Video games can often be the victims of their own hype, or the expectations that video game fans create off their own backs. I've been guilty of this in the past, which is why these days apart from announcement trailers, I tend to steer clear of most previews and gameplay videos, so that if a game's concept appeals to me then I will decide from that point if I want to get it and can discover as much of the game as possible myself once I pop the disk in the drive. Sometimes there's such a thing as TOO much information, and it's worked out for me pretty well on the whole, with only a few disappointments I can name over the years. This is a strategy I employed with Watch Dogs, and judging by the general reaction from the gaming community, it's seems to have worked well for me again as I'll explain later in the review.
Watch Dogs is an open-world, sandbox, action-adventure game, a genre that is extremely prominent these days but one whose popularity doesn't seem to falter. Announced in 2012, it set the gaming world abuzz, and Watch Dogs was going to shake up the genre, and give the players a whole new level of freedom that they've never experienced before.
Does it do that?
No. At least, not quite.
Does it have a unique selling point and hours and hours of story lines, side quests, activies and the entire city of Chicago to explore?
You take control of Aiden Pearce, a vigilante with the ability to hack almost anything that operates electronically or a microchip which, conveniently in 2016 Chicago, appears to be most things from people's phones right down to gas pipes and grenades.
While attempting an electronic bank heist Aiden and his partner, Damien Brenks, are detected by another hacker that forces Aiden to abort the heist despite the protestations of Damien. Fearing for the repercussions for himself and his family, his sister Nicole and her two children, Lena and Jackson, Aiden attempts to get them out of the city under the guise of a vacation. But hired hitmen catch up with Aiden's car before they get a chance to leave, and a shot fired by one of the hitmen, Maurice Vega, takes out the car's tire and causes it to crash, killed Aiden's 6-year old niece, Lena. 11 months later, Aiden takes up the vigilante mantle to bring his own sense of justice to Chicago, while try to catch up with the people responsible for his niece's death with still trying to protect Nicole and Jackson.
This where the game lets you pick up where it has you interrogating a bloodied and terrified Maurice. This opening segment has you introduced to the combat, stealth, crafting, skills and, most importantly, the hacking system. For a system upon which the whole game is built, hacking is actually extremely simple, with the majority of actions being done with the press of a single button. While this might criticised by some, it actually makes a lot of sense, since if you had to perform complex actions to hack, then the whole hacking-on-fly would become frustrating and limited. The hacking does take on a more detailed slant when trying to get into particular systems, but this takes the form of a typical connect-the-path minigame which, for the most part, isn't overly difficult and little to no repercussions to failing.
Despite it's simplicity, the amount of systems you can hack in the world is extensive. Can you hack everything? No, but realistically you wouldn't expect to, but as you open up new skills as you progress you can hack traffic lights, gas pipes under roads, electrical units to cause blackouts, set the timers off on grenades, disrupt enemy communications, interrupt police scans and raise security bollards and road spikes to name some of the things you can hack. How and when you use these are entirely up to you, and you can approach the game as you see fit. You can dive into a mission with all guns blazing, or you can use your skills to sneak through undetected. You can attempt to evade police by outrunning them, or you can take them out with gas pipes and various other methods in your hacking arsenal. It can make for some very compelling and exciting chases, made more intense by the fact that the police in Watch Dogs are some of the toughest and most tenacious in any video game I've played.
The mission structure of Watch Dogs is pretty linear with you needing to complete one mission to get to the next one, of which there are 43 missions split over five acts, so the story by itself is extensive. But that's not all to do in the city of Chicago, there are narrative side quests which either involve tracking down a serial killer, tracking down arms dealers, or stopping human trafficking. There are standard fetch quests which involve finding QR codes that are scattered around the city and need lining up by hacking into security cameras, or finding mobile phones hidden in various places. There are also a variety of mini games such as chess, poker, shell game (which ball is the cup under) and drinking games. There are also fixer missions in which you either have to steal cars or deliver cars in set amounts of time - the driving in Watch Dogs can feel a bit cumbersome at times, but after a while you get used to it and the majority of the vehicles handle fine, and you can improve your driving skills as you progress. Other fixer missions include taking out criminal convoys or tracking down individuals and eliminating them. The hacking skills can also lend itself well to the combat, and I had some of the most truly intense firefights I've had in any game, including FPS titles.
As well as these side activities, you can also stop crimes that are happening throughout the city by either coming across them naturally, or by hacking into people's phones and finding out about crimes that are going to happen. When you get to these potential crime scenes, you must observe the scene and wait for the crime to happen otherwise you'll spook the criminal and they'll escape without a crime being witnessed. But if you catch them in the act, they'll flee and you must chase them down and either take them down or kill them. But you'll get fewer XP for killing them and it'll damage your reputation standing with the city of Chicago. This reputation will either convince the citizens that you're a vigilante hero to be lauded and they'll be less like to report your illegal activities, or they'll see you as a dangerous criminal and you'll be reported in more frequently. You can stop people from doing this by tackling them and taking their phone or, more seriously, killing them, but that's not going to endear yourself to population.
Besides finishing the missions and side quests to earn money you can spend, you can also hack into people's phones and tap into their bank accounts and steal a percentage of their savings, which you can then take from an ATM machine and spend either on weaponry, crafting materials, additional outfits (of which there are no statistical benefits), or crafting materials which will allow you construct various items like explosives, medicines or devices to aid in hacking.
If all of that isn't enough, there are 'Digital Trips' which come in the form of their own, completely separate, "augmented reality" mini games. These include a carmageddon-style driving segment, a simulation that involves taking control of a giant robot spider, a stealth game where you have to deactivate hubs while avoidings eerie robots-with-cameras-for-heads, a psychedelic trip which involves bouncing from flower-to-flower, and a few other games, all of which are fun distractions with their own skill trees and upgrades, but ultimately have no effect on the game itself with no money or xp being earned from them.
You don't have to search around for any of this content particularly hard either, as everything can be found by hacking into ctOS (the system that controls the whole of Chicago) towers which will then reveal various sections of the map, including all the collectibles, though you will have to use your eyes a bit as they may be above or below you, and you may have to use some elements of parkour to get to it.
As if all of that content wasn't enough to keep you busy, the multiplayer side of things offers it's share of distractions. Online races, free roaming hacking and online decryption are all fairly standard modes where you get thrown into various races or two teams where you have to track down a carrier and hack into it while preventing the other team from doing so. But where the multiplayer stands out is the "invasions" where players will make their way into your game world and hack it, where you have to stop them, or vice-versa where you'll plant yourself into their world and hack it without being detected, or at the very least, make it out of there without being killed. It's all very compelling and can be quite tense when someone crops up in your world as you're in the middle of a police chase and you have to worry about them and the police. Successfully completing multiplayer activities will give you online XP which you can upgrade extra skills, which you can use throughout the single player experience as well. If you don't want any part of this, you can switch off the invasions and ignore the multiplayer side, but it is a unique take on multiplayer that is worth experiencing at least once.
Watch Dogs clearly isn't short on content, in fact quite the opposite, but this can make the game feel quite disjointed at times, and if you get distracted by the side missions it can make you forget where you are in the story. A story that, while interesting, isn't the clever social commentary on the digital reliance of our society that Ubisoft made it out to be. Aiden Pearce is also likely to win any award for "most compelling video game character" and he lacks the charm of an Ezio Auditore or a Trevor Philips, but not every game needs a wise-cracking assassin, or deranged sociopath. Aiden is man haunted by a tragic event brought about by his illegal actions, and he carries that weight on his shoulders throughout the game. This is not a light-hearted romp and it doesn't pretend to be.
Clearly, there's a lot to Watch Dogs in terms of gameplay, but how does it hold up technically? A lot was made of Watch Dogs graphics on its initial reveal, and there has been some criticism levelled at Ubisoft saying that the graphics have been scaled back on console versions. While it's true that Watch Dogs doesn't look as graphically impressive as the gameplay demos shown, even the next-gen consoles are going to lag behind the most powerful PC, which the majority of companies use to demonstrate their games. Despite all of this, Watch Dogs is still very, very pretty, though it doesn't seem as technically impressive as Infamous: Second Son, the other big name open-world sandbox action-adventure to grace our screens, but the Infamous world feels minuscule in comparison to Watch Dog's Chicago, and thus could concentrate more the the visuals. I really believe that if Watch Dogs were to be released a year or so down the line, without previous-gen console versions to hold things back, we would see console versions looking much closer to a higher-end PC version. Until developers are freed of the constraints of older consoles, and they've had time to get used to the hardware, then we're not going to get that iconic next-gen title. Really, technically, my only real criticism of Watch Dogs cosmetics is that the music in the cars is rather forgettable, and I found myself turning it off more often than not. It may have benefitting from different radio stations like GTA V, rather than a constant stream of music.
Watch Dogs is not a game that is short on content, and there's no way anyone could feel short-changed for the amount of game they'll get for their money. Indeed, it could be said that there's almost TOO much content in the game, with it feeling bloated and almost trying to paper over the fact that the mission structure is nothing revolutionary. And that's most people's problem with Watch Dogs, they were expecting something revolutionary, whereas I was just looking for an entertaining sandbox game with plenty to keep me occupied, and that's what I got. It's not revolutionary in any way and it doesn't truly excel at anything. Graphically it's undeniably excellent, but not state-of-the-art, the hacking is a lot of fun, but it's not the open-world mechanic to break the mould of the sandbox action game, and it's story is good but not on a par with games like Bioshock, The Walking Dead or The Last of Us. It's simply a very good game that entertains throughout, which leaves it's masses of content in the hands of the player and says "here you go, knock yourself out". And isn't that what a sandbox game should be about? Having the freedom of choice to do as much - or as little - as you like, so long as there's enough for you to do. Should you choose to spend your money on Aiden Pearce's world then you won't feel short-changed, so long as you manage your expectations. There's enough groundwork laid here to be hopeful for the future, should the Watch Dogs universe return to our screens with another instalment.
+ Hours and hours of gameplay
+ Hacking is a lot of fun
+ Police chases are a challenge
+ Firefights are great when combined with hacking
+ Story is enjoyable
+ Large city to explore
+ Presentation is top notch
+ Unique take on multiplayer
- Nothing is groundbreaking
- It can feel bloated and disjointed
- Costumes are pointless
- Music is forgettable
- Not the next-gen milestone we thought it would be