Watch_Dogs combines hacking and open-endedness for a glorious hybrid

Ubisoft’s strong contender for 2014’s best video game enthralls with its tuned-up sandbox game experience and inventive use of its hacking motif

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As vigilante Aiden Pearce, you can hack into the city’s surveillance system dubbed the ctOS. And also profile a number of unsuspecting people with numerous fetishes and petty crimes

In A Nutshell: Take a good chunk of last year’s open world hit Grand Theft Auto V. Now blend in hacking movie tropes, an alternate city of Chicago ruled by an advanced surveillance system called the ctOS, and traces of social commentary on today’s digital age.

The best part about Ubisoft Montreal’s new open world action adventure experience Watch_Dogs isn’t the vast detail and liveliness of its digital portrayal of Chicago. It’s not even just the satisfaction of trolling its denizens and miscreants by pulling up blockades and messing with traffic lights for road sabotage. It’s not even just the many side missions that will distract you from your quest for personal vengeance as cyber-vigilante Aiden Pearce who apparently has too much personal time on his hands, if his superior driving and gunning skillset is of any indication.

Heck, it’s not even just the game’s conspiracy-laden narrative laced with subtle jabs on surveillance technology that will keep you intrigued. No, the best part of Watch_Dogs is how it all gels together like clockwork, with the experience further accentuated by lovely visuals, appropriate sound bytes and music cues, as well as how seamless everything transitions in-game, save for the loading parts that happen when you start it up and when you buy the farm.

Aiden Pearce himself may be able to carry a pocketful of guns and summon cars at his disposal. He can’t take bullets like a champ, and his slow motion-triggering focus ability can only take him so far by itself. But his hacking and saboteur skills are what defines him, and makes him a force to be reckoned with.

Outside of fighting, his hacking and tools allow him to pickpocket from people’s bank accounts, listen in on phone calls and text messages for oncoming criminal activities to stop, and scramble communications so that the bystander won’t report a theft or act of killing you committed in plain sight. He also jacks into the many cameras available in the city just to see what dangers and opportunities lie ahead, as well as hacks into anything that’s in view. Pearce can also profile anyone within the vicinity either for missions or for the sake of faffing about; there’s quite a huge number of delinquents populating Chicago, ranging from sex deviants to money launderers.

When in conflict, he can trigger explosives in sight, disrupt enemies from calling reinforcements, and even pull up a traffic obstruction or two while in vehicular hot pursuit. There’s just that satisfying feeling when you’re baiting a group of amateur gunmen in cars when you make a steam pipe explode from under them with precise timing.

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Just another fair game of poker, no biggie

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You also get rewarded higher with experience and skill points for character building if you can pull off missions without getting blood on your hands. Though going in guns ablazing gets things done faster in a messy fashion, players may feel a bigger sense of reward taking the challenging path of blindsiding a mission target in a three-storey parking lot filled with Viceroy gang members armed to the teeth. Still, be it going the way of the cyber-ninja or cyber-terrorist with pray-and-spray tendencies, Watch_Dogs is built and designed properly for players to take any approach they’re comfortable with.

Yes, there’s a lot to nitpick about. There are rare glitches and bugs that make you reload a stage segment because you’re stuck between an object you purposely ran into. The facial expressions for some of the characters can borderline between comedic and creepy. Our hero, for all of his skillset and ‘l33t’ hacking skills, can’t dodge roll. His gravelly voice fluctuates from gruff to normal in key scenes. Even the game itself takes almost two hours before it really opens up its platter of fun.

But those are just that: nitpicks. They don’t affect the total exhilaration you’ll get from either cleaning up a gang hideout without firing a shot, picking a fight with the Chicago law enforcement or engaging in one of the four not-essential-but-trippy-and-still-entertaining digital trips from some random audio drug peddler. There are also augmented reality-styled games which test your running and aiming, as well as collectibles like QR codes, Foursquare-esque hotspot checking-in, and a whole lot more.

If the gargantuan amount of single-player sandbox content isn’t enough to sate your digital wanderlust and insane expectations, the multiplayer is sure to satisfy. The online modes range from digital tag, to a full-fledged race, to even a capture-the-flag style mode among three to eight players where the flag is a piece of encrypted data.

To tie in with the game’s theme of privacy intrusion, players can jump in uninvited to spy on you and hack your phone when you’re not on a mission. The response to this is to either take them down or just jump in their servers. This is entirely optional, but adds to the dense laundry list of what can be done in Watch_Dogs.

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Is having a giant surveillance network running an entire city such a good idea in the long run? Would you want Singapore to have its own ctOS?

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Ubisoft Montreal’s vision where you can fudge around and play hero in a surveillance-dominated city is realised in this standout effort. Thirty or plenty more hours of your life will be immersed in this possibly scary, and potentially realistic, future of a major American city. You will cherish revelling and getting immersed and lost in it.

 

Worth playing for: Its vast content and side things that will distract and ping you to no end. Also for its key story moments involving a junkyard and an underground auction involving a major violation of human rights.

Watch out for: Its difficulty, particularly if you want to ace the game without killing anybody. And the occasional open world glitch or three. And the recent UPlay kerfuffle if you’re thinking of playing the PC version and if you’re in Southeast Asia.

In closing: Tiny complaints aside, this is the quintessential open world experience of 2014 set in (sorta) contemporary times that’s well-paced, fresh and dangerously engaging.

Note: e27 played the PS4 version of Watch_Dogs. The game is also out for the upcoming Xbox One, as well as for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.

Jonathan Toyad

If you want an elaborate answer on who would win in a fight between Ultraman and Godzilla, Jonathan Toyad is your man. A six-year veteran in the game journalism industry, he did words and videos for outlets such as GameSpot, GameAxis, IGN and Stuff.TV. Fears coyotes and scorched earths.

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