What some people don’t realize is that video games take a long time to develop. Sure, some take quite a bit longer than others for various reasons — such as size or the need for a new engine — but these things don’t come about overnight. It generally takes years of planning, brainstorming and hard work to get most notable interactive experiences to us, which is something that isn’t recognized often enough, and is especially true in the case of Ubisoft Montreal’s Watch Dogs, a new intellectual property which has finally made its way to today’s most powerful devices after being in development for upwards of six years.
On the surface, Watch Dogs resembles a Grand Theft Auto-style experience. However, although it shares similarities with Rockstar’s iconic behemoth, Ubisoft’s latest gamble exists as its own beast. Yes, both series employ sandbox gameplay mechanics and free roam activities that allow for intense, high speed police chases and what have you, but this particular experience is more tech based than its peer. Due to this, its gameplay introduces never-before-seen hacking mechanics which end up being complete game changers.
The idea here is that players will utilize technology to gain an upper hand on those who oppose them, be it the local police force and its intelligent helicopters, or enemies who are introduced via the game’s storyline. All of this is done through a smart phone, too, which is both wondrous and mystifying at the same time.
Before delving further into how things work, let’s take some time to describe the context that surrounds them. That is, the story of Aiden Pearce, a powerful and talented hacker who is screwed over at the beginning of the game. That betrayal kickstarts a lengthy, forty mission-long campaign that has the Chicago resident searching for answers and attempting retribution. Through it, an interesting and conflicted anti-hero is created, although it’s one whose heart is in the right place.
Aiden may be a criminal and more than a slightly seedy fellow, but he’s not evil. His actions sometimes speak otherwise, but his heart is seemingly in the right place, as all he really wants to do is protect his family from further harm. Those fears exist because of his previous actions, which led to a hit gone wrong and the death of his sweet six year-old niece. Losing her left a void in Aiden’s life, and did an understandable and expected number on him. However, it’s worth noting that his remaining family members — sister Nicole and nephew Jackson ‘Jacks’ Pearce — are presented as forgiving people, who say that they don’t hold a grudge and simply want to move on.
In order to get revenge and (hopefully) achieve peace of mind, our newly-introduced protagonist will do just about anything, including spying, blackmailing, murdering and, of course, hacking into others’ devices. There’s much more to the hacking, though, because the game’s digitized representation of Chicago is under the control of a powerful operating system called ctOS. A super server, or whatever you want to call it, it’s responsible for making sure that everything — from traffic lights and gates, to security cameras and ATMs — works as it should. Though, as with all stories pertaining to powerful operating systems, corruption is seemingly rampant throughout the network.
Through some sort of sophisticated hack, Aiden’s phone is magically gifted with the ability to control certain ctOS technologies, while others must be hacked before use. This creates a system where car chases can be ended with the press of a button, and security cameras are one of the most important things in existence. In fact, quite a few of the game’s missions rely on those cameras — which are everywhere, it seems — to either spy on targets, steal information or find and hack hidden locks. On top of this, they can also be used to plan attacks, which can involve crafted items like improvised explosive devices and audible lures.
Although Aiden can hold his own, and is an expert in the use of his carried extendable, he’s not a bullet sponge. As such, hacking, stealth and strategy all play a large role within Watch Dogs. And, because of the inclusion of hacking, there are multiple ways to approach most scenarios. For instance, one person may choose to go in and use a silenced pistol to take enemies out from behind cover, while another may move from one hacked camera display to another, in order to find environmental items to explode, or use as lures. Guards’ cellphones can also be set to explode, which leads to panic that often results in at least one death.
Guns are important allies, but players can also buy and scavenge materials that will allow them to craft their own grenades, IEDs, signal jammers and lures. I liked using a mix of everything, and tried to alter my strategies on a mission-by-mission basis. However, the game’s AI — which is generally quite good, and allows enemies to flank and investigate as they should — has also forced me to think on my feet and make quick decisions more often than originally expected.
Like its driving, though, Watch Dogs‘ gunplay isn’t at the top of its class. Both gameplay systems work fine most of the time, and employ solid mechanics; however, they’re imperfect and could’ve each used some more fine tuning. Then again, it didn’t take me too long to get used to how things worked. Sure, the vehicles are a bit floaty, but you learn to adapt to their controls. The same is also true of the game’s overly familiar, bullet-based combat, which left me wanting.
Thankfully, Watch Dogs doesn’t let some slightly outdated and occasionally cumbersome mechanics hold it down. Instead, it presents a content-rich and enjoyable experience, which manages to be both lengthy and memorable. In fact, there are a lot of things one can do outside of the game’s main story missions, including attempts at stopping criminal convoys from reaching their targets, betting games like shells and poker, and even chess. That’s not all, though, as there are also contracts to undertake, crimes to stop, investigations to complete and digital trips to undertake.
The aforementioned digital trips stand out the most, from what is essentially a mixed bag of side quests, because they’re fun and inventive. They also provide great juxtaposition to things in the core game, by infusing familiar mechanics with creative flair. For instance, one of the four digital trips I was able to undertake involved speeding through the city’s streets and mowing down zombies, while another allowed me to hop in a gigantic spider tank and lay havoc upon the poor people of Chicago. Though, while those two were a heck of a lot of fun to play, they weren’t the weirdest of the bunch. That award goes to a mini-game in which players attempt to bounce from one flower to another, as they make their way through the clouds above the Windy City.
Those who regularly worry about getting their money’s worth out of games will be happy to hear that there’s even more to this one than what’s been mentioned above. In fact, there’s an additional multiplayer component, which (almost) seamlessly ties into Watch Dogs‘ core campaign. Through it, players can trail, race and hack one another, or send police vehicles after their opponents. Going further, a multiplayer-enabled free roam mode is also available.
For the most part, the pre and post launch multiplayer components that I tested worked without a hitch. I did, however, experience one server error shortly after midnight on release day. Hopefully those will be few and far between, and won’t hinder people as they attempt to successfully infiltrate other player’s games and hack them, or take advantage of the title’s other (decent) multiplayer options.
When it comes to aesthetics, Watch Dogs is a treat. It looks quite good, and presents a large, varied and thriving city that is full of unique civilians, all of whom have different names, occupations, incomes and secrets that can be learnt. People will still undoubtedly complain that its visuals aren’t phenomenally spectacular, but it’s worth pointing out just how much is going on at all times and how the city’s buildings reflect onto one another in realistic fashion. Just don’t go in expecting inFAMOUS: Second Son level visuals and you’ll be fine.
Helping to establish and maintain what is a rich and immersive experience, the game’s audio is also tough to fault. Major characters are well voiced, and so are supporting faces and random civilians. Thankfully, the writing is also strong, while the same is true of the title’s originally-crafted score and licensed soundtrack, the latter of which features songs by Alice Cooper, Weezer, MGK, Rise Against and King Cudi.
In the end, this is a game that is well worth your attention. However, while Watch Dogs marks a very good debut for a property that we’ll hopefully see more of, it’s not quite up to the calibre of Grand Theft Auto V, and has yet to be as outright entertaining as Saints Row: The Third and Sleeping Dogs were.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with.