Watch Dogs Review

By Darryl Kaye on June 12, 2014

Watch Dogs arrived to much fanfare when it initially debuted at E3 2012. Not only were the demos visually stunning, but there was also a certain swagger exuded by the ability to hack into the city's IT infrastructure for personal gain. It offered up a much needed extension to the standard sandbox experience and opened up a whole new realm of possibility "“ something that intrigued gamers around the world.

Taking up the role of Aiden Pearce, you have a whole world of hacking possibilities at your finger tips. Offered up as a classic dark hero, Pearce is seeking revenge against those who killed his niece and although he does enjoy taking down a scumbag or two, he isn't all that bothered about who gets in the way.

There are multiple facets of the story to consider, as not only does Pearce have some very dangerous and volatile acquaintances, he is also playing with some very powerful people in the city. It means that life is never straight-forward or quiet and that there are clear drivers, even if they aren't always directly related to Pearce's end goal.

As supporting casts go, the variety is great. The core characters, like Clara, Raymon and Damien have more than enough personality and are believable in their roles. Jordi Gomes is also a stand-out character in his role as Aiden's reluctant side-kick and it's a shame he wasn't utilised more often in the story. There are times when he is just so matter-of-fact about everything that's going on, and it creates some classic dialogue sequences. Even the minor characters draw actions and emotions out of Pearce in relatable ways and the writers clearly were not afraid to shy away from some hard hitting subjects, such as the criminal underbelly of a city like Chicago.

The downside comes with the lack of depth in the story itself. Yes, the story does have multiple facets, but they don't ever amount to much and despite the very strong stimulus, when elements start to conclude there is no real surprise evoked because everything is already quite clear. What should have been huge moments of significance are more greeted with a shrug than anything else and given that it's a game about mystery and shrounds of secrecy, the story has almost no mystery at all. It can't help but overshadow all the good that surrounds it. Another omission seems to be the development of characters. With such a strong foundation laid out by Pearce and the supporting cast, none of them really develop - especially Pearce who is pretty much the same person at the start and the end. With everything that happens, you would expect to see some kind of change.

As a hacker by trade, Pearce uses this as the primary tool to get what he wants. This could be something simple like money, or also a distraction. At a basic level, this gives him the ability to hack into people's data via their mobile phones, but it also gives him licence to manipulate certain parts of the city, such as bridges, electricity transformers and traffic lights.

These mechanics will come into play at different times, but the majority will be related to skirmishes. When driving, you can use the same mechanics in a defensive or offensive light, and when on the ground you can either use mechanics to create distractions or to incapacitate. It really is up to you and it gives the player a lot of choice as to how they want to play. You can either go into environments all guns blazing, or go in stealthily, using cameras to spot weaknesses that can be exploited.

The combination of hacking and guns, especially silenced, does make for a smooth gameplay experience. In many ways, it's a bit disappointing that this goes out the window a bit as the game progresses, but it's nice while it lasts. It does present some strange problems though, as there is a strong emphasis on killing - there are no non-lethal firearms - yet the only way you can subdue people is by physically assaulting them. This is fine, unless you're going up against huge armoured convoys and Pearce decides... actually, I don't want to kill these goons, I just want to teach them a lesson. It makes you wonder why. Why do certain enemies get treated differently? Who knows, aside from the developers who clearly just wanted to try and add a bit of variety, but had no real justification for doing so.

Despite its strengths, again, the same flaws could be levelled at the mechanics as with the story. A lot of what's there is strong, but there is again no real depth of any significance. Pearce is already very adept at the start of the game, so a lot of what's unlocked by the skill tree is about having fun, or doing it bigger - there is no real development. You will unlock skills that will never be used and utilisation is often just a case of pressing on "neutralise" if you're given the option.

With the amount of side quests available, you will be doing a lot of neutralising, so at least your hacking will get put good use. These range from taking down armoured convoys, to raiding gang hideouts and spying on people's private lives. There are well over 10 different types of side quest to try out, some with their own unique stories. The city is also full of lots of games you can play to pass the time, such as chess and drinking challenges. It helps to create a good atmosphere, like there is always something going on no matter where you are. Sometimes this can be a little distracting, but it's rarely detrimental.

What can be considered detrimental is the online. Not only is there a significant bug that crept in which, if suffered, can reset all your progress, it also doesn't really add anything to the equation of note. It's a little bit cool when encountered as part of the story, but apart from that it's just completely superfluous. Aside from wanting to complete the skill tree, there is very little appeal in taking part in the online and people invading your game just gets very tedious after a while - it's much easier to just turn it off and pretend it never existed in the first place. The concept is quite cool, what with the whole connected world and the role of fixers in the story, it just doesn't really work in practice.

With that out of the way, it's now perhaps the best time to address the elephant in the room - the visuals. Even on the next-generation systems, the game struggles to match the high-level of expectation offered up following its unveiling. It still looks good though, but it has the feel of a game developed on last generation's technology that has been ported up, as opposed to the other way around.

Final Thoughts

Watch Dogs has proven itself as a very strong, capable new IP that Ubisoft can add to its ever expanding portfolio with the confidence that in the future, they will be able to expand on it further. There are some clear question marks, such as the less than favourable online play and the rather one-dimensional story, but there are plenty of positives too in the form of the hacking mechanic and the character roster.

The supporting cast are diverse and provide substance to the story.
Hacking is a very novel concept.
Tons of side quests.
Online is just pointless.
No real development in either the characters or gameplay.
Story is a tad on the predictable side, which is disappointing for a game of this nature.
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