Every gamer must know about Watch Dogs by now. It has been the focus of all kinds of discussion, controversy and even the focal point of mockery in many corners. Why? Because it came with mammoth expectations and as the months passed by, following new reveals, delays and assumptions, it seemed many had made their minds up about what this would turn out to be.
We at Gamestyle decided to steer clear of as much of this as possible, so we could go into the game without any major pre-conceived feelings about the game. However, we would be lying if we said that many of the discussions around the internet, the various articles hadn’t sent us into the game with much lower expectations than we had at the original reveal.
Watch Dogs is at its core, your standard mission based open world game with a ton of side quests to complete. Taking cues from the likes of GTA, Infamous, Assassin’s Creed and Saints Row. You play as Aiden Pearce, who is a hacker hell bent on revenge after a hit is taken out on him and his family. The death to his niece is Aiden’s main motivation, which leads him down a very dark and shady path.
There is a bit of an issue here, as the story setup is something you see in many movies, which is fine, but it doesn’t feel strong enough to drive the actual gameplay. You get to a point where you almost forget your original reasons for Aiden to be doing what he is doing, as he takes on various jobs, extra events and so on, that never really seem to fit with the original premise.
However, as with most games of this type, the story generally is weak and is just a way to drive the player forward, to experience as much of what the game has to offer as possible. There is plenty to offer too, as it seems you cannot go more than 30 seconds before you come across a new activity of some description.
The game is set in near future Chicago and is now pretty much run by a single OS that links together almost every element of the world we live in. This becomes a hackers paradise, being able to find out almost everything about any individual, gather information, steal money direct from their bank accounts, find out if they are planning something, anything. Hell, everything is so tightly linked together, that hackers can control the traffic.
It is an interesting premise and whilst a little far-fetched it doesn’t seem that much beyond the realms of possibility and if it allows us to have fun with a City, then why should we care if all this is a little bit silly. There is that word by the way…FUN, which is exactly what games should be. All too often there are detractors out there that seem to have forgotten that having a good time with a game is the most important thing and Watch Dogs on the whole allows you to have fun.
As mentioned, the amount of extra activities on offer around Chicago are impressive. You get the usual type of things, like take a car to deliver, escort missions, races, etc. Added to that are the types where you need to follow someone, then take them out, you find out about these types of missions by scanning NPC phones and getting hints that a crime may be about to take place. You then get to the area this might happen, scout it out, before usually chasing down the bad guy.
There is nice variety to these types of missions on the whole too, even though many are just variations of the same theme. How you approach these possible crimes is up to you, as you can physically sneak about to watch your suspects, trying not to get caught, or you can hack into security cameras to get a better view whilst staying out of sight. Once you get the cue, you are then free to engage. It works really well and more often than not you will find yourself diverting from your planned course in the story to take on potential crimes.
There are also a bunch of added mini games dotted around the city, such as underground poker games, AR mobile games and so on. These are completely optional and have been thrown into the game as nothing more than a mere distraction, a way to earn some extra cash. Whilst the ‘real world’ mini games can be entertaining (we found ourselves playing Texas Hold Em for over an hour at one point) the AR games feel completely out of place and are probably the thing we disliked most.
There is also a simplicity to the overall game, with hacking being done exclusively on the square button and is simple case of holding until the icon fills up, whether that be hacking a person’s phone, cameras, security terminals, cars, alarms, anything. Whilst initially thinking this was a bit of a cop out, we actually warmed to the idea of this being a catch all mechanic, had it been a complicated system, with multiple ways to initiate a hack, it could have made things frustrating.
It is the same with the combat, you have an attack button for close range attacks and the standard shooting mechanics, which again makes the feel like putting on a glove. It is designed to be comfortable and easily recognisable for anyone that has played a game with any kind of shooting mechanic before.
Driving is an odd thing though. Set the camera to outside the car it is feels off, cars seem to react poorly and have no smoothness to the handling at all. Yet, switch to cockpit cam and it is a whole new ball game. It feels as close to playing Driver San Francisco as anything since that game. The cockpit is blurred allowing you to focus on the road ahead and it just feel right, in fact we’d suggest it was a waste of time having any other view.
So what about visual downgrades? That has probably been the biggest talking point in the lead up to the game’s eventual release and in truth there has been a downgrade from the original E3 reveal. It is easy to see this is a game that has been developed as a cross generation effort. It does lack the WOW factor, but it is certainly more than passable. Some of the locations look very impressive and the detail too impresses. However there are points in the city where is feels a little lifeless, these are very few and far between though, which does make them standout more.
The developers boasted at one point that every person in Chicago has a story, is different, that no two people are the same and to give credit where it is due, on the whole you don’t notice any major repetition, the odd character skin here and there maybe, but nothing that makes you really notice.
It is having that important variation on the city’s inhabitants that is vital to a major part of the game and the one thing that makes it feel different to every other open world game of its type. The online hacking! This is a mechanic that allows you to enter another players game and hack them for information and escape without being found. Of course they can also do the same to you.
This is brilliant and addictive and we found ourselves in and out of this mode more often than not. The idea is, you enter another players game, then try to find them by profiling all the characters around the area, before hacking them and trying not to be discovered. You can do this by trying to mingle around other inhabitants, by hiding in buildings, car parks, etc, maybe by getting in a car and driving down an alley and hiding in said car, or even by creating chaos. Once you start the hack though, the other player will become aware that you are somewhere and will try and hunt you down, if they get to you before the hack in complete, they win.
We did think this would become annoying. Trying to get somewhere in the game only to have another player hack you and thus stopping your progress, but it was far from annoying, it was wonderful fun and offered a great feeling of smugness when winning out over another real world player. There are options to limit how open your online stuff is, so if you really do want to get on with the story, you are free to do so.
Is Watch Dogs the genre defining experience we were expecting back in 2012? No, it isn’t even close to that. Is it a bad game? Not by any stretch of the imagination. It is a fun and entertaining experience that does have a couple of faults, but is more than worth your investment of money and time.