Warning: minor spoilers may be present for those who have not been keeping up with updates regarding Watch Dogs' narrative. Please read at your own discretion.
Imagine a world where everything is connected; a central operating system can control everything from traffic signals to security cameras, from mobile phones to webcams. It's essentially a hacker's dream and our worst nightmare. Sensitive information about a person - sexual predilections, bank accounts, criminal records - can all be accessed from a smart phone. Hackers have the ability to get any information they want from anyone and no one is able to avoid their power.
Aiden Pearce, the story's lead protagonist, is one of those people. He is introduced as a technologically advanced criminal, so to speak, as our first meeting with him demonstrates a partnered hack into a hotel's finances, earning them a hundred thousand in mere seconds. Their hack is short lived, however, when Aiden's overzealous partner is determined on demonstrating his elitism and tracing an additional hack that appeared on the network. This alerted security and prompted Aiden to issue a premature shutdown of their hack. Consequently, an unknown man pulls up information from the hack identifying the two players and sends a man named Maurice to intimidate Aiden and his family, resulting in the death of his niece. In lieu of this, Aiden sets off on a quest for vengeance and indiscriminately becomes a vigilante within the city of Chicago. Spanning over more than twenty hours, the originally straightforward narrative becomes more and more complex until the player is essentially on the edge of their seat, yearning to discover what happens next...only to take a lacklustre turn to vapidity when the bigger picture is revealed. For a game that deals with such drastic and immense themes, the villains just aren't on the same page.
Within the introductory scene, Watch Dogs paints a picture of hackers as artists and magicians, which is a pretty accurate comparison when you consider the bag of tricks we get to unleash within the impressively detailed city of Chicago, Illinois. With the push of a button, Aiden uses his smart phone to trigger environmental hazards that smash pursuing vehicles, remotely set off a grenade in an enemy's pocket or little tricks that can hack into a citizen's bank account or into their computer's webcam. Hacking certainly isn't as dynamic as implied, but it offers a bit more to do than in general games of the genre, so it's a welcomed addition.
Watch Dogs' missions are more stealth oriented than most games of the genre, which offers some variety. Combat is traditional and commonplace as we've come to expect from third person action gamers. Aiden can take cover behind most objects and switch from cover to cover. The cover system, however, is quite smooth and polished, perhaps the best I've experienced so far. Aiden also has the ability to slow time - just like everyone else these days - which allows for those gratifying headshots to be easily obtained. The only negative to the experience is that there's those dreaded missions that automatically fail if you're detected, but the missions that actually allow you to choose stealth or Rambo are the ones that shine.
Gunfights seem to be rather easy as most of the time, your reticle automatically locks onto the nearest enemy's vital points. There isn't much in the way of hand-to-hand combat aside from Aiden using his retractable nightstick as a takedown mechanism. However, despite some shortcomings, it's still a fun experience. There are a vast number of weapons to choose from ranging from pistols to submachine guns, assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and heavier artillery.
Driving in Watch Dogs is very arcade-like, reminiscent to Saints Row in a sense. It's incredibly easy to get the hang of and it actually makes the game that much more fun in my opinion; there's no mechanics that take time to adjust to. You know what buttons do what and you don't always have to calculate your speed before taking a corner. However, while fun, car chases gradually become more and more disappointing and annoying thanks to Ubisoft's decision to not allow vehicular combat. You can't fire your weapon out of the window while you drive, so your only choice is to drive around and hack into things to trigger hazards and shake your pursuer. Most of the time, you don't even get to see the aftermath of a changed traffic signal or a raised barrier that caused the wreck. Enemy vehicles are similar to the police in Grand Theft Auto V whereas no matter how fast you're driving in the game's fastest car, they always manage to catch up. It's nearly impossible to simply outrun them, so the game essentially forces you to use the hacking mechanic. On a more positive note, though, there's numerous different vehicles to choose from, ranging from common cars to sports and luxury, motorcycles and utility vehicles. Interestingly enough, the Xbox One and PS4 versions of the game offer a cockpit view whilst driving, which simply adds to the immersion of the experience. The only downside is that the side and rear-view mirrors are greyed out and you must press the appropriate button to catch a glimpse of what's behind you, which is so two generations ago.
One of the things I enjoyed most about Watch Dogs - as I am a person of simple tastes - is that most of the music featured were songs I know and love. It added to the overall immersion to hear some popular gems and even some interesting others I'd never heard before. The downside about the audio is that the vehicles' sound effects seem a bit exaggerated at times. The voice acting suffered a bit as well with certain characters; at times I felt as though parts of the recorded dialogue was done on a rainy day at 3 o'clock in the morning while the actor was drowsy on NyQuil. Some voice acting sounds lazy and without effort and there's absolutely no need for that.
Connecting online in Watch Dogs is similar in ease to Grand Theft Auto V; it all comes down to the push of a button. However, it is not nearly as seamless as Ubisoft had claimed; you'll often find yourself waiting for a connection to another player due to their poor servers and after a connection is established, you'll be shown a screen that's tracking the player's location. It's actually smoke and mirrors for a loading screen. Although, once you're connected (usually under a minute), you are seamlessly transitioned back to your individual game after the session ends.
Watch Dogs' online component features a small handful of activities: hacking, decryption, races, tailing, ctOS mobile and free roam. Hacking is my personal favourite as you're placed within another player's game (you're disguised as an NPC, even though you see yourself as Aiden and vice versa to the other player) and must install a back door hack into their mobile device. After establishing the connection, you must remain in the target zone (which gets progressively smaller every quarter percent) and download their files, hiding or blending in plain sight, avoiding being profiled by the other player. It can go one of two ways: you can either successfully download the player's files or you'll end up being discovered and must evade them, usually resulting in a car chase.
Decryption is a more team-based experience similar to capture the flag. Teams must recover critical information and evade the enemy team while decrypting the files. It's comparable to to the 'uplink' game mode in the James Bond game, Nightfire. It's terribly fun and addicting, but in my experience, a little tedious when you're unable to communicate with your team members as they'd rather not use their headset.
Tailing is similar to hacking and involves profiling your target and following them around in order to download information about them. You must observe your target (another player) from a distance without being spotted or discovered. However, judging from my experience, it doesn't seem like the other player is aware of your presence, as they never really seem to try and evade you or discover you. I haven't been 'tailed' yet by another player so I'm not too sure how the experience works from the other side.
Lastly, is the ctOS mobile application, which allows players to embody the Chicago police and attempt to disable another player's vehicle as they race through checkpoints avoiding you. You commandeer a police helicopter and can activate the environmental traps throughout the city as well as dispatch ground units and utilise your passenger armed with a sniper rifle to take down your target. It's wonderful fun, but connecting to the Ubisoft servers on mobile devices has proven to be quite the difficult task, so I haven't given it too much of my time yet.
The only annoying component about the online experience is that you yourself are a victim to any intruders trying to hack into your data and steal information. You won't truly get to play Watch Dogs uninterrupted unless you either disconnect from Xbox Live or PSN or turn off online capabilities, with the latter resulting in a progression loss penalty. If one were to temporarily disable the online component to avoid being hacked and desire to play the game in peace, your notoriety (online's version of experience points or XP) is reset to zero. It seems that Ubisoft truly wants you to feel like you're not the only person with the power of hacking and if you want to pretend that you are, you'll be penalised for it. I found that to be an incredibly ill-thought out move and poor development on their part; not everyone wants to be invaded every ten seconds, which indeed prevents you from playing missions until the intruder either gathers what they need or you track them down and eliminate them.
Overall, Watch Dogs is an experience to be had. It's generally fun and enjoyable and like any game, it has its annoying moments and features that make you wonder what in the name of all that is holy was the developer thinking. However, generally speaking, as long as you start up the game without expecting a Grand Theft Auto clone, it's unlikely you won't enjoy yourself. As always, if you're sceptical, head on down to the rental store or borrow your friend's copy before making a final decision.
Remember, everything is connected_