Watch Dogs - Review

Sequels, prequels, reboots etc. are all usual suspects in the game industry and primarily dominate gaming expos.
Yet, at E3 2012 Ubisoft unveiled a new IP called Watch Dogs. Coming out of nowhere, this new sandbox game promised great visuals, an intriguing ability to hack into personal data and the city's infrastructur, making the open world a flexible playground.
Watch Dogs was THE big talk at E3 2012 and generated quite some hype, even after the big monster of sandbox games, GTA V, was released.
Now, after several delays and resulting concerns, can Watch Dogs still manage to live up to its hype?


The plot:
The story of Watch Dogs follows Aiden Pearce (Noam Jenkins), a skilled hacker and former thug. Eleven months after his actions led to the death of his niece, Lena, Aiden seeks to bring his own form of justice to the culprits by manipulating Chicago's CtOS, or Central Operating System, a supercomputer that controls every piece of technology in the city and contains information on all of the city's residents and activities which can be used for various purposes.
(source: Wikipedia)

Especially nowadays when surveillance issues with the NSA and personal data theft are increasingly becoming an issue, the themes in Watch Dogs story definitely come off as being the main selling point from a narrative standpoint.
Whereas the fiction of a super-computer controlling and entire city is surely nothing that is happening right now, the game's roots are definitely not too far fetched. A hacker underground slowly taking over the control of an entire city is quite something we haven't seen in a sandbox game been done before, whereas the game additionally tackles some quite .
Yet, however well involved the hacker-themes in Watch Dogs' story are, the game suffers from Aiden's inconsistent emotional story.

Even though characters' motivations are made perfectly clear, Aiden Pierce as the game's main character often tends to feel like a revenge-action-movie stereotype. Aside from the info of him being on a revenge quest and him being a hacker, only very few information is given throughout the game's story that would succesfully establish Aiden as a charismatic human being with a private life, which the game itself though heavily wants us to believe.
While Aiden's stubborn behaviour of almost fanatically trying to pursue his niece's killers is causing believable family trouble with his sister and nephew, emotional moments between Aiden, family and friends only tend to show the desired impact towards the campaign's final missions.

Revenge plot incoming.

Ultimately, Watch Dogs' very linear story is not a bad one but not a fully fleshed out one either when looking at the character-driven aspects of it. Aiden is often referred to as a broken persona (like Max Payne) though he still rather remains uncharismatic, flat and mostly fails to deliver the actual guilt and torment he is supposedly suffering from. In that sense, many aspects of the game's revenge story end up feeling very "by the numbers" and standard, making Aiden himself sadly feel like the least interesting character of the game, especially compared to other far more interesting side-characters you meet throughout the story like Jordi or T-Bone.

Watch Dogs 14-15 hour campaign is quite a lengthy one and, despite its predictable narrative conventions, still qualifies as a fairly good storyline accompanying the game's fun gameplay.
Though it will be hard to get into the story's mix of hunting down Lena's killers, fighting conspiracy and keeping your family together, its pace succesfully gets more dynamic and interesting at about the middle act of the story resulting in an overall satisfying campaign experience.

Jordi would've made for a much more fun and interesting main character.


Open World - "A Living, Breathing Network"

Though not as varied and grand as the different locations of Los Santos in GTA V, Ubisoft's recreation of a vivid, believable Chicago centered under a digital umbrella is quite something impressive.
Aside from taking adventage of all of the game's hacking opportunities, like for example profiling each citizen with his own unique data, there's always something interesting and unexpected to see in Watch Dogs' open world.
Especially citizens roaming around the streets and credibly following their daily routines make the immersion in this open world work remarkably well. Simply by exploring Chicago you will come across random car accidents, people arguing, criminal acts, people rapping together, homeless people urinating against walls and much much more. Furthermore, each of the citizens features an own specific occupation, income, and other personal characteristics, which are well varied enough that players' mostly won't come across two citizens with the same informations on them.
All in all, citizens in Chicago behave like real unique persons, who will run away paniced when you suddenly pull out a gun, or who will actually call the police if they spot criminal incidents.
In a game, where copy and paste routines in creating the open world's citizens are very easy to spot, Ubisoft did a great job in making the game's random citizens unique enough to make most of the profile-hacking and the world of Chicago itself lively.
The fact that Watch Dogs' open world might come off as a bit monotone for some, due to it being pretty much entirely focussed on the city landscape of Chicago (including its suburbs), is easily forgiven seeing that the game's core hacking abilities wouldn't even make sense in forests or desert areas like in GTA. 

Chicago is impressively recreated.

Hacking and Stealth - "Big Brother is Watching You"

Hacking is of course the main core feature in Watch Dogs' gameplay, which ties into pretty much every single aspect of the game.
While there are also some Bioshock-esque hacking pipe-turning-mini-games to be done occasionally, hacking in Watch Dogs' missions usually involves identifying targets (people or devices) and interacting with them.
Hacking itself though is so far away from the actual hacking complexity in real life, where it doesn't even remotely compare to the hacking feature from for example Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Yet, to fit the game's flexible pace, hacking in Watch Dogs is mostly simply done via the press of a button after locking onto the specific device you want to hack.
Even though the hacking therefore might be quite too heavily simplified for some players, hacking can be used in almost every area of the game. Profiling people from the streets to redirect money from their bank accounts, steal music, eaves drop, detect crime and much more is all done via hacking from your cellphone, making it one of your most valuable weapons throughout the entire game.
And a weapon it is indeed. Not only people informations can be hacked but also several different gadgets and devices like traffic lights, fuse boxes and much more, to give you an edge over tough situations. Whereas, for example, traffic lights or road blocks will cause traffic chaos during pursuits and help you lose the cops, fuse boxes can be overloaded by hacking them to cause lethal explosions to get rid of enemies.
However overpowered all the simplified hacking via phone might seem (though it of course IS to a certain extent overpowered), the game never really feels too easy, even though seemingly everything around you is hackable.

Shocked to see you there.

Hacking itself almost always involves stealthily approaching a mission in Watch Dogs, in which "line of sight" is the key.
Mostly by jumping from hacked surveillance camera onto another surveillance camera a device can only be hacked as long as it is in your view. For example hidden panels are therefore made viewable (and therefore hackable) when the player virtually tours the building from cam to cam looking for it.
It even goes so far that some cameras occasionally are attached to certain guards, turning them into unknown mobile platforms for your handy work.
Even though this is of course a gameplay mechanic that is very far fetched from reality, it offers quite some nice freedom in how to stealthily tackle situations. The downside on this however, is the fact that, especially during campaign missions, finding a specific hidden device in a building becomes more or less something of redundant busywork when it gets obvious that after jumping from your last cam you have to stare around the room till you find the next one. This sadly defeats any real strategy during the campaign's hacking-stealth missions.
Nevertheless, this luckily changes when the campaign's guiding hand isn't as appartent during infiltration side-missions of CtOS bases. There, the player is given much more strategic freedom, due to the fact that a pre-destined, linear stealth-path of the campaign missions isn't there anymore.
Infiltrating the base with guns blazing or hacking/infiltrating it without even stepping inside gives a satisfying feel of choice and strategic thinking, which slightly overcomes the otherwise plain obvious hacking paths of some fairly linearly designed campaign hacking-missions.

Yet stealth approaches in Watch Dogs aren't completely limited to ranged hacking though. Players can of course also play more traditionally by taking cover, knocking out guards or making use of various gadgets to lure enemies away, let them be taken out by traps or jam their com signals.
Especially in this context-sensitive stealth, Aiden's physical stealth mechanics turn out to be a big amalgamation of mechanics from other popular Ubisoft titles like Splinter Cell and most notably Assassin's Creed (even going so far that they share the same prompt icons).
Though this isn't necessarily something negative, it is undeniably recognizable and sadly robs Watch Dogs' opportunity to establish an own character to a certain extent.  

Do those prompt icons look familiar?

Combat / Offensive Play - "Hit and Run"

Looking at all of Watch Dogs' campaign missions as a sum, they are a respectable mix of hacking and gunplay with some freedom of choice apparent here and there.
With that said, especially during gunplay driven combat, Watch Dogs evokes quite some flashbacks to GTAs shooting driven missions. And despite all the hacking, there are definitely some missions primarily laid out for shooting in Watch Dogs.
The general gunplay in Watch Dogs is a very fun affair, especially considering the game's large arsenal of weapons and the ability to seemlessly incorporate creating booby traps by hacking certain objects and devices.
While some slightly unresponsive cover mechanics occasionally spoil the fun, shootouts in Watch Dogs happen to be quite tougher than the much more casual gamer friendly GTA games. Surprisingly enough, enemies in Watch Dogs are quite skilled opponents when it comes to directly attacking you. Though they are still quite some blocks away from having the smartest enemy AI in gaming, their ability to precisely shoot at you, chase you and especially strategically flank you, makes many of the game's shootout moments quite tough and exciting as far as third-person shooters go.
Sadly though, despite Watch Dogs being primarily about hacking, shooting your way through an enemy infested area mostly seems like the easiest and most efficient way through some of the game's segments.
Especially in pretty annoying missions, when you are supposed to lead a friendly NPC through a guarded territory while you are supervising him via hacked cam, simply clearing the area of foes to guarantee a save escape way for your partner happens to be the most frustration-free and easy way in such missions.

Yet, being the vigilante that he is, Aiden is not only hated by criminal gangs but also the police.
Chases are therefore another big aspect of Watch Dogs gameplay, making driving vehicles essential.
During missions you are frequently engaged in car chases, either from the cops, gangsters or when you are pursuing a target while smashing everything in your way and creating chaos by hacking road blocks, traffic lights and more.
The driving mechanics in Watch Dogs aren't entirely perfect and have some occasionally goofy crash physics but are very responsive for the most part. Sharp turns, drifting and especially hacking devices while being chased feels very intuitive and is incredibly gratifying when you actually take out a cop car by hacking the traffic lights, road blocks or steam pipes.
Just like in other respectable sandbox games, every vehicle is accessible in Watch Dogs, from usual cars, to motorcycles over to boats.
However, why there are no planes, helicopters and other flying vehicles to be used, and why the police doesn't have any police boats to chase you with, remains a mystery.

So satisfying.

Side Missions and Mini Games - " Doing the Routine and Driving Spider Tanks"

Aside from its lengthy story, Watch Dogs, being the sandbox game that it is, of course has its big share of side missions and mini games to distract you from the main story campaign and to extend your experience.
While some of these activities are found on specifically marked points on the map, others are discovered by simply scanning the crowd with your phone.
The side activities in Watch Dogs are remarkably comparable to the (limited) variety of side missions from the Assassins Creed franchise. Therefore, instead of dealing with quirky and interesting weirdos like in GTA V, side missions in Watch Dogs are classified into specific types of side missions making them sadly very predictable. Most of the side missions fit Pierce in his role as a hacker-vigilante and don't actually stray too much away from objectives that you already encountered in some missions of the main campaign. Driving through specific checkpoints on a timer while the police is chasing you, taking out an enemy convoy, etc. are all solid fun but mostly tend to get gradually more repetetive due to the missions' predictability.
In typical Ubisoft fashion, cracking a region's CtOS tower will unlock said region's overview of all objectives and fast travel points on the map (just like in Far Cry 3 and Assassins Creed).
However, next to the fun freedom of infiltrating a CtOS base, it's surprising that especially the unpredictably occuring side activites turn out to be the most fun. Oftentimes, simply as you are making your way through the city, you will eventually get notified via phone of some criminal event or other activity taking place near you. Those small sudden side activities like preventing a crime to happen, catching a thief, taking part in crime scene investigations or snooping around in people's homes via hacking into their private cams might ultimately be very trivial, but succesfully manage to distract you and breathe additional life into the city and its population.

Invasion of your privacy.

On top of usual mini games like Poker, etc., you can take part in mini games that unexpectedly completely derive from the game's main narrative and let you go bonkers.
For example, Cash Runs give you set routes to run through cash symbols putting your parcour skills to the test, while other trippy games like "Invasion" pose as a parody of Space Invaders, with the player having to blast spawning Space Invader bugs on the streets.
Speaking of "trippy", then there are the "Digital Trips", which go even further.
Obviously mimicing the LSD-Weed-missions from GTA V, Digital Trips are mostly like digital drugs that put the player into crazy hallucinogenic mini games.
There, you are either having to bounce across trippy giant flowers in a platforming level, control a huge spider-tank destroying everything in sight, or drive a hellish Mad-Max-like car through demon hordes to ramp up your score.
Especially the Digital Trips are something very unexpected in Watch Dogs, and even though the sillyness knows no bounds in those mini games, they serve as very fresh and unpredictable distractions that are mostly even more fun than the actual side missions.
Whether their inclusion into the game is a wise decision or not is completely up to the player, but considering that those trippy mini games remain completely optional side activities, they won't bother uninterested players too much.
Yes, this is still Watch Dogs.


Different from colossal multiplayer sandbox projects like GTA Online, Watch Dogs' online component is very straight-forward with its game modes and easy to get into, resulting in an ultimately solid multiplayer.

Whereas the usual online racing puts you against other opposing players in races that heavily remind one of the 2009 game Split/Second, with players altering the race courses through hacking during the race, it's especially the mode "Decription" and "Hacking and Tailing" that stand out.

Decription puts you and other players into larger opposing groups attempting to hold onto a specific file while it decodes. Yet, unlike similar modes in other games, in which you have to defend your position, enemy players can always steal the file wirelessly as long as they get within range.
This aspect keeps the player groups constantly on the move making not only for great shootout moments but also great chases throughout the city. Most notably the latter moments, in which your team has to chase down the hacker via cars, makes this mode very flexible and fun.

Another pretty fun online feature is Hacking and Tailing. This mode is far more focussed on two players.
There, one of the two players hacks a file from another one in the game's open world. Whereas stealthily tailing the targeted player isn't too hard to accomplish, hacking turns out to be a bit trickier. Due to the fact that the hacked player is notified when he is being hacked, he can try to locate you and chase you down after you stole his file, basically switching the roles and turning the hunter into the hunted.
Considering that this can suddenly happen anywhere in your game (as long as online features are activated) Hacking and Tailing is pretty unpredictable and fun when you are willing to give into it during your regular play.

All this mayhem because of a tiny file.


Watch Dogs' graphics have been topic for quite some controversy, especially in 2014, when fans of the game noticed that it looked significantly more downgraded in its visuals, judging from what they saw in the trailers.
While the game certainly (for some reason) indeed doesn't look as impressive and polished as in the E3 2012 presentation, Watch Dogs is still an overall good looking game (for a comparison video click here). 
Next to the aforementioned vivid recreation of Chicago and its inhabitants, the game has a nice sense of detail. Great looking explosions and smoke, nice particle effects, trees blowing in the wind, convincing weather conditions and much more make Watch Dogs a beautiful, although not outstanding, game.
All the praise aside, details on character models vary from pretty good to stiff and "too polished".
Additionally, the PS4/XboxOne versions of the game happen to feature a quite stable framerate throughout, while most notably the PS3 version is unfortunately said to feature significant screen-tearing and framerote drops that hamper the fun.


Voice acting work in Watch Dogs is mostly solid, varying from character to character. Just like the writing of the characters themselves, voice acting for certain side-characters like Jordi simply happen to out-perform Aiden Pierce both in terms of "fun to listen to" and simple quality of credibility.
Furthermore, weapon sounds are equally scattered in quality. Usual assault rifles sound surprisingly very underwhelming (they sound like pellet guns), whereas they suddenly sound awesome when the slow-motion feature is activated. 
Aside from the guns, the explosion- and car crash sounds in Watch Dogs are superb. Not only do they look good, but you can clearly hear the tiny bits of glass shatter and metal hitting onto the concrete.
What's a complete throwaway however, is the game's absolutely generic and flat selection of music on the radio. Mostly oriented on "what's cool rock music nowadays", the music selection in Watch Dogs is nowhere nearly as varied, catchy and simply well chosen enough to stand a chance against the radio stations from the GTA franchise.
The best option here is to simply turn-off the radio when you enter a car (or have it automatically turn-off through an option in the settings menu).    

"The E3 2012 graphics! Where are they!?"

The Verdict

Watch Dogs sure isn't a revolutionary game that will put the sandbox genre on its head. For the most part however, the game simply poses as a great and fun open world shooter with some unique gameplay features through the hacking mechanics, that will ultimately make it worth your time.
Though clearly very simplified, the "hackings via button press" are good enough to ensure their flexible trigger-like use during various situations in the game, either in stealth or direct combat.
Furthermore, Watch Dogs' story is very straight-forward with its pace only starting to really pick up at about the middle of the campaign. Yet, looking at all of the content the developers put into the game, the already lengthy campaign in Watch Dogs can well extend to the 30+ hour mark considering all the other things to do in the open world.
While side-mission variety is fairly limited and predictable, it's especially the solid online features, trippy mini games and other trivial side activities that will catch your attention for a some while.

Considering that the hacking feature is really the only truely unique aspect about the entirety of Watch Dogs' gameplay, this makes the game only to some extent live up to its ridiculous hype.
With still many aspects of the game clearly borrowing from other popular franchises like Assassins Creed and GTA, possible future sequels of the game have to bring a bit more novelties to the table to make Watch Dogs actually establish a really distinct own character.
Nevertheless, don't let this hold you back from playing the game. It's a solid and fun experience in Ubisoft's well crafted, vivid city of an interconnected Chicago.

 Final Verdict: 7 out of 10 

Status: Good

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