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Watch Dogs Review: So Much To Hack, So Little Time

'Watch Dogs' delivers big action and creepy thrills by way of its innovative hacking, even if the story falls a little short.

Our Verdict

'Watch Dogs' delivers big action and creepy thrills by way of its innovative hacking, even if the story falls a little short.

For

  • Hacking component is fun and engaging
  • Compelling multiplayer and mini-games
  • Large skill tree
  • Chicago looks breathtaking

Against

  • Shallow storytelling
  • Loose gunplay and driving mechanics
  • Bad voice acting on the part of the protagonist

Who watches the watchmen? In Ubisoft's highly anticipated "Watch Dogs," the task falls to grizzled protagonist Aiden Pearce. In a futuristic Chicago where everything's connected and your most powerful weapon is your smartphone, Pearce must battle to protect the ones he loves most and avenge the one he lost. 

Available on multiple systems, including PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Wii U, "Watch Dogs" is a good game with a solid hacking mechanic, but the story doesn't quite measure up.

Story

"Watch Dogs" is a tale of two stories, either of which would have been interesting by itself if they had been fully fleshed out. Instead, the game has two potentially good ideas fighting for dominance, ending in a frustrating stalemate.

Protagonist Aiden Pearce is a gray-hat hacker who, in the past, used his extensive hacking abilities to plunder information for his own financial gain. Things go awry when a heist by Pearce and his partner, Damien Brenks, is disrupted by the presence of another mysterious hacker. Hired goons are sent after Pearce in retaliation, but the hacker's 6-year-old niece is accidentally killed.

The loss of his niece sets Aiden on a path of vengeance, using his unique set of skills to hunt down the responsible parties. But in his search for answers, the hacker uncovers a bigger conspiracy involving the ctOS, a surveillance network hooked into just about every home, business and institution in Chicago.

The problem is that Aiden falls flat as a protagonist. We never believe his rare attempts to emote, especially when we're listening to his inner monologue. Even as he unleashes his throaty growl to intimidate a hit man, we don't get a sense of danger until he pulls out a gun.

There's no meat behind his clichéd crusade for justice, and even worse, there's no reason for it. When his sister tells him he doesn't need to avenge the niece, he persists and ends up causing more, possibly irreparable, damage.

Thankfully, the supporting cast has a bit more color, though it manages to fall headfirst off cliché cliff. Clara, the cyberpunk hacker, steps in as Aiden's girl Friday and tries to act as the moral high ground. To make sure she's got the prerequisite edgy look of a hacker, she's decked out with tattoos and several prominent piercings. She even has a cool accent.

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Speaking of which, seeing as how Aiden is meant to be from Belfast, Northern Ireland, why is he speaking in a gravelly whisper instead in an Ulster accent?

The most colorful member of this cast is the city of Chicago. As we go about our business in the game, gleefully hacking into citizens' lives, we gain some insight. Each citizen displays a small tidbit of information that can be funny, sad or disturbing, depending on your perspective.

For example, one of our intended victims had just been treated for an STD, while another had a stage II melanoma. Another target has been using dating sites for five years straight, while another experimented with cannibalism. It's information like that, mixed with hacked voice and text conversations, that brings the city to life -- and left us feeling a little dirty after every eavesdropped interaction.

Gameplay

The city of Chicago in "Watch Dogs" is absolutely massive. The open-world environment allows gamers enormous amounts of freedom. You can ignore the game's many distractions, focusing on the main story missions, or you can spend hours hacking civilians, racing around the city or playing chess in one of the games' many parks. 

However you choose to play, there's only one rule: Keep the civilian casualties to a minimum. The more citizens you maim or kill, the more their suffering affects your reputation meter. Get too far into the red, and Chicagoans will begin calling the cops when they see you performing suspicious activities.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. Preventing crimes and rescuing citizens will give you a positive reputation, allowing you to go about your daily vigilante activities with little or no resistance.

Hacking

So much to hack, so little time. From the second the opening credits end, the world and its secrets are just a button press away. Pearce uses a feature on his smartphone called the Profiler to hack into just about anything, including cameras, locks and even trains.

Hacking on the street is simple. Just activate the Profiler and point the cross hairs over your intended victim. A few stats will appear by the target, including name, occupation and salary. Holding down X once the Hack signal engages will relieve your mark of some money from his or her ATM account, or reveal the location of a possible crime or item of interest. Some hacks will just let you listen in on phone conversations.

While hacking smartphones are fun, cameras are one of your best tools in "Watch Dogs," delivering an eagle's eye view of the action. Once in control of a camera, you can still remotely hack people on the street. However, the camera really shines in potential combat settings, tagging potential threats and providing some incredibly useful reconnaissance. 

You can even hack into the city itself, changing traffic lights from red to green during a tense chase. You can also turn the road into your own personal obstacle course, activating tire spikes or erecting street blockers to total a pursuer's vehicle.

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Driving

Expect to spend a lot of time behind the wheel in "Watch Dogs."  The city of Chicago is huge and the L train simply isn't an option on most missions.

Luckily, the streets are just teeming with cars. You might have to borrow them from their owners -- forcefully. If carjacking isn't your thing, you can also have a car delivered via the Cars on Delivery app in your menu screen.

Once you've snagged a vehicle, you'll find that the driving mechanics are similar to in the "Grand Theft Auto" series, with the right trigger controlling acceleration, the square acting as the hand brake and the left trigger acting as the brake/reverse.

The controls were somewhat floaty, leaving some high-performance cars feeling heavy and sluggish and making it hard to corner. Choosing the wrong car in a high-speed chase can spell instant mission failure. Motorcycles deliver better handling, as we were popping wheelies everywhere.

Combat

"Watch Dogs" combat isn't the most varied in the world, but it's entertaining. Although many aspects of the game's environment can be weaponized, "Watch Dogs" does offer a modest stable of guns and explosives.

However, "Watch Dogs" is at its core a stealth game, and we found ourselves frequently hacking cameras to track the enemy movements and dispatch them quickly and quietly. Our weapon of choice was Pearce's retractable baton, but our silenced pistol also delivered some satisfying headshots, particularly when paired with the time-slowing Focus power.

When we weren't stealthily dismantling our foes, we employed a run-and-gun style of combat. The cover-based combat allowed us to quickly crouch behind some crates or a nearby wall and exchange gunfire with our enemies. The game throws several enemy types at you, including veterans and the heavily armored enforcers.

Despite the varied enemy types, many of the gun battles were mediocre affairs. After we found sufficient cover, we simply gunned down hostiles one by one as they funneled down our impromptu killing field. The result was something only a little more difficult than shooting fish in a barrel. This style of combat is a holdover from the "Assassin's Creed" series that we seriously could have done without.

We frequently relied on our various shotguns to clear out the room. However, the game provides a variety of pistols, submachine guns, assault rifles and sniper rifles. There are even a couple of grenade launchers, if you're so inclined.

Skill Tree

Just to recap, Aiden Pearce can hack into the most secure devices, stealthily infiltrate a heavily guarded base, handle all manners of firearms and drive circles around almost anyone. Throw in a cape, cowl and grappling hook, and you've got Batman. So just how does Pearce obtain all these skills?

Gamers can develop Aiden's numerous abilities via the Skill Tree. The abilities are split up into four separate categories: Hacking, Driving, Combat and Crafting. As players progress through the game, completing missions, they'll acquire Skill Points to unlock a number of interesting skills. For example, Focus Mode, which slows down  the action a la "Max Payne."

The Blackout ability is particularly helpful when trying to make a clean getaway. It will blanket the surrounding area in darkness, deactivating scanners, smartphones and any other electronic device. Driving skills give Aiden increasing control of the city's infrastructure, including traffic lights, bridges and spike strips.

The tree allows players to tailor Pearce's abilities to a specific style of gameplay. Practitioners of stealth will want to flesh out the Hacking and Crafted Items trees, while shotgun surgeons will want to build out the Combat section.

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In addition to the Skill Tree, "Watch Dogs" also has a Progression Rewards wheel that unlocks various weapons, vehicles and achievements, depending on the amount of mini-games or side missions completed. Completing an Invasion of Privacy mission awards players with a Vespid 5.2, a two-door coupe, while finishing five missions unlocks the sporty Sunrim.

The system adds even more incentive to explore all the nooks and crannies of the game, tacking untold hours onto your gameplay.

Multiplayer

You're going about your business, stopping random crime when suddenly you receive a notice. You've just been invaded. You run around in a panic trying to locate the interloper as a meter appears displaying the percentage of the hack completed.

After scanning everyone nearby, you find the intruder hiding in a car and quickly dispatch him with a well-placed shotgun blast. After your pulse slows down, you enter multiplayer to invade someone else's world.

"Watch Dogs" offers six multiplayer games that pit you against your fellow hackers. Once a game is selected, it takes one or two minutes to set up a match. There's Race Mode, allowing eight players to get fast and furious on the streets of Chicago, complete with nitrous-oxide boosts. Those looking for something a little more low-key should check out Free-Roam, which allows you to tool around town hacking with friends.

The Online Decryption mode is the game's take on capture-the-flag. Split into two teams, eight players are tasked with securing and decrypting a file while fighting off the rival team.

But it wouldn't be "Watch Dogs" without a few hacking games. Matches are quick and intense, keeping players on constantly on edge. When playing hacking games, the hacker takes on the appearance of a regular non-playable character, while the hackees look like Aiden Pearce.

Online Tail is a cat-and-mouse game between two players, in which one attempts to track and observe the target without the other being the wiser. The subject's job is to shake the tail by any means necessary.

Online Hacking is another one-on-one challenge, in which you're tasked with hacking another player without being discovered. The target has the option to turn the tables by discovering and eliminating the intruder with extreme prejudice.

"Watch Dogs" is a console game, but that doesn't mean that mobile device users can't get in on the fun. Smartphone and tablet owners can challenge console players via the free ctOS mobile app. In this mode, mobile players are the cops to the console players' robbers, attempting to keep Xbox One and PS4 players from collecting all the checkpoints on set track.

In ctOS mobile mode, players have the might of the Chicago Police Department at their fingertips, with the ability to deploy helicopters and police cars. Mobile users can also hack into the street infrastructure, controlling traffic lights, bridges, gates and spike strips, turning the road into a formidable obstacle course. Once a match is over, ctOS Mobile users are awarded skill points that can be used to augment hacks or improve the durability of your police cars.

Overall, we found multiplayer mode highly engaging and fun, easily siphoning off an hour of our playtime. Players who want to focus on the game's open world can turn off the multiplayer setting in the options menu.

Sound

Voiced by actor Noam Jenkins, Aiden Pearce sounds like he's doing his best impression of Solid Snake from "Metal Gear Solid." Best, however, doesn't mean good. For some reason, Aiden doesn't enunciate, turning that gravelly whisper into a mumble so unintelligible, you need to keep the subtitles on at all times.

That's not to say that all the voice acting was subpar. Aaron Douglas' turn as the charismatic Jordi Chin, as well as Oluniké Adeliyi's nuanced performance as Donna "Poppy" Dean, are some of the highlights of the game.

"Watch Dogs" has a repertoire of more than 40 songs that can be heard in a vehicle, shops, bars or even on Aiden's smartphone. There's so much music that Ubisoft has made a mini-game out of it, allowing gamers to hack new tracks from the citizens of Chicago.

During our time with the game we heard tracks from Kid Cudi, Alice Cooper and Smashing Pumpkins. Using the SongSneak app on Aiden's phone, we created playlists for driving and just walking through the city.

We wish Ubisoft would have created an actual radio station, similar to what Rockstar does for the "Grand Theft Auto" series. Aside from the random interviews from government official, the music felt somewhat aimless, with no radio personality to shape the experience.

Replayability

From visiting hotspots to engaging in drinking games and fighting crime, there's a lot to do in Chicago. The main story mission is approximately 20 hours long, with all the mini-games, side missions and multiplayer easily doubling total playtime. However, we predict hardcore completionists will put in the time to achieve the impressive 100 percent rating.

While the game has a lot of fun elements, we don't foresee many gamers sticking around to do a second or third replay.

Bottom Line

Billed as the modern day "Assassin's Creed," "Watch Dogs" attempts to deliver action and intrigue via several clever mechanics. The game is built on its hacking ability, which, thankfully, isn't gimmicky. On the contrary, we never got tired of satisfying our inner voyeur and peeking in on other peoples' lives. In terms of gameplay, Ubisoft needs to work on tightening up the gunplay and driving mechanics to cut down on the cheap losses

The mini-games, side missions and multiplayer are compelling and help to distract from a main storyline that hasn't decided which story it wants to tell. We wanted a digital Guy Fawkes, similar to V from "V for Vendetta." Instead, we got a lukewarm vengeance story with a distant protagonist.

Overall, "Watch Dogs" is an intriguing and entertaining game. It's an interesting premise with enough potential that we'd be interested in seeing a sequel. Gamers who are looking to live out their secret hacktivist fantasies should have a good time in the digital Windy City.

Follow Sherri L. Smith @misssmith11 and on Google+.  Follow us @TomsGuide, on Facebook and on Google+.