Watch_Dogs has been causing a stir ever since it was announced back at 2013’s epic E3. Its blend of hacking, driving and shooting in a gorgeous, fully-realised open-world near-future setting has been screaming “look at me!” since those early days, and look we have.
Our looks have been tempered with hope that the final game will be as good as, if not better than those countless videos, developer interviews and online discussions have led us to believe it could be. The more cynical among us – myself included – have been steeling ourselves for letdown.
Well, having spent the last three days playing Watch_Dogs, I can loudly proclaim that the game is in no way a disappointment. In fact, it’s proved even better than I had hoped – a true rarity in this day and age. It proved even more fun to play than it is to watch thanks to the many options hacking the city’s amenities provides, and there is so much to do over and above a truly superb story that you’ll be kept busy for a long time after the credits roll.
This is a one-of-a-kind game that no gamer should miss.
L33t [email protected]
Playing as Aiden Pearce, gamers step into a future where Chicago has been taken over by a new, automated operating system called CtOS that controls absolutely everything. Every gadget, gizmo, invention and electronic device has a computer chip in it that’s linked to CtOS, and of course while it’s mostly secure, there are those with the ability to “hack” the system and put its many disparate parts to work for their own purposes. Pearce is one of them.
Driven by guilt over harm he caused his family through a hack job that went wrong, Pearce is forced into the seedy underbelly of future Chicago and into the reluctant service of people he’d rather not deal with. With the help of allies he picks up along the way, he must follow the breadcrumbs he uncovers to save his family and get revenge on the people who killed his niece.
How it plays
Early on in the game, Pearce is given backdoor access to the CtOS system which allows him to control cameras, traffic lights, steam pipes, enemy grenades and more using just his phone, which essentially turns the entire world into his playground. If it’s chipped, it can be hacked, and hacking gives Aiden plenty of ways to approach the world.
Story missions usually involve some sort of infiltration into heavily-guarded or electronically-secured locations, and naturally the ability to hack electronics comes in mighty handy. Surveillance cameras can be remotely controlled, and should another camera be within range Pearce can “jump” from feed to feed in order to find ways past or through guards.
Aiden can hack anything hackable that’s in the camera’s visual range, allowing him to hack things as if he were standing next to them. I enjoyed taking out errant guards by causing explosions at just the right time, for instance, all from the safety of a camera’s vantage point.
I managed to solve more than a few missions by patiently watching guard movements, hitching rides on cameras until the target item was in view, hacking it and then getting out, all without setting foot in the location itself.
It is here that Watch_Dogs achieves its greatest victory: hacking things to make things happen is fun. There’s something incredibly satisfying about hitching a ride on surveillance cameras, distracting enemies by blasting static through their comms or killing them with explosions caused by transformer overloads, without even setting foot in the area. It made me feel smart, and I liked it.
But that’s not all
Of course, Watch_Dogs isn’t just about hacking stuff – there’s a pretty decent driving game and shooter in there, too. And that’s a good thing since you’ll be doing a lot of both: you’ll spend a good deal of your time driving around future Chicago in a huge variety of cars that you can
steal commandeer at a moment’s notice, plus you’ll inevitably have to bust numerous caps in numerous asses if you want to get through certain missions.
I’m pleased to say that both systems have been polished to a shine. Driving feels even smoother than it did in GTA V (if that’s even possible), and the game’s cover-based shooting mechanic will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played a Gears of War game. The weapons in Watch_Dogs are incredibly satisfying as well, with booming sound and a commensurate feeling of increased firepower the bigger and more expensive they are.
Everyone needs upgrades
There’s a skill tree in the game that lets you unlock extra skills and abilities that make Aiden stronger and more effective. Skill points are awarded every time you level up, which you do by completing missions and side-quests. Unlocking them is in your best interests since you get to hack more things, shoot more effectively or add power slots to your phone, all things that make the game a little easier (and more fun).
There aren’t too many of these so you won’t be customising Aiden like you would a character in an RPG; rather, skills will be unlocked in a natural progression as you make your way through the story. You should have unlocked everything by the end of the story missions, giving you access to the full range of Aiden’s abilities. That should make completing any side-quests you might have missed a little easier.
If you’re not into the game’s story mode, there’s a lot else to keep you occupied. Watch_Dogs has a huge number of side-missions and activities available to amuse yourself with, from street and strategy games to driving challenges to augmented reality drone warfare. Should you reach certain levels you’ll unlock skill rewards that will come in handy elsewhere in the game; reaching level five in the augmented reality game, for example, unlocks better automatic weapon control.
To be honest, some of these mini-games feel like tacked-on add-ins but then maybe someone who isn’t me might appreciate them. I was especially not fond of the parkour game that had me running around town collecting 8-bit coins and avoiding 8-bit ghosts as it required precision control over Aiden’s movements that I just couldn’t master.
Others like the Gang Hideouts side-missions were more up my alley, as I was tasked with taking out a specific gang member with my fists which let me plot the demises of the rest of the gang in a particular sequence so as to leave my quarry undefended. Fun times.
Cash isn’t king
Upgrading weapons in Watch_Dogs is a matter of money, which can be earned from finishing missions and stealing bank account information by hacking passers-by. Once you have enough, simply pop along to a gun shop and buy your new shiny.
Interestingly, there’s a crafting system in the game that requires you to collect components and unlock skills if you want to make yourself more grenades/blackouts/lures on the fly. Otherwise you’ll have to find them in the world, which isn’t easy.
Ubisoft clearly put a lot of thought into Watch_Dogs’ multiplayer. It’s accessed by activating the Online Contracts app on Aiden’s smartphone. and options include online races for up to eight players, challenging someone using the game’s companion app to try stopping you from reaching checkpoints, invading someone else’s game to hack them, and a team deathmatch type game called Online Decryption. You can even invite friends to join you in a massive free-roam session where you can explore and fight together.
Being invaded, however, is easily the game’s most unique multiplayer feature. If you enable the option, your game can be joined by another player at any time you’re not busy with a story mission. That person will try to hack you and steal your phone’s data.
When that happens, it’s up to you to identify them and kill them before the hack finishes, or to hunt them down and kill them before they escape if the download completes. I found that finding the person hacking me is a uniquely nerve-wracking business; my palms actually began to sweat while searching for my opponent, and then the adrenaline kicked in as I chased them down after identifying them.
The chase was the best part as I was able to use my hacking abilities to help catch my fleeing foe. On several occasions I stopped my invader by raising bollards in the path of their speeding car, resulting in a very satisfying wreck. At others, I managed to blow them into the sky with an exploding steam pipe.
Personally, I wasn’t a fan of having my free-roaming interrupted so I turned invasions off after a while. I liked what I saw, though, and I’m sure many others will too.
The team deathmatch game type is called Online Decryption, and it pits teams of four against one another in a race to recover a file and decrypt it. The struggle results in a tug-of-war that can go either way right up to the end and it really needs some strong teamwork if you want to win regularly. It’s a fun addition to Watch_Dogs’ line-up of things to do.
Races are straightforward, with nothing really special to set them apart other than they’re part of the game rather than completely separate. A ranking system keeps track of your online activities, letting you amass fame and fortune across the internet if you care for that sort of thing.
Ubisoft must really be commended for the game’s look and feel. Watch_Dogs is beautiful in ways that go beyond merely looking nice: explosions are particularly punchy, and the way cars break apart under gunfire and smash open when driven into is just so well done that it’s fun to shoot them just for the hell of it.
And when you blow up cars in the middle of a firefight with a grenade launcher, causing a cascade of explosions as one car sets off the next and the ensuing boom wipes out all enemies in one fell swoop, you too will feel the satisfaction of playing a game that plays like something more than “just another videogame”.
The soundtrack is likewise incredible, with a dizzying range of well-known tunes from a wide variety of genres that play when you jump into a car, including one of my favourites, Alice Cooper’s Dangerous Tonight. There are no radio stations, though, like there are in Grand Theft Auto – just random songs that play.
Watch_Dogs is a stunning achievement by the folks at Ubisoft. It looks and sounds amazing, it’s massive amounts of fun to play and there’s so much to do that you’ll easily get 50 hours of entertainment out of it, if not more. While I encountered a handful of bugs in the game, none were earth-shattering and were more clipping issues than anything else. This one was rather amusing, though:
A little surprisingly, I discovered Watch_Dogs to be about more than just amazing visuals and fun videogame stuff: it has a very serious side too. Its story about a connected city where privacy is an illusion and where evil men exploit its technology for their own gain is uncomfortably poignant, perfect for this time when that sort of nasty business is unfolding in the real world. As such Watch_Dogs poses some interesting questions along the way, all but guaranteeing that you’ll come away having had more than just your trigger finger challenged.
Watch_Dogs is available for Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4 and PC. Expect to pay R599 for the PC version, R699 for previous-gen console copies and R799 if you want it on PS4. I reviewed it on PS4.