This is a pretty late review but I’ve finally managed to finish the behemoth of a game that is Watch Dogs for PlayStation 4. It got pretty underwhelming reviews so I went expecting the worst but there are definitely some redeeming qualities.
Let’s get into it!
The gist is that you play as Aiden Pearce, a hacker who was caught up in a bad deal and lost his niece when some men tried to kill him. He now is trying to find out who those men were and why they attacked him. He has a sister and her son that he has to look out for, so you know they’ll get wrapped up into this adventure. The game is mostly like a Grand Theft Auto style game, where you travel a giant city (in this case: Chicago) and eventually, you’ll get out and shoot guys. The kicker here, and the thing that was marketed as the thing that would make Watch Dogs unique, is that Aiden can hack into anything around him, so he’s able to manipulate things like traffic lights, bridge controls, people’s communications devices, and even cause massive blackouts to make an escape. I’ll talk about these things later, as we discuss if this worked or not.
Instead of going through the traditional pros and cons, I’m going to cover them by topic. So we’re going to tackle Story, Visuals, Driving, Combat, Hacking, and Side Missions.
The story missions are actually pretty substantial, as I focused mostly on these missions and it still took me a good 25-30 hours to beat those missions. Okay, I got distracted a few times, but not many. Aiden’s story is interesting, but as a character, he’s like a piece of cardboard. He’s got a Batman voice the whole time and very little redeeming qualities. There’s not much interesting about him.
The story is pretty straight-forward, not too much political intrigue. Sometimes we get bogged down with so many villains and twists that we lose track of what’s happening, but we have a central villain (or two) throughout the story and it does a solid job of reminding us of who we we’re really after.
The story missions also build up nicely and mix up their structures nicely. The bosses that you face are surrounded by ever-more-complicated puzzles. One of the final missions was almost game-breakingly difficult but when I finally beat it, I felt an insane sense of accomplishment. It also forces you to use all of the tools at your disposal, which usually include crafted items such as proximity bombs and lures. These all serve valuable purposes in some of these trickier situations.
This is a gorgeous game and the city feels truly alive. This helps that you can see who every single character is and learn something about them. That guy who you just carjacked is a middle-aged divorcee. It’s really interesting.
And as you traverse the city, it’s incredibly intricate. While other games like Infamous: Second Son give you vertical ways to travel, Watch Dogs keeps you on the ground and that allows them to spend more attention on a smaller scale. I kept finding new vehicles to steal. There’s so much to see and it all looks stellar.
The weather changes all the time as well, sometimes looking like (above) a rainy afternoon but also managing to turn into nicer days (below) with a little more color.
The crux of this game is the driving. You have to drive everywhere, so if it was flawed, that’d be a major dealbreaker. Luckily, it’s not horrible. Some vehicles drive better than others, so I tended to look for sports cars or even motorcycles, so I could make sure to evade and dodge easily. If you end up in a van, you can’t escape from anybody.
One thing that was a little tricky about driving… Objects are inconsistent in the world. Some brick walls would break if I drove through them, while small trees stood still and crumpled my car into a heap. This made offroad escapes tricky, as small rocks would sometimes send my car into a death spiral. I tended to stick to the streets because of this which took away some of that satisfaction from games like Grand Theft Auto V, where you could spend hours driving through forests and sand dunes. Not so here.
Now, there are a lot of side missions where you have to chase and take down someone. This is incredibly difficult as you don’t have the traditional means of shooting from your car. You have to use hacking tricks in the world to stop the car. This means lifting barricades while they’re over them or lifting a bridge to make them stop. For some car chases, it would take 5 minutes before I managed to get perfect timing on one of these hacks and stop the car. Just a little frustrating.
When you’re not in your car, you’re likely shooting people. There’s not a huge arsenal of weapons but they do the job. Money comes super easily in this game (because you can steal from every single person without consequence) so early on, you end up with the best weapons of each type.
There’s a “focus” system where you can slow time for a brief moment and this actually worked really well for me. I’d often forget to use it in heated moments but it definitely saved me at times too.
And while all the weapons worked, I really only used the silenced pistol and the assault rifle. Every once in a while, I’d give the sniper rifle some action or the grenade launcher, but mostly the assault rifle was good at clearing a room. The combat mechanisms worked fine for me and the cover system was solid, easily letting you move from cover to cover. You could do it stealthy but I usually went in guns blazing and I was often rewarded.
The enemy artificial intelligence was fine. They weren’t super aggressive but also not ridiculously stupid. I would hack a distraction and they would walk over to it, the way most people probably would. The combat was satisfying, so I have zero complaints.
This is what made Watch Dogs unique. Was it enough?
It was interesting, so I think it mostly worked. I already talked about hacking while driving, so I’ll cover the other ways here. The biggest way to hack is to use cameras to essentially “tag” your enemies so you could see where they were and then to utilize environmental factors to defeat or escape your enemies. This was probably the most satisfying part of the game. I need to get from point A to B and there’s 20 guards in the way. You rotate cameras and eventually figure out a solution. Use this distraction, then blow a circuit to blow that guy up. Trigger that guy’s explosives. It was a fun challenge and unlike anything I’ve seen in a video game.
This is why the Gang Hideout missions were the highlight of the game for me. They basically said “Do whatever you want, just take this guy out.” But if you truly run in and just start shooting, reinforcements quickly arrive. Or maybe a passerby calls the cops. So you have to tackle the problem smartly. There were story missions that gave you some flexibility but usually they weren’t as open as these scenarios were.
The other type of hacking comes when you’re literally hacking into a computer and there’s a minigame that makes you rotate nodes on a circuit board. These are sometimes really tricky if there’s a timer but they happened rarely enough, I didn’t mind. Some were actually really satisfying when I completed them.
The highlight was, like I said above, the Gang Hideout missions (seen above). You just have a target that you must take alive. Everyone else is free game. In these scenarios, I didn’t mind having to take them alive, but there were other side missions where this clause was a game breaker. The one that comes to mind is the Criminal Convoy missions, where you follow a convoy of vehicles. The first few I tried, I had to stop the convoy and take the guy alive. So frustrating. In the Gang Hideouts, you can control the scenario and take him stealthily. In these Convoy missions, I would plan an elaborate trap and as soon as he stepped out of the car, I’d have to run straight to him and tackle him. Excuse me? I got gunned down every time. You don’t charge at someone who’s holding an assault rifle. I read there are convoys that let you kill them but I wasn’t going to try my luck at finding one.
There’s all sorts of other side missions but the story kept me so focused that I didn’t try too many. I do have a major complaint with the “always online” mechanism in this game. You can get hacked by other real players. I’d be minding my own mission and now all of a sudden, I’m forced into trying to find this scumbag and take him out. Only one of these turned out kind of fun, as it resulted in a chase across the city, but most of them resulted in me frustratingly not finding them in the crowd of people and giving up. I didn’t like it. Stay out of my game.
This game kind of reminded me of Assassin’s Creed III, another Ubisoft product. In fact, if there was a modern version of that series, it’d likely look like Watch Dogs. There’s a lot to do, almost overwhelmingly so. The story here was a fun ride though our lead “hero” was uninteresting. Hacking was a cool addition to the genre but forcing us to use it while in vehicle combat was often frustrating. The work that went into the city was incredible and this game is a visual marvel. If you want a good bang for your buck, Watch Dogs will give you that, at least until more next generation titles hit the shelves. I loved playing it but sometimes it did feel like a bit of a chore to progress from checkpoint to checkpoint.