Review: Watch Dogs

When it was first unveiled during Ubisoft’s press conference at E3 2012, Watch Dogs created a buzz like no other. From that initial reveal, the hybrid of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed excited gamers and looked set to revolutionise gaming.

Despite numerous delays, there was still a lot of hype surrounding the title, which finally launched on May 27th, 2014. But is Watch Dogs the title gamers have been yearning for, or is this one dog that has already had its day?

The plot in Watch Dogs focuses on Aiden Pearce, a grey hat hacker and vigilante who is seeking revenge on those responsible for the murder of his niece, following a failed robbery eleven months ago. Using a backdoor into Chicago’s central operating system (ctOs), Aiden is able to hack into the electrical infrastructure in the city, allowing him to discover information about its citizens using his smartphone.

Unfortunately, the campaign can be difficult to follow at times, mainly because of the introduction of seemingly irrelevant subplots, which take away from the main story and it does get off to a relatively slow start. In spite of this, gamers will be able to power through the campaign fairly quickly, as only a small number of the later missions provide a real challenge.

Completing missions rewards players with skill points, which can be used to upgrade Aiden’s abilities in combat, driving, hacking and crafted items. The upgrade system comes in the form of a skill tree, with the better rewards on offer at the top of the branches. It’s a tried and tested system that has been well enforced into Watch Dogs.

The game’s developer, Ubisoft Montreal, worked closely with Russian anti-virus firm Kaspersky Lab in order to make the hacking as realistic as possible, and it clearly shows. The “Profiler” app on Aiden’s smartphone allows players to access information on any citizen in the city, including their age, occupation, salary and a fact about them – which can often lead to some humorous results.

With certain citizens, this can be taken one step further as players can hack into their phones to unlock new content (such as cars, weapons and in-game music), obtain money from their bank account and start side missions. While this may not sound like a significant aspect of the game, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable implementation, as players utilise the game’s free roam capabilities to scan the citizens of Chicago.

Another use for hacking is to unlock ctOs towers, which connect players to Chicago’s central operating system. The towers are often difficult to reach, with players having to utilise nearby security cameras and facilities in order to unlock gates to access the tower. Despite its similarities to Assassin’s Creed’s viewpoints, this is another well-implemented aspect of the game.

Aiden’s smartphone also has the ability to notify players of any crimes that are likely to occur nearby. These side missions require players to observe the behaviour of citizens in order to identify when a crime is about to take place and to intervene when it does. Initially, this mission type can be quite rewarding. However, the novelty soon wears off and it becomes tedious quickly.

Other side missions include delivering vehicles to specific locations without causing any damage to it, races and taking down gangs. There are plenty of missions to be getting on with outside of the main campaign that increase the game’s lifespan quite dramatically.

In terms of combat, Watch Dogs functions as a cover-based third-person shooter. Whether you’re the type of player who prefers to tactically infiltrate the enemy or go in all guns blazing, Aiden is able to do both.

There’s a huge arsenal of weapons on offer, including assault rifles, grenade launchers, pistols, shotguns, snipers and more. While they aren’t customisable, the range of weapons on offer provides players with a lot of choices and options – something that works in the game’s favour.

In addition to using weapons, Aiden can also use hacks in order to distract enemies and interact with the environment. From triggering a fire alarm to exploding their mobile device and from bursting a pipe to raising a forklift truck so that Aiden can reach higher ground, the hacking element of the combat has been brilliantly implemented by Ubisoft Montreal and it makes combat more interesting.

One of the major learning curves within Watch Dogs is the driving. Considering the whole project was originally intended for a driving-focused game, the physics fail to impress; vehicles appear to swing round corners, with the brakes rarely allowing much in terms of finesse, and the vehicle damage mechanic is massively flawed.

As for the vehicle designs, Watch Dogs contains a wide range, all of which can be found across Chicago. From sports cars to speedboats and off-road vehicles to sports cars, there’s a vast array of vehicles for players to drive.

Hacking can also be used while driving in order to give the player an advantage. Traffic lights, pipes, bridges and blockers can all be hacked in order to cause collisions and to neutralise enemies in high speed chases. Whereas the system can be flawed at times, there’s a satisfying feeling that comes with pulling it off successfully.

Quite impressively, there are a large number of small features integrated into Watch Dogs that may be overlooked by players. Firstly, there’s a Foursquare-like system in which players “check-in” to certain landmarks and compare their visits to other players. There’s also a whole host of mini-games and arcade games that provide a welcome distraction from Watch Dogs’ missions.

A common trend with sandbox titles is the inclusion of collectibles, and Watch Dogs is no different. Scattered throughout Chicago are QR codes which, if successfully scanned, unlock a new weapon and achievements. It’s yet another feature which extends the game’s lifespan.

Watch Dogs is one of the very few titles that synchronises the single player and multiplayer to run alongside each other. Whereas this may prove quite distracting to those who want to solely focus on the single player campaign, it keeps players on edge and has been excellently implemented.

Aside from free roam (with support for up to eight players) and the standard race game mode (which has the driving hacks enabled), the vast majority of the multiplayer game modes primarily consist of locating the hacker in a hide-and-seek-like fashion, with slight variations in the gameplay. However, the stand out game mode is ctOs Mobile Challenge.

ctOs Mobile Challenge is a two player multiplayer game mode in which one player consumes the role of the police and the other attempts to escape. The player-controlled police can deploy vehicles and hack the environment in order to prevent the other player from escaping.

While it may sound like your traditional cops and robbers game mode, the fact that it is fully integrated with the Watch Dogs app (available on iOS and Android) gives players full control through their smartphone or tablet. It’s a brilliant use of SmartGlass that has been brilliantly executed.

On the technical side of things, Ubisoft Montreal has done a fantastic job in ensuring the game runs smoothly. There are very few frame rate drops, very few texture pop-in issues and loading times are somewhat of a rarity. Moreover, the user interface is nicely laid out and has been designed well to incorporate a stereotypical hacking feel. The only real niggle is that the pop-ups (to alert players to new missions) can be quite intrusive and distracting, though this is only a minor flaw.

One of the reasons Watch Dogs stole the show when it was first revealed was down to the high-end graphics on display. Unfortunately, as gamers have come to expect, the graphics in the final product aren’t to the same standard, though that doesn’t mean that they’re not impressive. There are moments where Watch Dogs almost looks life-like. Nevertheless, you can’t help but feel the Xbox One has more to deliver.

In terms of audio, Watch Dogs contains a playlist which is made up of fifty licensed tracks, including the likes of Alice Cooper and Vampire Weekend. However, they seem to have been bundled together last minute and feel very out of place in the flow of the game. The original game soundtrack by Brian Reitzell also does little to enhance the audio.

It’s very easy to draw comparisons between Watch Dogs and Grand Theft Auto V. After all, they are both sandbox titles with third-person shooter elements. However, in retrospect, the two are completely different. While GTA V was very story and character-driven, it’s the hacking elements of Watch Dogs which truly separates the two games.