Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: May 27th, 2014
Available on: PC, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Reviewer’s note: I played this game on the Playstation 4. There may be differences between versions.
In 2012 Ubisoft started their tradition of ending each press conference with a surprise showing. That year it was Watch Dogs, and it was considered one of the best showings of E3 2012 and road one hell of a hype train. Over two years later the game is finally out. Is it as good as everyone hoped, or should you stop watching this game?
Hacking is a central theme in Watch Dogs, and a gameplay mechanic that gives you a nice amount of control over the environment. It’s all kept surprisingly simple though: hacking is never harder than having your phone out, looking at what you want to hack, and holding down square. Using this you can do things like change stop lights to cause accidents, to blowing up steam pipes and transformers to disorientate and kill enemies. It’s simple, effective, and honestly kind of fun. It’s not genre changing or revolutionary, but it’s enough to give you some interesting options. The game is rather stealth heavy so it’s really neat when you can actually invade a base and complete your objective using nothing more than your hacking abilities to redirect guards and jump through cameras.
Of course you won’t just be hacking and Watch Dogs is a proper open world game similar to Grand Theft Auto. Gunplay is simple enough with the game having a good size selection of weapons for you to use. You can take cover, aim, move from cover to cover, and even slow down time the same as in any other modern third person shooter. The hacking assists with the gunplay in letting you use cameras to scope out enemies and sometimes raise and lower points of cover. Driving is also a heavy part of the game, and again the hacking will play a role here. The driving does feel a little weird though, with cars feeling kind of slippery and messy. Further more the lack of an ability to shoot while driving just feels off. It’s 2014, I kind of thought that one would be standard by now.
The story missions have you going through a whole gauntlet of tasks and lasts about 15 hours. During this time I engaged in car chases against rival hackers, broke both into and out of a prison, and defended a heavily booby trapped area from swarms of mercenaries. The tasks themselves are interesting, though the story falls flat. Aiden Pierce is a revenge obsessed hacker who has turned himself into a vigilante to cope with the loss of his niece. A good start is tarnished by uninteresting plot points and a predictable chain of events. Aiden himself is a super uninteresting character and seems almost inconstant between cut scenes. The supporting cast is better, but not really by much. They’re consistent but little else. At least there’s some humor from Iraq’s batshit insanity, and Jordi’s psychopathic tendency.
Besides the story there’s a large chunk of side content to hold you over. There are, of course, collectables with about 100 hot spots findable in town. QR codes, private investigations, and human trafficking briefcases are also discoverable. You can engage in privacy invasions that require you to solve simple puzzles, and reward you with peeks into people’s private lives. There’s also city games like chess, poker, and some (honestly awful) drinking games. Much bigger than any of these comes the three types of missions. Gang hideouts have you identifying targets in strongholds and trying to disable them without killing them, while criminal convoys have you chasing down and crashing enemy convoys containing targets for you to kill. The final kind, fixer contracts, have four different kind of assignments that are decently different from each other. There’s also AR games, though I found theses to be rather flat. NVZN has you shooting aliens, but is waaaay too easy and boring to be worth much. Cash Run is a little better, using Aiden’s limited parkor skills to grab coins and avoid skulls. Good idea, but I feel like it’d work better in Assassin’s Creed rather than Watch Dogs since then there would be actual platforming.
But wait, there’s more! The most extensive side content available in Watch Dogs comes from Digital Trips. Digital Trips are honestly awesome. Each one changes the game into something completely different. Spider Tank, for example, has you piloting a huge spider tank and lets you go on a rampage in town. Another has you driving down a street hitting zombies to power your car. The four included Digital Trips all feel like they could have been their own downloadable games, so the amount of content they add is just great.
Of course you can’t release a AAA game now a days without some form of online. Watch Dogs delivers here as well. Taking a page from Dark Souls, at any point your game can be invaded by another player. Likewise, you can also invade other player’s game. There’s two types of invasions available in Watch Dogs. Hacking is the more interactive of the two. Here your goal is to hack another player’s phone. Once you start you have to stay close to them, and if you get caught you have to run before you get killed. Tailing is a little easier, where all you have to do is observe the target while they go about their activities. The player is never alerted that you’re in their world so unless they’re paying attention you’ll probably go unnoticed. Both modes are great though, and require you to be on the watch for anyone acting weird or out of character in your game. If you don’t like the invasions, though, you’re free to turn them off.
If you’re looking for a more traditional multiplayer, that’s here too. Decryption pits two teams of four to capture and hang onto a file, while an eight player racing mode ends up hilarious as everyone runs into each other and tries to hack environmental points against other racers. Of course there’s also a free roam for when you just want to mess around with friends. Finally there’s the kind of interesting CtOS Challenge. One player has to race from point A to point B while the other (who’s using a smart phone or tablet) has to watch them and try to stop them from getting there by activating traps. Interesting way to allow people with a tablet to get involved, though not quite the most fun mode out there.
Outside of the weak plot Watch Dogs manages to be a lot of fun. The open world has a lot that you can participate in and the game continued to entertain me well into the final hours. There are improvements to be made, sure, but I found Watch Dogs to be an exciting new IP that can bring a lot of good with it and by the end it left me ready for the inevitable sequel.