Watch Dogs review

Watch Dogs review

T3 4
  • A tech-thriller power trip to players on an open-world template that bears all the hallmarks of some of Ubisoft’s most recognisable titles - here's our Watch Dogs review

    Watch Dogs review

    Love

    • Layered narrative
    • Huge open world
    • Aiden’s smartphone

    Hate

    • Our smartphone
    • Familiar beats
    • Lengthy distractions

    You know something? Your phone sucks. Oh, it’s probably very stylish. Its touchscreen offers a plethora of apps and maybe the reception’s rather good. But can it scramble traffic lights? Can it cause a manhole cover to explode upwards in the center of the street? Can it hack cameras, deploy bollards and hook you into the inner workings of a citywide network? No? Your phone sucks

    Aiden Pearce’s phone does not suck. In fact, Aiden Pearce’s phone is a miracle of modern technology. Not only does it offer the aforementioned functionality, this listening device can open car doors and dismantle alarms. It can destroy homing signals embedded beneath flesh. It can remotely detonate explosives.

    It even contains a series of VR mini-games that offer Aiden the odd moment of respite between cleaning up the cyber landscape of Chicago. Yes, the protagonist of Watch Dogs has an amazing phone.

    Watch Dogs: Mechanics

    Aiden’s phone in Watch Dogs is as much a character as any of the many shady folk the player will come across during the campaign. It’s his magic wand.

    It’s the tool that provides the most juice. Players may have kitted out Aiden with enough firearms to floor the Territorial Army by the time the credits roll in Watch Dogs, but the first and most useful weapon in their armoury is his phone. It’s their skeleton key to the city. Their “one-size-fits-all” problem solver.

    It’s a good thing that this trinket is as plugged into the narrative as it is into the gameplay; given the amount of use the player gets out of it, it runs the risk of turning into a gimmick. But then, the world of Watch Dogs is hooked into the electrode and the switch. The beauty of the baude.

    Here is a universe in which the player is offered unparalleled power, but they’re made aware from the start there’s a cost.

    Watch Dogs: Plot

    When the player meets Aiden, they’re made aware that his nefarious activities have led to the death of his niece. A hacker by trade, Pearce was engaged in a job that went bad, and when the targets of his activities tried to take him out, his niece got caught in the crossfire.

    Pearce has been unable to let go of this – despite the urging of his sister – and proceeds on a hunt to find those responsible for his niece’s death.

    The story is one of the best aspects of Watch Dogs. It isn’t particularly ground breaking in the beats it hits, nor is it much of a departure from the usual tale of a tortured soul that stands at the centre of an open world game (see also: Prototype, InFamous, Assassin’s Creed 2 and a whole host of others).

    But the narrative here is a little more adult than most. As Watch Dogs’s unfolds, Pearce is revealed to be little more than a sociopath. The methods he uses are irresponsible and reckless and his determination is so single-minded it shuts out any other human concerns. After a while, it’s hard not to see Pearce ultimately as the one most responsible for visiting misery on both himself and his loved ones.

    Without going into too much detail, Pearce’s quest costs him a lot. By the time the credits roll one would be hard pressed to argue that any of what he did was worth it – if anything he accomplished makes any difference at all – beyond, obviously, driving the action in a rather entertaining game.

    Watch Dogs: Features

    And Watch Dogs has content to burn. By hacking into central computers and radar towers of ctOS – the shadowy operating system that runs the electronic infrastructure of Chicago – players can open up the ability to hack devices in Pearce’s vicinity.

    They can unlock side-quests ranging from vigilante crime stops, to races, to VR games to missions that tie back into the main narrative – one involving busting up a human trafficking ring is particularly satisfying.

    The multiplayer also compliments the action wonderfully. Instead of a series of maps, matches and mini-games, players are able to invade one another’s single campaigns.

    As they barrel through the city streets, they’ll be given opportunities to hack other players phones, or they’ll find themselves being hacked. In this instance, Watch Dogs becomes a brief game of cat and mouse as the victim of the hack attempts to identify their invader and then hunt them down.

    The game’s second biggest trump card is the open-ended way in which players are allowed to approach most missions. While there will be instances in which the direct approach is dictated by the level design, many of the missions in Watch Dogs contain multiple solutions.

    It’s certainly possible, for example, to storm into a ctOS outpost and blast everyone to kingdom come. But if you manage to work out the angles on each of the CCTV cameras, it’s possible to hack the central node without wasting a bullet.

    Watch Dogs: Structure

    That having been said, Watch Dogs' structure is very similar to a couple of recent Ubisoft flagship titles. The ctOS node hacks instantly recall the Eagle Points from the Assassin’s Creed series and the radar towers in Far Cry 3.

    Also, while Pearce doesn’t leap from building to building – which is fair, since Chicago is a cathedral of skyscrapers – the flowing, free-running aspect to his movements instantly recall the cowled protagonists from Assassin’s Creed. Watch Dogs has its own rhythm, certainly, but players will note there are some overly familiar beats in this mix.

    Watch Dogs: Verdict

    So Watch Dogs doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel for the sand-box genre, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth investing in. It’s an engrossing and compelling power trip underpinned by a layered narrative that boasts some rather decent writing.

    For a game that bestows the power to hack the planet on players, Watch Dogs at least makes a worthwhile effort to check the player’s moral compass. It never forces them into doing anything they don’t want – nor does it close off the opportunity to wreak mayhem.

    But in the end, it serves up a reminder that every action has a consequence and that revenge, while providing short-lived satisfaction, is ultimately a rather empty-handed exercise. 

    Watch Dogs release date: Out now

    Watch Dogs price: From £39.99

  • Watch Dogs offers players an immense power trip, provided they are prepared to exercise a little caution now and then

    Watch Dogs review

    Love

    • Layered narrative
    • Huge open world
    • Aiden’s smartphone

    Hate

    • Our smartphone
    • Familiar beats
    • Lengthy distractions

    The problem open world games have when it comes to telling gritty stories is the fact that players have a lot of freedom to go off-script. The best examples of this genre toss moral considerations into a rubbish skip before the plot even gets going.

    Titles like Grand Theft Auto 5, Saints Row 4, Prototype and InFamous embrace the tendency of players to behave like sociopaths while enjoying their chosen form of entertainment, rather than risk creating a disconnection between the activities of the player and the portrayal of the character they’re controlling.

    Ubisoft's Watch Dogs follows suit, but it doesn’t let the player off entirely; here’s a game that offers players immense power while pinpricking their conscience at every opportunity.

    Watch Dogs: Characters

    The world of Watch Dogs is the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. The game’s protagonist, Aiden Pearce, is a hacker and as such is used to seeing most people in his environment as obstacles, targets or non-entities.

    This fish-eyed view of the world doesn’t extend to his family – indeed, we learn early on in our hands-on that Pearce is seeking revenge for the murder of his niece and is tapping up contacts to locate a person who is stalking his sister. But by and large, Pearce is a cold pragmatist and the only indication he’s a good guy is his penchant for stopping the odd street crime.

    READ: Best PS4 games: The ultimate list

    In other words, Pearce has the same outlook in the game that the player does. Any NPC on the radar is an obstacle or a target. All the rest are background noise. Any activity the player pursues needs no moral justification since the world and people they affect negatively (or otherwise) aren’t real. In the end, their moral compass is the only guide they need and, if it’s non-existent, it doesn’t snap the game’s narrative.

    Watch Dogs: Environment

    It’s a neat trick positioning a borderline sociopath at the centre of an open-world game as it allows the developers to grant players freedom, but not at the cost of the story they’re trying to tell. Watch Dogs isn’t the first game to do this, but it may be the first title to take a crack at pushing guilt on the player to steer them onto the straight and narrow.

    As the player guides Pearce through the world, they can use his phone’s ‘Profiler’ function to pluck data on NPCs in his vicinity out of the air. This allows them to hoover up bank details – useful, if they hack an ATM – but it also presents them brief windows into hundreds of lives.

    READ: Best Xbox One games: The ultimate list

    They’ll hear a phone call in which a woman tells a friend she’s worried her nephew is being neglected by his alcoholic mother. They’ll read texts between two lovers patching up their differences. They’ll see a post on a social network site from a young girl who has just been stood up on a first date.

    As these details flood in, they start to instil a sense that the crowd of people in Pearce’s vicinity are real people with real lives, loves and problems. After a fashion, unless they’re totally heartless, the player starts considering each illegal activity that’s open to Pearce. The start asking questions about their actions; do they, for example, empty the bank account of someone they know has Bi-Polar disorder? Do they lift the last cash a man battling mortgage payments have?

    Watch Dogs: Features

    Make no mistake, they’re able to do all of this – and a whole lot more with Pearce’s phone, which isn’t so much a communications device as it is his all-powerful pellet of smiting. With it, players can jam communications, hack into CCTV cameras, unlock and start cars, scramble traffic lights, deploy sleeping policeman, plunge streets into darkness and more.

    The range of abilities available to Pearce is mapped out on a talent tree players can access through the right bumper and they can level up using XP they earn throughout the game.

    The map of Watch Dogs is positively twitching with activities, ranging from street races, to side missions, to nodes and towers to hack and more. Players can even troll one another by entering each other’s games, although they have to be given permission by their target to do so first.

    Watch Dogs: Plot

    And then of course, there are the main campaign missions. The over-arching story here has Pearce trying to track down those responsible for his niece’s death while taking out a shadowy authoritarian group called cTOS that controls the city’s data infrastructure. In our hands-on, we were tasked with meeting a member of DedSec (a hacktivist collective) and then breaking into a cTOS server.

    It’s here that the game’s mechanics seemed built to function more in a stealth game than and open-world sandbox. In order to hack the server, Pearce had to break into building via its underground carpark and then climb a couple of stories to the server room.

    All of these environments were crawling with security guards so the direct approach wasn’t an option. Rather, to achieve Pearce’s objective, a good deal of sneaking about was required, since in an open confrontation, his phone didn’t save him.

    Watch Dogs: Verdict

    So for the brief hour we had at its controls Watch Dogs played like the illegitimate offspring of Grand Theft Auto and Splinter Cell Blacklist. It’s not a bad combination, just not the one we were expecting.

    That having been said, we can’t judge the whole game after a mere sixty minutes and Watch Dogs simply begs for further exploration. From its intriguing premise to its empowering mechanics to its twitchy, paranoia-inducing world, this is still one of the year’s most anticipated titles and it can’t arrive soon enough. Roll on, May.

    Watch Dogs release date: 27 May 2014

    Watch Dogs price: From £29.99 on PC

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  • Watch Dogs

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