In Watch_Dogs (the underscore is intentional by the way) you play as another of those “tortured” characters made so popular by games like Heavy Rain, The Last Of Us and Beyond Two Souls and thus currently popular with game designers. Our hero is a man named Aiden Pearce, racked with guilt because he feels the tragic death of his niece was his fault as he was driving the car in which she died... Aiden sets about tracking down the unknown gunman who caused his car to crash in Watch_Dogs' sprawling open-world version of Chicago and its suburbs, complete with a day/night cycle and dynamic weather, just like GTA V (and that won’t be the last time I mention Rockstar’s juggernaut of a game either, and I make no apologies for that.)
The back story is that Aiden uses his computer hacker skills to take control of the CtOS network, a vast interconnected surveillance system linking every CCTV camera, public utility (like traffic lights, bridges and power transformers) and security system throughout the wet and windy city. There is also a shady conspiracy going on involving a group of superhackers known as DedSec, the dodgy Blume Corporation, Mayor Rushmore and an old-school crook named Dermot “Lucky” Quinn (whose power and influence put Rushmore in office), the result of which means that every citizen of Chicago’s personal information is up for grabs and open to exploitation.
Aiden is quite athletic and can "Parkour it up" with the best assassins, he won’t climb straight up the side of buildings like Altair, Ezio, Connor or Kenway and strangely the game has no ‘jump’ button, so he only hurdles and mantles obstacles and grabs ledges contextually (when the scenery allows it). This did cause some consternation when trying to explore the city, and sometimes, when he stubbornly refused to grab a ledge or climb an object that he clearly should be able to, I wished Aiden’s phone had a jet pack app (or even just a ‘jump’ button.) Although a rare occurrence, this becomes particularly annoying when you die simply because Aiden won’t vault a wall that he should when trying to evade enemies...
Apart from finding out who caused Aiden’s niece’s death much of the game is spent using his phone’s powerful profiling app to snoop on people’s phone conversations, text messages and hacking their bank accounts-you’ll need plenty of cash to pay for your exploits. Just point at people and press a button (‘Square’ on PlayStation and ‘X’ on Xbox) and the hacked bank balances are transferred to another account from which you then can withdraw cash from the many ATMs dotted around the city. There are plenty of opportunities to act as a sort of “Batman without a costume” vigilante as well, sneaking up on criminals and catching them in the act, or if you’re timing is perfect stopping them before they commit the crime. This all earns experience points and helps you level up in a rather pointless RPG-lite XP system.
Hacking into various parts of ctOS reveals people going about their ordinary lives, with all the mundane actions, dirty little secrets, perversions, sexual activity and sinister wickedness and depravity you might expect to see in a city the size of Chicago. Much of the covert video is displayed in a sort of computerfied vector-vision, so don’t go expecting to get any voyeuristic pleasure out of these covert drop-ins. You do get to see some boobies, but Aiden’s no voyeur and the game doesn’t really cater for that sort of thing, despite trawling through some pretty sleazy people’s secrets and seedy places, Watch_Dogs doesn’t try to titillate like GTA does.
Hacking is accomplished simply by holding ‘Square’ on PS and ‘X’ on Xbox while looking at a person or hackable device. In some cases when you get “in” to a network or security firewall there’s a further hacking mini game (it plays like a sort of electrical Pipemania) that unlocks a system completely.
Not being able to shoot from vehicles seems a bit strange, and might sound like it makes the game a bit limited combat-wise, but when I think of how cack-handed it feels in GTA V maybe that’s no bad thing. In one mission you could be chasing bad guys around the city in a powerful sports car or on a street superbike and find yourself completing the next simply by hacking from camera to camera to laptop to elevator to control panel... Car chases can be ended by hacking bridges (there are lots of swing and lift bridges in Chicago), traffic lights, tyre spikes, ‘stopper’ barriers and even steam vents. You can also use these hacks to stop people from chasing you, even if it’s the cops with their difficult-to-lose helicopters. You can hide under or behind structures, in alleyways and garages, and eventually even unlock a temporary ‘disable helicopter’ hack to evade them and lose your GTA-style 1-5 wanted level. The Chicago cops (and the bad guys) work with similar line of sight and search zone AI routine as the Los Santos PD, and just as in GTA V intelligent use of the minimap and awareness of your surroundings are just as important when escaping a wanted level as skilful fast driving, and this isn’t easy as it resizes to far too small a scale when in a vehicle, which often means that unless you’re playing on a very large TV it’s about as much use as a chocolate coffeepot.
Shootouts are plentiful and are exciting and fluid, and always dynamic and unpredictable, but one assist could have been a lot better, with ‘Focus’ (slows down the action like Max Payne’s bullet time) seemingly slowing down the fire of your weapon even more than the enemies-it’s a very weird and frustrating feeling clicking ‘R3’ to use Focus, and waiting... for your sniper/assault rifle to fire! Thankfully Watch_Dogs has a cover mode that many other games would die for, and Aiden interacts with items, including vehicles, absolutely flawlessly. A press of ‘A’ on Xbox or ‘X’ on PlayStation makes Aiden run for any highlighted cover, and you can slickly transfer from one cover to another just by targeting it and pressing the action button again. If in cover on a wall or pillar with a corner, Aiden can swiftly move around the angle by pressing the button and moving the left thumbstick again. Anyone who’s struggled with most of the other clunky, barely usable cover modes in Third Person Shooters over the years will literally well up with tears of emotion at how well this works, and popping out to shoot enemies works just as well. Aiden will automatically take down enemies behind low cover if you leap over it, and impressively cover behind a vehicle, and then if you press the ‘enter vehicle’ button (‘Y’ on Xbox & ‘Triangle’ on PlayStation) stay crouched and stealthily enter the driver’s seat. It’s amazing attention to detail and kicks the likes of GTA with its inconsistent and often hesitant vehicle entry sequences firmly in the nuts.
The game also features a lot of thrilling foot chases as criminals attempt to escape your vigilante vengeance. These are very reminiscent of the Assassin games, the big difference being that you can use ctOS hacks to blow up things and slow down or completely stop the fleeing bad guy. The only real gripes I have with the game’s structure is that, until you’ve practiced doing it quite a lot, some hackable traps are far too easy to mess yourself up with (particularly traffic lights, blockers and tyre spikes) Also, some missions need to be done in just the way the designer wanted you to, and there’s little or no room for improvisation, and linked to this some missions have pointless, senseless and annoying “mission areas” that you may not leave. I mean, what’s the point of giving you a whole city to play in and then stop you from shooting the bad guys from the other side of a bridge that you’ve hacked and raised to stop them?
Although you can change the colour scheme and pattern of Aiden’s outfits he basically always wears the same overcoat and peaked cap combo, which is a bit of a shame, but I guess he needs the bulky coat to stash his selection of pistols, machine guns, shotguns, assault rifles, grenade launchers, sniper rifles, grenades, bombs and other gadgets in. Aiden, like his Ubisoft cousins from the Assassin’s Creed games, is superbly animated, notably when he hurdles or vaults over a low obstacle and takes down an enemy in one swift and violent move, and even his coat gets some impressive animation-particularly when riding a motorcycle. Even his weapon handling looks cool; when you go into aim mode with a single handed weapon Aiden brings it to bear with his right hand, and then a second or two later steadies his aim with his left hand-astonishing attention to detail.
Watch_Dogs does a remarkable job of distracting you away from the story campaign with a series of mini games and side missions of various kinds.
As impressive as some of the early promo videos of Watch_Dogs were, I must admit I was expecting some sort of clunky Splinter Cell/Deus Ex mash-up with added cars. How wrong I was. A few hours on and I noticed that the Watch_Dogs borrows elements from game series as good as Batman, GTA, Saints Row, close cousin Assassin’s Creed and even reminded me a bit of the criminally underrated Saboteur. The game world is a detailed, interactive and vibrant setting; the only things missing from Watch_Dogs’ version of Chicago and district are animals and pilotable aircraft, but I’m not sure the last-gen version of the game engine could handle an elevated view and all the extra draw distance required.
The vehicle steering feels rather twitchy going straight to Watch_Dogs from GTA V, and really isn’t as intuitive and exciting as it either, but in actual fact, it’s probably more realistic speed and handling-wise. If you don’t use the throttle and brakes intelligently you’re going to spin out and crash a lot, but it didn’t take me long to get used to it and after a few minutes I was handbrake-turning and powersliding round corners like a pro. If you don’t like driving then Watch_Dogs isn’t the game for you, there’s a lot of travelling to do and although you can use boats, trains and a fast travel system when off-mission you better enjoy driving the vehicles or get the hell out. You don’t actually "own" vehicles as in GTA but once you’ve driven a vehicle you can then get it delivered (vaguely) near you by ordering it via the Car On Demand app on your phone. Some are free and some you have to pay a one-time fee for the right to use. One thing about this that seems completely daft is that you can’t order a car when on a mission-right when you probably want to select a particular vehicle the most! Also given the much-complained about vehicle spawning annoyances that GTA V suffers from, you’d have thought that Ubi Montreal would have made darned sure to make vehicles pop in sensible places, but nope. You usually have to walk a good distance from your hideouts before finding a vehicle (they are clearly supposed to spawn there but bizarrely sometimes don’t actually appear until you walk away) and when calling for a ‘Car on Demand’ it’ll sometimes get “delivered” to the other side of a 4-lane highway or similarly stupid, annoying place…
Although Watch_Dogs is a nice looking game on PS3 and Xbox 360 we also noticed some things that are missing on the present-gen game or look much worse; the water for starters, while not exactly terrible, is an ugly black and grey morass compared to GTA V’s lovely realistic water, but this isn’t the case on PS4 and Xbox One as the water is just as good as, if not better than, GTA V’s-wake physics (see screenshots below) and all - but then, it bloody well should be shouldn’t it!? There are even quite a few extra boats to be seen on PS4 and Xbox One and the lake and rivers are alive with aquatic traffic. The dynamic weather effects are pretty damn good on all versions, and the rain can get so heavy that it affects visibility and wet roads are much more precarious to navigate. The detail level and sheer amount of things going on are significantly increased on the next gen version (see screenshots, below) and you can really see where all the power of the new consoles was used-unlike some early PS4 and Xbox One games, this is a lot more than a quick HD port. There is also a rather cool (and surprisingly usable) in-car view on Xbox One and PS4, it’d have been nice if you could turn Aiden’s head more but it’s still an incredibly atmospheric and exciting way of tailing suspects and doing car chases. Sadly this is missing from the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, although you can use a “bonnet” cam.
Watch_Dogs does a remarkable job of distracting you away from the story campaign with a series of mini games and side missions of various kinds. This would tend to make me suspect that the story is short, but it isn’t and even if you hammered away at it in an inhumanly blinkered fashion it’s a good 12-15 hours worth, and I defy anyone to play the story campaign through in a dogged, robotic way without straying from the plot with one of the many diversions-apart from anything else it’d make the game harder and less fun as the side missions and mini games often unlock cool and invaluable perks and weapons.
Although the story certainly has a steely and serious, even tragic and sad, edge to it, Watch_Dogs does the wise thing and gives the player plenty of lighter moments with a fair sense of the ridiculous and occasional laugh-out-loud humour. These moments come in various forms, and could be from overheard conversations (whether in person or via a phone hack or text messages) to a talking moose head that wants to be a stand-up comic. I noticed other tie-ins with Ubi IPs like an electronic Raving Rabbid toy and finding that you've been hacking an Abstergo employee (Assassin’s Creed.) There is also a selection of fantastical mini games including the Parkour-based Cash Run, NVZN (like a third person game of Space Invaders), Madness (race through a hellish version of Chicago at the wheel of a hotrod), Alone (avoid the scary ctOS robots in this dark digital trip), Psychedelic (bounce on giant psychedelic flowers) and Spider-Tank (an awesome, ‘destroy everything in your way’shoot ‘em up that has you controlling an 8-legged death machine that can climb buildings!)
In fact, Watch_Dogs may well have lifted GTA V’s procrastinating-dithering-fiddler crown (so that’s what PDF stands for?) and be the new champion of games in which you set off with a firm intention of doing something, only to find that 2 hours later you still haven’t got to your destination but have made a lot of new “friends” and found some cool and interesting stuff along the way. There are distractions such as Poker, Chess, Shell game (ball & cup), One-Armed Bandits and a really tough extreme drinking competition, the loss of which results in you coming round hung over in the sort of place that Trevor Philips from GTA V might find himself.
Watch_Dogs’ Chicago has superb ambient sound FX and the vast civilian population add to the believability. You’ll see them doing just about every imaginable thing from playing football or strimming grass to kick boxing practice and mundane things like carrying the shopping home or treading in something icky and trying to get it off their shoe. The city really sounds alive and the action is accompanied by some superb incidental music, and the game also has a really good and varied soundtrack, which is thankfully editable and also turn-offable should you wish to concentrate, or just listen to what are some of the sexiest sounding vehicle engines this side of a Codemasters racing game.
NPCs have random fender benders and arguments, and Their AI is for the most part really believable. Only rarely will you see someone moonwalking into another character or something silly like that, and they usually manage to evade my wilder sidewalk driving during car chases. Even their driving is more realistic, well, considerate than, than say, GTA V as if you stand in the road you will rarely get mown down by anyone other than an enemy trying to escape. Disappointingly though, the emergency services (Fire trucks and Ambulances) just seem to randomly appear and drive around like drunken morons completely ignoring all the dead people, fiery infernos etc that I cause.
The vehicles you see aren’t real ones but like GTA’s resemble real models quite closely, and also sometimes ‘mash up’ real designs. You’ll see cars that resemble BMWs, VW Golfs, Honda Civics, Mustangs, Pontiac Firebird Trans Ams, Dodge Challengers, Mazda RX7s, Subaru Imprezas, Renaults, Peugeots, Chevrolet Corvettes and Camaros, Rolls Royces, Lotuses, Maseratis, Ferraris, Morgans, Mercedes and a McLaren/Lamborghini crossbreed that looks great and sounds even better-like two dinosaurs having passionate sex.
On the PS3 and 360 the game suffers from an inconsistent 30 frames a second and a fair bit of pop-up in traffic-Watch_Dogs has both of the older consoles working to their limit, and sometimes beyond. Unsurprisingly there are also a few glitches in all versions we played; a rare but annoying hitch in the mostly excellent cover system and a few bits of sticky scenery. While I’m in complain mode there are also several missions that I guarantee you will fail at the first attempt; not because of the difficulty, but because you don’t have a vehicle and, by the time you acquire one, are too far away from the target that needs to be chased (when you’ve failed and the mission restarts there’s always a handy vehicle that’s magically appeared there for you to use.)
Watch_Dogs’ online component is integrated into the story mode (if you allow your game can be invaded by other players) and features several modes; Online Tailing (test your stealth skills by spying on another player, profile them and then escape), ctOS Challenge (a checkpoint race while battling against a player using the Watch_Dogs app on a mobile device to control the Cops and ctOS devices), Online Race (2-8 players checkpoint or lap races, ctOS devices or nitro boosts may be active) and Online Hacking (hack another player’s phone, install a backdoor and steal their data without being discovered, then try and escape before they catch you.) Sadly both Tailing and Hacking games are infested with people who would rather disconnect than lose a few XP (presumably by turning their consoles off and restarting the game or yanking their internet cable on Xbox, or logging out of PSN on PlayStation 3 or 4). Ubi Montreal should be aware of this and patch the game so droppers are punished with bad rep or an Watch_Dogs online suspension, and give a at least some sort of small reward to the players who have their time wasted by these sad cheats. The Hacking game also seems to favour the hackee (the “Fixer”) rather than the hacker heavily, and a successful hack is not easy to accomplish, with what is often an unfair XP penalty your only reward when you may have hacked an opponent to within 99% completion - the way XP is awarded seems completely messed up. I’ve also been hacked while playing the story mode and being in the process of evading a 3-start wanted level! This is obviously hugely unfair and annoying and makes identifying a hacker and killing him next to impossible. You can, of course, go into the options and ‘disable online invasions’ but you will lose any notoriety points (online XP) and skills you’ve earned. Now I’m all for developers encouraging players to use a game’s online modes but penalising them for not feeling like being invaded? This is even more unfair on Xbox players as, while PS3/PS4 players can just log out of PSN, Xbox Live can’t be signed out of anymore, if you’re signed in to an Xbox Live profile then you’re online, and open to invasion. As fun as Watch_Dogs’ online modes can be, I can see a lot of Xbox 360/Xbox One ethernet cables being removed so people can play the story campaign without danger of interruption and keep their hard-earned online XP…
There is also an additional 3-8 player team mode called Decryption on the next-gen consoles and PC. In this mode two teams (games can start 1 vs 1 or 2 vs 1 etc.) face off against each other, the objective being to collect and decrypt a file that spawns randomly on the map. Once a player picks up the file, the “Fixers” must chase down the Hacker and either kill him and steal the file, or just remain close enough to extract the file via a wireless connection. Allies of the Hacker (the player holding the file) must protect him, and by remaining close to the file team mates automatically speed up the decryption process, thus encouraging team play. The player who is holding the file as it reaches 100% decryption is labelled the "winner," and others players who performed well throughout the match may receive extra Notoriety Points. Finally, and once again only on the next gen consoles and PC you get an online free roam mode, which allows you to mess around with friends or just create as much mayhem as you like, much like GTA online. The racing is fun but spoiled by players with laggy connections (unavoidable lag-caused collisions are extremely penal and annoying and lag obviously affects the timing on ctOS hacks.) We thought if anything the racing was better on the current-gen consoles because there’s less traffic to get in the way and less opponents (2-4 instead of 2-8) to mess you up.
So as I said earlier… expecting a fiddly Splinter Cell/Deus Ex mash-up with cars, what we actually got is a lot, lot better than that; a clever, complex yet playable game, a “thinking man’s GTA” would sum it up, and a candidate for one of the games of the year in what is going to be a massively significant year in gaming.