In Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs Chicago is portrayed as a constantly-monitored den of deviancy. Its citizens are more often than not taking part in some rather sordid activities, all whilst blissfully unaware they’re being watched by the ctOS, a city-wide security system that's in pretty much everything with computer parts. Sometimes you even get to see exactly what those citizens are up to for yourself.
As super-hacker Aiden Pearce you’re out to find the killer of your niece after a hacking job you were on went wrong. Using your hacking skills, and your smartphone, you have access to the ctOS and can manipulate it to your will; hacking cameras, bank accounts, raising bridges amongst many other things.
The story, which is unfortunately quite predictable, does touch on some dark subject matter from time to time, and the overarching aspect of it made me think about how much surveillance is too much; how much information should we be sharing or freely give up. The pacing and tone of the story was also a little off for me; one moment you’re laughing at how Aiden’s fixer friend, Jordi, doesn’t seem to take anything seriously, despite killing numerous people as a job; the next you’re confronted with some deep issues around family and the consequences of your actions. I would have liked the story to explore Aiden's origins more; how did he become a hacker and why, and it would have been cool to see deeper into the world of hackers as a whole.
Despite the wealth of accessible information throughout the city via its citizens, you don’t really make much, if any, use of it. It’s mainly there is a small distraction, to give you a laugh, or to shock you. Sure, it’s fun to randomly profile people to see what weird and wonderful hobbies they may have, and to even hack into their homes to catch a glimpse of them completely unaware you’re watching them cut up a human hand for their dinner, but this is just a side-show. Some of the profiles for the citizens didn’t seem to match up either – I don’t know how they designed that part of the game, or maybe this is just how people roll in Chicago, but seeing two 22 year old women dressed like ladies of the night stood on a street corner in the middle of the ghetto, one being a Day Car Worker on 22k a year, and the other a Waste Management Worker on 64k, I just couldn’t help but feel something wasn’t right. And I saw many other examples of mis-matched profiles too.
Deciding how you're gonna take out this bunch of clowns is completely up to you.
The game’s combat is the real star, and figuring out how you’re going to approach different situations is where the fun lies. So what are your choices when it comes to combat situations? You can run in all guns blazing with the many weapons at your disposal, lobbing grenades and using your blackout ability to shut all electrical equipment down in the area, but that’s nowhere near as fun, or challenging, as going for the stealth approach. More often than not I would dip down behind some cover, hack into the nearest security camera and survey the area, spotting enemies and looking for opportunities to dispatch them. For the pure stealth approach I would use crafted distraction lures to move an enemy behind a concealed area so I could take him out silently, either with my baton or a well-aimed head shot from my silenced pistol. If I wasn’t too bothered about being silent, I would set up traps using IEDs I’d crafted, or overload electrical panels one after the other, taking out any enemies silly enough to be nearby, then quickly do away with anyone who was left. It’s these moments of planning, surveying, and ultimately executing your plans where Watch Dog is most fun.
Some of you may be happy to kill enemies without a moment’s hesitation, but those enemies are citizens too, and they can be profiled. Would you kill a man if his wife was expecting a child? At points I would catch glimpses the guards’ profiles, and sometimes that would affect how I took them down; lethal bullet to the head, or non-lethal melee take down?
Equally this dilemma of conscience spilled over to the innocent civilians of the city when choosing whose bank accounts to hack. I tended to stay away from the people with low income who had fallen on hard times, and generally went for the bigger salaries of people who had less than admirable hobbies. I was kind of like the Watch Dogs equivalent of Robin Hood, although I kept all the money for myself. Whether Watch Dogs will give you this sense of conscience is up to you.
Strewn throughout the city there are pawn shops, clothing shops and gun shops, where you can pick up items to help you out. But I rarely found myself using them as many of the items, apart from clothing, were picked up during missions. The clothing all adheres to the same similar style, only the colour schemes differ, but if you want to change the way you look, if only slightly, you can. Vehicles can be ordered via an app on your smartphone, they’re free after you’ve actually driven and then purchased them on the app, but you’ll not have any trouble finding fast vehicles in your vicinity most of the time.
Many things are hackable in Watch Dogs, even those pesky helicopters.
Driving around Chicago can be fun, although it felt a little strange at first, after being so used to the likes of GTA V’s driving. The steering felt unresponsive and arcade-like, and with my inevitable numerous crashes whilst getting to grips with it, I would literally bounce off other cars and objects if not directly hitting them head on. After a while though it did start to feel a little more natural and I was soon sliding around corners whilst using Aiden’s smartphone to raise bridges, road blockers, and burst underground pipes to help me get away from the cops.
The city of Chicago itself is a playground full of things to do. Often you’ll be prompted to accept different side-missions to pick up and deliver vehicles or stop crimes in progress. Play a game of chess, or engage in one of the augmented reality mini-games to shoot at aliens invading the city. The most fun I had though was with the digital trips, particularly the one that lets you control a huge spider-tank robot to cause as much damage as possible, survival mode style. These digital trips could be games in their own right, and they're excellent.
The online multiplayer is also pretty decent, randomly asking you to take part in online races or head to head decryption mode quite often, which I usually accepted for a nice change of pace to test my skills against real foes. Decryption mode in particular is great fun, pitting two teams against each other to find and keep data. The data can be syphoned from an enemy by simply being their vicinity, meaning that it can be easily snatched whilst pursing in a car or hiding around a corner. This to and fro keeps the tension high and the fun constant.
Despite the trouble I had with the story, and the minor glitches here and there, Watch Dogs is a solid open-world action game. With some truly fun mechanics and entertaining moments it can stand proudly next to the likes of Sleeping Dogs for example. The story may flip flop between serious and less serious tones, causing you to sometimes wonder where things are going and who Aiden Pearce really is, but this game should definitely not be overlooked.