Watch Dogs review: now you see me

This is what we’ve waited for: the next generation of gaming. Watch Dogs is here and it’s an insanely addictive and imaginative game that will hook its digital claws into you for weeks. During the 30-40 hours of main campaign gaming (which I’m so very close to finishing), Watch Dogs twists and turns with loads of genuinely interesting human drama and neat ideas like, why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? An open world like GTA V but with control instead of chaos.  This is a deluxe open world game ripe for the picking which makes you feel increasingly god-like each step of the way. Ubisoft’s snatched pieces from almost every popular game — Mass Effect’s shooting, GTA V’s free-roaming — and improved on them in every way. The game feels a little generic at first, but when the action kicks off and you’ve downed a helicopter by remotely opening a bridge that you promptly ramp over, everything clicks into place.

WD 2

Control is the buzzword of Watch Dogs. Where does power rest, in the arms of leaders or in the hands of an ordinary citizen? And what does power mean, is it about who has the biggest army, or who controls the flow of information? Watch Dogs toys around with these questions and delivers a brilliant answer: you are the key to it all, a Batman-voiced loner with the power to control ctOS (an operating system which runs the city) from a touchscreen phone. Everything governments supposedly fear is personified in Aiden Pearce, a man saddled with the world’s best smartphone. I don’t want to include any spoilers, but the plot is excellent with twists and turns which loop back around each other until everything becomes as clear as day. Initially, Aiden’s motives seem cut-and-paste but his interactions with the other NPC’s bring a genuine warmth and emotion to the medium I’ve yet to experience anywhere else. This is especially prevalent in the earlier cutscenes, with a conversation at a child’s birthday party that made me double-take; while the graphics were not life-like, each character spoke and moved with feeling. A graveyard scene later on had genuine pathos and a brutal killing by a gang leader made my skin crawl. Ubisoft should be commended for this alone.

WD 1

The game itself springs to life thanks to the rock-solid controls and innovative gameplay. Yes, we’ve all played games like this before with similar traits but Watch Dogs refines these to a diamond-honed point. Driving, shooting, being stealthy, running around, hacking, online multiplayer, map navigation and general exploration is an absolute blast on the PS4. Those accustomed to floaty GTA cars are in for a rude awakening: each car carries with it heft and power, and really feels fixed to the road. Shooting controls operate much like GTA’s as well, but with a weapon-wheel and a vast selection of fun weapons to steal or buy. Stealth is ever-present and, at any time, players can evade the enemy and turn from Rambo to Solid Snake. Hacking is intuitive and a quick press of the Square button disables lights, raises bridges or disables helicopters. As I keep saying, it’s like different and amazing gaming puzzle pieces arranged into one cohesive, satisfying whole. And the PS4 will be the console version to beat thanks in no small part to the razor-sharp controls of the DualShock 4.

wd 4

Anything next-generation is benchmarked by graphics and Watch Dogs sets that bar sky-high with insanely detailed textures, realistic smoke and fire, flapping clothes, draw distances that stretch off into the horizon and cut-scene facial animation that conveys emotion as well as LA Noir. Everything also moves at a silky smooth 60fps, with the game only stuttering when I would sometimes join a multiplayer session. So much time has been wasted comparing and lambasting various versions of Watch Dogs; the truth, though, is that those conversations amounted to nothing as the game ran at 1080p as well. I’m sure the Xbox One version will look just as good.

It really sucks you in. I’ve never visited Chicago but judging by the way it’s portrayed in-game, it looks like a vibrant, technologically advanced city. Inorganic structures like towering buildings and vast bridges fare the best, with no dirty aliasing on curved structures or muddy textures to ruin the immersion. And the game varies too, from hulking city centres teeming with life — Watch Dogs is a busy, cramped game in the best possible way — to gang-riddled neighbourhoods and even lush forests. These dead cities from The Last Us are now alive with possibility. Do this for me: when you’re on top of any building, just wait around for sunset and try not to let your jaw drop as the sun realistically vanishes over the glimmering horizon. After turning on one of three power generators during one of the game’s earlier missions, I marvelled at all the subtle lighting effects drawn together to create an artistically stunning display of next-generation power.

This is how a city should look in a game
This being an Ubisoft game, there’s predictably loads to do. Opening the map with a swift click of the touchpad reveals not a city, but a playground swollen and pregnant with fun. Want to play AR shootings games or bounce off flowers like a demented Gummi Bear? Watch Dogs has you covered. Interested in infiltrating gang hideouts with guns a-blazing, or going in like Agent 47? Again, it’s all in Watch Dogs. And like Skyrim, Watch Dogs inundates us with random missions, ranging from online stalking to getaway missions with you as the wheelman. The map is fantastic, the best I’ve ever used in any open-world game and jumping into random missions as you stray away from the plot is a pleasure. Click the touchpad, zoom out, select an activity with X button and exit back into the game world. A thick line leads to the goal, and is drawn on the roads, making it easier to navigate by looking at the game, instead of the map, equalling greater immersion. And immersion is made even more prevalent thanks to the glorious audio.

My Dolby 5.1 sound system transported me into the game. Ambient noise, a dynamic soundtrack with an ingenious music system (you steal music from NPC’s phones which are then loaded onto your music player) and stellar voice acting like this can only be possible on a next-generation console. I can’t imagine that the PS3 or Xbox 360 version would sound as crisp as this. The actors voices resonate with emotion that only the sharpness of high-end audio hardware can provide.

wd 3

And then there’s the multiplayer which is semi-locked for those who don’t have PSN Gold. Hacking and stalking (I like to call it that) is free, but driving and eight-player free-roaming remains locked behind a Sony paywall. I’d like to call this section a “review in progress” as the multiplayer is as deep and as satisfying as the main game. Point in fact, there’s no difference between online and offline and it operates in the same vein as Dark Souls II. You can be invaded by a rival player if you accept the request, or you can hack into their game and silently hide as you pilfer their information. Watch Dogs is a rock-solid game and this excellent foundation brings a stability to online which is both rare and refreshing. Instead of blasting players away, it’s a case of stalking, hacking and hiding. I’ve yet to hop into the free-roam element, but I imagine that it will contain enough fun to warrant months of continued play once the main campaign concludes and the free-roaming missions begin to bore.

The inventiveness extends to the upgrading system where hacking, driving, shooting and more can be upgraded with skill points earned from experience. Pro tip: do as many side missions as you can to boost your stats quickly in the early game. The upgrade tree is filled with cool toys and powers to unlock, with each hacking trick taking you even deeper into the gameplay. It’s like Super Metroid in this respect, as each new power opens up a new part of the gameplay and map, turning you from free-running hacker into an electronic god.

Watch Dogs is an outstanding game, but the learning curve is daunting, even on the normal difficulty setting. Everything is out to get you and enemies are whip-smart, cracking off pinpoint shots as well as flanking, grouping and stalking you with ease. During the initial five- to ten-hour tutorial (again, it’s an Ubisoft game so tutorials extend deep into the main campaign), I died often thanks to the brutal difficulty setting. Remember how easy it was to escape the cops in GTA V? Watch Dogs cops are relentless and outrunning them is nigh-impossible in the first third of the game. But once your powers kick in it’s less of an issue.  

wd 5

As beautiful as the graphics are, it’s not as distinctive as other games. I must give concession for the size of the world, which is enormous (Chicago, baby) but the Autumn theme that runs throughout makes the general game world a little brown and bland sometimes. I admire the developers for shying away from the usual gaming seasons — games are usually set in Winter or Summer — but Autumn isn’t evocative enough for me.

The hacking mini game is also stupid and lame. Whenever the player tries to decrypt a relay box, Watch Dogs changes to a pipe-style puzzle, where players have to form circuit relays into one unbroken pattern. The difference here is that it’s all in 3D, but it’s no less irritating and there’s far too much of it.

Story-wise, it’s all a little confusing until 10-15 hours into the game when it all makes sense but until then, it’s a case of following the GPS to the next objective until something cool happens. And thus end the negative aspects of Watch Dogs. It’s tough to be overly critical as Ubisoft has pumped genuine love into the game and it bleeds quality from every inch of its lengthy playtime.

Watch me play live on Twitch tonight, when I get home after work.

Verdict: I’m still busy with Watch Dogs and it saddens me that I had to rush through many sections of the game to take in as much as possible. There’s so much to do and just walking around the city, hacking into phones and reading text messages can whittle aways hours of gameplay. Watch Dogs is a labour of love and Ubisoft has delivered the best game for PS4 yet. You simply must play it. There’s plenty content, a thrilling storyline and inventive hacking, shooting and sneaking to deal with. I also love how quasi-realistic Watch Dogs is, as its vision of the future is literally a decade away from realisation. Best of all, it’s a believable future packed with clothing, media and music we’re all familiar with. Assassin’s Creed was the testing ground for Watch Dogs, an action-filled, wholly believable game that you simply must experience.

Score: 9

Watch Dogs was reviewed on PS4

Steven Norris: grumpy curmudgeon


Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights. sign up

Welcome to Memeburn

Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest in digital insights.