Review: Watchdogs

It’s difficult to stay excited when a game has as much hype surrounding it as Watchdogs. Combined with a seemingly endless trail of delays I somehow remained eager ever since Watchdogs was first announced oh so long ago. But with more hype than the Apollo 11 launch can Watchdogs deliver on it’s ambitious promises?

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The first thing you’ll need to do is complete the tutorial mission. It’s really about the only thing you have to do in Watchdogs and is a necessary evil even in an open world game. The brief cutscenes introduce us to the main characters and just about every function is covered during the mission. It doesn’t dwell on a single aspect of gameplay but instead keeps the pace up and gets you outside into the freedom of Watchdog’s open world as soon as possible.

Armed with only a few weapons and enough knowledge to do pretty much anything I took Aiden on his first steps into digital Chicago. Personally I like to do anything but the main missions for as long as possible if a game will let me. Inevitably sometimes you’ll spend hours grinding to achieve something only to find it would be handed out in the next campaign mission but I still do it. So I got to work.

The first visit to a weapons shop makes it clear that there isn’t going to be a shortage of firepower. In fact Aiden has so many weapons on offer he can more than capably become a one man army. Rambo’s got nothing on Aiden. There are several handguns ranging from simple 9mm’s to revolvers and a couple of machine pistols thrown in for good measure. Shotguns start at a simple single shot and go all the way up to a fully automatic monster and cover everything in-between. Plus assault rifles, more snipers than I expected (admittedly I expected none) and a couple of grenade launchers. That’s a lot of guns and Aiden can’t just own them all he can carry them all in his mysteriously deep pockets.

Acquiring all this hardware at first seems like a daunting task but anything that can be bought in Watchdogs is as easy as repeatedly pressing square to rob peoples bank accounts. Walking the streets with your trusty smart phone by your side highlights potential bank accounts to siphon funds from. Simply hold square and then eventually when you feel you have enough visit a cash machine to draw out the money. If you need cash that’s all there is to it.

And the same is true for the rest of the hacking in the game too. All that cool stuff we’ve seen in the videos is done by briefly holding square, or sometimes just pressing it. And that worried me at the start. I mean how much fun can it be to repeatedly press the same button? Well as it turns out it never bothered me and I never got bored of it. During a car chase when you first raise a bridge and jump over it to escape your pursuers or they slam into those bollards with a nifty slow motion close up the fact you ‘just pressed square’ really doesn’t matter.

The irony is that if hacking was a complex mechanic in Watchdogs Aiden wouldn’t feel like a genius. The simple context sensitive method really makes you feel powerful. Using just a phone you can do some serious hacking and the awesome result make sure you never get bored of hacking.

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Side missions are varied and abundant. Some are races, some are hacking mini-games and others are stealth/combat based. They kept me busy for at least 20 hours and constantly rewarded me with XP to spend on the impressive skill tree. The mini-games are incredibly in-depth too. There’s poker which is as good as any poker game I’ve ever played, chess which can either be a traditional game or objective based challenges using the rules of chess and far too many more to mention. And there are several story driven side missions that are both mysterious and clever. There’s loads to keep you busy and everything rewards you well.

To complement the huge amount of content there’s a huge choice of upgrades too. I don’t think there’s a single one I didn’t want and being free to complete whatever you want right from the start to get them is liberating. Don’t be put off by abilities being locked and telling you to complete a certain mission to unlock more; it’s a very early mission and once you do it it unlocks everything. Finally upgrades on an open world game that aren’t arbitrarily limited until it’s too late to use them.

The only time Watchdogs lets you down is unfortunately in the campaign missions. The story is dark and well presented but in between the story the gameplay soon becomes stale and repetitive. Most situations require you getting past enemy guards. You can sneak around and use stealth and hacking to remain undetected but I very rarely did. I tried a couple of times but realised that gunning them down using my immense firepower and hacking was just quicker and easier. I even had the difficulty on hard and still found that I could take on entire mobs of enemies in a straight up fire fight. By the way I recommend playing on hard to at least stop you becoming a god. At least on hard I could be killed.

I enjoyed using the pistols so I actually used the second one you get which has a large clip and found it easy to use ‘focus’ (Watchdog’s slow motion) to head shot as many enemies as possible before finished the rest of without focus. So even on hard using the starting pistol I was overpowered. And that’s not taking into account the 2 Barrett rifles, 2 grenade launches, 6 or 7 assault rifles, 8 other pistols/revolvers/machine pistols, 5 shotguns, grenades, IED’s and remote IED’s I had. On top of all the hacking tools and context sensitive commands available. And pills that refill your focus allowing for almost continuous slow motion.

Aiden should have had far less weapons. It’s a shame because the weapons are so satisfying to use. But Aiden should have had a pistol and nothing else. Or only two weapons. Or an ammo limit that actually matters. Or no slow motion. Just something to make him less godlike. When you actually find a challenging fight and can just switch to the anti-material rifle or grenade launcher and win easily the challenge is completely gone, and a lot of fun along with it. I enjoy using the weapons a lot, but at the same time they make everything far too easy and mean Aiden doesn’t actually rely much on hacking during combat. The same applies to car chases which are great fun until you get the steam pipe upgrade which works so well and can be used so often that all other hacks become almost irrelevant. Don’t bother finding a street with spikes or bollards to lure your enemies down just wait and blow a pipe. It works every time.

Plus the campaign missions come loaded with so many ridiculous situations that call for Aiden to ‘manually’ follow a target or sneak physically into a place it just becomes irritating. Sure you can raise a bridge, steal bank details, stop a train or even burst steam pipes but you have to sneak into this building or follow that person. Tailing people isn’t constant like Assassins Creed but Ubisoft did decide to go with the ‘10ft rule’. If your target goes out of sight for a millisecond or gets more than 10ft away a massive message comes on screen telling you you’re losing your target. Aside from the question ‘Can’t Aiden hack GPS or track a SIM?’ I’m pretty sure I could follow someone from further away in real life. I hate it. It’s the worst thing in AC and Ubisoft for some reason decided it was the only mechanic worth copying into Watchdogs.

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It’s impossible not to be impressed with Watchdog’s overall presentations. It looks amazing and is by far the densest city I’ve ever seen in a game. There isn’t an single inch that doesn’t have incredible detail. You really get the sense Ubisoft are putting all that next gen power to good use. When the wind picks up and the rain starts I still stand there for a moment and admire my surroundings. Aiden’s coat flapping in the wind as the colours deepen to reflect their absorption of the rain. Water pools at the sides of the roads and raindrops can be seen splashing into them. I could go on for hours describing how pretty it is but seeing is believing. An adequately electronic soundtrack makes action sequences all the more intense and I’ve never heard guns that sound as cool as these ever.

On one occasion, I was being chased by a gang who decided they’d finally got sick of me. They took out the wheel on my car so I was left almost entirely immobile. I darted down an alley and turned off the engine to hide as the gangsters drove past searching for me. When I saw a chance I went for a train line I knew was nearby and hid on foot until a train arrived. I stopped it with my phone and ran for the doors. The gangsters saw me but were on the other side of the train. As the doors opened I drew my pistol and used slow motion to kill him with a single shot, hopped on the train and started it leaving the gangsters as I made my escape. It couldn’t have been better if it had been scripted but in Watchdogs these things just happen all the time. It’s like constantly playing a developer walkthrough. This is a perfect example of when all Watchdog’s features come together to create a special moment.

But the campaign missions are a real let down. The theory that a high body count makes for fun gameplay should be left to COD. It doesn’t belong in Watchdogs and stops it from becoming an intelligent game, even on the harder difficulties, which is a true shame. There’s so much that’s good about Watchdogs that it certainly lived up to my expectations. With less guns and a larger focus on using smarts to overcome challenges Watchdogs would be close to perfect. It really lets itself down by trying too hard to become the shooter that nobody wanted, even given the incredibly satisfying gunplay which just makes it all the more frustrating.

But GTA didn’t get everything right straight away. And Ubisoft now has a more than decent competitor for the open world giant. As a series Watchdogs has almost unlimited potential. Ubisoft has laid the groundwork incredibly well and I can only imagine what future instalments will bring.