Watch_Dogs: review

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For all of its po-faced posing about corruption, conspiracies and surveillance, the only mystery Watch_Dogs holds is why some marketing moron thought that underscore in the title was a good idea. Well, that, and what black magic the vigilante Aiden Pearce employs in order to blend into the streets whilst wearing an enormously conspicuous trenchcoat (which, incidentally, literally nobody else in the entire city wears).

Painstakingly created and highly impressive at night, Chicago feels alive. On PS4 at least traffic swarms about everywhere, and a huge number of pedestrians are to be found. They wander the streets, travel the trains that regularly clatter along the tracks, sit outside restaurants and casually lounge in stores. Boats are now and again to be seen chugging along the river, and electronic billboards smugly crow the achievements of tech-heavy services and law enforcement. Over the last decade however, we’ve been treated to an embarrassment of riches when it comes to detailed, open-world cities and islands. As a result, this Chicago expertly recreated with artistic license can, at times, feel ironically prosaic.

Turning to the story, we’re still far away from the best WD has to offer. Full of one dimensional and mostly flatly-acted characters – though the actress playing Aiden’s sister does a great job – it’s a forgettable mish-mash of overused plot points. Gruff-voiced white male suffers a family loss, is out for vengeance against a powerful collection of enemies, betrayed by a former partner, conspiracy to uncover, how different is he from those he zzzzz. The potential for meaningful commentary on Big Brother states and covert data collection is missed entirely but, sadly, the opportunity for a major plot twist to be neon signposted hours before the reveal is not.

A leather trenchcoat is absolutely the least likely thing to arouse suspicion, out in the open, on a sunny day.

The good news is that’s virtually all the criticisms out of the way. As the marketing won’t let you forget, you can hack pretty much anything electronic in the city – and this is how WD manages to, mostly, distinguish itself from similar games. Almost everybody in the game is carrying a smartphone. Many of these can be hacked – for cash from bank accounts, a song for your media app, a ‘system key’ for crafting (you can make explosives and anti-electronic devices), or just to spy on a phone call or text chat. As you level up and unlock abilities you can, as well as mess with traffic lights, explode transformers and underground steam pipes & raise/lower bridges, bollards, and spikes. All this is great for escaping enemies while in a vehicle, and timing things just right to wreck a car feels great; but you can also wreak some serious havoc on the hapless Windy City citizens if you’re feeling evil/bored.

The script may not be up to much, but missions are consistently enjoyable and superior to those of GTA – if you take our advice and kick the difficulty up to Realistic. Do that and gunfire will kill you in seconds, encouraging you to make the most of the cover system and – importantly – the features only WD has. Each and every camera scattered across Chicago can be hacked and peered through by you, allowing you to observe enemies without breaking cover and, by jumping from camera to camera, even scope out entire areas without moving in. You can still hack while using a camera, allowing you to remotely unlock doors and open or close shutters. Sometimes you can kill enemies too, by blowing something up when they wander too close or even by hacking a grenade they’re carrying. No, that doesn’t really make sense, but none of the hacking does. Who cares? It’s fun!

There are the obligatory side missions and minigames which, to be fair, are a little more varied and enjoyable than these things tend to be. Special mention must go to the ‘Digital Trips’ which essentially temporarily change the game completely – especially the spider tank. Yes, a spider tank. You can shoot and stomp and jump and climb and it’s frickin’ awesome and you absolutely have to try it.

Surprisingly perhaps the online races are probably the best of the online ‘contracts’, even though driving online gives a noticeable smack to the frame rate. Nothing beats taking out a human opponent with a well-timed hack. The other driving-focussed mode, that pits you against users of the WD app, is also very good. The difference between an AI controlled city and a human controlled one is enormous, and makes for a very challenging checkpoint race.

Vehicles all feel suitably different, but can be a little floaty.

Online Stalking (sorry, Tailing) and Hacking are similar to one another, but worlds apart in difficulty. The basic idea in both is that one player invades the game of another, and must stay close to them undetected. That’s all there is to it in Tailing, but Hacking takes much, much longer – and the hackee can pause the hack (once) too. This puts the hacker at a massive disadvantage given the small area of operation, though defending against attacks is always fun.

Online free roam is self-explanatory (and works very well), with the final mode being Decryption. Two teams race to grab a file somewhere in the area, which they then need to hold in order to decrypt and thereby win the match. Stay close to your team to speed up decryption, but beware – enemies only need to be near you to start stealing the file. It’s a neat twist on the capture & hold concept that encourages teamwork where many such modes don’t. In a nice touch, quit any online session and you remain in the exact same spot in Chicago.

Turn the difficulty up and invasions off (annoyingly, you can’t agree to or opt out of being invaded once it’s begun, which prevents you starting missions) as soon as you begin, and you’ll get the most out of this. With a decent script, a little more science fiction and more widespread humour, it might have beaten GTA at its own game. Perhaps Watch_Dogs2.exe will give us that?

critical score 8

 

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Written by Luke K

He plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. He doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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