It isn’t every day where an open world game comes along and truly feels like it is showing something entirely possible. Series like Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row thrive on their own gleeful goofiness to create a world that is well-realized, yet still plainly fiction. Although Watch Dogs certainly falls in line with some of those very same tropes, its vision of a world that can be almost entirely manipulated by a push of a button is not something that is completely absurd in this day and age.
The game documents the life of Aiden Pearce, who is a man with a dark and mysterious past that eventually comes back to bite him in the butt. Though you never get a firm understanding of what this mysterious man is all about, you do get an inkling that he would rather put his questionable past behind him and live a normal life. However, that takes a turn for the worse when an old “friend” comes back and kidnaps his sister and nephew, and claims that he will only return them safely if Aiden helps him with a certain something. What follows is a rollercoaster ride that bounces between very questionable morality issues and super tense action stealth gameplay.
Although Watch Dogs‘ overall narrative may not be executed perfectly, what really elevated it for me was the very solid cast of supporting characters. Every major character that comes into the game feels fully realized and relatable; from the mysterious Clara to the legendary hacker T-Bone all the way to the games varied villains. It’s these characters that truly made me invest in the story, as even though the events themselves weren’t mind-blowing, I was nevertheless fully invested in them due to my interest in the entire cast.
The standout feature of Watch Dogs is that its core gameplay mechanic is that of hacking. Aiden Pearce has technology on him that allows him to hack into traffic lights, security cameras, barriers, steam pipes and a lot more as he rolls on through Chicago. Obviously, the fact that you can do all of this at a click of a button is frightening when you really think about, but used as the game’s main gameplay focus it almost makes the game feel like a real-life super hero story. Aiden Pearce may not have supernatural powers, but with the help of his trusty smartphone and hacking prowess he can basically control the entire city.
The process of hacking is often done with the simple click of a button, but the game also regularly throws a sort-of hacking mini-game at you for more story-focused and major aspects of the game. This mini-game shows you a screen of several interconnecting wires that you must connect by way of revolving pipe panels to connect the streams of electricity. The object is to get all streams of electricity to the final space which completes the hacking process. Sometimes the game gives you as much time as you need to complete this mini-game, though as the game ramps up the difficulty you’ll find situations where you have very little time to complete it. It’s these timed hacking scenarios where the mini-game truly shines, as they can be quite chaotic and filled with tension due to the time limit.
With hacking being used as the main gameplay mechanic, its a no-brainer that the core combat scenarios would favor stealth over all-out action. Ubisoft is no stranger to stealth games, having championed the Assassin’s Creed franchise for many years now, but this is the first time where they had to utilize it in a modern setting and I think they really succeeded in doing that with Watch Dogs. You’ll come across many scenarios where you will be in an area that is swarming with enemies that are unaware of your presence, and you have to hack into cameras to scope out the area, hack into objects to set them off and temporarily distract your enemies and doing everything you can to remain out of site. The game also allows you to go in guns blazing, but this makes each encounter relatively easy and pretty boring. This game allows you to tackle every situation however you want, but if you want the best experience possible then you’ll definitely want to focus on the stealth routes.
As you wander the streets of Chicago you are able to hack and profile each and every one of its residents, which gives you information on their name, income and interests. This gives the game a very unsettling atmosphere, as you have access to so much classified information as you are just walking down the street. However, this also gives some character and personality to random people that otherwise you wouldn’t give a second of thought to. When you’re given the option of hacking into someone’s personal bank account for some money, you just might think twice when you find out that the person has cancer and is preparing for an operation. All of this plays right into Watch Dogs‘ iffy morals, as knowing that kind of information about a stranger is wrong, but I would be lying if I said that it didn’t make the world of Watch Dogs feel more living and breathing than any other game of its kind that I have experienced.
Being an open-world game, there is definitely a lot more that you can do outside of the main story. You can do things like prevent other crimes from happening by tracking down criminals, hack into ctOS systems to get full informational reign on a particular city district, play chess, purchase new weapons to take down your enemies in new ways, and a hell of a lot more. What makes all of this variety work is that none of it feels like filler – just about everything that Watch Dogs offers you ranges from enjoyable to all-out crazy fun. Much like the information overload world that we live in today, the game is constantly throwing new stuff at you to play around with, and it’s easy to simply lose track of the actual main storyline and just get lost in the myriad of optional stuff the game has in store for you.
This leads us into the game’s online mode, which is surprisingly one of the game’s strongest features. The online mode offers a variety of different things to do, and it all loads and takes place in the game’s city. This means that you can be playing an offline mission while the game is searching for opponents to play with, which makes the transition between offline and online modes near-seamless. This is made even more smooth by the fact that other players are able to “hack” your game, which results in you receiving a reading of their general location on your in-game map and then having to find and take them down. It’s an absolute blast and reminded me a lot of the tension that would arise from suddenly being invaded in the Dark Souls series.
As far as more traditional online modes, Watch Dogs offers plenty of fun times through a few well-created modes. You have the option to hack into other players games and try and steal data from them without being caught, racing a bunch of other players and utilizing hacking to get an advantage, and an excellent mode called Decryption where two teams face off to collect and decrypt a file. All of these modes utilize the game’s unique features really well, and will definitely be the part of the game that I and I’m sure countless others will be returning to for the foreseeable future.
All of this talk about optional things to do in Watch Dogs and I haven’t even talked about the best one of all: Digital Trips. The game describes Digital Trips as an app that uses binaural frequencies from the smartphone to put Aiden into an unconscious dream state where he can play crazy virtual games inside of his head. There are 5 Digital trips to pick from; and they are called Alone, Madness, Spider-tank, Conspiracy! and Psychedelic. These modes ask you to do various ridiculous things like sneak past robot sentries, run over demons in hell and fuel your vehicle with their souls, stay airborne by bouncing off of groovy flowers, and even controlling a giant spider-tank and wreaking havoc on Chicago. I can’t begin to describe how much fun some of these modes are, as some of them could warrant being stand-alone games all on their own.
Watch Dogs is a huge game that is always offering a bunch of things for you to do, and it always feels like something worthwhile. The main story is very enjoyable in its own right and will last you a solid 15-ish hours, but it barely taps the surface of all the other great things you can do. The game is certainly questionable when it comes to what it wants to say and how it says it from a moral standpoint, but there is no question that the Watch Dogs universe is not something that seems *too* out of the question in the world we live in today. It’s this sense of immersion of the game’s world and its constant reminders of what could be coming in our own world that makes Watch Dogs truly shine.