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Review: Watch Dogs

As per my usual way of doing things, I didn’t know a damn thing about Watch Dogs until I popped it into my PS4. That might be inconceivable to some of you, that someone could know nothing about a game as important as this, but it’s not that hard, really. Just take all the time you would spend online reading gaming news and watching trailers and do something else with it. Like sleeping. That’s one of my favourites.

That ignorance helps me to remain objective, I think. No exposure to expectations or hype or even knowledge of the game’s content. I only start thinking about the game as I play it. All I knew going in was that it’s an open-world game in which you play a dude wearing a trench coat and a baseball cap, and it has something to do with hacking.

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: 360 / PC / PS3 / PS4 / Wii U / XBO

The dude in question is named Aiden Pearce. He’s a hacker and part-time vigilante. The game establishes that he’s a badass by opening with a scene of him beating some tough-talking thug into submission and trying to get some info out of him. He roughs the guy up real good and then meets his funny assassin helper, Jordi Chin. The two of them let it slip that they’re in a baseball stadium, and they stage a massive blackout to escape. This functions as the beginning tutorial bit.

You find out pretty quickly what Aiden had hoped to accomplish with that beating. He’s trying to find out who was responsible for the death of his six year-old niece four years earlier. That’s pretty much the driving force behind the entire game – Aiden’s quest for answers and payback. He’s a stubborn bastard though, so even when his remaining family members beg him to drop it, he doesn’t, and it doesn’t turn out so well – but you’ll see for yourself what happens.

It’s kind of fun to play a grizzled, middle-aged sourpuss instead of a young, insufferably smug pretty boy. Aiden lives in a near-future version of Chicago, where every single part of the city’s infrastructure is connected online. Everything from garage doors and sprinklers to fridges, kids’ toys, security cams and traffic lights are hooked up and can be hacked. All Aiden needs is his smartphone. The phone itself (or the software on it) is called the Profiler, and it’s one of the major tools of the game.

You can whip out the Profiler at any time while walking the streets, while driving, or even in the middle of a shootout, whenever. What it does is highlight objects in the world Aiden can hack. What this translates into in gameplay terms is basically a long-distance “use” button. Maybe Aiden wants to get onto a roof, and there just happens to be a forklift nearby. He can climb onto the lift part and hack the forklift to raise him up.

Maybe there’s a guard Aiden wants to sneak past, and the guard has a cell phone. Aiden can distract the guard by sending him baffling (and often hilarious) text messages. Maybe Aiden will receive a mission where he has to sneak into an enemy compound, and you wisely decide that running in there blind would result in Aiden’s ass getting riddled with bullets, so you hack the security cameras from outside to see how many guards are waiting for your inside and mark them on the mini-map.

Over the course of the game, you’ll get into plenty of exciting high-speed car chases, and the Profiler can help a lot there too. Aiden can change traffic lights to cause car crashes – which is useful for both stopping people you’re chasing, and stopping people from chasing you. He can do the same with mechanical road blockers and bridges. While we’re on the subject, the vehicle handling in Watch Dogs features some of the best driving physics I’ve experienced in a sandbox game.

You don’t have to do any of the hacking stuff. There are some key story missions in which it’s mandatory, but even in most of the story missions and side missions you can opt to go in old-school shooter style if you wish. It’s certainly possible to succeed that way – but why would you want to do something that boring?

You can also use the Profiler to get information about every single citizen walking the streets. Whenever you point it at a person, you get their name, job title and some random info about them, like “donates to Jewish charities”, or “comic book enthusiast”, or “clown fetishist”, or “recently attended a furry convention”. Some of them are a real hoot. Sometimes you’ll encounter a citizen marked in blue, which means they have something you can gain by hacking their phone. Usually it’s their bank account money, which you can then withdraw by going to an ATM – and I’ve got to say, as someone who’s been hit by card fraud six times (no joke), I feel really dirty doing this.

There’s something about the hacking that I find puzzling. Somehow, it all works on line-of-sight. Aiden has to be able to see what he’s hacking, whether this means he’s able to see it himself, with his own eyes, or being able to see it through a camera he’s hacked. You’d think having access to the network would be enough – unless the people of near-future Chicago ditched cables and Wi-Fi in favour of microwave relays or something.

It does make for some interesting puzzle sections, though. Often you’ll have to hack a camera in a place you can’t reach in order to see another camera further in, which you hack, which then allows you to access another, and so on, until you can finally see your objective and hack it. There have been infiltration missions I’ve completed without even entering the mission area. I just hacked the nearest camera I could find from the outside and jumped from camera to camera until I found what I was looking for. Never even had to face an enemy. It’s really cool that you can do that, or run in guns blazing, as you choose.

As you complete missions and activites, you’ll gain experience which eventually rewards you with points you can spend in several skill trees focused on hacking, combat, driving and crafting skills. Oh yes, you can craft items too, like grenades, distraction devices, and other cool little utility items. The shooting is pretty standard, cover-based third-person shooter action, but the nice thing is you can carry every weapon you find. You can also execute a melee non-lethal takedown when you want to be stealthy or you’re under orders not to kill your target.

Apart from that, it’s a fairly standard sandbox game. The city map is littered with icons representing the dozens of activities you can engage in, including vigilante crime stopping, criminal contracts, augmented reality games you can play and pushers selling “digital trips”, which is a mind-altering experience you can use to play entirely different types of games, like a driving game where you run over zombies in hell, or a dark sci-fi game where you thwart the plans of creepy robots.

There are some multiplayer options too, with which I had limited experience because I’m presently without an Internet connection. What little experience I had was three invasion attempts from other players. Apparently they can hack your game and steal the reputation points you’ve earned (good or bad, according to your deeds). You have to find the invading hacker and kill them. I found and killed two of them. The third guy I managed to find and stop his hack attempt, but he got away with his life. It’s kind of fun. A bit like the Assassin’s Creed multiplayer modes, where players are basically mandated to be dicks to each other.

As for the technical stuff, it looks great and sounds great. Of course it does. It’s a big-budget Ubisoft title. The real winner here is the well-implemented hacking gameplay mechanic, which breathes a surprising amount of life into the old open-world action game formula.

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  • Wesley Fick

    Now I’m feeling a little more at ease about getting it, which we’ll have to do anyway because my brother and I usually enjoy Ubi’s open-world games.

    • Matthew Vice

      I’m glad this helped a bit. I really think it is fun. It’s the kind of game I can play for hours without having a story goal. I just ride around, looking for stuff to do.

  • Delano

    Sounds mighty fun. I’m keen to try it out, but I’m a PC guy, and as we’ve already established, the PC version seems to be a bundle of fail…

  • Squirly

    “While we’re on the subject, the vehicle handling in Watch Dogs features some of the best driving physics I’ve experienced in a sandbox game.”

    Not to disagree, because I don’t know personally, but that’s exactly the opposite of what I’ve heard about the game, ie, the vehicle physics are some of the worst and shallow out there. Apparently it’s impossible to flip your car onto the roof.

    • Alec Samuel

      Yea I heard that too. But I’m playing it currently and no where as bad as other reviewers claim it is. Matthew here did something very intelligent and didn’t know anything about the game going in (Still seems impossible for a gaming journalist but otherwise he is from NAG and that entitles me to trust his word). He was impressed by a game that others expected it to be excellent. I agree with Matthew 100% (I know that means nothing), as long as I disregard everything that Ubisoft showed me. But if I don’t, damn you Ubisoft…. Otherwise an amazing game that I expect will be even better with the sequel (like AC2 fixing all that was critically wrong with AC1) . Main point: Forget about the hype Ubisoft built for it and just enjoy it.

      • Matthew Vice

        Wow. Thanks, dude.

        Honestly, the reason I never know anything about upcoming games is because I’m just too lazy to pay attention. I find other ways to waste time, like staring at the ceiling or sleep.

    • Tauriq Moosa

      I’m playing on PS4 and I find the vehicles quite terrible (most of the game is genius).

      • Matthew Vice

        I’m quite surprised by that. I find the vehicle handling easy and intuitive.

        Actually, the more I hear about this, the more I’m convinced that everyone has a different opinion as to what constitutes good driving controls.

        Someone should do an article about that.

        • Tauriq Moosa

          Yeah. You’re actually the exception: doesn’t make you wrong, just in the minority.

        • PicklePod

          With all the driving games about to be released, that seems like a good idea
          Also I have read some reviews on other sites where a game is supposed to have difficult control physics but it is faulted for that by the reviewer

    • Matthew Vice

      Yes, it is impossible to flip your car onto its roof. It also seems to be impossible to crash and eject yourself through your windscreen to ragdoll-ise around a tree in the next town… disappointingly.

      What I meant, is that I really like the way the cars handle. It feels good, and convincing, compared to other sandbox games like, say, GTA, where the cars feel like tumble dryers on roller skates, or Saints Row, where the car handle is oddly stiff.

      So, in terms of the the car connecting with the road and responding the way I think it should, Watch Dogs is a winner. It’s a bit disappointing that you can’t flip cars, cause ridiculous pileups and fly through windscreens – but the game has so much else to offer that I quick forget this.

      • Chris Kemp

        Wait, wait hold the phone… no windscreen ejections? I’m out.

      • compulsivejoe

        Ive flipped my car a few times already by chance…and once it’s flipped it stays flipped let me tell you…i disagree on the cars handling well though, it’s the most disappointing aspect of the game (other than the visuals that were nowhere near those purdy screenshots attached in this here review)

    • Wesley Fick

      Well the game did start out as another Driver title. If you’ve played Parallel Lines before, I’ve heard that the car physics are mostly similar to that.

  • De4thDr4g0n

    The game is really great only problem is though,it’s a real mess on the PC(like all the new games coming out)While I think the vehicle physics are great I guess at the end it depends on your liking?

    • Matthew Vice

      Yeah, it’s because of things like this that I tend to stick to consoles most of the time.

      And I’m beginning to think that everyone does indeed have their own tastes as far as driving physics go.

  • Leonardo

    I have not played a whole lot of it since buying it due to other obligations but the three or so hours I did play taught me that (A) the driving mechanics were average, think saints row 3 or GTA San-Andreas when it comes to cars, bikes were a little better but still not wow, (B) I bought the PC version, installed it, activated it, updated it and played it, no hassle, (C) My not-so-great PC can actually run the game as long as I set the game to lowest graphics and a semi smaller wide-screen resolution. It seemed like a fun game though, I look forward to playing more of it tonight, if nothing else interferes.

    • BinaryMind

      Saints Row 3 car physics are a whole lot worse than San Andreas since it basically has none – cars are like stuck to the floor whereas San Andreas has some sort of dynamics.

      So which is it closer to? :)

      • Leonardo

        Alright, I admit I haven’t played either in quite a while but from how I remember it (maybe that is where the issue comes in, memory) they were pretty much the same, not great, but not frustratingly bad, you could drive straight and if you slowed down to a halt the car takes corners, power slides and speedy turns were always disastrous for me, but then again that might just be my bad driving skills as well.

      • Matthew Vice

        I haven’t actually played San Andreas, but I played GTA4 and it’s expansions – and the Saint’s Row games.

        I’d say the vehicle handling leans a bit more towards GTA. The vehicles feel like they have weight. But unlike GTA, this weight isn’t over-emphasized. The vehicles can still move and drift easily and handle well (depending on the car, of course).

        • BinaryMind

          As long as it’s not as fake as Saints Row, I’m happy :)

    • Jordan

      PC Specs?

      • Leonardo

        My PC specs:
        Intel Core i3 2100 (3.1ghz) (Gen 2 duel core, not overclocked)
        8 Gig DDR3 RAM
        Gigabit Nvidia GTX 650 ti OC 2GB GDDR5 (This made a HUGE difference when I upgraded in November from a GT440)

        • Jordan

          Thanks :)

    • Matthew Vice

      Man, I’ve been there.

      My current PC is a 720p beast. It can run things at 1080p, but the performance is noticeable lower.

      That’s why, being lucky enough to own a PS4, I chose to play it on that instead.

      But I know the pain of having to drop the settings of PC games, all too well.

      • Chris Kemp

        That’s where I am now. My poor baby has gotten way past her prime. It’s oddly depressing really.

        • Matthew Vice

          Yep. Looks like it’s time for both of us to upgrade again.

          At least my PS3 lasted seven years. My PC is barely two years old and I have to upgrade the frickin’ thing again.

  • Gimff

    Bottom line: one of the best games I have ever played!!!! Its also the first game that i have played for over Two full weeks


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