Watch Dogs has its moments.
Interconnected future Chicago is a hacker's playground. You'll infiltrate heavily guarded compounds without even setting foot in the building, leaping between CCTV cameras like a digital ghost. You'll turn car chases into carnage as you detonate sub-street steam pipes and raise bridges, speeding away from pile-ups that would make Elwood Blues doff his fedora. Vindictive players will terrorise panicking criminals by remotely sending them threatening texts and arming their grenades, an unseen terror who eventually sneaks in to mop up stragglers with a baton and silenced pistol.
When its hacking, gunplay, stealth and driving come together, the result is pure water cooler magic.
Unfortunately these moments are wrapped in an open-world game that's arguably too big, flabby and formulaic for its own good, but they still make Watch Dogs well worth playing.
Criminal hacker Aiden Pearce finds himself on the wrong side of Chicago's secret digital oligarchy after a botched hotel heist, resulting in an equally botched hit that sees his niece killed and family fractured. His grief manifests in horrific fashion sense and a burning desire for revenge, returning to the city with smartphone in hand and extreme vigilante ultraviolence in mind. What follows is a good twelve-to-thirty hours of driving, shooting, hacking and open world shenanigans.
The story is solid and engrossing by open-world game standards, yet shies away from making much of a statement about anything in particular, more a grim personal revenge tragedy than a parable about the evils of surveillance. That's actually the way I like it, but it's a shame that the sweary narrative steadfastly refuses to have any fun beyond a couple of vaguely interesting characters, such as the flamboyant yet mentally unhinged fellow 'Fixer' Jordi Chin. He's fantastic, revelling in the freedom of a fully-hackable city in scene stealing style, and definitely should have been the main character.
Aiden proves to be an underwhelming new frontman at first, uninteresting and po-faced to a fault while being too inconsistent to ever really sympathise with. This is a man who claims to be a vigilante yet automatically steals from every car he boosts, stops crimes yet doesn't return the stolen goods and actively works for criminal elements to earn literal beer money. Then breaks off his quest for justice by participating in drinking contests or silly augmented reality challenges; running down pedestrians en route even as cutscenes try to convince us that he's deep and edgy and cool and not at all a dense blob of game protagonist clichés that walks like a man, honest.
He'll grow on you. Eventually you'll make peace with the fact that Aiden is motivated by revenge, not absolute justice, which explains his inconsistent moral compass as little more than self-justification. Or you can just blame head trauma from one too many car crashes.
Luckily he's not the star of the show. Chicago is, or more accurately the wealth of ways in which you can digitally subvert the Windy City and its inhabitants with only the X button.
Walking down the street lets you profile NPCs for pithy and smirk-worthy personal information, dip into their bank accounts and eavesdrop on their conversations, throwing up new objectives on the fly such as in-progress crimes or hidden dead drops. You can hack routers and peer into their homes a little like a virtual Rear Window, adding context and personality that's often lacking from open-world games. All mapped to X or Square. As the entire city is linked together by ctOS, it feels more connected and more alive than any number of sandbox games, or at least sells the illusion for long enough to get your money's worth.
As you'll doubtlessly know, however, Aiden's magical smartphone is capable of more than larceny and voyeurism. You can leap between any CCTV cameras in the vicinity, using your omniscient perspective to identify targets, scope out the and wreak havoc. Anything can be hacked so long as you have line of sight and subverted to devastating advantage. Power transformers turn into bombs that cut power to the whole block, steam pipes explode, solar panels become cover points to sneak between. Even enemies can be hacked into via battle dress cameras, distracting blackmail texts or even activating any carried explosives with devastating results.
The best story missions make full use of Aiden's abilities in a number of relatively open environments that let you mix stealth and hacking with solid Splinter Cell-inspired combat; packing weighty guns, click traversal and a fantastic cover system. You can use your abilities on the fly, pursuing criminals or mid-firefight, whereas many optional missions let you remotely cause havoc or hack into guarded server compounds by creatively hopping between different cameras - without even setting foot on the premises or harming anyone at all. Whether Aiden becomes a stealthy digital ghost or a vengeful poltergeist is entirely up to you. It's empowering, hilarious and absolutely bloody wonderful.
Unfortunately the gunplay often overshadows the hacking aspect, since firearms are far too easy to get hold of. When you can buy a grenade launcher over the counter (which is legal in present-day Chicago, by the way, you just can't purchase the ammo), it's all too tempting to just launch a grenade rather than cleverly hack your way to victory. Worse, you'll get more XP for shooting people in the head than creatively and bloodlessly completing objectives. It's one of several ways Watch Dogs encourages behaviour that's at odds with its mission statement, joined by a sickening embarrassment of instant-fail stealth and/or tailing objectives that restrict freedom, not promote it.
"Hacking is your weapon." No, Ubisoft, "grenade launcher is my weapon." Be sure to impose self-discipline to enjoy Watch Dogs' innovative elements to the full.
Aiden can't shoot while driving, however. We like this immensely, because Watch Dogs makes perfect sense when you're behind the wheel. Once you've mastered the slippery arcade handling (Pro Tip: neither accelerate nor break while steering), you'll hurtle through the streets pursuing terrified mobsters or hounded by police (sometimes both), sliding and screaming around corners, through parking structures and across train tracks. Chicago seems to have been designed for cars rather than humans, boasting numerous routeways, shortcuts, jumps and destructible barriers.
GTA this ain't - everything is exaggerated and generous to a satisfying degree, with even pathetic little people-movers becoming ruinous tanks when Aiden leaps into the driver's seat. A simple matter of hacking into any parked car with no fuss or ordering a delivery from Jordi that arrives within seconds.
Add hacking and you've got a recipe for fun, fun, fun. Who needs a gun when you can raise bollards directly in front of police cruisers, resulting in a slow-motion multiple car pileup? Never mind grenades, why not take down your fleeing quarry by switching every traffic light to green, crushing them to death at the next intersection, or detonate subterranean steam pipes directly beneath them? Why drive on the ground when you can raise any bridge you want and fly? Ubisoft are clearly Blues Brothers fans as we're free to re-enact the best car chases in their entirety any time we want, and even set up a custom blues soundtrack too. Though admittedly I also have a little Alice Cooper and Smashing Pumpkins on mine for flavour.
So Watch Dogs has all the gameplay elements it originally promised: hacking, stealth, driving and shooting tied together with a slow-motion focus mechanic that gives you the time you need. It should be great -- it is great -- but unfortunately it isn't perfect. Not by a long shot.
If the gameplay lives up to expectations, the graphics don't. Watch Dogs is still a handsome game, boasting sumptuously fluid animations and gorgeous night-time vistas, but the fidelity and crispness just isn't anywhere near the levels we were previously shown (especially in screenshots). Frame rate can occasionally suffer on Xbox One, too, while the physics definitely aren't worth writing home about. Stylish and genuinely pretty in parts, especially the sunshine after a heavy rainstorm that picks out pools of surface water, but no next-gen benchmark.
The AI also seems to have taken a hit since I last saw it. Pedestrians often won't leave their car when you crash into them yet leap for cover when you vaguely drive somewhere near them, a far cry from the 'stim'-powered emotions model I was shown in the production build. Hardened criminals will blithely ignore hordes of pedestrians saying "are you feeling alright, buddy?" as they walk past Aiden crouching behind a wall in broad daylight. The police are also somewhat quirky, balancing their complete lack of water vehicles (hence you can escape by river with ease) by blasting out nonsensical scanning circles that can detect Aiden even if he's behind several walls or in a different car. Seriously, does Chicago PD put a crystal ball in every cop cruiser?
Watch Dogs' biggest problem, ultimately, is its ridiculous amount of padding. We're all about open-world offering value for money, but Ubisoft were clearly desperate to cram their game full of recycled "content" without thinking about whether it fits the setting or character.
Hacking into a regional ctOS control tower in an environmental camera puzzle makes sense, but randomly racing around between arbitrary checkpoints for criminals does not. Pursuing rival fixers may be a thrill, especially during online invasions that suddenly throws a rival player into your session for tense cat & mouse minigames, but finding dozens and dozens and dozens of 'investigation' missions boils down to standard open-world bumf we've played dozens of times before. Hacking into gang hideouts is fun, but QR code challenges are just rehashed Mayan Stelae from Assassin's Creed IV.
More to the point, Aiden is not the kind of guy who'd put his thirst for vengeance on hold to participate in drinking competitions or run around playing idiotic AR games in public places, exposing his face and leaving himself vulnerable! It's ridiculous, despite the virtual spider tank minigame admittedly being rather fun.
Put simply: Watch Dogs is fat. Dangerously, morbidly obese. It's twice the size that it needs to be, stuffed full of optional junk food that tastes the same as everything we've tried before and waters down the original premise. Every nonsensical street race or AR challenge makes Watch Dogs feel just a little bit more generic, more like a GTA or Saints Row clone than its own unique entity. Ubisoft should have trimmed Watch Dogs down, made it muscular and powerful, not overfeed it like Mister Creosote. Just one wafer-thin street race?
But ultimately it's optional content. Stuff you can skip if you want to, but dabble into if you have the time. Personally you'll find me listening to classic blues and hooning a cop cruiser over raised swing bridges, watching a throng of police cars flipping out of control in slow motion. Just because I can. After agonising over the score for several days, I feel that the Watch Dogs slots perfectly into our rating criteria.
- Hacking and camera-snooping is revolutionary and relevant
- Rock-solid shooting and stealth
- Drift-heavy driving lets you cause havoc with power slides and city hacks
- Compelling storyline (at least by open-world standards)
- Some great missions and surprisingly enjoyable online invasions
- Enormous; countless opportunities to make your own fun
- Overly grim and gritty; Aiden is a complete tool
- Guns, grenade launchers and unbalanced XP rewards can overshadow creative hacking
- Too many instant-fail missions
- Shockingly padded and flabby; deeply inconsistent optional mission design
The Short Version: Watch Dogs is a revolutionary sandbox that redefines player freedom and choice... that was subsequently eaten by a big bloated open-world game that takes less risks than it should.
Watch Dogs 2 will need to focus and turn fat into muscle, but the fact remains that Ubisoft have delivered a huge versatile game that can be enjoyed on your terms. Combat, stealth and driving are all strong enough to impress, while hacking constantly provides new opportunities for violence, evasion, chaos, mischief or plain old voyeurism. You can still see the fiercely unique hacking game just behind the bloat, and better yet, play it.