Watch Dogs review journal #3: the highs and lows of Ubi’s new franchise

By Dave Cook
29 May 2014 08:02 GMT

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What’s the Verdict?

I played Watch Dogs last August at gamescom, but I can’t tell you exactly how it improved during Ubisoft’s five month delay. What I do know is that on PS4 this is a visually-impressive experience with a world that feels organic and hours upon hours of content to drink in at your leisure. If we’re talking money versus substance, then this is a generous prospect indeed.

”It’s not easy to fill a big world like this with viable content, and lord knows we’ve seen enough failed attempts to make an appealing play-space over the years, but Chicago is not one of them.”

Beyond the sheen, Watch Dogs feels good in your hands. It’s a slick experience that avoids stumbling in any of its separate parts, and given its colossal scale and mammoth running time you have to tip a hat in Ubisoft’s direction. Let’s be honest with ourselves here; as an early new-gen release this could have turned out much worse so I’m glad the delay happened. Whatever was broken appears to have been fixed and then some.

Aside from the overarching campaign, this appeal comes from smaller touches like rooting out weird and comedic conversations by hacking phones. You’ll regularly hear banter between NPCs on strange topics, and in one instance, I intruded on some guy using his Phone-A-Friend lifeline in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? There’s a Rabbid toy you can hack to make it yell like a lunatic, and there’s the Billy Bass fish ornament that, when hacked, sings an explicit gangster rap about the ills of fishing. Watch Dogs definitely has a sense of humour.

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Characters like Quinn and Jordi are deranged, and lend that certain blend of madness and menace that make sandbox games less of a chore to slog through, while some scenes make you feel dirty just by being in the room. It’s not easy to fill a big world like this with viable content, and lord knows we’ve seen enough failed attempts to make an appealing play-space over the years, but Chicago is not one of them.

The hacking mechanic may only have so many uses within that world, but it always manages to raise a smile from time to time. Online play is central to the long-lasting appeal of Watch Dogs – and most AAA games these days for that matter – and at the time of writing I’m still not bored of invading other players and stealing their money. It’s a game that speaks to the troll in all of us.

”This is a good game no matter how you cut it, and if you’re one of those people who is growing impatient with the lack of GTA 5 on new-gen machines, or if you just yearn for more sandbox antics, then you should absolutely give Watch Dogs a look.”

There’s a sadistic glee that comes with sauntering up to the other player while disguised as an NPC then starting your hack. If you’re smart about it you can stand in a crowd of other pedestrians as watch as your mark runs around in a panic trying to find you before the theft is complete. It’s frequently hilarious, and the madness is only heightened when in eight-player Decryption mode.

This mode sees players rolling over each other by any means necessary to hold onto a file for the longest time possible. You’ll run each other over in cars, blow other people up using explosives, gun them down with a hail of bullets and use every dastardly hacking trick at your disposal to make their life a misery. It’s a riot comparable to GTA 4’s multiplayer offering, a wild Free Roam mode gives you and your mates the key to the city, allowing to do as you please.

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Races are the only weak cog here, as the person out in front has the advantage of triggering traffic jams and bollards behind them, but this can be overlooked in favour of the other modes. Watch Dogs invasions are a close neighbour to Dark Souls PvP, but that’s no bad thing, and they should account to many hilarious YouTube and Twitch videos for months to come.

This is a good game no matter how you cut it, and if you’re one of those people who is growing impatient with the lack of GTA 5 on new-gen machines, or if you just yearn for more sandbox antics, then you should absolutely give Watch Dogs a look.

It’s a new IP in a sea of expensive, low-risk sequels, which is something to be thankful for. I just hope those subsequent, inevitable follow-ups stay fresh and refrain from riding the annualised format currently adopted by Assassin’s Creed. There’s an opportunity here to do something bigger than the shareholder’s whim.

Disclosure: To assist in writing this review, Ubisoft sent Dave a copy of Watch Dogs on PS4.

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