Not long ago we published a preview of Watch_Dogs, pitching it as the potential moment when games swung sharply into the new generation of consoles and showed the world exactly what was possible when you set your mind to it. But while it’s certainly the case that Ubisoft are looking forward more than any other 3rd party developer right now, Watch_Dogs wasn’t quite the generation jolt we were expecting. It’s a cracking game, and one entirely worth giving some time to, but isn’t quite what we were hoping for.
Watch_Dogs pitches you as Aiden, a network hacker who takes part in a botched attempt to syphon funds from a large hotel. During the attempt another hacker pops up and tracks both Aiden and his accompliss, putting them both in danger. Worried about his family’s safety Aiden takes them away, but a hitman hired to kill him ends up causing a car crash which kills his young niece Lena. So begins a story of revenge, bad guy hunting and hacking which takes you round a lively portrayal of Chicago while all the while still trying to keep your sister and nephew safe.
Still with me? Good. The first thing that’s easy to notice is how good Watch_Dogs looks on the next gen machines. On the PS4 (which is what we reviewed this on) you’re given a huge draw distance with no noticeable evidence of objects popping up in the distance, which when you consider the detail involved and the ability to drive around the entire city without a single loading screen is quite impressive. There are loads of people milling around too, having conversations with each other, chatting on the phone or just sitting on a park bench taking in the city sights. All of these people are carrying phones, and every single one can be hacked to find out information about them.
This low level hacking serves a small purpose through the game, initially giving you entertaining insights into the lives of the people around Chicago (that guy filed a harrassment complaint, that woman is addicted to chat shows and so on) and also letting you steal cash from their bank accounts. It’s a nice thing to have, and giving every citizen a personality of sorts is definitely welcome, but after a while you tend to ignore most of it and keep an eye out for key information such as an upcoming crime. Spot one of these and the location will get marked on your GPS. They usually take the form os searching for the criminal, confirming they’re about to commit a crime and chase them down. You can either kill them straight off or try to knock them out, a move which obviously curries more favour from the people who see it all happen and pushes your reputation closer to the friendly “protector” status.
That’s just one of the huge number of side-tasks to carry out around the main campaign. Side missions are unlocked by making your way to ctOS towers (the devices which control the security network in this version of Chicago) and hacking the control boxes. A bit like the lookout towers in Assassin’s Creed (made by Ubisoft) or the similar radio towers in Far Cry 3 (made by Ubisoft). It’s a nice way to unlock extra content, but you can’t help but feel like other games are infultrating thing a little. That’s a feeling that echoes through the game in other ways too, but it didn’t bother me as much as it seems to have phased other people. It’s true that a game that had potential to be super-original actually borrows from long-standing games, and that’s a bit of an arse, but it’s not enough to ruin the game.
Instead, you’ve got a hefty main campaign to enjoy without even thinking about clearing gang hideouts, playing bizarre augmented reality games and finding a random woman addicted to porn. The campaign itself features some pretty devious missions as you get further through the story, and while the checkpoints are largely fair and well balanced those with less patience might find the frustration a bit heavy going at times. It’s not that the game is overly hard as such (although later missions with incredibly strong police presence aren’t designed for weak willed folks) but you have to find alternative ways to do things that would normally be straight forward in other games. You need to use the cameras available to work out where everyone is, who can call for backup, who’s got a grenade conceiled (which you can rig to blow up, and that idea NEVER gets tired) and where there are parts of the environment to help you out. By hacking traffic lights, gas valves and so on you can cause distractions or simply take out someone stood in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can create gadgets too which help you divert someone’s attention or even cause a huge blackout across the whole city – something which is both highly effective at night and looks utterly incredible when it happens.
Online play is interesting and implemented well to keep everything flowing nice and smoothly. As well as the races which take you on a tour of Chicago in a checkpoint-style manner against up to 7 other players, there’s some genuinely tense modes on offer. While going about your single player stuff a message (subtle enough to blend in with other information you’re given) offers the chance to be part of an online game. Agree to it, and a few things might happen. You might need to kill a hacker in a set time, you might need to hack someone else’s phone and avoid them for the remaining time, or you might be on the other side of either of those options. You might even get challenged by someone without the actual game – the accompanying mobile and tablet app allows people to start police chases against you, using various hacking methods to try and prevent you completing a checkpoint-based speed run in a certain time.
So in essence, Watch_Dogs could be an incredible game. The city is gorgeous, the hacking idea gives a good twist on the usual open-world formula and the unobtrusive multiplayer options fit perfectly into everything else, but some things just hold things back a little. It’s almost as if Ubisoft wanted to do more than they did, but were held back by the cross-generation issue. Missions start to get a little chase-heavy and frustrating, the storyline is great in fits and bursts but as an entire entity isn’t as memorable as others before have been, and there are enough character stereotypes to fill a small conference centre. None of this makes Watch_Dogs a bad game at all, but it doesn’t feel like any boundaries have been crossed, or any new ground is being covered. I suspect many of Ubisoft’s upcoming titles will do exactly that, but Watch_Dogs isn’t it. It’s a wonderful game at times, but not quite what we’d hoped.
Reviewed on PS4