Watch Dogs Review
+Hacking is a lot of fun
+Privacy invasions are incredibly well-written and framed
+Tons to do
+Missions are varied and many require critical thinking
+Excellent and novel approach to stealth
+Moral decisions are up to the player
-Online isn't very fun
-Story is rote
-Some characters make no impression
Freedom and choice are concepts that permeate every single moment in Watch Dogs and not once does the game filter you down a different path. Make no mistake; Watch Dogs is a singular, linear story of revenge. There are no branching paths; there are no multiple endings. And yet, thematically, and mechanically, freedom and choice reign over all of your actions in the game. What results is one of the most truly unique, thought-provoking and rewarding action game experiences I’ve had in some time. If only it weren’t held back by a rote story and some questionable design decisions and absolutely terrible driving.
Watch Dogs tells a well-worn revenge story in which Aiden Pearce sets out for revenge and uncovers something much bigger than he had ever imagined. It’s been done to death in all forms of media, and if I were to judge Watch Dogs on story alone, it wouldn’t be much of a rating. Only a few of the supporting characters register and the emotional connection between Aiden and his sister is all but non-existent. Unfortunately, that’s the crux of the entire narrative. I never felt anything for his sister or his nephew and the game doesn’t do anything to make you care besides what is essentially “because, family.”
Thankfully, Watch Dogs has much more interesting characters for Aiden to interact with throughout. My personal favorite is Jordi Chin, a “fixer” (cleaner, hitman, etc.) who loves his job. While the amount of time they spend together is relatively limited, every time he pops up it’s always fun to watch. The third act (in the traditional sense of the three act structure, not the game itself which is broken into five) is incredibly predictable and some moments meant to muster an emotional reaction fall short as a result of it.
While the story itself isn’t incredibly remarkable and hits a lot of familiar and predictable beats, the varied and fun missions it takes you on are, for the most part, fresh and new. Sure you will spend a lot of time driving—ugh, that driving—from point A to point B, chasing dudes in cars, and taking down enemies, there is just so much varied and interesting stuff to do while on those missions. Which brings me to my my original point— freedom of choice. A lot of games offer multiple ways to approach situations, but for me, this is where Watch Dogs truly excels.
Taking a cue from another Ubisoft franchise, Far Cry, Aiden will be tasked with approaching a heavily guarded area. He can survey the area from a good vantage point, tagging enemies so he can monitor their paths and avoid detection while he accomplishes his mission. That on its own doesn’t sound very exciting, but thankfully you have a wide set of tools at your disposal.
And by far, the best tool is the number one mechanic in the game: Aiden’s smartphone. This thing is plain old badass. As long as Aiden has line of sight with it, a simple button press can give him access to anything connected to CtOS network—smart phones, bank accounts, computers, traffic lights, bridges, road blocks, and most importantly, security cameras—Aiden’s phone is his number one tool for pretty much everything.
Enemy controlled zones are marked red on the mini-map and once Aiden sets foot into one of these zones, enemies will shoot him dead on sight. Aiden also can’t take a whole lot of damage, so his best weapon is using his phone to hack the aforementioned security cameras from behind cover. From there he can bounce from camera to camera, hacking into the environments to either lure enemies off of their path, or he can simply hack the enemies’ electronics, depending on what their respective electronic device does. My favorite is getting two or three guards together and hacking one of the explosives one of them is carrying. Often times it will lead to a huge explosion and three dead bad guys. It was always satisfying when I succeeded and was always disappointing if the explosive was tossed far enough away as to not kill anyone at all.
What makes this mechanic really stand out is that it’s not always used to avoid enemy detection. Often times, it’s used simply to suss out some information from someone’s laptop or unattended phone. Or to ID a target that has to be tailed. Or to glean some incriminating evidence to be used for blackmail. How you approach most of the scenarios is always up to the player, and I genuinely love that true sense of freedom.
While Aiden is by no means some sort of super soldier, that doesn’t mean that shooting doesn’t offer its own sense of fun and rewarding gameplay. Thanks to “Focus,” Aiden can move so fast that time seems to slow down, allowing him to make the perfect headshot and drop enemies from a reasonable distance. The guns themselves are all pretty satisfying, but I found that about 85 percent of my shooting/combat was done using focus and my silenced pistol. The other 15 percent comprised of other guns and various explosives.
If I can level one complaint in this aspect of the game, it’s that there are so few options for non-lethal combat. No flashbangs, no sleep darts, nothing. While most of your encounters are with guys who will shoot you on sight, since the game does allow for some inventive ways to avoid confrontation, it would have been nice to see some options I could use to avoid killing for when combat was inevitable. I suppose the Blackout ability works for this purpose well enough, but it really does feel like this game wants to you kill people.
For myself, open world games live and die by the worlds I play in. Is there a lot to do when not playing missions? Is what there is to do fun? Is there variety? Is it fun to get around in?
My answer to all of these questions, save for one, is undoubtedly “Yes!”
Oh man, is there a LOT to do in Watch Dogs. So much that I wouldn’t even begin to list them all of them lest this review become a travelogue rather than a critique on the game. Card games, drinking games, arcade like games, convoy takedowns, and sightseeing are just a few of the things to do. OCD players will have a field day trying to get everything cleared off the map and it’s actually kind of exhausting.
The side activities each offer rewards; some offer money, some offer reputation, some offer XP, and some offer skill points, all of which have varying degrees of usefulness. After a certain point I had so much money that the offer of a few thousand dollars was meaningless. Reputation helps insofar as citizens are less likely to call the cops on you when they spot you out and about. Stopping criminals or criminal acts boosts your reputation so I found these to be pretty fun and rewarding diversions.
XP and skill points are by far the most useful as they give you the ability to unlock skills that become more and more essential later in the game. In fact, I had done so many of these missions before even leaving Act I that later missions became much easier as a result. I do recommend doing these activities as often as you can before really engaging in the story.
By far my favorite distractions in the game are gang hideouts, CtOS towers, and most of all, privacy invasions. Gang hideouts are just enemy encampments like those I detailed above only they have one objective: Get in close to the leader and knock him out. From there you can either escape the area or take out the rest of the enemies. Once again, you have a choice.
CtOS towers serve the same function as vantage points do in the Assassin’s Creed games and the radio towers in Far Cry 3. The twist here is that each tower is a puzzle in and of itself. Using cameras, vantage points, and some critical thinking—there are locked gates (sometimes more than one) to be circumvented and using the hacking tool once again becomes integral to solving each and every one of them. Hacking the CtOS towers reveals all of the side activities and missions in the area, once again presenting a whole heap of things to do.
And lastly there is what I find to be the best pieces of storytelling in the game, the privacy invasions. Hacking into CtOS internet terminals on buildings gives you access to web cameras pulling back the veil on the citizens of Chicago. These range from utterly hilarious—a man rating women on a dating site, to downright tragic—seeing an elderly man die of a heart attack while his concerned son leaves a message on his answering machine. So much information is given in these small little snippets and all are so incredibly well written that I genuinely wish there were more of them. Hell, I would love an entire game full of them actually. They’re all that good.
When not on missions, hacking terminals, or peering in on the private moments of the citizens of Chicago, Aiden is just moving around the city. On foot, Aiden can hack into people’s smartphones and hear their conversations, access their music library, find out where crimes are about to happen, or simply take money from their bank accounts. Once again, the game makes no binary judgments on the player as to whether or not you did a good or bad thing. It leaves all of that up to the player. Giving you just enough information about the potential hacking victim, you can choose whether or not you want to take money from their bank account, or leave them be. And like the privacy invasions, it’s all presented incredibly well and so much information is given with so few details.
In a car Watch Dogs is, by far, mechanically at its worst. Cars feel like they’re made of paper and roads feel like sliding on ice. One tick of the stick in either left or right can and will send your vehicle careening onto the sidewalk, talking out pedestrians and benches alike. This makes car chases, particularly in the beginning hours of the game, incredibly tedious. It’s not until later when you have unlocked more access to hack road hazards with your phone, does driving become more tolerable. And much like I stuck to focus and a silenced pistol for most of the shooting in the game, I spent the latter half of the give driving motorcycles in cockpit view. I found it the easiest way to navigate the tight spaces and have the most control over steering. And if I was forced to use a car to evade police, I simply found it easier and far less frustrating to drive to the docks, dive into the water, and swim under a bridge until they gave up chase.
Technically, Watch Dogs is impressive. Visually, while the game might not be the true “next-gen” experience I had hoped it would be, it’s still incredibly impressive. Especially when it rains. Water reflects light well on the city streets, characters walk with newspapers over their heads, hunched over (which is something I never understood why people do when walking in the rain) and Aiden’s clothes become soaked and shiny with water. I noticed no pop in, even when moving at incredibly fast speeds on a motorcycle in cockpit view. And character animations are all realistic.
The sound is even more of a feat. Chicago feels alive and very real; pedestrians talk, verbally react to situations, and generally behave in a believable way. At no point was I taken out of the game by any wonky behaviors or hitches. The music is a bit of a mixed bag depending on your taste, but there is a pretty decent amount here. By no means as robust as something that is always on offer in the Grand Theft Auto games, I did find myself looking up artists and songs that I heard for the first time in the game. Lastly, the voice acting is all very, very good. While not at the heights of something from Naughty Dog, it never falls into bad or even mediocre; it all ranges from good (Aiden) to excellent (Jordi).
In regard to online, Watch Dogs offers a somewhat unique take on multiplayer that for me wasn’t very much fun. I will admit I turned off online invasions for my playthrough from the first moment I installed the game onto my PS4. The reason for that is because I like to play open world games at my leisure and my own pace and didn’t want to have to stop what I was doing because a random hacker was invading my game. When I finally finished the main story, I turned the online invasions back on and low and behold, I was hacked while on my way to do a side activity. I had to stop what I was doing, suss out the hacker with my phone, and give chase. It was neat, for sure, and kind of exhilarating the first couple of times, but after awhile I became annoyed just like I thought I would be.
Online tailing is the least offensive of the bunch as all it really means is that you get followed or follow another player and profile them while a meter fills up to 100 percent without getting profiled yourself. Online Decryption is basically another variation on keep away, while players/teams all contend over a piece of encrypted data; the one who holds it for the longest will decrypt it and win the game. Again, a fun diversion, but considering games can last up to 30 minutes, it got tedious after a while. Lastly, there is Online Racing. I’m just going to let my thoughts on the driving in this game speak for my thoughts about the racing.
Watch Dogs is a remarkable first game in this inevitable series. It offers a ton of stuff to do, has some excellent writing and presentation, is technically impressive, and has a great central mechanic with well-designed missions and puzzles. It stumbles a bit with the storytelling and almost hits a wall, literally, with the driving mechanics, but all in all, Ubisoft has another great franchise on their hands, and I’m very interested to see where they take the series from here.
And I will be watching.
While Watch Dogs may not be the true “next-gen” experience we were hoping for, it’s still a very good, very good-looking game that serves as the foundation for what could be yet another very new and interesting series from Ubisoft.