After nearly two years of nail-biting anticipation since it debuted at E3 2012, Watch Dogs is finally out. The basic premise of the game hasn’t really changed, and the idea of a hackable world have remained the same, but it’s gone through a fair few enhancements, and with the announcement of next gens, they’re on there too.
Release Date: May 27th 2014
Consoles: PlayStation 4 (Limited Edition Also Available) / Xbox One (Limited Edition Also Available) / PlayStation 3 (Limited Edition Also Available) / Xbox 360 (Limited Edition Also Available) / PC (Limited Edition Also Available) / Pre-Order for WiiU
Rating: M for Mature
Canadians have been given a really good sneak preview into the Watch Dogs experience since E3 last year. Hopefully, you got the chance to play the Watch Dogs Live app throughout last year when it came out. In it, you whipped out your phone and “hacked” (pushed a button and let the app do the work) locations around you (determined via the GPS and location services on your phone.) You could own locations or challenge other hackers who owned it. It was pretty simplistic, but pretty fun at the same time. I found myself walking around with my phone out more than once looking to find a place to hack and level up. It was fairly rudimentary, but Ubisoft made it interesting with contests. They also boosted marketing efforts with the help of shows like TSN’s Off the Record, where Dedsec hacked host Michael Landsberg’s studio
You kick off by playing as Aiden Pearce, an experienced hacker in a re-imagined vision of Chicago – One where your every piece of information is tracked and captured through every piece of data you could put out, and by cameras. Aiden has the ability to hack into the city’s mainframe (ctOS) and use it to find and solve crimes, or hack information from people in the city. You can also use it to your advantage to figure out who are stronger targets than others, and who pose larger threats to you than others.
This game takes a much more erudite approach to the open world adventure-style games than others. For example, we’ve gotten used to firing guns in every direction and getting involved in gang and police shootouts like crazy. There is still somewhat of an element in this game for all of that, however, you can (and frankly, should) solve crimes through Aiden’s primary abilities. For example, you can gain access to areas within the various ctOS mainframe locations simply by whipping out your smartphone. There were numerous times where I didn’t even need to show my face or sneak and attack. I just crouched down behind pillars and posts and found ways to security offices or special data through hacking ctOS employees and cameras, and using the environment to distract. This was a bit more refreshing than repeated gunfights, and adds a neat secondary element to the gameplay. In all, I’d say I may only have taken down 1 gunman per site on average, going the patient route instead.
Certain little fundamental things separate this game from the comparisons of the Grand Theft Autos and Saints Rows of the world. One thing I found really interesting was the need to build and shape Aiden from the getgo. While being a capable hacker and a decent driver (though the driving mechanics in the game aren’t the greatest,) he’s a terrible shot at the beginning of the game because he can’t deal with the gun’s recoil. Do you remember that scene from the movie Dumb and Dumber where Harry has 10 open shots at Mr. Andre and fires above his head? Pretty much like that. How to improve? Stat points. As you progress through the game escaping cops, or completing missions, you earn XP which turn into stat points. You can then use those for everything from driving stats, to longer battery life on your phone, to better shooting skills. He won’t handle a gun as picture perfect as some of the other guys you’ve played as, but it’s a fair bit more realistic that way.
You’ll need a little while to warm up into the game though. Watch Dogs assumes you’ve played the GTAs of the world and thrusts you directly into the fire. It feels like you seriously only have the training mission to get used to how the game functions, because you’re thrown into the fire almost immediately. I don’t know how many times I had to reiterate to myself as I was being shot at, spotted or chased that I was still in the first act somehow, and things were going to get worse. This game is much harder than I expected, that’s for sure. From top to bottom, whether you’re playing the main acts, or just completing side missions, the difficulty in this game is uncharacteristically jacked, even on easy. You’re involved with espionage and shootouts in the first act that I would have figured are advanced scenarios in most games.
I lost count of how many hours I put into the game. I will say that I must have spent about 15 hours on the first act alone, though a lot of that involved a couple side missions, and getting grid access. That said, you could probably put 100 hours into this title and you won’t have experienced everything or unlocked everything. That’s part of the reason it took me so long to review this game. I was only able to knock off 2 hour chunks at a time after putting the baby to bed, and it took me forever just to start progressing because it’s so vast. The game has variable difficulties which also affect Aiden’s skillsets, but it’s just a very time consuming title in general. You’ll never have a shortage of things to do, or mess with in Watch Dogs. This game took 5 years to develop, and it may take me that long to 100% it at this rate.
Something that will either be a complete win for you, or a complete loss is the online functionality, which exists in realtime throughout. In it, you can do things like take contracts to hack other players in the network, or compete in online races. With such an involved storymode, you’ve always got to stay on your toes in case another hacker drops into your world and you need to look for him. I admit that as a primarily single player gamer, this isn’t something I was keen to have happen consistently, and something I’d be more likely to indulge in myself after beating the story mode. This is a HUGE aspect of Watch Dogs and its constantly active world, however. If you don’t mind rolling with the punches once in a while, this adds a hugely enjoyable component to the game. Otherwise, Ubisoft has been nice enough to allow you to disable it if need be.
At the end of the day, understand that the game isn’t for everybody. There’s a lot more than just the run and gun (and hide) philosophy that comparable games employ. The context won’t really appeal to everybody, though as a techie, I definitely dig the idea of hacking into the city’s grid and manipulating traffic lights and whatever else the new city of Chicago has set up.
The realtime elements added to the game makes sure things never feel stagnant, and the idea of hacking people around you (or things coming up in your feed) to get new crime missions and loot are great too. You could realistically just play in the opening area and get hours of playtime out of that without even touching the main quest (nor will you unlock the multi-player modes, which are great.) You’d be missing out on a lot of Chicago, and obviously won’t be getting the full potential out of the game, but the fact still stands. You could really just go around and enable all the ctOS access points you can, and go for a long time that way without ever getting into any of the story. While this means you’re not going to be able to get a whole lot done (since it’s a harder way to grind out XP for skill points,) and you will unlock very little, it’s still an option. The minigames here and there are neat, but don’t really add a whole lot to the game itself. The better fun is picking up hacked phone missions, or pickup points and propheting that way. Now that I describe all of this and read it back, it seems a bit sleeze and even voyeuristic in a way, but that’s Aiden Pearce in a nutshell. He’s the anti-hero that would probably be a villain in 99% of plots, but is the good guy in this game. That’s probably the best symbolic reason that he wears grey the entire game. He’s really neither the good nor bad guy here. He’s just – The guy. Of course, you’re given the choice as well through your actions whether or not you want to play as the criminal or citizen. My level sort of bordered on neutral throughout. I’d get some good points for stopping crimes, and then would accidentally run over a half dozen people during a police chase and loose my goodwill.
So…was Watch Dogs worth the lengthy wait? Let’s consider that point. It won’t go down as
the greatest game of all time, and in some circles may not even be the game of the year though it may contend heavily. There are a couple things that are a bit clunky and that I didn’t like, like the driving mechanics. The idea of being unable to shoot from your car (even errantly like Aiden does) on Fixer missions seems like a step backwards, though it’s definitely done smartly enough in a way for you to abuse the environment around you to succeed. The game probably makes you think on your feet more than the average game, and with a ridiculously easy control scheme, you won’t be scrambling to hit buttons and missing out of split second anxiety.
But for all that, this game thrives on its multifaceted nature, and I hope it will be remembered for being the breath of fresh air it is in a cookie cutter open world game market. I’ve never felt so discouraged to keep the guns away and spend the extra time being crafty. The game encourages you at all corners to be as cerebral as possible, and I had much more fun hacking grids, hiding in the bushes and screwing with guards than shooting them. There’s just something so fun about opening and closing gates in front of trained guards and having them freak out. Hopefully karma doesn’t exist from your actions in video games because I’m due a lot of bad ups for the silly things I was doing.
At the end of the day, you still won’t be disappointed. Watch Dogs is so off the grid (no pun intended) and such a neat experience that everybody should play it at least once. The whole concept feels so over the top cinematic, yet simultaneously enjoyable that it is definitely a must-play. It’s what I’ve been saying to people these past few weeks that have been asking me about it – It’s a special kind of game that won’t be for everybody, but I appreciate that it makes you think about, and plan your actions more. Consider me sold.
Gameplay: 4.5 / 5
Graphics: 4.5 / 5
Sound: 4 / 5
Controls: 4.5 / 5
Lasting Appeal/Replayability: 5 / 5
Overall Rating: 4.5 / 5 (90%)
Watch Dogs is now available for the following systems:
Pre-Order Watch Dogs for WiiU
Purchase the Watch Dogs Strategy Guide