If there is one iconic image that will sum up this decade, it's someone standing on a busy city street looking down at their phone. If Watch Dogs, Ubisoft's much anticipated open world stealth shooter, gets one thing right, it's this.
Cap down, scarf pulled up to keep out the Chicago cold, and face reflecting the glow from his mobile phone, wronged hacker Aiden Pearce is a hero made for 2014. Of course it's not that straightforward. He's a hacker, vigilante, wanted by the police, in deep with the criminal underworld, and as good with a gun as he is manipulating Chicago's central operating system (ctOS). So when his niece is killed in the aftermath of a major robbery, Pearce is going to stop at nothing to find out who is responsible and make them pay.
While the story, populated with shady mob bosses, hitmen, henchmen, and typically tattooed cyber-criminals, is told effectively, it's easy to get caught up in all the side missions and mini-games and lose track of the unfolding story.
Leaving the distractions aside, Watch Dogs core gameplay delivers some ambitious and original ideas. Most story missions involve driving somewhere, sneaking somewhere, hacking something, then shooting your way out. Aiden has access to the city's security cameras. So when you have to break into somewhere, as long as Aiden can see a camera he can control it. Every mission starts with you jumping from camera to camera finding guards, alarms, power transformers, and locked doors. So before you even try to get in you can distract guards by calling their phones or setting off car alarms, or kill them by blowing up electrical panels they might be standing next to, or even setting off grenades they might be carrying.
While the game encourages you to try the stealth options, often making it compulsory, Aiden is perfectly capable to use grenades, rocket launchers, shotguns and AK's, to get out of a tight situation. However, in the Xbox 360 version of the game there's a bit of an issue with guards spawning from nowhere, and if you fail a mission re-load times are a bit annoying. But, when Aiden does have to shoot his way out of trouble he also has a few tricks to get away from the police pursuit. When you're driving, traffic lights, bridges, and garage doors are highlighted. If you're quick enough, holding down a face button will hack them causing chaos and hopefully stopping pursuers. It all works well, and as you progress your hacking powers improve. Ultimately you’ll be jamming helicopters and blacking out sections of the city.
Strangely, the story missions in Watch Dogs sometimes feel secondary to all the side missions. There are so many side missions and mini-games that you could never accuse Watch Dogs of lacking content. But where to start? There are checkpoint races for Aiden to try on foot or in a car. A horde mode where he drops out of reality to wipe out wave after wave of digitized flying robots. Various Digital Trips that Aiden can get from shady guys in alleyways, including one where you drive around running over glowing demon zombies. You can steal cars, try to drive stealthily through the city without getting spotted by the police, or clear out gang hideouts; all for cash and special upgrades for your shooting and driving abilities. Throw Texas-hold 'em in there too, along with various puzzle games in cafes and bars, and you can go hours between story missions.
Perhaps the side mission that fits best with the core game is when Aiden turns vigilante. Aiden can scan everyone. As he walks along the street, shops for clothes, or rides the L - names, factoids, and bank details pop-up for everyone he passes. If they're on the phone Aiden can read their texts or listen in. And, if they're boasting about, or planning a crime Aiden can tag their location. Then it is a matter of sneaking into the area without scaring them off, and once the crime is committed, taking them down. There is crime everywhere in Chicago, and by taking down criminals Aiden can maintain a good reputation even while stealing cars, getting chased by the police, and clearing out random people's bank accounts at any corner ATM.
I'll say it again - there is a lot to do in Watch Dogs. And that's without even mentioning all of Aiden's upgradable and unlockable abilities, along with gaining access to heaps of cars, weapons, and licensed songs. On top of all this Watch Dogs also boasts an interesting take on online gameplay. Online you can enter an eight player free roam mode, compete in races, or capture the flag missions. Or you can jump into another player's game and try to secretly tail them or install a backdoor before they find and kill you. If you succeed you move up the online rankings and unlock items.
Like most things in Watch Dogs the online mode promises more than it delivers. There are interesting ideas, but after a while most of it feels like a collection of relatively simple mini-games, most of which you've seen before. Even if they do have a cyber twist. Like using a security camera to catch a glimpse of an opponent's card during a game of Hold ‘em, or checking their heart rate while they’re making a bet.
Also, as a possible foreshadowing of future next-gen ports, make sure you have 8 gig free space on your hard drive for the installation disk download. It’s a chunk of data and takes a while. But, the open world Chicago is big, detailed, and packed with cars and people. Unless, of course, if you're being chased by cops and criminals and need a car, in which case you can run for miles without finding one.
In the end Watch Dogs has plenty going for it, without quite living up to the hype. But, Aiden Pearce is a great character, and a very nice design, and the story has an engaging cyber-noir vibe going for it. Just keep your eyes down and your smartphone charged.