Ever since its announcement and reveal back at E3 2012, Ubisoft's Watch Dogs has ironically been held under close inspection. A sandbox adventure with a focus on hacking, it's an ambitious game that's chocked full of ideas and mechanics taken from some of the publisher's other properties and various open world titles. If you took Assassin's Creed and mashed it together with Splinter Cell before adding a hefty dollop of Grand Theft Auto, you'd essentially end up with Watch Dogs – but is this Chicago-based romp better or worse than the sum of its parts?
It's admittedly a difficult question to answer. On one hand, protagonist Aiden Pearce's quest for revenge in a city apparently full of criminals is an undeniably excellent experience that's full to the brim with content. However, on the other, nothing that the release does really stands out in what is becoming an increasingly popular genre. Not even our gravelly-voiced lead's magic smartphone provides much excitement, despite the fact that the title's core hacking theme is supposed to be what sets it apart.
In truth, it's safe to say that the game has suffered from media overexposure. Ever since its initial reveal, Ubisoft has drowned the web in trailers of all shapes and sizes, and it's ultimately eliminated most of the surprises that the release throws at you. We've already seen the vast majority of Aiden's hacking powers, from blackouts to road blocks, and traffic light tampering. They look and sound cool, for sure, but the impact of pulling off such well-timed moves will be dulled for anyone who's been keeping up with the release all of this time.
Hacking itself is as simple as aiming your reticule at a vulnerable electronic device and holding square down. When driving, you'll be manipulating the aforementioned traffic systems in order to foil the pursuit of cops or gang members, while on foot there are numerous ways to get an advantage over your foes. You can hack explosives, trigger alarms, or even overload fuse boxes so that they fry anyone who's near. Basically, the hacking mechanic as a concept is an interesting one, but in reality, it amounts to little more than pressing a button when you see the prompt on screen. That's not to say that it doesn't add an enjoyable layer of semi-strategy to the already heaving sandbox gameplay mix, but it's still a surprisingly predictable addition.
Likewise, the title's multiple online components try to shake things up with an intriguing focus on the seamless transition between them and your single player adventure, but even they feel somewhat bland in practice. When it's activated in the options menu, you can be invaded by other players as you go about your business, and they'll attempt to infiltrate your network and steal data. You'll be tasked with finding the intruder, and during the first few confrontations, it creates a tense dynamic as you frantically search for your opponent, and gets even better when the affair turns into a chaotic car chase. Like all of the modes of play, it's well worth a try, but it eventually becomes a little bit tedious – especially when you've unlocked the online-specific skill tree in its entirety.
Meanwhile, online races do exactly what they say on the tin, and the game's obligatory team-based mode doesn't do much to stimulate enthusiasm either – particularly when most players are happy to abuse the open world's systems rather than participate in shootouts. Nevertheless, multiplayer can provide a decent distraction when you're eager to experience a little human intervention, and the next-gen exclusive free roam does have its fun moments when you're up for doing stupid things with friends, but it's hardly a revolution.
So, with a release that sports this much mediocrity, why not just jump back into your favourite PlayStation 3 sandboxes? Well, despite multiple instances of tired gameplay and predictable structure, Watch Dogs actually manages to excel in creating a fantastic game world. Chicago certainly doesn't have the attitude of San Andreas, but it definitely feels like a bustling city, and its various districts are decidedly distinct. The setting is a lot larger than it originally seems, too, and houses plenty of real-life tourist hotspots to find and gawk at. Much of it is meticulously well made, and when coupled with a lavish day-night cycle, as well as some lovely looking weather effects, it's often a joy to simply walk the streets and take in the atmosphere.
The urge to explore is also amplified by dynamic events, which occur frequently. The scenarios generally follow the same structure, but they give a good reason to get involved with the city's inhabitants. With your phone in hand, criminal activity will be marked on your map, and it's up to you whether or not you go and stop it. After scouting out the potential victim or potential assailant, you can either give chase and neutralise the target with non-lethal force, or you can put a bullet between their eyes. It's easy to see how these smaller objectives could become boring, but they thankfully remain engaging due to their impressively dynamic nature. Sometimes, the perpetrator will call for backup and you'll be forced into a gunfight with a gang in the middle of Chicago's business district, or someone will give the police a nudge at the sight of Aiden brandishing a weapon, and you'll have to escape the area.
Indeed, even bigger, named side missions can provide unique, completely unscripted moments where you'll need to adapt to an ever-changing situation. Hunting down criminal convoys and stopping them using any means you see fit feels both liberating and exciting, while shutting down gang hideouts draws comparisons to the Arkham Batman titles' predator sections, where you're free to scare your enemies witless by remotely interacting with different bits of tech strewn around the location. The game's mechanics may not be anything special, but when you're making use of all of its systems in quick succession and tackling missions however you want, the release truly shines.
Perhaps surprisingly, some of the game's best moments are unearthed during the campaign's main story missions. At numerous points, you'll be battling your way through large locales, from apartment block parking lots to abandoned or run down slum housing estates. Taking on entire gangs alone, you'll likely need to take advantage of everything and anything at your disposal, and again, using different tools, weapons, and hacking abilities in tandem with each other makes combat a highlight, even if the gunplay itself isn't anything to write home about.
Unfortunately, the plot that encases these tasks ranges from serviceable to downright generic, and at its worst, it's about as clichéd as you can get without having Bruce Willis appear to finish off a dying terrorist's last words. Aiden is the gruff white male that we've seen countless times before – a blank canvas whose only tangible motive is to take revenge on the people responsible for his niece's death, even if that means mowing down pedestrians and robbing corner shops when he feels like it. It's easy to get lost in the fact that our baseball cap enthusiast's actions during gameplay don't exactly gel with the plot or his personality, but it's not an argument worth bringing up when the story is this unremarkable to begin with.
That said, cutscenes are well shot and well acted, and a couple of relatively strong characters keep the narrative reasonably interesting when it needs to be. For an open world title, the plot is good enough that you'll want to see it through, and you'll no doubt enjoy bringing some of Chicago's most despicable gangsters to their knees, but when you consider the game's core themes of hacking and cyber warfare, it's hard not to think that it's a wasted opportunity.
Luckily, if you're eager to get away from the narrative – which can be a little overly serious – there are plenty of side activities to enjoy that don't force you to gun people down or smash into vehicles until they burst into flames. Alongside calming chess puzzles and the ability to see every citizen's private information just by pointing your phone at them, digital trips represent Saints Row-esque minigames that almost feel like an entirely separate entity due to their ridiculous nature. You can take on the city's defences as the incredibly destructive spider tank, or you can partake in some parkour platforming as you collect virtual coins across various courses.
And it's not like these distractions are pointless either, since your progress in each of them – as well as side missions – contributes to unlocking new perks and abilities. Aiden's skill trees aren't particularly expansive, but they serve as something to work towards, and eventually make the man that pedestrians call 'The Vigilante' a force to be reckoned with – especially when his focus ability allows him to slow time and pop off headshots like he was born with scopes for eyes. As such, it's possible to grow grumpy Aiden into a deadly crusader of justice or an agent of absolute chaos – something that its closest competitor Grand Theft Auto V doesn't allow, with its playable cast of rather realistically vulnerable ne'er-do-wells.
Of course, it's hard not to discuss a PlayStation 4 release without having a huge fall out over its visual fidelity. As you may have guessed, the bottom line is that, no, Watch Dogs doesn't look anywhere near as good as its initial reveal – but it isn't a bad looking game by any stretch of the imagination. As hinted previously, the weather effects can really add a whole new layer of detail to the world, and at night time, the city's illumination is quite captivating. However, if you look close enough, you'll start to pick out graphical flaws that do take some of the sheen off the product, like the lack of dynamic window reflections, and the disappointingly simplistic vehicle models. Thankfully, though, the title retains a stable framerate throughout, and only ever drops during specifically busy situations while the game is autosaving.
Watch Dogs isn't a hack job, but it isn't the next-gen revolution that many were expecting either. It's a game largely made up of mediocre bits and pieces, but is elevated far beyond the sum of its parts by its brilliantly dynamic sandbox and often gripping mission design. You'll want to see Aiden Pearce's tale through to its conclusion despite its flaws, but it's those unpredictable and sometimes spectacular moments of vigilante justice that will keep you connected to Ubisoft's latest open world.