gates or killing enemies with an overloaded fuse box.

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It’s a simple mechanic that works by holding down one button, but it’s great fun too. You can only pull off these hacks in a district if you’ve brought down its local ctOS transmitter towers, and this plays out a lot like Far Cry 3’s radio beacon system. Each of these towers is like a level in itself, as you have to figure out how to get up to them by climbing around the environment, hacking lifts and using security cameras to unlock doors.

Cameras are important, as they let you see hackable points that may otherwise be out of reach. By jacking into a CCTV device you can then pan around and zoom to highlight enemies on the map while rendering them visible through walls, and jump to other cameras nearby. Finding the best vantage point can give you a tactical advantage while trying to stealth a section, as you can use this to scope out the scene, create distractions, or even kill guards at a distance.

I was able to clear out most of a heavily-guarded ctOS data bank while standing across the street. I jumped into a camera, blew up a fuse box to kill two guards, raised a forklift to lure third guy over, then dropped a freight container on his head. No one even knew I was involved. The stealth mechanic works well as you crouch behind cover and take out guards with Aiden’s night-stick, but shooting your way through a mission is just as enjoyable, although admittedly less rewarding.

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