Watch Dogs feels like one of those games that’s been coming for about a million years now. Announced several years ago amidst much speculation, each video and screenshot seemed to bring new levels of hype. With Ubisoft hoping that this would be their killer app for 2014, is it possible for any game to live up to this amount of scrutiny? Of course not; nothing could; but at the same time, that doesn’t stop Watch Dogs from being a fairly good game in its own right with a few interesting ideas.
If you were to be cynical about the games industry, you might very easily say Watch Dogs is simply GTA V with a gimmick put in. And while you can definitely see shades of that, it seems unfairly harsh to describe any open world third person shooter as a GTA clone. The aforementioned gimmick is a hacking element, which works on the narrative premise that everything in the city of Chicago has been upgraded to function on one network, meaning that any hacker (such as your player character) could break in to use the aforementioned system for their own nefarious purposes. This does add a refreshing dynamic to gameplay, mostly in that every NPC walking around the city is given a name and a couple facts about them, making the world feel quite a great deal more alive. In the open world scenario, the hacking element is also used to active traffic lights, spike strips and bollards, meaning that any high speed chase becomes a hilarious effort in trying to force the police into a trap you have set up. Personally I found this more fun that simply driving around attempting to lose them.
On foot, the hacking element comes into play through reconnaissance, where the player can jump into cameras and use those to distract enemies or launch other hacks through them, or use a system of cameras to “travel” through a whole building without moving. These puzzle elements rarely become radically different each time, but are often more interesting than just sneaking around. The final major area in which the hacking element becomes present is that if you play online, other players can take the role of random citizens in the world and attempt to hack you, and you can do the same to them. This continuous online mode is very effective, in the same way that the Dark Souls online mode is, as it makes it part of the living experience of the world, and not a jarring shift between offline play and online.
Main gameplay is handled by a normal set of third person guns controlled through a weapons wheel, with added items like blackout grenades added in for variety, or the ability to stop enemy communications for a time. One of the upgrade paths for your character includes adding more items to be hacked, including objects on enemies such as grenades and headsets. Activating a grenade on an enemy so it blows him up while he scrambles around does provide an odd sense of fulfillment each time, even more so if it is done through a camera while the player sits miles away.
Main story missions usually take only several forms, which is where the game falls apart a bit, as the campaign is very long, but also rather repetitive. There are some charming characters, and the banter between them is also fun to listen to, but overall the main plotline is rather generic and largely forgettable. You play as Aiden Pierce, a hacker who after a mission gone wrong finds that his niece has been killed as retaliation, and the majority of the game involves trying to find out who caused the hit and why. It’s not a bad campaign mode, but also not as good as GTA V, I’m afraid to say, even by way of comparison. Otherwise, sidequests take the form of about 5 modes, which activate around the city at random times, and there are quite a lot in each group to complete. One thing Ubisoft always has is plenty of sidequests and collectables, so you always feel like you get your money’s worth in terms of playtime.
Otherwise, the graphics look very crisp on PS4, although I’ve heard that they are more subpar on other systems, but gameplay is fun, for what it’s worth, and there’s a great deal of content to get through. I can’t imagine feeling the need to replay Watch Dogs in years to come, now that I’ve reached 100 percent completion, but for the time I did play it, I found it to be an engaging and novel sandbox experience, although not the best one I’ve played by any means. I liked it, but didn’t love it.