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Watch Dogs - Review

Updated on August 17, 2014

Watch Dogs follows Ubisoft's current tried and tested formula: give people so much to do they won't question the quality of it all. Quantity over quality. Who cares if all the side content is pretty much the same thing - look someone else needs saving over there, there's money and experience to be earned. Vigilante to the rescue.

Following a bumpy development period and several delays, Watch Dogs is both impressive and yet at the same time something of a disappointment. You've seen this kind of game before but Ubisoft have added just enough stuff to make the whole experience feel somewhat fresh.

Taking place in a near-future Chicago, the game has you playing as Aiden Pearce, a hacker and career criminal. It's not worth explaining anything else about Aiden Pearce because there's nothing to explain. He has no personality. He's a blank slate who, over the course of the game's main quest, manages to be the biggest hypocritical jerk Chicago has ever seen.

Much like it's main character, one of the weakest links in Watch Dog's is it's story. The interesting setting is wasted on a dull, poorly paced revenge thriller that seemingly doesn't know what to do with itself. Most characters have poor motivations and Aiden manages to be the most unlikable guy out of the whole bunch. Story isn't necessarily a huge factor in many games but Watch Dogs seems to place so much emphasis on its lead character's plight, through an abundance of cut-scenes, only to make him incredibly boring - it's something of a mess to say the least.

Fortunately, one character does remain interesting and it's not a living one either; it's the city. Ubisoft's virtual Chicago is a real treat, with towering skyscrapers and moody, rundown office blocks battered with rain, wind and thunder. It's a perfect setting for Watch Dog's neo-noir aesthetic and makes for a great place to explore. Switching on Aiden's phone allows you to peek into the lives of everyone around you and finding out interesting, or potentially incriminating, details.

The driving controls sometimes feel a bit loose and imprecise. Not helpful when evading the police...
The driving controls sometimes feel a bit loose and imprecise. Not helpful when evading the police...

The main touted feature of Watch Dog's has been the talk of the ability to hack everything and anything. Ubisoft's future Chicago has been hooked up to a new computer system known as CTOS that allows the city to be run autonomously. It also means hackers like Aiden are effectively able to take control of the city. In fact, your biggest weapon throughout the game is the city itself, rather than your arsenal of guns. Flee from the cops and you can hack traffic lights or burst pipes to stop your pursuers. Stealing files from corporate buildings can be as easy as hacking a CCTV camera and taking a peek through an office window.

It's something of a brave move on Ubisoft's part to make most of the game about spying through security cameras and people's laptops. There's arguably more of that going on here than there is actual gun fights, especially if you try to stick to stealthy approaches. To their credit, the developers don't force a particular approach on you throughout most of the game's main missions. Going in all guns blazing can be fun but Aiden is a soft target, with one close range shotgun blast being the end of him, encouraging you to think more and utilize your surroundings. Likewise, Chicago's police doesn't mess around and are much more persistent than in other open world games, doggedly chasing you throughout the entire city, which in turn forces players to utilize hacking skills in order to shake them off.

Aiden also has access to several craftable items he can make use of. Some are very self explanatory such as noise-makers to attract guards and mini IEDs to set up traps. Others, such as Blackout, allow you to completely shut off power to the city for several seconds, potentially plunging the city into complete darkness. There's a nice risk/reward system here, as cutting the power also leaves you without the ability to hack anything until the power comes back on. There's a decent selection of gadgets, even if many are analogous to those in other games, providing enough strategy to keep most players occupied.

There's usually multiple ways through each mission, depending on the approach you want to take.
There's usually multiple ways through each mission, depending on the approach you want to take.
The RPG-style skills system is done reasonably well, even if most of the upgrades are a little uninspired.
The RPG-style skills system is done reasonably well, even if most of the upgrades are a little uninspired.

Ubisoft certainly make sure that there's plenty of stuff to do too. Whether it be hacking CTOS stations, the game's equivalent of Assassin's Creed's viewpoints, or preventing crimes by tailing potential suspects, you're spoilt with an abundance of side quests. The more pertinent question will be how much of these you're willing to do: whether it be stealing cars or beating up gangs, Watch Dogs' side missions fall into several repeated formulas that are then re-used even more throughout the main storyline.

In contrast, the game's multiplayer content feels genuinely refreshing, and makes for a wonderful change of pace. Much like Assassin's Creed's multiplayer, you're tasked with tailing other players by trying to blend into the environment, or better yet, impersonate an NPC. Ubisoft's best decision however was to take a leaf out of Dark Souls and blend the multiplayer into the game's narrative and world. Rather than take place in a nebulous online zone, Aiden can pick up online missions at any time and be given another player to target.

Similarly, other players will invade your game as enemy hackers, again, ensuring that the multiplayer aspect is grafted into the single player experience rather than being tacked on. It can make for some pretty memorable moments as you anxiously scan the street in front of you looking for your potential hacker in a crowd. Succeeding online comes with its own perks too, as your notoriety increases from successful hacks as well as taking down opposing hackers.

The strange thing about Watch Dogs is that the things that should work; the whole surveillance-state plot and hacking mechanics, the latter of which usually devolves into "press square to do stuff", are actually the least interesting things in the game. Meanwhile, the integrated multiplayer and the design of the city itself are arguably its most compelling features. The story in particular comes across a giant missed opportunity, with the neo-noir setting unfortunately wasted on a bore like Aiden Pearce.

As it stands, Watch Dogs is a decent stab at a GTA-style open-world game, Ubisoft have crafted an impressive vision of futuristic Chicago that feels weirdly plausible. Provided you can stomach those soggy story vegetables, there's definitely some worthwhile treats hidden in this windy city.

Watch Dogs was released worldwide on May 27th for 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4 and PC, with a Wii U version set for release at the end of the year.

This review is based on the PS4 version.

© 2014 LudoLogic

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