Ubisoft’s gritty new hacker thriller Watch Dogs delivers just about everything you could hope for from an open-world adventure. It’s not often a new game franchise comes into the world so fully realized and without major shortcomings, which is why this is such an impressive achievement. Not only is it more polished, expansive, alive and fun to play than many predecessors in its genre, it’s also the best example yet of next-generation gameplay. Set in a recognizable near-future Chicago where everything is connected, Watch Dogs is a game that perfectly captures its era, both in terms of the themes it covers and the technology it uses to get there. Perhaps more so than any title in recent memory, it’s a game that is very right now.
Watch Dogs wastes no time in thrusting you into its shadowy underworld of hacker thugs, embodied by the trenchcoat-clad Aiden Pearce. Originally making his name as a street tough,Pearce has since graduated to cyber-crime and opens the story in the middle of a job to bilk some unsuspecting schlubs of their riches. This is a video game, so the plan goes sideways and he’s soon on the run (luckily, escape is easy when he can switch traffic lights and slip away in the ensuing mass carnage).
Every street light, gadget, vending machine, camera and even sewer vent in this game version of Chicago is connected to and controlled by ctOS, a “smart city” central operating system designed to make inhabitants’ lives easier and more convenient.
Of course, there is also the flip-side to this technological promise: whoever controls ctOS can use it for their own nefarious purposes. Privacy, safety and even fundamental freedoms can be imperilled with the swipe of touchscreen by the powers that be, or by individuals who can figure out how to manipulate the system. Enter Pearce and his trusty smartphone.
Whether it’s simply “profiling” passersby and funnelling their bank accounts into his own, spying on people in their apartments or taking control of trains and bridges, Pearce proves to be an enormously powerful individual.
The fact that Watch Dogs has been in development since 2008 – well before the Edward Snowden revelations were ever known – makes the games features that much more eerie – and timely. This may be the first big-budget game to reflect our era, where real-world security agencies are routinely spying on the “metadata” of innocent civilians.
Fortunately, players are forced to walk a straighter line in this story after some old colleagues visit violence on Pearce’s family. While he’s still a self-interested opportunist who’s unafraid to steal from innocents, he has no choice but to become a classic anti-hero in his quest for justice.
Chicago itself is expansive and varied, with the gleaming downtown skyscrapers contrasted with the dilapidated ghettos of the southern Wards district and the decidedly rural hamlet of Pawnee in the north. Regardless of where Pearce ventures, there’s evidence of living, breathing life everywhere. Ordinary civilians have cellphone conversations as they walk by, would-be rappers practice their rhymes on street corners, panhandlers beg for change.
Adding to this is Watch Dogs’ most ingenious innovation: Pearce’s “Profiler” app. Whipping out your smartphone and aiming it someone, anyone, delivers a few nuggets of information about them: their occupation, income and interesting trivia, such as the fact that they’re addicted to pornography, give lots of money to charity or are recently immigrated from Canada.
These are small, superficial tidbits, but they do much to bring the game’s denizens to life. I found myself projecting my own stories and judgments onto them, deciding for example, that a stranger who has repeatedly cheated on his wife is a much better candidate for identity theft than a single mother with three children.
There is also a wealth of things to do outside the game’s lengthy main storyline. There are “fixer contracts,” which include street races and breaking up enemy convoys; gang hideouts to infiltrate; QR puzzles to solve and hidden cellphones to find. Pearce can also practice his parkour skills with Pac-Man like “money runs” through back alleys and over rooftops. There’s also a nifty drinking game at the local bar to play when you’re not shopping for new trenchcoats, and even “digital trips”; humourous psychedelic side games that involve driving tanks or running over flaming-headed demons.
And that’s just the single-player offline mode. Watch Dogs is another strong step by Ubisoft toward games that merge single- and multi-player experiences, where there are a number of online functions woven into the single-player world.
Pearce can, for example, open up his smartphone and accept online contracts through a devoted app, which launches him into car races with other players or a co-operative match where teammates must hack a central objective together. (Note: this function was working before launch, but I wasn’t able to test it satisfactorily because of a lack of players online.)
I did get a good taste of another feature, in which players can invade each others’ worlds and hack one another. The first time this happened, I was trying to start a storyline mission in Pawnee, only to get an error message telling me I couldn’t until I dealt with the interloper in question.
With my Profiling app fired up, I searched the area and discovered the other player hiding in a nearby car. With the jig up, he (or she – there’s no real way to know) turned and to fled, which kicked off a wild and woolly chase through the wilds of Pawnee and ultimately ended with me gunning the invader down on an overpass. It was an exhilarating and unexpected diversion.
There’s also an online-connected Foursquare-like check-in feature for the many real-world “hot spots” around Chicago. You can discover and collect these on your own, or you can compete against others to be the “mayor” of each spot. You can also leave gifts such as cash or ammo at these places for friends or strangers to pick up. I’m not sure why anyone would want to do any of that, but Watch Dogs certainly has its social-media bases covered for players who enjoy that type of thing.
The game is also launching with a companion app that promises to let players on mobile devices interact with those on consoles or PCs, but it wasn’t available to test ahead of release.
Adding all of these features together you realize Watch Dogs is a huge game in terms of setting and variety, and it never gets old thanks to its core hacking-and-hopping action mechanic.
For example, in many of the missions Pearce must infiltrate an area such as an enemy base or parking garage to get to his objective. He can do so using the time-tested video-game method – simply blast his way through with his assortment of grenades and machine guns – or he can get sneaky and use his phone instead.
It’s much more satisfying to scroll through the surveillance cameras lining strongholds and use them to scout enemies, and then take them out. Pearce can, for example, blow up a bad buy by setting off nearby explosives or he can distract him by activating a car alarm, then sneak up behind him and knock him out. He can even send a text message to a bad guy’s phone and then sprint by while the dupe gawks at his screen.
When Pearce has to escape in a car or on a motorcycle, he can neutralize pursuers by blowing up steam pipes, raising bridges or changing traffic lights at busy intersections. Dramatic slow-mo’s of colliding cars and carnage follow.
There’s always options for completing missions, and plenty of reasons to replay them. You would think playing through Watch Dogs once sucked up enough hours of my life, but I can’t wait to do it all over again.
That said, the game isn’t without its flaws. Watch Dogs excellently incorporates elements from some of the best Ubisoft games, including the open world and parkour aspects of Assassin’s Creed and the outpost liberation and skill advancement trees from Far Cry, but it lacks the smooth vehicle handling of its Driver and upcoming The Crew franchises, which is too bad. Getting from point A to point B, never mind car chases, is often a chore.
Also, Pearce himself isn’t a very compelling character, mainly because we’ve seen his act in too many similar games. While his anti-hero persona fits the constantly raining film noir environment of the game, his gravelly voice and simplistic revenge-driven machismo is just a tad overdone. The game would have benefited immensely from a protagonist with the depth to match the game’s otherwise unique proposition.
Nevertheless, Watch Dogs is as good a beginning to a new franchise as there is. With such an excellent first foot forward, there will no doubt be many more. There are a few obvious ways in which the next one can be improved, but in the meantime, there’s no reason to not rush out and get this game. It is, after all, a game that is perfect for the here and now.