Watch Dogs PS4 Review: A Brilliant Hack
by Stephen Johnston Official Review
Editors Note: This review is for the retail PS4 version provided by Ubisoft and is spoiler free.
Watch_Dogs takes place in an alternate future where a computer system, called ctOS, connects everyone and completely controls the infrastructure of Chicago. You take the role of Aiden Pearce a hacker who has the ability to not just hack the city, but to turn it into a weapon against his enemies.
Aiden's criminal past led to a family tragedy that haunts him to the present day. He is still searching for those who wronged him and you will need all of his hacking abilities to help him accomplish his goals. You can control traffic, jump from camera to camera, explode parts of the environment and when things really go sideways you can pull out a gun and do things the 'old school' way.
Ubisoft clearly set out to create a main character that you could relate to in some way. This may explain why the story in Watch_Dogs is not as over the top as in other games in the free roam crime genre. Though he is certainly no angel, you can understand many of Aiden's actions.
Watch_Dogs takes place across a sprawling Chicago map that has everything from dense downtown to the rural Pawnee area. These areas are woven together and no areas are off-limits from the start.
Watch_Dogs is all about information. With your hacking skills you will locate crimes, listen in to hidden audio and observe private conversations. You will even get involved in petty theft the 21st century way via your phone.
Ubisoft has managed to create a visual representation of hacking which (though heavily romanticized) is compelling and understandable.
The opening of the game introduces you to this unique mechanic - walking you through computer hacking, device hacking and accessing cameras and environment interaction. Get comfortable with these skills; through the rest of the game you will be doing a lot of hacking and camera jumping.
At first I felt like this mechanic was rather contrived, but that wears off quickly and the interaction becomes automatic. Ubisoft has managed to create a visual representation of hacking which (though heavily romanticized) is compelling and understandable. We know that part of Watch_Dogs' delay was to improve how the player interacts with these hacking mechanics. The end result is well done.
Watch_Dogs also includes a skill system for both online and regular play. The skill system is interesting and you will likely have most of the skills by the end of the game and certainly with XP from side missions you might be able to acquire them all though I was unable to acquire them all in my more than 20 hours of gameplay.
Skills cover the four main areas of the game: Hacking, Driving, Weapons and Devices. Though you will eventually have most, or all, of the skills the ability to pick and choose as you go and to tune your character towards your play style early on is refreshing and the skills do feel like they add something to your character as opposed to being throwaways.
Story (Spoiler Free)
Watch_Dogs' story is a classic action movie revenge story. That being said, the story is compelling and done well enough to hook you and root you in the game. There are twists and turns and I felt drawn along throughout the game and wanted to know what happens next. The emotion at key moments is on point and you really will feel yourself pulling for Aiden and being disgusted by the villans.
At times Aiden can feel like something of a blank canvas. This might be intentional to let the player take on that role. Thankfully, the supporting cast of characters - from an apparently insane sidekick, to a menacing old crime boss, to the crafty fellow hacker - is well done and memorable.
Each area of Chicago has a main ctOS tower. Hacking into that tower gives you control of infrastructure like street lights, road blockers, bridges and more in that area of the map as well as the ability to profile people. After hacking into that main tower, you can hack into smaller towers that enabled additional side missions and activities. For the completionists among you the side missions, sight seeing items and check-ins either disappear or darken upon completion so the map does a good job of showing you what you have completed.
The storyline mission variety in Watch_Dogs is varied enough and primarily consists of hacking, camera jumping and sneaking with a few "follow the bad guy" type missions. In 20 hours of gameplay the core mechanics used in the missions did not get stale. The missions excel at having a high level of variety in objectives and the overall "feeling" of mission areas.
In 20 hours of gameplay the core mechanics did not get stale. The missions excel at having a high level of variety in objectives and the overall "feeling" of mission areas.
The computer hacking mechanic that could have been so easily overdone is instead applied appropriately and judiciously to add a cerebral moment to missions. Ubisoft has done a good job ensuring that there are elements of each mission that require a new approach or have a twist to their setup. In some mission you can prepare for oncoming bad guys or you have a sniper assisting you or you are guiding other characters through an area via camera jumping.
The end result is that Watch_Dogs combines the game mechanics well to introduce variety without feeling like you are getting new mechanics thrown at you.
There will be great debate about the quality of side missions in Watch_Dogs. They are all fairly light, and the completionists will enjoy the variety but I feel like many players will not be hooked by some of the larger, more involved, side activities like Digital Trips.
There is a good bit of side mission variety. Cash Run is an augmented reality parkour game. There are Betting games, Shell Games and Chess Challenges. I found the Chess Challenges particularly fun as they included survival challenges where you have to keep your king alive in certain end-game setups.
There is also a QR code search game where you have to align cameras to view a QR code. You then get a tidbit of info. There are also city check-ins; Foursquare-esque check-ins that give you info about Watch_Dogs' Chicago.
These sneak peaks are sometimes disturbing, sometimes sweet, sometimes heart wrenching and totally on point for the overarching theme of Watch Dogs.
There is a group of side missions called collectibles that I found the most interesting. You hack a ctOS box, then have to race to hack more that pop up. You can also hack into buildings and watch the private moments of the Chicago citizens. These sneak peaks are sometimes disturbing, sometimes sweet, sometimes heart wrenching and totally on point for the overarching theme of Watch_Dogs.
The other type of side missions are "Digital Trips." These mini-games are played on the chicago map and are very different from the main gameplay. They are sort of odd at times and may not appeal to everyone, but they are often a nice diversion from rigorously following the storyline.
A unique element of Watch_Dogs is "profiling" via your mobile phone. When profiling a crowd you discover crimes that are about to happen and can set yourself up at the right place to intervene. Intervening will improve your standing as a vigilante with the citizens of Chicago and that will change how the citizens react to you. You can be hated enough, by running over citizens, that they will call the cops on you when you walk around or be loved enough that they sometimes won't call the cops on you when you commit a crime. It isn't intended as punishment, but more as flavor and a representation of Chicago's opinion of you.
The online play in Watch_Dogs is interesting and, again, Ubisoft has chosen to implement new concepts in online play for free roam games. Online play involves jumping into other players games to steal data from the competing "Fixers," tail them, race them or to engage in 4v4 team hacks.
Online play is a fun element and knowing that another person is on the other end adds to the enjoyment. We will have to see how this mechanic plays out once the number of players increases with full launch, but I did not find the invasion component of online play distracting, as some had feared it would be, and I found myself seeking out opportunities to take revenge on hackers who had entered my world previously.
Vengeance Is Mine!
Online play is an area that could have been improved on. There do not appear to be any cooperative missions , the timers occasionally feel too short, and the gameplay a bit thin.
They call it "Seamless Online," and for the most part it lives up to that name.
Though I feel there is room for improvement in the online play, Ubisoft clearly spent time getting a few things right here. The online play is not traditional multiplayer with lobbies and mission selection. They call it "Seamless Online," and for the most part it lives up to that name.
In the online world you see the other "Aiden" as a fixer who looks like an NPC and they see you this way as well. You can queue up for online play while roaming about your game and you are moved to the online play from where you are and move out of the online play right from where you end up at the end of the online game. At times it feels like waking up from a hallucination, but overall it is a nice sleight of hand.
If free roam games are your thing, then Watch_Dogs is can't miss. Your money and time will be well spent.
Watch_Dogs is a strong entry into the free roam crime genre. All of the elements of a fully developed open world game are represented and done in a high quality manner. There is a strong enough storyline to draw you along, enough side mission variety to keep you entertained when you need a break and a well done cast of characters that you meet along the way. To top it off, both the hacking component and the ability to (for the most part) choose your level of criminality are unique and interesting aspects to explore.