To be blunt, Watch Dogs’ lead anti-hero Aiden Pearce is a straight up smartphone addict. For most of the game, Aiden can barely take his eyes away from his device. And who can blame him really, especially with all the cool things one can do? No, he isn’t checking to see what’s trending on Twitter or playing a round of Candy Crush either. No, he’s deciding on who or what will be his next target. With a single button press, Watch Dogs puts the power and control of a modern-day hacker into the palm of your hand.
Press X to hack; press X to distract; press X to explode. It’s a “do anything” magic button and the prompt is practically everywhere in the game. It’s this simple mechanic that makes Watch Dogs stick out from the rest of the pack of open-world sandbox games even if it isn’t quite as realized as it could have been. For those wondering, Watch Dogs doesn’t quite reach the hype generated from that memorable E3 reveal in 2012, but more importantly, it still manages to be a great thrilling experience from the first moment you press X to the very last.
Watch Dogs, in many ways, feels like a culmination of all of Ubisoft’s past blockbusters cooked up into one big pot. And yet, Watch Dogs still has it’s own personality and distinct flavour and never did we feel like we were playing just another Assassin’s Creed or Splinter Cell — and that in particular is due to the excellent world design and structure of its Chicago setting. Chicago doesn’t feel as dense as San Andreas but it still makes you feel like you’re playing in a real, breathing city. It’s generally the small things in open-world games that make all the difference when trying to engross the player. Simply walking through the streets in the rain at night with Vampire Weekend playing in the background gets the point across that Ubisoft has crafted another game world that is just as engaging even when you’re not taking down the seedy criminal underworld.
If you’re only interested in Watch Dogs’ story, then the game may feel like your traditional sandbox game. In a somewhat predictable manner, you’ll go from point A to point B, watching Aiden's tale of revenge unfold, and chances are you'll undoubtedly have a fun time doing so. But of course, you’ll be missing out on a staggering amount of side activities scattered about the Windy City. You can stop potential crimes from occurring, hack into cellphone conversations and texts, take down bad-guy convoys, or even hack ctOS towers that open up even more side missions to do. Suffice to say, there is no shortage of things to do in Watch Dogs and, even more surprising, they’re all great distractions that rarely get boring.
"Watch Dogs, in many ways, feels like a culmination of all of Ubisoft’s past blockbusters cooked up into one big pot."
In what is probably the most outlandish thing to do in Watch Dogs is taking part in what is referred to as a digital trip. These really mess up Aiden, essentially causing him to hallucinate to the point of believing that the world around him is nothing more than a series of minigames. In Madness, Aiden drives through a hell version of Chicago running over as many demons as possible with his beefed up car to keep it running. The Spider Tank digital trip is all about causing death and destruction in Chicago as a massive, robotic spider all the while defending against police cars, helicopters and bullets to get a spot on the leaderboard.
Watch Dogs really starts to come alive when it blends hacking opportunities into the core campaign missions that keep the action exciting and fresh. Some of those opportunities are as simple as triggering electrical boxes to explode or setting off car alarms to kill or distract enemies, but other times you’ll be left to your own devices to plot out the best way to complete a mission.
Sometimes you’ll need to lure enemies away with small noise makers, giving you time to sneak past them. You may even be inclined to jam communications in a restricted area so no reinforcements can be called in. Or if you’re in a bind and need to make a run for it undetected, you can initiate a blackout that temporarily plunges the area into darkness, leaving your enemies at a major disadvantage. Just wait until you’ve taken down an entire group of enemies through hacks alone before stepping foot in the area.
Playing stealthy in Watch Dogs was our preferred approach most of the time, but sometimes speaking with guns was a better alternative. There are all sorts of common weapon types in Watch Dogs but the highlight has to go to the grenade launcher, which is perfect for destroying armoured enemy vehicles or blasting away online opponents in one fell swoop. Aiden also can slow down time using his Focus ability, providing him with a combat edge when he's outnumbered. When mixing with a few of the above-mentioned gadgets and hacks, Watch Dogs tries to elevate the conventional over-the-shoulder shooting mechanics into something more but it still feels uninspired.
"Ubisoft has crafted another game world that is just as engaging even when you’re not taking down the seedy criminal underworld."
If you haven’t already guessed, hacking is part of Watch Dogs’ DNA but its implementation can sometimes feel forced. While driving, for example, you’re strangely prohibited from shooting any of your guns through the windows to take down opponents. You’ll have to rely on the always-changing on-screen prompts like hacking traffic lights, spikes and gates to successfully get rid of them. While there's a great feeling of satisfaction seeing the opposing car get crumpled to pieces in slow motion, there were way too many times when we simply wanted to take aim and fire to get out of a few hairy situations.
Driving in Watch Dogs is also a continuous battle every time Aiden gets behind the wheel. Ubisoft chose to have every car feel oddly heavy, even the sporty ones, resulting in even the simplest of turns becoming a challenge to nail down. Over extended periods, we began to adapt to the handling but it still frustrated us every time we had to escape the police.
Watch Dogs even sports an online component that truly feels innovative and will more than likely be copied in future games in the genre. Participating in online racing and the team-based Online Decryption are good fun but we were especially fond of the 1v1 Online Hacking mode. At various times, outside players can enter your game disguised as an NPC where you’ll have a limited to find and take them down before they can successfully hack your phone. It’s entirely optional but accepting the invitation provides a fun take on hide-and-seek. Watching someone frantically sprint up and down searching for you while you sit idly in a parked car is a joy to watch but can get very intense if they find you.
The transition from single player to multiplayer and back again isn’t nearly as seamless as we would like it, but it’s hard to deny the ambitiousness behind such a concept. Even if you don’t like playing with other people online, most of these modes are short and quick, and there's no major penalty for failing at them.
If you were expecting Watch Dogs to take the genre in new directions then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. With that being said, Watch Dogs is still an engaging and often times surprising action game. The hacking component doesn’t offer a lot of depth despite it being such a big theme in the game, but there are plenty of moments where it adds a refreshing spin on a few of those same old, open-world tropes. It’s well-crafted, highly polished and a very strong debut for a new franchise. We’re going to be seeing a lot of Watch Dogs in the future, and that’s a far more exciting prospect than the first time we ever set eyes on it.