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Review: Watch Dogs delivers on its 'next-gen' promise

By Rich Wordsworth on Tuesday 27th May 2014 at 7:00 AM UTC

We were home free. As Watch Dogs' hacktavist poster boy, Aiden Pearce, we'd just finished sneaking around a floodlit outdoor facility crawling with shooty corporate henchmen. Our objective had been a computer terminal smack in the middle, surrounded by gantries and armed thugs.

We'd hacked our way into a connecting warehouse, smacked down a witless guard attracted by the noise, and slotted one into the back of the head of a sniper on the upper floor with a silenced pistol.

From there, we'd been a ghost, using the facility's CCTV network to mark guards and study patrol routes. We'd gotten into the computer, grabbed the data, and left the way we came. No-one had suspected we were there. Except the guard we clobbered with our telescopic truncheon.

That should have been it - end of. We were halfway back to the street on our way to 'acquire' some transportation when we had a change of heart, turned on our heels, and marched back into the warehouse.

We passed the body of the unconscious guard, went up the stairs and over to the window. We picked up the rifle from beside the sniper's corpse. From the window, we had a good view of the facility below - an alternate path to completing the mission that we'd ignored in favour of our sneaky-sneaky approach.

We found the guard we wanted through the CCTV camera over his head. Lining up the crosshairs, we checked the Profiler app on our mobile, which gives Aiden a snapshot of every NPC in the game - name, age, occupation and a single other pertinent detail about their lives. This guard's profile said: "Killed a dolphin".

It's in moments like these that Watch Dogs really shines. All the techno wizardry from the game's trailers is just delicious digital icing piped onto a thoroughly modern morality tale - a power fantasy that plays wonderfully on current real-world fears about corporate and government surveillance by putting you on the other side of the public's digital footprint.


As master hacker Aiden Pearce, you have access to data on every person in the city. And with that data, you can do as you like. Are you The Dark Knight's Batman, an ultimately benevolent force for justice using the city's vast surveillance network in the fight against crime?

Or are you Jigsaw from the Saw franchise, spying on the lives of others, judging them for their failings and punishing them according to your own twisted moral code? In Watch Dogs, you can be either, or you can be both.

All good superheroes (and villains, for that matter) need a tragic backstory, and Aiden is no exception. In the game's opening, you learn he's a criminal - a hacker working to siphon money from Chicago's glitterati in the lobby of an expensive hotel.

Naturally, things go wrong, and a shadowy third party puts out a hit on him. The assassins miss Aiden, but kill someone else close to him, setting up Watch Dogs central theme: how far would you be prepared to go for vengeance?

Unfortunately for Aiden's enemies, hackers in Watch Dogs' near-future Chicago can do more than just deface messageboards and deliver people unwanted pizzas. In Watch Dogs, Chicago has become the guinea pig city for a control system called CtOS, which networks all the city's security and utilities - water mains, traffic lights, bridges, trains etc. - together.

It's the sort of thing you might see proposed in a TED talk: a city that runs more efficiently, more securely and without the potential for human error. Until a human error like Aiden comes along.

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As you'll know from the million gameplay trailers, hacking is Aiden's primary weapon against the city's cadre of crooked cops, criminals and shady politicians. Most missions will involve your hacking something - whether that's as part of reaching the objective or the objective itself.

For example, one thing that Watch Dogs likes to do is funnel Aiden into confined spaces - a gang hideout or a CtOS control centre, for instance - and fill it with roving enemies.


Rather than just shooting or stealthing your way through (both which are, in the main, viable options), hacking gives you some more interesting options - the thinking man's approach to villainy. You might, for example, hop on top of a forklift truck while a guard's back is turned and hack it to raise you to the floor above, putting you in a better position to snipe from. Or, you might watch a guard walk unsuspectingly past a steam pipe, then blow it up in his face.

There are enough paths through the missions that it's rare that you're forced to take a life if you don't want to, and hacking gives you plenty of lethal and non-lethal options.

But perhaps the most satisfying way of hacking an objective is to do so without entering the mission zone at all. Aiden can tap into cameras, and then 'jump' from one to another - so long as you can see the next hackable object, Aiden can quantum leap into it, bouncing from camera to camera like a ghostly digital pinball.

So, if your objective is to break into a computer at the end of a slalom of guards, you might be able to jump from one CCTV camera to a second, then into the camera on a guard's security uniform, wait for him to walk around a corner, then jump into the camera on an open laptop opposite your objective, and hack it from there. Then you simply walk away with the clueless plods none the wiser.

Hacking's final - and arguably most critical - use is while driving. On foot, Aiden's a capable fighter and infiltrator, but maybe half the game is spent on the road, usually chasing or being chased by some combination of gangbangers, cops or 'Fixers' - a seemingly infinite supply of gangland assassination squads.

Like GTA, the more trouble you cause, the more doggedly your pursuers will chase you, with the police in particular calling in helicopters, spike traps and SWAT teams. If you can break line of sight and avoid the cops' CtOS scans (expanding yellow circles on your minimap that alert the authorities if they touch you), you can park your car and switch the engine off in the hope that your enemies will get bored looking for you - but it's very easy to find yourself swamped and unable to break away.

Thank goodness for Aiden's smartphone. As you race after or away from enemies, you'll be prompted to control obstacles as you approach them - bridges, bollards, traffic lights and so on. Hacking these objects just right can send other cars crunching painfully to a stop as you swan off to freedom.

"Rather than just shooting or stealthing your way through, hacking gives you more interesting options: the thinking man's approach to villainy"

Most spectacular of all are the underground steam pipes, which blow with enough force to send plumes of boiling water 20 feet into the air and flip anything unfortunate to be above it end over end and out of the pursuit.

Timing is crucial - but clicking in the right stick will activate a temporary Focus Mode (Watch Dogs' answer to bullet time), giving you precious seconds to plan out your destructive strategy and execute it without careering into a river or accidentally bollard-ing yourself in the confusion.

It's a lot of fun, at first. But sadly, the endless pursuits are one of the only parts of Watch Dogs that start to drag as the game goes on.


The number of hacks you can perform is dependent on your smartphone's battery, which is partially used up after each intrusion.

Your battery does recharge and can be upgraded as Aiden levels up, but still takes time, and if you fail to wreck your pursuers with the first charge, chases can turn into repetitive laps of the same block, waiting for a second, third or fourth chance to hit the last bad guy with the same set of raisable bollards. It's not disastrous, but knocking out an enemy that's been obligingly tailing you round and round on the fifth try feels a bit like Aiden should be driving with his L-Plates on.

Finally, Aiden has his one-off hacking gadgets. These single use craftables are dramatically more powerful than his regular arsenal of smartphone hacks and aren't cheap to replace - but boy howdy are they fun. Blackout, for example, kills the power to several city blocks, and is perfect for when a chase gets out of hand and you need to slink off down an alley to lose the cops.

A CtOS Scan reveals every enemy NPC in a wide radius, and is invaluable when trying to sneak through a well-guarded gang hideout or CtOS stronghold. Then there's Jam Communications, or as we call it the 'No-you-bloody-well-don't button'. This disables all radios in the vicinity, preventing nosey, do-gooder pedestrians from calling the cops and enemies from bringing in reinforcements.

There's nothing so tense as seeing the little radio icon appear and start to fill over an enemy's head, then trying to bring up the gadget wheel in time to scramble the call before another half dozen enemies appear (though in a pinch, a well-placed grenade will ameliorate the situation just as effectively).

Slideshow: The locations of Watch Dogs

Sadly, as with the driving segments, hacking on foot feels a bit under utilised. You don't have to knock over many gang hideouts before you settle into a pattern: distract with forklifts, kill with steampipes, electronically pull the pins on grenades, then mop up any stragglers. This sort of gameplay is in Ubisoft's DNA - emptying gang hideouts has that same satisfying cycle of observing, planning and executing as Far Cry 3's pirate camps did.

It's also a shame that, barring one (brilliantly over-the-top) junkyard sequence later in the game, there are almost no great hacking setpieces to break up the bread and butter intrusions. Would it have been too much to ask to have a mission in a factory filled with gruesome industrial machinery? Or some sort of computer controlled robotics lab? Just a little more variation and imagination would have made Watch Dogs' hacking sing.


Not that you're forced into hacking all the time. Watch Dogs has an excellent stealth system that lets Aiden quickly shift between cover and guards can be easily distracted from their patrols using Lures - Metal Gear Solid-esque sticky speakers that draw nearby guards over with suspicious noises. Sneaking is complemented by Aiden's non-lethal, truncheon-happy takedowns, which he performs with the sort of casual brutality that would make Jason Bourne wince.

If things do go to pot, Aiden's a dab hand with firearms, too. While the game only gave us two silenced weapons (the pistol, which we used throughout, and later a submachine gun), you're spoiled for choice when it comes to noisier boomsticks.

Initially, you'll start with assault rifles and handguns. But as you progress, you'll work up to grenade launchers and - most satisfyingly of all - the full-auto shotgun. There's no option to customise weapons (no sticking silencers on sniper rifles - boo), but there are enough vanilla options for you to quickly find a favourite.

The one criticism of the combat is that it falls apart quite readily if you decide to run away. The game seems to expect you'll do the honourable thing: shoot your way out of a firefight, or drive around hacking things until everything following you is on fire. But if you'd rather scarper, we found two reliable methods of ending just about any chase.

The first is to leap from your car and leg it up the steps to one of Chicago's raised train stations. With the right skill upgrade, you can hack trains to go and stop as you please, and once the doors close and the train starts rattling along the line, the police lose track of you almost immediately. The second option is to burn it over to a dock, hijack a boat, and sail like Billy-O away from the shore.


The police don't seem to have boats of their own and will pile up on the jetty, staring out to sea with their guns at the ready, hoping you have a change of heart. Sometimes they'll send a helicopter after you over the water, but once you've taken the skill to disable them temporarily with your phone, they might as well send a seagull.

The AI enemies, then, aren't really up to snuff. But the human enemies are a whole other matter. Watch Dogs' multiplayer includes the standard PvP modes you would expect: you can team up with other players to race or battle against groups of human Fixers for data in a spruced up Capture The Flag-a-like. These modes are fine and functional. Much more fun is the 1v1 challenge in which your Aiden slips into the gameworld of another to pilfer information from their phone for points.

Once you've materialised in another player's game, they'll get an alert that someone is trying to hack them. This begins a tense countdown: the percentage completion of the hacks appears on the screens of both the hacker and the hack-ee, leading to a game of digital cat and mouse as the victim attempts to identify and kill the villain going after his data.

Simple enough, you might think - just look for the Aiden Pearce body double hanging about in a trenchcoat and facemask. But that's the clever thing: while both players' avatars appear to them as Aiden Pearce, to their opponent, they look just like any other member of the NPC crowd.

The only way to identify the other player is up close with the Profiler app or through their behaviour, which leads to some delightfully fraught moments as the hacker when you'll see this apparent lunatic NPC ricocheting between groups of pedestrians before making a beeline for your apparent innocent, and have to decide in a split second whether to continue trying to blend in, or break into a run and leg it for a vehicle.

"While the game only gives you two silenced weapons, you're spoiled for choice when it comes to noisier boomsticks"

Once you've been on both sides a couple of times, you'll start getting sneakier. Sure, you can stand gazing calmly out to sea like you're just any other Joe Digital taking the air, but the closer you get to the 100% hack mark, the smaller the area on the map that your victim will know to hunt you in. Get Profiled and you'll have to escape with your opponent trying to kill you - sloppy stuff.

A much better idea is to start the hack, then hop into a vehicle to hide while it completes. Or begin your intrusion, then hide on a roof. Our most successful hack took place in a graveyard, in which we just hunkered down behind a waist-high tomb.

So concealed, we watched as our hapless victim sprinted insensitively from mourner to mourner, and simply ducked 90 degrees around the side of the tomb whenever it looked like he might spot us. Round and round this tomb we went, while the poor sap climbed on top of graves, peered over walls, and ran up and down stairs desperately searching for us. Not great graveyard etiquette - but wow, what a rush.

But while Watch Dogs' multiplayer is its most definably 'next-gen' feature (visually, incidentally, it's fine - just not as impressive as that original E3 reveal), it's the narrative and the characters that make it such a must-play. Its story, which even you ignore the majority of the sidequests will last you around 20 hours plus, is adult and twisted, with a cast of villains and not-quite-heroes all working their own secretive agendas.

Aiden's journey - like Far Cry's Jason Brody before him - is a chain of progressively murkier decisions and justifications, and the game isn't scared to pull you up short from time to time to ask you if you're really comfortable with the man Aiden is becoming.

That makes all the recent internet hand-wringing over resolution and frame rates doubly egregious. Watch Dogs is smart, punchy, HBO-boxset-worthy storytelling spun together with solid stealth, responsive gunplay and voyeuristic power fantasy. It isn't perfect, and it isn't the graphical supermodel that Ubisoft showed at the game's announcement. But as the 'next-gen' poster child we were promised, Watch Dogs delivers and then some.

The verdict

Forget speculation about textures and framerates - Watch Dogs is a bona fide next-gen proposition with a wonderfully told tale at its heart.

  • Solid stealth, responsive gunplay and thrilling hacking powers
  • Smart, punchy storytelling
  • Multiplayer is a most definably 'next-gen' feature
  • Enemy AI is occasionally clueless
  • A few annoying missions that insta-fail you on detection
PlayStation 4