Developer: Ubisoft Montreal | Publisher: Ubisoft | Played On: PlayStation4 | Price: $59.99 | ESRB: Mature (Blood, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol)
[Editor’s note: This review includes extra details not part of the video review due to length constraints. They are added here for additional clarity and since, frankly, there is so much to talk about in this game.]
Where the hell do you begin? The delay? Watch Dogs was due in the initial launch window of both shiny new consoles. The size? Chicago is large and crammed—I mean absolutely crazily packed—with activities. The technology? New surveillance gizmos engender both the excitement and terror of providing broad-reaching access to personal data. The story? A vigilante loses his niece in a hit and vows revenge. Or the skewed, scary, you might even suggest sociopathic social commentary on our near-future through the presentation of seemingly regular folks as deviants in so many creative ways?
At its core Watch Dogs is an open world action thriller encompassing all the gameplay mechanisms you would expect from such a description: running through the streets and alleys of Chicago; driving cars, bikes, even boats, around the open world; shooting bad guys; facing moral conundrums; leveling up, choosing your skills, and dressing the star of the show, Aiden Pearce, just the way you want.
So you get the picture. But it’s how Watch Dogs handles its responsibility as the first great open world game on the shiny new consoles that illustrates Ubisoft’s commitment to this new franchise. The delay was about “polish,” and that could encompass many explanations, but what we see in the final game is scope. This world is deep, filled with personalities that portray a city of deviants living alongside each other in an inter-connected environment where they think they’re acting in private but are actually being monitored all the time.
Aiden Pearce owns the coolest smartphone on the planet—lacking only the basic ability to take a photograph—through which he can hack the city’s systems and communications. This function will ultimately allow him to switch traffic lights, explode steam vents, shut-down helicopters, and, most crucially, hack surveillance cameras. The phone also lets him hack random citizen conversations, the first scratch on the dirty underbelly of this near-future’s deviance. My personal favorite was the text message conversation pulling in the popular autocorrect meme where the sender says she wants him to look at her, ahem, clitoris tonight, he responds that he’s been waiting for this for a long time, but she follows up that she actually typed clothes. It’s a genuine LOL moment I may have just spoiled, but indicative of the tone of conversations flying over the airwaves.
Here you are, tracking down the people behind the hit that ultimately killed your niece, and who now hold your sister hostage. It’s a curious family shift on motivations that may have otherwise elicited a few too many comparisons to Max Payne, but it works effectively enough given the quality voice performances by the stars, matched by the excellent animation that keeps the cinematic styling consistent, contemporary, and in most instances just plain cool.
You work, naturally, with a few close colleagues. There’s sexual tension with the Girl with the BadAss Tattoos. There’s a tremendous cameo by your buddy Jordi, where every conversation is not only natural but sassy and focused. Even some of the cameo appearances are well-voiced, and I could swear I heard Al Michaels as one of the regular citizens jabbering away.
Once you’re out in the world at large you realize just how huge Watch Dogs is. Sure, you can focus your efforts down the core story path, but it’s worth engaging in side missions if only to figure out how certain encounters work. For instance, you may be tasked with infiltrating a base, where you could, if you choose, unleash bullet hell on anyone that steps in your path. Other challenges require a purely stealth approach involving disrupting communications, skulking between cover points, and unleashing brutal and silent takedowns of enemies that get too close.
As an open world game you can hop in any vehicle and drive to your destination. Or take the L-Train, which is occasionally a handy fast-travel alternative, but largely unnecessary. Once you’ve unlocked the ctOS tower in any area you’re free to enjoy the spice of Watch Dogs’ world: Its voyeurism. You get to watch—in digitized format—a guy sleeping while a hooker smokes out of the window; a serial killer slice the fingers from the hand of a likely victim; or a skinny dude engaged in a little doggy style, but when he raises his hands high proclaiming he’s “the king of the world” his partner turns around and slaps him. It’s these vignettes that illustrate a world view that is disturbing, but also funny. Anyone can be watched, and when you peak behind the curtain you might be shocked by what you find.
The core gameplay succinctly blends missions where you must sneak, tail, be quiet, blah blah, with those where the instruction is to go in and kill everyone. As you collect weapons certain mini boss-like enemies appear, who add greater danger to encounters that you may otherwise slip through using your silenced pistol.
Of course you can buy useful items like distracting noise emitters, communication jammers to prevent anyone calling reinforcements, and then a range of explosive devices in the IED mold. It’s possible to craft these items by finding resources around the world, but the economic system is not the most robust. While hacking citizens to steal a handful of dollars or several hundred from the rich kids starts out as an apparent requirement, the ineffective economy means the game provides everything you need, rendering some of these side-functions unnecessary. One moral point, however, is that when I hacked a guy who’s bank account was available, and I learned through a quick graphic he was supporting animal shelters, I left the dude alone; the one who just signed on to a political or moral doctrine that I personally don’t subscribe to…I fleeced that fool.
These pieces serve to craft a city that is teeming with opportunity, features, functions, and danger. It’s possible to blow straight through the core story progression in around 20 or so hours. But in doing so you’d miss so many side missions, many of which aren’t even revealed until you’re deep into Act 3 (of 5) that not only provide opportunities to upgrade abilities through the skill tree, but can also contribute to opening improved skills. It’s an intriguing system whereby side missions aren’t merely story expansions, but actually critical to you pursuing skill opportunities.
Throughout your investigation of this Chicago you receive notices about criminal activity, gang hideouts, fixer contracts, and smaller one-perp incidents that you can choose to accept or ignore. There are locations to check in at, Four-Square-like, QR codes to discover, and more missions that unlock further options to find better gear. This Chicago is a renegade vigilante voyeurist’s dreamtown.
That’s all in addition to the integrated multiplayer experience that has the potential to define Watch Dogs as a thought leader in this newest generation of hardware. Through the iOS or Android companion app, or in-game, you can jump into a friends’ game and instantly create a mission for them, either racing, chasing you down, or if you want, controlling the city functions you manipulate, but use them against your buddy as he tries to race through checkpoints. It’s intriguing because you don’t choose a single- or multiplayer option. You just play the game, and multiplayer opportunities can emerge at any time. How this plays out in practice we won’t know until the world is fully populated, but in our play-test it was a slick, if oddly invasive way to bring this city to life with real people.
I can’t get past the fact that there is so much to do in Watch Dogs it almost feels like too much. Literally, you could spend 100 hours in varied missions that, while they eventually become a little repetitive, are backed by effective AI that makes each encounter sufficiently unique. The voyeurism of invading citizens’ personal space is truly compelling, even if the main story arc is relatively straightforward.
No question that Watch Dogs provides incredible value for your gaming dollar, and its spotlight on a future that may already be happening is compelling and terrifying. I just need to get me one of those phones.
+ Massive open world
+ Voyeurism at its creepiest
- Possibly too big, some bugs
8 / 10