In its opening scene, Watch Dogs refers to hackers as modern-day magicians. That’s a good analogy for the bag of powerful but mostly scripted tricks we get to use as we run amok in this huge and impressively detailed map of Chicago. With the push of a button, you can trigger environmental traps that smash pursuing cars, empty a citizen’s bank account, or even remotely activate a grenade in an enemy’s pocket. Hacking’s not as dynamic as it appears at first, but the illusion gives us a bit more to do than there is in most third-person action games, and it puts on a great show. Our hero, Aiden Pearce, is an empty trench coat as far as personality goes. It’s remarked at one point that he’s suppressing his personality, so it must be intentional, but it doesn’t make him a strong character. Fortunately the supporting cast is much more interesting. An enthusiastic and cavalier fixer, a gang leader who I affectionately refer to as Avon Barksdale: Superhacker, and a soft-spoken mob boss steal the show and make it a likeable and well-acted group. Character animations are elegantly done, too.
Watch Dogs’ completely open map is another big strength: it’s huge, diverse, and intricately detailed. The rural area of Pawnee balances out Chicago’s urban sprawl, and it all looks great, especially at sunset or during a rainstorm. Everything runs at a smooth 30 frames per second, however, after playing for a few hours I did start to experience frequent slowdowns when new mission objectives were loading up. Fortunately they never happened when anything interesting was going on, but they’re definitely noticeable and get progressively worse as the story goes on.
This techno-thriller fiction is all about the power of information in a super-connected city, and one of its cleverest and most distinctive tweaks to the open world genre is how much information it gives you. Scanning a pedestrian or thug pops up a brief, randomly generated personal history - some fact about their hobbies or lifestyle, plus their age, occupation, and income. It’s a small thing, but it’s surprisingly effective at humanizing them.
Over more than 20 hours, the straightforward revenge story becomes more and more complex until it’s bursting with intrigue... only to take a strange turn for the mundane when the motivations behind it all are revealed. For a game that deals with themes like surveillance society and media manipulation, Watch Dogs’ villains just aren’t thinking very big.
It can last a lot longer than 20 hours though, because Watch Dogs is extremely good at distracting attention away from the main story with a steady stream of side quests and mini-games. Most of the other activities can get repetitive, like the pre-crime interventions that always result in the same foot chase, but there are so many types, from criminal convoy ambushes to chess and poker to drinking, that they don’t get old quickly if you mix up what you play.There was definitely some tender love and care put into the way that monstrosity moves. I admire Ubisoft’s restraint in including only one hacking puzzle mini game in a game about an uberhacker hero, and it’s both clever and used infrequently enough that it doesn’t become annoying. There’s also the ability to take over any surveillance camera you can see, even some worn by guards, and it’s put to good use in puzzles where you leap from camera to camera as you attempt to get line of sight on a terminal you want to hack.
Unless you opt out, you’re also regularly prompted to jump into multiplayer activities, like a simple race through the streets or a much more interesting cat-and-mouse game of tailing and hacking another random player. It’s a setup with a lot of room for creativity and hilarious experimentation as you try to hide or blend in with the civilians. There’s also the highly entertaining capture-the-flag style Decryption game, where one player desperately tries to evade the rest, and a challenging race where you have to evade traps and cops triggered by a player using the free iPad app.
Watch Dogs’ missions are much more stealth-focused than most open-world action games, which gives them some good variety.
After the bullets do start to fly, the cover-based gunplay feels good, even if the arsenal is pretty conventional. The standout is the pump-action grenade launcher, which makes short work of both thugs in armor and vehicles. What often makes the firefights in Watch Dogs memorable is how you can fool enemies by moving around behind cover, causing them to fire at your last known position instead of where you are now. That allows you to get in some good flanking moves, and makes the enemies feel more like foolish humans than all-seeing robots.
One-button hacking might be overly simplistic, but it does give you abilities that make playing through Aiden’s story feel powerful and fun. Doing side missions and multiplayer as you make your way through the dark and lengthy story makes it feel like a huge adventure, and stealth options let you play smart if you prefer. Car chases aside, Watch Dogs is fundamentally very well made, and has more than enough unique ideas to make it a great and memorable open-world action game.