Watch Dogs Review

Many games make the player feel powerful through physical strength, firepower or supernatural abilities. Ubisoft Montreal’s Watch Dogs places the player in a world where power is measured in secrets and control. Whether you’re breaking into a secure server without ever entering the building or blacking out an entire neighborhood to cover an advance on your enemies, you feel powerful.

Stripped of the hacking mechanic, it would still be a competent and entertaining open world sandbox game, in the vein of the Grand Theft Auto series. However, hacking is much more than a gimmick; it has a meaningful influence on every aspect of gameplay. To succeed in stealth or combat the player must make use of the various hackable parts of the environment and their enemies (e.g. transformers, radios, street lights). Hacking adds another dimension to the already polished and dynamic gameplay, offering flexibility and rewarding creativity. Beyond its influence on the mechanics, the hacking system also provides a wealth of information and entertainment.

Hacking revolves around the “Profiler,” a system that reveals information about anyone the player sees. These range from “Can Call Reinforcements” to “Downloads Pirated Media”. During combat it grants a degree of humanity for what would otherwise be nameless goons. A player might hesitate to use lethal force on someone if the Profiler says that he just had a daughter. Distractions are personalized as well; for example, repeatedly texting a guard that he’s been outbid in an online auction. Moments like this are spread throughout the game, injecting humor into even the tensest situations.

The player is Aiden Pearce, former criminal turned vigilante on a quest to avenge a family member killed during an attempt on his life. Unfortunately, Aiden isn’t a particularly deep character. Between his fairly clichéd motivation, gravelly voice and brooding attitude, Aiden does little to stand out as a protagonist. However, while Aiden may not be the most sympathetic character, the rest of the cast helps the player find reasons to care. More memorable characters, like Jordi Chin, an eccentric, fast talking mercenary in Aiden’s employ and T-Bone a hacktivist/survivalist/“artist” (art = explosions), give players a reason to invest in the story.

Outside of the main story, there is a tremendous amount of content for players to explore. Most side missions reflect Aiden’s vigilante status: attacking gang hideouts, investigating human trafficking rings. These missions are well designed and offer a wide variety of challenging scenarios for the player to overcome. In addition, completing these side missions often results in unlocked weapons or stat boosts. There are also “Digital Trips” bizarre alternate reality games that can be accessed at any time from Aiden’s phone. My personal favorite puts the player in control of a giant spider tank and scores you based on how much destruction you can wreak before you’re finally brought down by the police and the military. Digital Trips are extremely entertaining and offer a diversion from the more serious tone of the main game.

Despite having a very robust and expansive single player, Watch Dogs’ multiplayer offering is diverse, polished and well executed. The mode that brings together game’s greatest strengths is Decryption. Two teams of players compete to hold and decrypt a file. Remaining too close to an enemy for too long will result in the file being. Alternatively, you can shoot, blow up, or run over whoever has the file. These matches keep everyone involved from start to finish, as one good steal can quickly turn the tides. Another mode stands out for its potential to be thrilling or frustrating: Hacking.

In Hacking, the goal is to remain close to another player without being identified. For the Hacker this can mean pulse pounding moments as you try to remain out of sight, knowing that any sudden movements might betray the your true identity. However, if you’re being hacked by a skilled opponent, a match often amounts to 5 minutes of running around, followed by a notification that you’ve lost. The asymmetric style of play is intriguing and an interesting experiment but ultimately the experience feels too one sided.

Watch Dogs is an enormous game with an engaging single player campaign. Ubisoft Montreal has created a unique take on the open world sandbox genre that is entertaining, deep and rewarding. It delivers a well rounded and well executed experience that provides more than enough fun to make players overlook its handful of shortcomings.

Title: Watch Dogs
Developer: Ubisoft Montréal
Rating: M
Release Date: May 27th, 2014
Platforms Available: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Platform Reviewed: PlayStation 4