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Watch Dogs Review: Identity crisis

on 29 May 2014

Watch Dogs is a tale of two games, two protagonists, and too many ideas. As I stooped myself in Ubisoft's impossibly hyped blockbuster--arguably the very first next-gen game announced--I started to notice these dualities and how they either compromise or stand as a testament to the game's quality. What results from the interplay of gameplay styles, storytelling techniques, and philosophies is the most original game to yet arrive on PlayStation 4. By appearance, Watch Dogs treads familiar genre ground. But beneath the surface similarities to Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row, and even Deus Ex, some fresh, surprising ideas elevate Watch Dogs to a place of significance among its forebears. This is the first genre advancement of the new generation.

Chief among these fresh ideas is the ubiquity of anti-hero Aiden Pearce's smartphone. It humanizes NPCs by profiling them. It opens an astonishing wealth of environmental interaction that actually matters. It centralizes and streamlines access to all of the game's content, an energizing mix of familiar open-world fare, new mission types, and intense multiplayer.

We're told that, in Watch Dogs' Chicago, everything is connected. From a gameplay standpoint, it's absolutely true. My phone orders a motorcycle that instantly appears around the corner. It also charts my way to the next campaign mission. On the way, I hack the bank account of a pedestrian; from another, I learn about a potential crime about to occur. Before I can intervene, a fellow player out there in the PlayStation aether is merged with my game and attempts to hack money and information from my device. An intense cat-and-mouse chase ensues. I lose, and they escape, but I'm reinvigorated when I stumble across a City Hotspot. I "check in," snagging cash and ammo left as gifts by players before me.

Aiden's smartphone is a communicative tool for much of this and more. From detecting enemy players and charting GPS routes to starting multiplayer and getting clues on hidden content from random NPCs, it's a tool that went from feeling like an aesthetic touch to an indispensable extension of Aiden's self the more I played. The menu is easy to navigate even while moving, and because the camera automatically swivels with Aiden while the menu is up, I never felt "trapped" in my phone like in Grand Theft Auto--the nervous urgency to get in and out was rarely there. But the phone's most prolific uses aren't in its menu at all. In your extensive ability to interact with the environment and understand its people, the crux of Watch Dogs--what separates and elevates it versus its contemporaries--becomes clear. Aiden can hack both local electronics--elevators, surveillance cameras, the grenades of gang members--and networked technologies governed by Chicago's ctOS operating system. Traffic lights can be switched. Trains can be stopped and started. Transformers can be overloaded, causing blackouts at night. The city's gas lines can be erupted, wrecking cars during chases and incapacitating guards. Objects that would be otherwise innocuous form a vast array of traps spread across the game world, creating pockets of highly strategic areas in the alleyways, rooftops, and plazas that house side missions and campaign scenarios. Holding the Square button for a second or two is all that's required to activate a trap, but linking with overhead surveillance cameras is basically required for planning an intricate series of enemy-dispatching hacks, which you can execute from the camera's view or back on the ground as Aiden.

To Ubisoft's credit, a run-and-gun playstyle absolutely works. Aiden has less health than your average open-world protagonist, but a skilled player could make use of the game's incredibly tight aiming and responsive snap-to-cover to mostly ignore the richness of hacking and the satisfaction of clearing an entire enemy force while perched out of sight. Here's where the "two games" feeling comes into play: as fun as it can be to remote-detonate the grenade on a guard's belt, drop a crate on his anxious friends, and blow up a transformer next to the backup flooding in, nailing headshots and stopping a fleeing enemy with a grenade launcher--not traffic lights--feels just as sweet. Both "games" are well-constructed. There's a significant variety of hacks in enough layouts for the clandestine approach to stay interesting, though the general process--hack a camera, wait until guards move near traps, profit--starts to feel routine. Even car chases, a traditionally manic endeavor that would seem ill-suited to precise environmental interaction, work well. You're given a second or two to activate things like road blockers even after passing them, and the game is very good at detecting your goal. If you're chasing (or being chased by) goons, the hacking icon on a given object will flash blue at an opportune moment to use it--when hacking will (almost) assuredly accomplish your ends.

The shooting game feels great, as well. From the weapon wheel, you can instantly craft deployable items like comm jammers and sticky bombs. From an in-cover position, you can target exact points on nearby cover for Aiden to move to. And if enemies don't see you move, they won't know to shoot there. It's a more methodical shooter that serves up careful execution and frantic desperation in equal measure, the latter’s owed to just how great the shooting and aiming themselves feel.