Tons of promise, but Ubisoft struggles to stand out from the GTA games on which Watch_Dogs borrows so heavily
Originally slated to arrive alongside the Xbox One and Sony’s PS4, Watch_Dogs has been a long time coming. Ubisoft Montreal’s digital recreation of Chicago finally arrived this month on current- and previous-generation consoles, as well as the PC, letting gamers run amok with a smartphone full of hacks and electronic back doors that would put Anonymous to shame.
Using his phone, protagonist Aiden Pearce can hack or manipulate almost anything digitally connected to Chicago’s CTos network – meaning siphoning funds from people’s bank accounts as you walk down the street, changing traffic lights to create gridlock, or plunging entire city districts into darkness by taking down the power grid. You can tap into any security camera in order to survey areas, get the drop on enemies or scope out hidden pathways.
If it’s connected, it can be hacked; virtually anything electronic can be controlled using Aiden’s smartphone
Hacking mechanics are simple at best, with most abilities simply requiring a single button press. This makes it easier to slow down pursuers when in car chases, but rarely feels as satisfying as skilfully weaving in and out of traffic in order to avoid the cops. More complex hacks involve rotating nodes to create digital pathways, which feels very similar to the Pipemania-style hacks seen in Bioshock; we would have preferred some variety as you encounter different systems, rather than merely ramping up the difficulty.
Being able to jump into any connected system naturally puts Aiden on the wrong side of the law, but he’s not in it for the money; he’s seeking answers and repentance for a double-cross that left his young niece dead and his nephew traumatised. As much as players are supposed to sympathise with him, there’s nothing stopping Aiden from using violence to get his way other than a simplistic reputation system that determines how the public reacts to his vigilante actions. Save innocents from muggings and your reputation will increase, so members of the public won’t report you for other legal transgressions, but do too much damage and you’ll become infamous, with bystanders calling the police as soon as you’re spotted.
There are plenty of vehicles to choose from, with Aiden able to call one up for delivery at any time
Completing story missions may advance Aiden’s quest for revenge, but the plot always plays second fiddle to the city. Chicago is Watch_Dogs’ greatest asset, at times feeling like a living, breathing place where NPC pedestrians live out their lives around you. The attention to detail is incredible, with hundreds of overhead conversations, eavesdropped phone calls and intercepted text messages revealing an impressive insight into the everyday lives of a connected population. Cause a commotion in a public place and passers-by will whip out their smartphones to take photos. Likewise, getting into a car accident will prompt other drivers to jump out of their vehicles and berate you.
It’s a shame that the city looks rather plain during the day, as at night and in the rain the game engine truly flexes its muscle; the neon lights look absolutely stunning reflected in puddles, particularly on next-gen consoles and PC, Aiden’s trench coat billows convincingly in the wind as you sprint and vault over obstacles, and draw distances are impressive.
The city never loses its charm, but once you turn your attention back to the gameplay it feels that Ubisoft hasn’t used the hacking mechanics to their full potential. As with any sandbox adventure where the city is as important as any of the characters, comparisons with the Grand Theft Auto franchise are unavoidable, but in some cases, Watch_Dogs borrows verbatim from Rockstar’s crime sim; the time-slowing Focus mode behaves almost identically to GTA V’s concentration combat, while the optional missions boil down to the same races, gang takedowns and random encounters we’ve experienced several times before in Los Santos and Liberty City.
You can at least take a stealthy approach, which feels more in keeping with the protagonist’s character, using non-lethal takedowns and the element of surprise rather than guns and explosives, but it’s all too easy to get spotted and be forced into a firefight.
Ubisoft has clearly been restrained by the storyline’s serious tone, but has found an outlet for some much-needed fun with Digital Trips – virtual mini games that let players forget about reputation, the Chicago PD and moral repercussions. Playable at any time through Aiden’s smartphone, they let you run amok through the city in a Carmageddon-style death race and sneak around robot enemies to perfect your stealth takedowns. The psychedelic base-jumping game is arguably the weakest of the four, feeling more like something you’d play for a few minutes on your smartphone than an engaging challenge you’d regularly return to. The highlight is Spider Tank, which drops you into a walking robotic arachnid armed to the teeth with chain guns and rockets. Knowing that some of GTA’s funnest moments come from spawning a tank and going on a rampage, the developer has added challenges and leaderboards to keep you coming back for more.
Yes, that is a an octa-pedal mechanical spider. And yes, it’s fantastic fun
Adding a new spin on the sandbox genre, Watch_Dogs has some great ideas but struggles to shake off the Grand Theft Auto influences even with the hacking mechanics. Stealth is basic at best and combat feels almost identical to Rockstar’s games, which in a completely fictional city would result in a somewhat mediocre game. However, the care and attention that went into digitally recreating Chicago has helped give the game real character. The huge amount of NPC variety and incidental dialogue make you feel as though you’re exploring a real place, which should keep you coming back for more – if only to see what you’ll bump into next.