Review: Watch_Dogs Is Anything But A Hack Job
Everything is connected and that's a very, very good thing in Watch_Dogs.
- Worth The Time?Definitely
- Things LovedThe gigantic map. Chicago feels alive and breathing. Combat is fluid, responsive and satisfying. A whole host of side activities to partake in. Brilliantly realised open-world. Collectibles are satisfying to collect. Multiple ways in which to approach missions. Good stealth mechanics. Hacking into the city to take care of your foes never loses satisfaction. Visuals are jaw dropping at times. AR games and digital trips are a wonder to play and do an excellent job of balancing out the game's tone. The story is both intriguing and worthwhile to play. Tons of vehicles at your disposal. Excellent soundtrack that fits with the theme of Chicago and the in-game soundtrack does a great job at conveying the desired mood. Weather and day and night cycle is impressive to behold. Civilians and NPCs have emotional weight to them and react dynamically. Coat physics.
- Things HatedThe driving mechanics and the handling of cars could have been much better. Hacking civilians might be finicky at times. Not a lot to do with money except buying guns and cars.
- RecommendationThe game is definitely worth your time and money. Whether you're an open-world nut or just love a great game, you'll find something to like here.
- Name: Watch_Dogs
- Genre: Open-World
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: Yes
- Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, PC
- Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
- Publisher: Ubisoft
- Price: R760 (PS4, Xbox One), R700 (PS3, Xbox 360), R540 (PC)
- Reviewed On: PS4
Watch_Dogs has had a rocky time in the media as of late thanks to Ubisoft’s shady business decisions and strange reasoning. But let’s cast that aside for the time being and focus on the game alone and what it offers to you as a player. Watch_Dogs is an open-world action-adventure game set in Chicago that follows a hacker on the road to vengeance and justice. We’ve been waiting a long time for this one and the question on everyone’s mind is “is it good?”. Yes, it is. It’s very good. And I’m here to explain to you why I think that it is.
You play as Aiden Pearce, a vigilante with a rocky past and a knack for technology. A mysterious entity placed a hit on Aiden that ultimately failed to kill him, but instead took the life of his niece, Lena. The story revolves around Aiden seeking vengeance for her death by trying to find the people that orchestrated the whole thing. In doing so, he discovers way more than he anticipated and gets tangled in a web filled with corrupt individuals and some hideous displays of human cruelty.
While the story’s summary might sound like a cliched movie pitch, it honestly intrigued me to the point where I was glued to my seat until I uncovered the next bit of this whole mess that Aiden involved himself with. It’s captivating and, more importantly, interesting enough to warrant your full attention throughout the whole campaign and it doesn’t slow down for a second. Revelations and drama unfold constantly while you discover more things about certain organizations and people and you want to see everything through until the end. The story isn’t artful or extremely emotional, but it’s crafted in such a way that it remains enjoyable, no matter what mission you happen to find yourself in.
The story’s strongest aspect has to be the various characters that you meet on your quest for vengeance. Each of them are colourful in their own right such as the whimsically violent Jordi, the troubled, but skilled Clara and T-bone the technological madman. Each of them have real weight to their personalities and don’t come across as just a gaggle of misfits ruining everything with a power outlet. Aiden is troubled and for good reason, knowing the abhorrence that he has to witness, but he is always confident. The voice actors achieve that required level of emotion to portray these individual characters and you’ll definitely love them by the end of the game.
As far as campaign missions go, they do a good job of mixing it up while making sure the pacing is good. One moment you will be frantically shooting up an entire building and the next you’re spying on some person of interest and trying to figure out what sort of depraved thing they have done. It all blends rather well and guarantees a satisfying ride through this world of hacking and people doing some sick shit.
The game is set in Chicago and the developers have gone to great lengths to be as authentic as possible to the real world Chicago. There’s a slew of noticeable landmarks and the rich history (mainly of the mobs and such) is represented in the overall landscape. You can even “check-in” to hotspots around Chicago in a sort of FourSquare manner which then tells you the history of this landmark as well as giving you the opportunity to leave or receive gifts from other players. It gives life to the city and makes everything feel much more real.
Speaking of making the city feel alive, the highest praise I have for this game is its rich and organic open-world. Many open-world games suffer the fates of “not feeling real enough” or “feeling empty and lifeless”, but Watch_Dogs is the complete opposite of that. Citizens each have their own personality and the world works dynamically even without your involvement. It all felt very believable and there was a point in the game where I walked around for a full hour and just explored the city, listening in on conversations and hacking the occasional lucrative citizen for some money.
Then to make the city feel even more alive, there is a dynamic weather cycle as well as a day-night cycle. When it rains, things transform. People walk around with umbrellas or old guys are holding newspapers over their head and everything gets drenched. When the wind is blowing hard (Chicago is the Windy City after all) there are leaves and trash blowing in the street, dust clouds kick up and your coat physics go mental. It’s really a joy to behold and you can plausibly just stroll around town for hours on end just doing nothing but eavesdropping citizens and witnessing the world in motion. I class it as one of the better open-worlds I have played in all of my gaming years and as a fan of open-world games, that’s no light compliment.
Not to mention that the game map is absolutely massive in scale with a wide variety of locations. There’s your usual slum area filled with gangs and beaten up building, a leafy countryside with dirt roads and rednecks, the suburban part with white picket fences, downtown Chicago with all of its tall buildings and bright light, the marina with a bunch of boats and fishermen and so on and so forth. Each location feels different from the last and you get that sense of atmosphere that is so revered in open-world games.
But let’s get to the main tagline of the game. Hacking. At first you would think that this whole hacking business is just a gimmick, but it’s essential to the game. If Aiden lost his phone or dropped it too hard, he would be boned. The entire city of Chicago is run by ctOS. A city wide operating system that controls everything from surveillance, traffic lights, citizen documents and even of machinery. And Aiden has a key to this whole system. This is where the whole hacking thing comes into play. Aiden can hack into nearly anything the runs off this system and can bend it to his will and trust me when I say that it is satisfying.
Having this sort of omnipresent power over the city is a real treat to experience. Every person’s secret is available to you and nobody is safe from your smartphone’s gaze. When you walk around town, every citizen will have a profile that lists something of interest of them and while you can clearly see that it’s a randomized algorithm, it still feels very believable. Some people are vulnerable where you can hack into their bank accounts and take their money, listen in on phone conversations, look at their texts, steal valuable software crafting components, get the lowdown of a potential crime and just generally invade their privacy. ctOS would be the NSA’s wettest dream, that’s all I’m saying.
The phrase “everything is connected” isn’t just some buzzword, but everything is literally connected and Aiden uses that to his advantage in some of the most adventurous ways. You can ride camera’s to hack into someone’s bank account from blocks away and then trigger a traffic light and laugh as everyone smashes into each other. There is some cathartic value in trolling with the poor innocent civilians by standing obliviously with your phone and reeking havoc. Overall, I was quite pleasantly surprised at how well the hacking mechanic really worked. It’s fluid, responsive, essential and enjoyable to use.
On to combat. Combat is mainly weapon focused with a contextual take down move on closer enemies. There are a wide variety of weapons available and it’s actually surprising just how many you have at your disposal. Pistols, sub-machine guns, assault rifles, massive sniper rifles and even a grenade launcher. These weapon types each have their own varieties of guns to choose from and surprisingly, you can keep them all on you. Aiden’s coat is bigger than we thought it seems. The game also has a bullet time mechanic called Focus that you can use to slow down time and pick off enemies which is always enjoyable to use for headshots galore. The shooting mechanics remind me bit of how Splinter Cell: Conviction handled it with the cover system and even the enemy behavior which isn’t a bad thing at all. It all feels fast-paced, well put together and it’s actually fun to be in a massive gunfight.
You can, however, choose a different approach rather than going in guns blazing and that is to stealth around your enemies, silently taking them down or avoiding them altogether. Here is where hacking becomes essential again. You can distract enemies using various means such as creating noise on their phones or using environmental distractions such as exploding pipes and such. You can choose your approach though and there’s nothing wrong with going in and murdering everyone, it will just be a bit more challenging. You will strategize on the spot most of the time and try and get things done as efficiently as possible.
Of course, when the shit hits the fan, you can also use your hacking abilities in a offensive manner. You can explode gas lines or vulnerable areas when enemies are near them or even drop shipping containers on them. This is where the game shines in the fun department. There’s nothing like hacking into a camera and exploding a gas line directly next to an enemy in cover and then popping out and shooting his friend that got staggered from the explosion. These actions do drain your battery meter that regeneratess over time to prevent you from exploding everything at once most like. It’s a balancing thing. Overall, everything just blends so well to be an enjoyable shooting experience.
Parkour is also a big factor of the game with Aiden being nimble and capable of quickly crossing terrain. Think Assassin’s Creed without having the ability to climb the Willis Tower. Aiden will dynamically jump over obstacles in his way and on more than one occasion I was impressed at the level of detail that was put into the parkour system. Aiden will sometimes boost over small objects to get to higher ground and will slide over chest high walls and such. Once again, fluid is a good way to describe it.
Car chases are probably the most fun to experience of the game. The driving itself leaves something to be desired but we’ll get there. When police or criminals are chasing you, you still have the city’s infrastructure to play with. You will be speeding through the streets and smashing into things as you usually do, but you can also cause the pipes in the road to explode and send your enemies into the skies. You can also manipulate traffic lights in order to let civilians smash into your pursuers and boy does it get crazy at times. You’re still constrained to the battery meter I mentioned above, but I think that’s for the best to stop you from completely ruining the city. It feels so surreal to make the environment react so dynamically to your every whim and it’s definitely something I haven’t experienced until now.
The game features a reputation system where you can solve crimes in order to boost it and behaving like a psycho, killing innocent people to lower it. You raise this reputation by stopping crimes around the city that appear randomly within your area. You do these by going to an area, observing for potential threats and then taking down the perpetrator if they do anything criminal. Tackling a bad guy never gets old too. Regrettably, I don’t know what happens when you go into negative reputation as I’ve always solved crimes and avoided being a typical GTA player and killing everyone. When it’s in positive however, civilians will revere you and take pictures of you in the street. There’re even news reports where people actively support you which is impressive which is impressive in and of itself.
Crafting is also an essential part of the game where you can craft various tools from materials you can buy or find. Frag grenades, IEDs, one-time scans to detect your enemies, lures, Focus boosts, comm jammers and the most impressive of the lot is the blackout tool. IEDs are probably the most fun and I’ve had a good chuckle every time I place one in the path of an enemy vehicle and detonate it right underneath them. Blackouts are impressive, as I’ve said, because you kill all of the lights in your immediate vicinity and confuse the hell out of your enemies and allowing you to get the drop on them. It is a double edged sword as you can not access the city’s functions while the blackout is in effect. All of these tools offer a new dynamic to the gameplay and makes everything more interesting.
Then we get to the lion’s share of the game. The side activities. My lord are there a lot of them and the wildest dream of any open-world completionist. There’s privacy invasion that allows you to spy on unsuspecting civilians and get a peek into their lives. These can be quite disturbing but also very intriguing. One had an old man that committed suicide in front of the camera that you’re intruding and the other was a dude that got placed in the friendzone. These range wildly from one another and they’re all satisfying to hunt down because of that whole “what will I see next” aspect. In order to do so you have to either activate power outlets to power the router in order to do your peeping or do a hacking mini-game that’s essentially a connect the pipes game.
The ones where you need to activate power outlets play out like a sort of environmental puzzle that you need to solve. Climbing on places and using cameras in order to find an elusive box and so on. The hacking mini-game is a test of both problem solving and quickness as there’s sometimes a timed firewall. This mini-game happens a lot in the main game as well when you have to hack into certain places.
Besides being a peeping Tom, you can also solve a series of murders that are genuinely creepy to behold as they are done by a psychopathic serial killer and some of them have made my skin crawl. At the end of these investigations, you get a mission that you can complete. There are also burner phones left around by the man that killed your niece and they feature some of the most gripping voice acting I’ve heard.
There’s “Fixer contracts” that are essentially a host of jobs for a skilled individual such as yourself. Gang hideouts that you need to infiltrate and identify a key suspect. Enemy convoy missions where you need to take down a string of vehicles by any means necessary. Human trafficking suspects that you can identify and shut down.
All of these would take ages to complete and while you may think that it would be monotonous, they have done the collectibles and side activities so well that you will find joy in doing them all. Each one of them is their own piece of unique content and nothing gets repeated making everything new and fresh to do. That’s the way you do it, as far as I’m concerned. A game can have 100 comic book pages that only unlock useless crap like concept art, but with these you get unique little experiences that can almost stand on their own. You also get rewarded with cars and new weapons upon completing some of these activities which makes it all more worth it.
Then there’s digital trips. These are essentially little mini-games that border the line between chaotic fun and absolute madness. I really didn’t expect this level of wackiness from a game like this. There’s a psychedelic trip that has you bouncing on flowers for points for goodness sake. Then there’s the extremely enjoyable Spider Tank trip that has you piloting a, you guessed it, spider tank. This is where we get into Saint’s Row level of insane with a massive spider tank jumping around and murdering everything with rockets and machine guns. It’s not sloppily created either with the spider controlling very intuitively. In fact it’s so good I would’ve liked to see it play a bigger part. It does a good job of balancing the rather disturbing and somber tone with something absolutely bonkers. There’s also a dystopian stealth trip that has you avoiding robot guards and activating various power sources around the city. You can also go on a Trevor-style rampage in one of the trips.
AR games are also here, if you haven’t had enough of the crazy. There’s a AR aliens invasion game where you shoot polygonal aliens with pew pew guns in an environment of people that probably all think you’re absolutely mad. There’s also Cash Run, a AR game where parkour is used to collect massive 8-bit coins and avoid Pac-Man ghost looking things. There’s just so much variation in all of the side-activities that you will absolutely find something you will enjoy. It also bumps up the game’s longevity to ludicrous levels. I’ve played a combined total of 50 hours and I’m only 50% through all of the activities. That’s some good value for money right there and especially if you’re a fan of open-worlds.
So far I’ve been nothing but positive about the game, with good reason, but I would now like to shed some light on the game’s worse aspect. One I wish wasn’t so bad because it would have made the game almost perfect. That’s the driving. The driving in this game just feels… off. The cars handle very arcade-like and the damage physics are almost cartoony and don’t have that impact you get from a good crash. Handling feels weird at the beginning and you will often wrestle with the controller in order to get your car to do what you want to. In a game where your primary transport is cars and bikes, this is a big problem. Ubisoft were never good at designing driving mechanics and they seem to have failed once again on this one.
That doesn’t mean it’s unplayable though. The driving is at least serviceable and it doesn’t completely ruin the game. Strangely, motorbikes handle the best and I often found myself favouring a Harley rather than a Lamborghini. At least you don’t fall off the bike from a light fart like many other games do. A silver lining in this is that there are a ton of vehicles to choose from. Too many to remember, in fact. Muscle cars, sports cars, trucks, utility vehicles and so on. There’s a wide variety to choose from. You can also get them on demand via an app and they get delivered in an instant.
The game has a progression system where you get points and unlock various skills in a frankly huge skill tree. Here you can find new hacks and abilities as well as new crafting components and added bonuses. These do matter as they open up new options to you or just make you more lethal and efficient. You gain experience from pretty much anything so leveling up isn’t a chore. I liked this because it gradually made the game more interesting as I unlocked more skills, but you can still perform rather well without them.
The game does feature a multiplayer component which is interesting. There is your traditional free-roam that I couldn’t find a game in because nobody was playing and my internet sucks. Besides that there are online races which is exactly like you expect, but with the added benefit of the hacking abilities. There’s also a tailing mode that lets you tail other players and profiling them. If they profile you, you’re screwed. For some reason the guys I tailed were idiots that didn’t see me even if I was right in front of them. You can also be invaded by a player that tries to steal your data and you have to find them before they can do that. It’s like hide and seek for adults. Again, this was before release so I was only invaded by three people, all of which I killed, but one of them did a great job of hiding very well and it was frantic and fun to try and find them. I can’t speak for how obtrusive it will be since this was with only a few players. However, if it gets a bit much, the multiplayer can turned off. Overall, the multiplayer component is at least interesting to check out.
The visuals of the game (stepping into some dangerous territory here) are stunning, at least on PS4. The lighting effects are beautiful and the texture quality is overall good. There were a lot of moments in the game where I had to stop and just stare at the scenery in front of me. Character models look great and Aiden in particular looks good. I may joke about his coat physics, but they really are rather impressive. It reacts dynamically to changes and wind and is mesmerizing to look at. A weird thing to praise, but hell, it was cool to me. Trees and foliage looks impressive and the water texture is very impressive to look at. Watch_Dogs provides some great visual candy for you to enjoy.
I was particularly impressed with the soundtrack of all things. With Chicago being the home of the blues, they included classic blues artist that stem from Chicago in particular which, as a blues fan, I loved. There’s also a wide variety of genres to choose from. Rock, electronica, gangster rap, hip hop and even folk are available. You can also hack some civilians to gain new tracks. I wish there were more rock and metal songs, but that’s just my personal preference. You can also create your own playlist using the songs available so if you don’t like electronica, you can just remove all of it. The game soundtrack is well composed with music that fits the action that’s taking place on the screen and provides a good backdrop to everything.
As you can probably tell, I enjoyed Watch_Dogs a lot. The game’s open-world is one of the best I’ve ever experienced in any game with its organic nature and beautifully crafted environments. The hacking is immensely enjoyable and the combat is fluid and fun to play. There’s a massive variety of side-activities to do and the game offers huge value for money. Honestly, you can’t go wrong with this game. It has received its fair share of controversy, but disregarding all of that, it was definitely worth the wait and the anticipation. I highly recommend that you play it because it will certainly be well worth your time.