It delivers on its systemic promise, with hacking offering new ways to make, and escape from, trouble
360, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One, Wii U
Thanks to CTOS, a network that controls almost every bit of computer technology within Chicago’s limits, Watch Dogs presents you with the smartest city in the world. It’s just as well, because its citizens need all the help they can get. They stand in groups and deliver little monologues, babbling incoherently over one another. They jump out of their skins when a car ten feet away slowly reverses into a parking space. One insists angrily that we’re invading his personal space, oblivious to the fact that we, and half a dozen others, are waiting at a bus stop. Watch Dogs’ citizens make the phrase ‘smart city’ ring hollow – at times you’re unsure whether you’re in a city or a psychiatric institution.
At least there are plenty of them. This is, unlike Infamous: Second Son’s Seattle, a bustling metropolis, though creating a believably busy city has come at a cost: Second Son was gorgeous, and Watch Dogs isn’t. The weather system, which spans grey and stormy, overcast, and hazily sunny, has seemingly been designed to mask the poor draw distance, since cars and scenery fizz into existence a couple of hundred yards away. It’s never an ugly game – it looks much better at night, and does a fine line in explosions – but you’re rarely made to feel as if you’re looking at a generational leap forward for open worlds.
You will, however, frequently feel like you’re playing one. While it might not match the visual standards of its E3 2012 reveal, Watch Dogs delivers on its systemic promise, with hacking offering completely new ways to make, and escape from, trouble within a familiar setting. And it’s not thanks to an impossibly powerful lead – though Aiden Pearce will be frighteningly tooled up by game’s end – but a smartphone.
Hacking is simple, one-button fare for the most part, but it needs to be when you’re blowing up an underground steam pipe while flying down a busy thoroughfare at 70mph, or triggering an explosion as an unsuspecting guard chases you. The challenge comes not from the input, but its execution: you can only hack objects that are within a certain range and to which, crucially, you have a direct line of sight, be that through Pearce’s own eyes or those of a distant laptop camera. Out on the street, your smartphone’s Profiler app offers information on those halfwit citizens, and some of them are alarmingly well paid. In addition to their salary, you’ll see their name, occupation, and a snippet of personal trivia (“Recently adopted dog”; “Allergic to shellfish”; and, brilliantly, “Canadian”). If they’ve got a phone, you can hack it, draining bank accounts, intercepting text messages and voice calls, or downloading music to add to your own phone’s meagre selection. It gives the city a sense of life, and layers a degree of substance on its inhabitants, but it’s gimmicky. It’s only in combat that Watch Dogs’ hacking mechanics really come to life.
When infiltrating an enemy compound, casing the joint means jumping from one lens to the next. You can rotate rooftop solar panels to form cover, overload and explode transformers, and even mess with enemies directly. Some carry explosives, which can be set off; others can be distracted with a phone call or text message; and others still can be stunned with a highfrequency blast to their comms headset. Every enemyinfested area can be completed with a combination of stealth and hacking. If and when it all goes horribly wrong, you can fall back on a broad traditional arsenal.
Out on the road – where handling is weighty and satisfying, a squeeze of the brake sending a car’s back end drifting outwards – Pearce’s smartphone can at first only be used to hack traffic lights, turning every light at an intersection green, which means a guaranteed pile-up given citizens with this level of intelligence. Progress up the skill tree, however, and you’ll be able to raise bollards and spike strips, open gates and garage doors, and raise or rotate bridges.
When combined, these elements add a new dimension to the open-world genre’s hackneyed endof-mission escape, and instead of simply outrunning your pursuer, you’re able to stop them in their tracks. The game is happy to break its line-of-sight rule here, letting you hack objects you’ve just passed to take out a chasing vehicle, though timing is tight and success isn’t always guaranteed – there’s no point hacking traffic lights at an empty intersection, for instance. You have further options: Pearce can park up, kill the engine and slump down in his seat, and will only be spotted if a police car or enemy vehicle drives right by him. Ditch your car and you can make your escape by L train, providing you’ve unlocked the skill that lets you stop and start them on command. Say what you like about CTOS, at least it makes the trains run on time. It’s no surprise to find that Blume, the company behind CTOS, isn’t as pure as the driven snow, but Watch Dogs’ lengthy five-act campaign is about more than shady corporations. Pearce butts heads with mob bosses, street gangs and rival hackers as he seeks revenge for the murder of his niece, and it’s during this sprawling campaign that Watch Dogs is at its best. Its various systems mean Ubisoft Montreal can be more creative in its mission design than this genre’s traditional loop of travel, kill and escape. You’ll get yourself arrested and incarcerated, then jump between CCTV and prison guards’ helmet cams to find a vital witness in the rec yard, save him from a fatal beating, then guarantee his silence not with a squeeze of a trigger but a few intimidating taps on a touchscreen. You’ll ride cameras up through the Viceroy street gang’s tenement compound to locate its server room, then come back and shoot your way in a dozen hours later.