Our perception of hackers has transformed over the past several years. The image of a basement dwelling twenty-something is hard to eject from one’s mind, but this prejudicial notion is being constantly eroded. A recent surge in hacker activist groups, coupled with increasing urban surveillance, has once again opened the doors to an age-old conflict: the ongoing struggle between privacy and a need to protect the public.
It’s an argument open to myriad interpretations, but Ubisoft’s latest open-world adventure doesn’t get caught up in the philosophical debate. Sure, there’s the occasional bit of commentary here and there but, at its heart, Watch Dogs explores what it would it be like as a hacker in a city governed by technology.
It’s a fresh and strikingly innovative concept that goes hand in hand with the game’s open world structure. Most of all, it makes for a familiar albeit nuanced gameplay experience, balancing new and experimental features with existing genre staples.
Much of the game focuses on ctOS, a streamlined, automated system that controls and monitors anything from water supply to criminal activity within the city. Imagine, then, what could happen if someone were to break into the system and use it for their own means. This “what if” forms the backbone of Watch Dogs, with seasoned hacker Aidan Pearce being the game’s lead protagonist.
Throughout the first opening scenes we know very little about the character apart from his favourite two garments. A narrative hook is soon unsheathed, however, plunging itself into the player as a tale of conspiracy and corruption begins to unfold.
Despite his hacking expertise, Aidan is crippled by the loss of his niece after a botched attempt on his life. Donning his trenchcoat and cap, he takes to the streets of Chicago to dish out vigilante justice and search for his would-be assassin.
Spanning eight to twelve hours, the singleplayer missions conjures up an interesting story, though one that arguably sags in the middle. A cast of robust secondary characters are incrementally employed to keep things fresh, though some are more successful than others.
It must be said, however, that Watch Dogs’ villains do little to stir your emotions. For a long time players are kept guessing who Aidan’s nemesis really is and, even then, the payoff is short-lived.
Aside from having access to an arsenal of weapons and gadgets, our protagonist has another trick up his sleeve. With the tap of a button players can whip out Aidan’s smartphone, breach Chicago’s ctOS network and tamper with a variety of objects connected to the system. For instance, when under fire, Aidan can rotate solar panels and elevate platforms to create cover points. When in a car chase, these hacking powers can be applied to activate bollards, traffic lights, and bridges to cut off those who you are chasing and those who are chasing you.
Each of these interactions is mapped to a single button with prompts appearing when in close proximity. The end result is a web of mechanics that enhance the minute to minute gameplay of an already solid open world action adventure. Though the driving can feel loose and unwieldy, Watch Dogs’ gunplay is superb. Snapping from cover to cover is quick, complemented by a simplistic parkour system. Mowing down enemies is just as fluid and precise, with Aidan’s focus ability allowing him to pinpoint targets in slow-motion.
For those who prefer an indirect approach, hacking may be called upon once again. Even when in the middle of a firefight, Aidan can shift his viewpoint between nearby CCTV cameras with a simple line of sight system, triggering pipes to burst and generators to explode. Enemies can also be undone by the gear they carry, from phones and personal cameras to comms devices. It’s a jamboree of mechanics that can be ignored or employed however the player chooses.
Progress in Watch Dogs isn’t entirely reflected by the number of campaign missions under your belt. Like any open-world game worth its salt, there is a glut of side content, from side missions and collectibles to mini-game and challenges. The fact that these can be accessed at any time gives players the freedom to explore Chicago at their own pace. Some will no doubt want to blitz through the story whereas others will prioritise gaining skill points and cash.
Money in Watch Dogs is spent on components for items such as grenades and lures as well as cars and weapons. When gunning down enemies or completing tasks, players will also gain experience points, each level granting points to unlock new abilities. These range from weapon buffs to crafting recipes and combat perks. The disappointing thing about this system is just how fast these unlocks are available. Before Watch Dogs’ halfway mark I had already hit the level cap, eliminating much of the incentive found in doing side missions.
Online multiplayer also serves up a platter of appetising distractions. From the hide-and-seek “Tailing” and “Intrusion” modes to the more traditional “Decryption” this is where Ubisoft Montreal show off some of their more ambitious ideas. For a more in-depth look, our multiplayer guide gives a complete run-down.
Gameplay and mechanics are one thing but, when it comes to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One releases, there’s no escaping one particular question: how does the game look? Pretty stunning would be the answer, despite Watch Dogs falling short of the original E3 trailer. There may be a few blemishes here and there yet it carries that “next-gen” look and sports it well. Chicago’s towering skyscrapers cast huge shadows, the sun glittering as you race past their reflective glass panels, and when in the suburbs and backstreets, the game still manages to look great, especially when venturing into Pawnee and the surrounding woodland. However, it only really manages to capture the essence of that original reveal when the heavens open and rain down on a miserable Chicago night.
Watch Dogs was probably never going to be the ground-breaking “next-gen” experience many had envisioned back in 2012. It’s hardly run-of-the-mill but at the same time only makes a few genuine attempts to break the mould. However, in these areas – such as the online multiplayer – there are genuine glimmers of innovation worthy of merit, and if you look anywhere else, players will still find an open-world game backed by a unique premise and solid core gameplay.
Ubisoft has certainly upped its game in the past several years, with Watch Dogs being yet another display of both the publisher’s ingenuity and willingness to take risks, all for the benefit of players.