‘Watch Dogs’ a hacker’s paradise — slightly predictable, still enjoyable
In the world of “Watch Dogs,” pilfering bank accounts and digging into someone’s most personal secrets is merely a click away. In fact, you’d think with how quickly you can break into into the system that the game would only take … Wait, another side mission?! This time taking down a criminal convoy? OK, where are … Nevermind, let’s play a game of chess with this random character. (I like chess.) If I win 10 games, I can … Now a friend online wants me to join free play?
And this pattern just continues for the innumerable hours you sink into “Watch Dogs,” pulling off hacks with greatest of ease.
You may think I’m exaggerating, and I may be a bit, but that sense of openness — that this technically advanced world is so much vaster than it really is — is by far the most clever trick in this Ubisoft creation.
However, once you settle in and start closing in on 20 hours of gameplay, that veneer of grandness begins to slide off, and you realize that this detailed and gorgeous rendering of Chicago may not be as dynamic as it first seemed.
Don’t get me wrong: The main story line of “Watch Dogs” — that of vengeance and retribution, powerful secrets and moral decline, and a heartbroken uncle just trying to right the wrongs inflicted upon him — is engaging and will entice you into finishing the game’s final chapter. And though anti-hero Aiden Pearce may at first glance only possess the emotional depth of a rock, his antics as we run amok paint quite the different portrait. (Spoiler: He never becomes a font of personality; we only learn more about his quest for revenge.)
The thing is, though, even as we become more enthralled as we get closer to the denouement, the tension that built up for the better part of a real-life day slowly evaporates as we learn the true motives behind those Aiden seeks. For a story poking at the bias and manipulation of media and surveillance, the conclusion comes across as feeling small. These characters we friend and chase become all too human in a game about concepts that are so much bigger.
Speaking of character personalities, though, don’t let Aiden’s ever-stony mug darken your moods. He’s got some interesting and animated cohorts and adversaries to help spice things up. From the hacker ally with a more mysterious aura than Aiden to a brilliant and cavalier fixer to the crazy genius who goes by the moniker T-Bone, we have ourselves quite the motley crew to keep us company while we run wild in Chicago.
Which, for the vast majority of the game, you can do with ease. A major achievement, “Watch Dogs'” open-world system allows you to trek from the rural hills of Pawnee to the sprawl of downtown during just about any part of the game if you choose to break from the main story. And man, does it look stunning. (A tip: Just hang out in the rain for a bit. The animations are beautiful.) I didn’t notice any dip in frames per second during routine adventures, but it did get a bit choppy in the late game for some reason.
But those dips didn’t happen during gameplay, which is good, because I had so many things to do. Well, technically, I only had one thing to do at a time, but “Watch Dogs” is chockfull of side quests and minigames. This hyper-connected city grants us access to a wealth of information, and we can use that to further increase the fun we can have away from the main missions. “Watch Dogs” will generally offer you the choice to go in guns a-blazin’ (murdering everyone in your wake) or slink around and just incapacitate your targets. The choice is yours, thought the game tends to reward stealth if possible (especially since the experience granted at mission end doesn’t change depending on how many baddies you shoot down). The game possess a reputation meter, but it’s just about useless. If you commit a grievous enough crime in public, citizens will call the cops on you. Murdering a bunch of civilians or cops doesn’t you do any good regardless of how it affects the meter, so you’re best off behaving. Of course, that choice is up to you. (A tip: If you do want to go in all man-o-war, Aiden does come with the obligatory time-slowing power, which I never used effectively but definitely saved by bacon a few times.)
Your choices regarding combat are really just a manner of preference because Aiden is skilled in hand-to-hand combat as well as small and large arms. You can choose between being clever (using your Profiler device to hack your environment to your advantage) or you can be upfront and just blow everything up with the much-needed grenade launcher. The locales provide ample coverage, which you will need to survive the firefights.
Those skills tend to reward a bit differently in multiplayer, which ranges from tailing and hacking other players to street races to simple free play. Live humans tend to give you much more trouble than the average in-game character, though I will say that grenade launcher cleans up most situations.
Except for driving, which will instantly take you to “Grand Theft Auto.” The crash physics are a bit ridiculous, and it seems everything is destructible (except for telephone polls; apparently those things are invincible). The car chases, for the most part, are terrible. You can’t fire from the car’s windows, which limits you to just hacking hazards around the city in order to crash the car. I spent quite some time simply crashing cars back into the city so I could actually do something to them.
In the end, “Watch Dogs” is an interesting social piece on the surveillance state and media manipulation combined with a darkly entertaining story premise. You can tackle the game with stealth if you so choose, which adds a nice touch of intelligence to this third-person shooter. And though it can get a bit repetitive (40 fixer missions is a bit much, no matter how much they vary), the world offers you enough options to keep you occupied. Sans the car chases, you’ll find few structural faults in “Watch Dogs.” So gear up, throw on your duster and be ready to throw the city into chaos as you create blackouts wherever you go. But you should remember, “when the lights go out, bad things tend to happen.”
Four “I’ll take that, thanks” stars out of five.
Editor’s note: This version of “Watch Dogs” was reviewed on the PS4, and it also is available for the PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC.