Published on May 27th, 2014 | by Andy King


Review: Watch_Dogs (PC)

Hack the planet! …well, just one of the biggest cities in America.

Watch_Dogs (or Watch Dogs depending on who you talk to) has been on the gamer watch list for a couple of years now (with development even starting in 2009!). A moving release date and delays seemed that Aiden Pearce’s hacking adventure would never see the light of day. Thankfully the city of Chicago is now available to all to play in.

Inevitably many may compare the game to any other of a similar ilk, most predominately one set in Los Santos. With that in mind  I will try and draw as few comparisons to Rock Star’s game as possible and hopefully give a fresh perspective on the world Ubisoft has created. Off the bat however is that I’ll say mechanically and in spirit they both exist in the same genre as Watch_Dogs is an open world action-adventure the same as Grand Theft Auto V. It has running, jumping, shooting, driving, missions involving talking to people and a multiplayer aspect. With that out the way, Watch_Dogs handles all the above with a slight twist and in such a way not to step on Michael De Santa or the gang’s toes.

Lets start with the story: You play Aiden Pearce (aka “Fox”). A super-hacker, family man, self confessed thug and parkourer (a good résumé if I do say so myself). Aiden is an action hacker. He’s not content with sitting in a dark room behind a screen, he likes to get up close hack your WiFi and bluejack your phone to get access to a victims digital gold. It would appear that if you’re good enough techie, Chicago is the go to place as the entire cities infrastructure has been put in charge by a computer program called CtOS after a blackout was caused by a hacker.

I’ll give you a second to re-read that last sentence.

So to sum up, after the city was hacked they put a computer in charge of the whole thing to …stop it happening again? Guess what? That’s a really stupid idea, but for the purposes of an action-adventure hacking game it’s cyber-heaven.

After a ‘hack-off’ with a rival, things have got messy and crims were sent to dispatch our hero but in the cross fire missed and killed his niece. Aiden is now a man out for blood and using his “very particular set of skills” goes off to find the bad guys and give them a taste of “the Chicago way” (blimey – two film quotes in one sentence). The campaign is very tightly written with a good narrative. It cleverly touches on all the features of the game to make you think “Oh I liked it when I had to find that guy hacking me” so you can hop online or find a similar side-mission.

Accessing CtOS via your (very) smart-phone, gives you control to not only turn lights on and off (although turning the whole cities lights out can be quite satisfying), it also allows you to raise and lower bridges and barriers, access security cameras and in one of the games most fun functions to profile the NPC’s and learn the deepest darkest secrets they keep (that have left a digital footprint). This profiling tool will also alert you when a crime is likely to be committed and will ask if you wish to intervene (top crime tip: if you are going to commit a murder, best not to text your mate telling them that you are about to).  Choosing to get your hands dirty you can set a way-point and creep around scanning for the victim or perpetrator. Once located the profile tool will tell you when to act (usually the cue is accompanied by the perp saying something like “Fat Sal sends his regards!”) and at which point you can Batman the felon. If you’re not quick enough a foot race ensues which can sometimes involve an exchange of gun fire. Running and gunning (as you’d expect) in the street is not good as it can alert the attention of Chicago’s finest. So you have to decide; is it worth keeping up the pace and utilising the baton take down to earn more points, or are preventing civilian casualties better (which reduce’s your rep)? Successful apprehension (or dispatch) of the bad-guy will result in your popularity in the community as a vigilante.

As you navigate the massive cityscape, you’ll encounter dead zones with limited or no access to the CtOS network. To access these you need to either perform some hacking and parkouring magic to access and open well hidden doors and switches (usually by jumping from surveillance camera to camera), or for the big control centres these are heavily guarded and require a combination of stealth and hacking …or brute force and hot lead when it goes wrong.

When gun play is required, you have access to the usual array of weaponry types. Hand guns, automatic machine pistols, assault rifles, grenade launchers, sniper rifles etc. These can be purchased from a convenient gun shop or pilfered from the dead and dying you leave littered around the city.  When engaged in ballistic combat you’ll find the game your typical cover based shooter until that is you take advantage of your direct access to the city and use Chicago as a weapon. Overloading gas mains and electrical junction boxes make for an effective remote kill. You can also hack grenades that guards and soldiers wear causing them to either successfully or comically fail to remove. When driving to stop or evade the bad guys you can raise spike strips or bridges and if timed well can cause a major pileup by changing all the lights at a busy junction to green!

Although the game makes use of quick travel through your hideouts or via the train system, the majority of your time you’ll spend travelling on the streets via car or motorbike. This is the best way I’ve found of playing the game as you get to learn all the turns,  alleys and hiding spots not to mention the locations of traps and tricks you can use.  On the subject of vehicles, a dizzying array of (non-licensed) vehicles are available in the city and come in all shapes and sizes. Tiny eco-compacts, big hulking SUV’s, sports and trucks all available to be high jacked or broken into by smashing a window or by hacking. If for some reason you can’t get your mits on a vehicle or feel particularly lazy, you can always  pull out your phone and select a car to be delivered to you! How’s that for service.

As to be expected, Chicago has a wealth to do beyond the campaign story like. As well as crime prevention, sub-missions have you undertaking XP treasure hunts, clearing out gang hideouts, street racing or accessing augmented reality games to play a Mario-esq running game to earn money (Cash Run) or a shooter which involves blasting purple aliens which appear from portals and attach themselves to the heads of pedestrians (NVSN). The other type of mini-games take you out of the game world a have Aiden put into an unconscious dream state that allows him have a “Digital Trip”. These have you driving around a demonic Chicago running over people to collect souls in some sort of Carmageddon, another a trippy game called Psychedelic (naturally) has you rag dolling off of flowers through hoops, take on robots and return power to the city in Alone and the final (which I think is the must fun) puts you in control of a “Spider Tank”. Yep, a large robot spider causing devastation and destruction (all in your head naturally).

Controls are tight although quite extensive. You’ve got a weapon wheel for your pistol, machine gun, sniper, grenades. In this you can also craft explosives or when unlocked use the city wide blackout hack. You’ve got another menu that emulates your phone and allows you to access the trips, games, progress and unlocks.

Graphically despite the system you play it on, Watch_Dogs will look impressive. It’s worth saying however that if you want to get the most out of the game you should go Xbox One, PS4 or gaming PC. Particle effects, HD textures and the reflections look amazing and add to the immersion – even little things like the wind blowing paper cups down the street add to the overall feel.

Adding more value to your purchase, and a stable mate of any AAA title these days are Watch_Dogs’ multiplayer components – of which we have a few:

  • CtOS Mobile Challenges (the app wasn’t available to me at time of review, sorry) lets you use your phone or tablet to connect to a friends game and task him with getting through a serious of check points. Your job is to stop them by directing the CPD’s resources, such as patrol cars and helicopters, and hacking traffic lights and blowing up steam pipes etc.
  • Eight player online free roam multiplayer. As the name suggests play with friends however you wish.
  • Decryption is a fast and intense 4-v-4 team based game mode that has you squabbling over a file until you’ve had time to decrypt it. A nice addition although does require a bit of team work to avoid it being frantic.
  • Racing. Not just sports cars, you can race against players in boats, bikes and even budget cars!
  • Online Intrusion is a 1-v-1 game of hide-and-seek that sees you being stalked or stalking another player and steal/protect data then get away.
  • Tailing is similar to Intrusion as you enter another players game but it’s a lot more slower paced.

The last two (Intrusion and Tailing) are designed to be as seamless as possible and designed in such a way that it doesn’t disrupt you from playing the  story. Certainly the highlight for me when it comes to online play.

Music is eclectic and quite limited in my opinion. Ubisoft has access to a large array of songs thanks to Rocksmith so it would of been nice to see, say, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, or even Chicago based bands such as Fall Out Boy (or dare I say Styx)! Instead we do get some suitable Windy City blues songs, naturally some rap, rock and electronic (and Chicago based Smashing Pumpkins), but none of the tracks feel like ‘anthems’ that really get you going when cruising at night or when in hot pursuit of another hacker. You do have the ability to create a playlist, so if you do manage to find a few songs to your taste you can put together a custom selection.

Voice acting and sound is excellent however. Weather such as rain sounds like it’s lashing at times, and when the ‘po-po’ are full blues and sirens chasing the sound of a distant helicopter can be very intense. Characters are unique and have hired actors from all walks of life to bring a diverse cast to the game. These people are criminals and lowlifes but some of them are just so likeable – such as ‘Fixer’ Jordi Chin. The whole exchange about breaking into an innocent couples apartment to gain a sniper vantage is brilliantly written and acted (“I wasn’t the pizza guy”).

Overall Ubisoft has really tried to pack in as much as possible into the game to give it some longevity and replayabilty. If you’re a fan of Ubisoft’s other games like Assassin’s Creed or Splinter Cell, and like the feel of GTA5‘s open roads this game is for you. With additional single-player coming up as DLC, Watch_Dogs will have enough to keep a wannabe-hacker busy for a while!

Watch_Dogs is available now for PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. Wii U version coming “later this year”.

Review: Watch_Dogs (PC) Andy King

Summary: With around 40 hours of single player gameplay and many more multiplayer, Watch_Dogs certainly will contain enough to keep you busy. Overall Aiden Pearce is a great person of interest and one to keep under surveillance.


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About the Author

Computer and games fan from child to man (man-child if you wish). Gaming since the Atari 2600 all the way through ZX Spectrum, Amiga 500 and now PC (although plays on the Xbox from time-to-time). Enjoys the smaller indie titles in life, so will be bringing news/reviews for the often overlooked, but just as fun, games.

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