The appeal of Watch_Dogs is obvious. It promises to take the open world of Grand Theft Auto, relocate it to Chicago and spice it up with near-future tech and a completely networked, entirely hackable city, all while sprinkling some of the variety and flow of Assassin's Creed.
And as if that wasn’t enough, you even get a smattering of seamless multiplayer that sees other players invade your game for some spontaneous cat-and-mouse action. It’s a recipe that should whet any console gamer’s appetite, especially any of a geeky persuasion.
Perhaps expecting the game to deliver on all of that promise was an expectation too far, but we can't help but feel a little disappointed with the end result despite some clearly awesome elements.
Big Brother is Watching
Watch_Dogs is set in a near-future Chicago where the city is under constant surveillance. Citizens’ smartphones are tapped, their private lives monitored via their computers and the streets scanned by CCTV. Sounds more present day than near future to us but we’ll let that slide.
But while most citizens are oblivious to the networked intrusion, Watch_Dogs gives you the chance to become the renegade hacker Aiden Pearce, a man who lives outside the grid and wants to exact revenge on the shadowy people who killed his niece. Preferably by infiltrating their computer networks before gunning them down. Think Die Hard with a computer science degree. No, not Die Hard 4.0 – that really doesn’t count.
While Watch_Dogs’ open-world Chicago is an approximation rather than an exact recreation, it’s still an impressive playground. The world stretches from The Loop, where overhead rail lines wind through the skyscrapers, to the ganglands of South Side and small towns on the city edge, all rendered in enough detail to match Grand Theft Auto V.
While it doesn’t quite feel as alive as Rockstar’s virtual cities, Aiden’s ability to hack into the smartphones of passers-by and snoop in on their conversations about last night's date or what they're having for tea helps bring the citizens to life - as does watching people whip out their smartphones to take snaps of nearby car crashes.
everyone's a hacker
Watch_Dogs’ take on the Windy City isn’t just there for eye candy: the ability to hack its infrastructure is integral to the game. At the touch of a button, Aiden can - among other things - hack traffic lights to cause car crashes, cause steam pipes to explode, or raise and lower the city’s many bridges.
He can also take control of CCTV, jumping from camera to camera, which is great for scouting out enemies and then using hacks to cause their own grenades to explode or freak them out by making doors open and close as if controlled by a ghost.
But while the hacking is good fun, its use is often rather prescribed and lacking the freedom for really creative use. That’s a shame for a game that’s sold that element as the cornerstone of the experience.
Aiden Pearce: Hollow Man
The game is filled with an almost overwhelming range of side missions that span everything from car races to hacking into communications towers, and on to taking insane ‘digital trips’ that include bouncing around the city on giant flowers or blowing everything up using a giant, mechanised spider-tank.
These are fun distractions but there’s a nagging sense of disappointment to the main campaign. There are plenty of good missions within it but the characters grate. Aiden is moody and self-pitying to an unlikeable degree, while his female hacker pal is ripped straight from the pages of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
It’s also disappointing that a game billed as a thinking man’s Grand Theft Auto (a game that we’d argue actually has a great deal of depth) has almost nothing to say about the surveillance state it portrays. In the end this is all surface and contradiction, which would probably be fine if Ubisoft hadn't hinted at far deeper commentary in all of its marketing hype.
How to hack friends and tail people
When it comes to multiplayer action Watch_Dogs does an admirable job of weaving it into the main game, with two modes standing out in particular: one-on-one tailing and the hacking challenges are cat-and-mouse-like modes involving one player having to sneakily track or hack another player, who in turn has to discover and kill their attacker before time runs out to win.
It’s tense and enjoyable, and the option to launch a retaliation against players who beat you is tempting, although we suspect the novelty will fade before long and the multiplayer clashes of the freeroaming mode are unlikely to have a much longer life. Once you've finished the main story and polished off the GPS-marked side missions (around 30 hours by our reckoning) you're unlikely to find yourself playing on.
Watch_Dogs promised big and while it doesn't quite match the level of expectation surrounding it, it's not far off.
Its version of Chicago is impressive, the cat-and-mouse multiplayer livens things up and the gunplay, hacking and driving provide good, solid fun.
But the lack of freedom in how to approach some missions and the unlikable main character seriously detract from the good stuff. The end result is not quite the game we were hoping for, but go in with slightly lowered expectations and this is still an experience packed with enjoyable action.