Isentropic delivers his full, in-depth review of Ubisoft's new sand-box game, Watch Dogs. Available now on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and Wii U.
Watch Dogs is the latest entrant into the highly competitive, sandbox, action game genre. Developed by Ubisoft Montreal, Watch Dogs brings to the table a well developed computer hacking mechanic, along with all the car stealing and gun toting action we have come to expect from a sandbox game.
I have been sitting on the sidelines through the most recent iterations of Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row as I have felt that sandbox games aren't improving and embracing new ideas. The announcement of Watch Dogs peaked my interest with the developers boasting about the inclusion of computer hacking and morality based decisions. These inclusions were enough to draw me back into the sandbox action game fold.
Watch Dogs is set in a not too distant future where the people and infrastructure of Chicago have been completely interconnected through the Central Operating System or ctOS network. In this new technologically interconnected city hackers have become the new power, able to tap into and control anything on the network. The story revolves around one such hacker, Aiden Pearce, who due to a botched mission is targeted by a rival hacking group, resulting in the accidental death of his niece.
The main story is interesting and is good enough to draw the player in but takes a long time to unfold. I have spent a large chunk of game time pursuing the main missions and still am not very emotionally invested in Aiden's story even though that is obviously what the game is trying to achieve. While this is in no way a restriction to playing the game it feels like a missed opportunity. I would have much rather had Aiden as part of an anti ctOS hacking group doing missions to help liberate the people of the city or by the players choice be involved in criminal activities for their own personal gain.
Watch Dogs has a morality mechanic built into the game, where by stopping crime and helping people the player moves towards vigilante status or by killing civilians and robbing shops moves towards criminal status. This morality system seems to be superficial in nature with the only tangible outcomes of being good, rather than evil, is having civilians not call the cops when you break the law. With this in mind I have not completed the main storyline yet and have struck a couple of missions that may have had different cut scene outcomes had I approached them in a less trigger happy manor. I expect that there will be multiple endings in Watch Dogs based around the players morality status and choices in missions but due to this not being integrated more fully throughout the game world it alone will not be enough motivation for me to give this game a second play through.
Game play in Watch Dogs is well polished, parkouring around as Aiden is a pleasure and feels smooth at all times, perhaps a little too smooth being that the player can simultaneously wall run to jump a fence while hacking someone's phone and stealing money from their account. This insane ability to multitask is essential to game play though and you come to terms with Aiden's superhuman ability to get shit done, pretty quickly.
All the vehicles in Watch Dogs feel great and react as you would expect, trucks are sluggish but awesome for smashing cars out of the way and motor bikes are super agile but in the event of a crash leave the player bouncing down the pavement. Ubisoft have got the vehicle mechanics spot on, with the right amount of forgiveness that makes the game unrealistic but facilitates the flow of action.
In sandbox games a lot of the fun is in the challenge of eluding the police. Watch Dogs does not disappoint with punishing police AI that are difficult to shake through standard high speed driving. This relentless police AI forces the player to hack traffic lights, draw bridges, steam pipes and road blockers in an attempt to wreck the cop cars or allow enough time for the player to break line of sight. After breaking line of sight the player can either discretely exit the search area without being seen again or hide in their car until the search is called off. These police chases are exciting and a real strength of the game.
Combat in Watch Dogs is extremely sleek, with a focus around stealth through hacking and solid gun fitting. Players are able to approach missions how they want and most missions can be completed without taking a life. The hacking mechanic lends itself well to stealth game play with Aiden able to access surveillance systems to scope out targets, cause distractions by moving machines like forklifts or take out enemies by overloading electrical equipment until they explode. The line of site hacking mechanic used seems strange in concept but is a great design choice and makes the stealth game play balanced and challenging. The hacking mini game used to simulate breaking through the more difficult fire walls is a good addition and breaks up the, "press x" repetition well.
Watch Dogs puts a range of guns at Aiden's disposal, and at no stage did I feel I didn't have the right gun for the job. Firing each weapon feels exactly as expected with reload times, recoil and damage varying depending on the type. Aiden can also craft different single use gadgets from components found around the city which adds another layer of strategy to stealth and direct combat.
Through completing missions Aiden gains experience and skill points to allocate across four skill trees, hacking, driving, combat and crafting. Hacking is the larger of the four trees and the most versatile, with all aspects of the game being based around hacking. Hacking improvements allows Aiden access to more options like controlling city bridges and gates, disrupting enemy communications and increasing the amount of hacks that can be completed before depleting your phone's battery. Driving skills decrease car damage and improve handling, combat skills improve recoil reduction and weapon swap speed and crafting skills allow for more types of gadgets to be constructed. While having a skill system allows options for player customisation the hacking abilities are so heavily required and useful that most players will stick to the hacking tree before trying other options.
The city is huge and offers a host of different side missions to be completed alongside the main story missions. Fixer contract missions offer money rewards and experience for, taking down targets, delivering cars undamaged to locations or creating diversions by leading the police on a chase around the city. While profiling civilians using your phone Aiden becomes privy to personal knowledge allowing the player to steal money from peoples bank accounts or predict potential crimes. Potential crime missions pop up randomly while profiling and involve Aiden stopping robberies as they happen, taking down criminal vehicle convoys or infiltrating gang hideouts to teach some gang bangers a lesson.
As the main story progresses new investigation side missions are unlocked, and with collectibles to be found, plat forming challenges and clothing shops offering visual customisation Aiden is never short of something to do. Just a word of warning too, Watch Dogs is a R18+ game and deals with some pretty heavy subject matter, even I felt a little confronted when the game story included some elements of sexual violence and people trafficking.
Sandbox games have always enthralled players through the ability to do as you please, so I have to consider one more topic before concluding this review, shenanigans. Oh and the shenanigans are good. I have spent a fair bit of time jumping motorbikes, crashing cars, causing accidents and assaulting civilians all in the name of fun. I recommend unlocking all of the hacking and driving skill trees then settling in with a friend to have some great fun. My personal favourites are jumping from speeding cars, mowing down pedestrians and generally trying to break the game through crazy actions. Watch Dogs also offers digital trips and mini games that allow the player to compete in fun retro money collecting and alien shooting challenges or pilot huge mechanical spiders around the city which are a good method to blow off some steam.
Watch Dogs is a solid entrant in the sandbox action genre and brings with it some extremely entertaining stealth, hacking game play. The game looks great and the city is a pleasure to navigate, offering a huge variety of missions, mini games and player made fun. All of the mechanics are well polished and you can tell that Ubisoft has spent a lot of time ensuring that the action is engaging and flows well. The main story and morality system are interesting, but are more of a missed opportunity then a selling point for the game and some players may struggle to stay motivated to see Aiden's tale to the end. I had great time here in spite of the story miss steps and will be caught up trying to complete every little side mission for some time. Watch Dogs is a quality game and has earned an 8 out of 10 from me.