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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
V For Vigilante
So let's talk action; when the gunfire begins, Aiden can whip out a variety of pistols, shotguns and automatic weapons that deliver a meaty kick. Gunplay handles well from an over-the-shoulder perspective although some encounters saw the difficulty spike considerably. Challenge is no bad thing of course, but I'm just saying don't wade into a pack of gangsters without a plan if you want to emerge unscathed.
”I like the little touches tied to this mechanic, such as news reports about your deeds, and when the occasional passer-by shouts ‘It’s the Vigilante’ and stops to snap you with their phone’s camera.”
My first real trial was a Gang Hideout side-mission that tasked me with clearing out a rooftop swarming with armed thugs. But rather than kill them all, I had to dispatch two of them by non-lethal takedown. I wasn't told which two I had to spare, so I first had to spy on each of them using hacked cameras, before identifying the targets. The fact I couldn't waste them all made the encounter much harder. The enemies were smart too.
Long ranged guys were slamming me with bullets from afar, others were ruthlessly lobbing grenades at me while others advanced on me with bursts of suppressing fire. Watch Dogs presents its shooting mechanic well, but the same can't be said for its driving component. While I was busy shooting my way over the rooftops, a civilian called the cops, triggering the sweep phase. This drops ctOS scanning points on the mini-map for a while, and if you're unfortunate enough to enter one of them while trying to flee, the authorities will come down on you with force.
Losing a police tail is as simple as breaking their line of sight then exiting the search field without being seen again. It's basic stuff that can result in many a thrilling chase - especially if you hack bollards and road signs as you pass to create mayhem - but I felt that the car handling was a bit too weighty. It's not dreadful by any measure, but some vehicles almost felt like they were fighting against you during each powerslide. This caused me to mow down a few pedestrians by mistake, something that is frowned upon in Chicago.
”Watch Dogs's online play is very interesting and draws similarities with Dark Souls which – if you’re a regular reader you’ll know this – I’m quite obsessed with ”
Killing innocents affects Aiden's reputation while participating in online event raises his notoriety, which unlocks bonus skills along the way.
To earn good reputation, you can scan people in the world to reveal details of their criminal activities, or unearth threats to them. For example, I hacked a woman's text messages to find that she was being harassed by a thug, and that they were meeting up to talk things over. I tailed her and stopped the man from killing her. Do it non-lethally and you earn more brownie points.
I like the little touches tied to this mechanic, such as news reports about your deeds, and when the occasional passer-by shouts 'It's the Vigilante' and stops to snap you with their phone's camera. Again, Watch Dogs is a game that makes you feel important and a part of the world's fabric, and this is only heightened when online play comes into the equation.
A Hacker Has Invaded
I thought I'd close part one of this review with a little insight into Watch Dogs online play, because it'll be the main focus of my next instalment. In short, I think it's very interesting and draws similarities with Dark Souls which - if you're a regular reader you'll know this - I'm quite obsessed with. Unless you turn multiplayer off, your world can be invaded by another player at any given time, and this triggers a 1v1 game of cat and mouse.
Essentially, you'll get a warning to say you've been invaded, and this drops a HUD marker on your mini-map. The idea is that your invader is somewhere in the green circle, but because they're disguised as a random NPC, you'll have to try and expose them before they start hacking your phone. You can do this by jacking into cameras to comb the environment for your attacker or - because you also look like an NPC to them - you can call their bluff by walking around slowly like a pedestrian while scanning everyone with your phone.
”I hacked the phone of a woman calling the cops on me to disrupt the call, hopped into a sports car and sped off into the sunset like a bad ass. It’s a superb feeling.”
It's brilliant. I was invaded by a player while running around an industrialised area, and as soon as the warning flashed up I slowed my pace to a walk and tried to play it cool. Walking ever-so-slowly, I mingled with a crowd of civilians and tried my best to blend in, while scanning everyone with my Profiler. Suddenly, in my peripheral vision, a member of the crowd jarred and moved awkwardly compared to the NPCs. I raised my gun as the people ran in fright leaving my invader standing there with his back to me.
He didn't realise I was right behind him, so I planted two rounds in his back and won the match. I then hacked the phone of a woman calling the cops on me to disrupt the call, hopped into a sports car and sped off into the sunset like a bad ass. It's a superb feeling, but this is only the tip of Watch Dogs online play.
Want to know how Watch Dogs multiplayer handles? Then continue on to part two of my review.
Disclosure: To assist in writing this review, Ubisoft sent Dave a PS4 copy of Watch Dogs.