Thanks to CTOS, a network that controls almost every bit of computer technology within Chicago’s limits, Watch Dogs presents you with the smartest city in the world. It’s just as well, because its citizens need all the help they can get. They stand in groups and deliver little monologues, babbling incoherently over one another. They jump out of their skins when a car ten feet away slowly reverses into a parking space. One insists angrily that we’re invading his personal space, oblivious to the fact that we, and half a dozen others, are waiting at a bus stop. Watch Dogs’ citizens make the phrase ‘smart city’ ring hollow – at times you’re unsure whether you’re in a city or a psychiatric institution.
At least there are plenty of them. This is, unlike Infamous: Second Son’s Seattle, a bustling metropolis, though creating a believably busy city has come at a cost: Second Son was gorgeous, and Watch Dogs isn’t. The weather system, which spans grey and stormy, overcast, and hazily sunny, has seemingly been designed to mask the poor draw distance, since cars and scenery fizz into existence a couple of hundred yards away. It’s never an ugly game – it looks much better at night, and does a fine line in explosions – but you’re rarely made to feel as if you’re looking at a generational leap forward for open worlds.
You will, however, frequently feel like you’re playing one. While it might not match the visual standards of its E3 2012 reveal, Watch Dogs delivers on its systemic promise, with hacking offering completely new ways to make, and escape from, trouble within a familiar setting. And it’s not thanks to an impossibly powerful lead – though Aiden Pearce will be frighteningly tooled up by game’s end – but a smartphone.
Hacking is simple, one-button fare for the most part, but it needs to be when you’re blowing up an underground steam pipe while flying down a busy thoroughfare at 70mph, or triggering an explosion as an unsuspecting guard chases you. The challenge comes not from the input, but its execution: you can only hack objects that are within a certain range and to which, crucially, you have a direct line of sight, be that through Pearce’s own eyes or those of a distant laptop camera. Out on the street, your smartphone’s Profiler app offers information on those halfwit citizens, and some of them are alarmingly well paid. In addition to their salary, you’ll see their name, occupation, and a snippet of personal trivia (“Recently adopted dog”; “Allergic to shellfish”; and, brilliantly, “Canadian”). If they’ve got a phone, you can hack it, draining bank accounts, intercepting text messages and voice calls, or downloading music to add to your own phone’s meagre selection. It gives the city a sense of life, and layers a degree of substance on its inhabitants, but it’s gimmicky. It’s only in combat that Watch Dogs’ hacking mechanics really come to life.
When infiltrating an enemy compound, casing the joint means jumping from one lens to the next. You can rotate rooftop solar panels to form cover, overload and explode transformers, and even mess with enemies directly. Some carry explosives, which can be set off; others can be distracted with a phone call or text message; and others still can be stunned with a high-frequency blast to their comms headset. Every enemy-infested area can be completed with a combination of stealth and hacking. If and when it all goes horribly wrong, you can fall back on a broad traditional arsenal.
Out on the road – where handling is weighty and satisfying, a squeeze of the brake sending a car’s back end drifting outwards – Pearce’s smartphone can at first only be used to hack traffic lights, turning every light at an intersection green, which means a guaranteed pile-up given citizens with this level of intelligence. Progress up the skill tree, however, and you’ll be able to raise bollards and spike strips, open gates and garage doors, and raise or rotate bridges.
When combined, these elements add a new dimension to the open-world genre’s hackneyed end-of-mission escape, and instead of simply outrunning your pursuer, you’re able to stop them in their tracks. The game is happy to break its line-of-sight rule here, letting you hack objects you’ve just passed to take out a chasing vehicle, though timing is tight and success isn’t always guaranteed – there’s no point hacking traffic lights at an empty intersection, for instance. You have further options: Pearce can park up, kill the engine and slump down in his seat, and will only be spotted if a police car or enemy vehicle drives right by him. Ditch your car and you can make your escape by L train, providing you’ve unlocked the skill that lets you stop and start them on command. Say what you like about CTOS, at least it makes the trains run on time.
It’s no surprise to find that Blume, the company behind CTOS, isn’t as pure as the driven snow, but Watch Dogs’ lengthy five-act campaign is about more than shady corporations. Pearce butts heads with mob bosses, street gangs and rival hackers as he seeks revenge for the murder of his niece, and it’s during this sprawling campaign that Watch Dogs is at its best. Its various systems mean Ubisoft Montreal can be more creative in its mission design than this genre’s traditional loop of travel, kill and escape. You’ll get yourself arrested and incarcerated, then jump between CCTV and prison guards’ helmet cams to find a vital witness in the rec yard, save him from a fatal beating, then guarantee his silence not with a squeeze of a trigger but a few intimidating taps on a touchscreen. You’ll ride cameras up through the Viceroy street gang’s tenement compound to locate its server room, then come back and shoot your way in a dozen hours later.
You’ll use CCTV to escort a useful source to safety, guiding them from cover to cover around enemy patrols, using your various tools of distraction and destruction when there’s no elegant way past. And at a mission’s end, you’re often given a choice: shoot your way out, or slip past unnoticed. It is, like its host city, smarter than average stuff, and clearing out a CTOS base of its dozen protectors without once moving out of cover is a thrill quite unlike anything else in this genre. When Watch Dogs is left to its cellular devices, it can be marvellous.
Sadly, Watch Dogs spends an awful lot of time pretending to be something it’s not. It is infected with Assassin’s Creed’s tailing missions and instafail stealth, both of which are at odds with the agency of the combat and hacking mechanics. AR games (collect pixellated coins within a time limit; shoot endlessly spawning aliens) and Digital Trips (bounce between psychedelic flower trampolines; create havoc with a robotic spider) could have been plucked from the cutting-room floor at Saints Row developer Volition. A click of the right stick activates the time-slowing Focus mode, a borrowed Rockstar mechanic that is needless in a game that makes you so powerful in so many novel ways.
Then there’s the surfeit of cookie-cutter open-world distractions: chess, a drinking game, poker, slot machines, half a dozen kinds of collectible and five Investigations, most of which amount to little more than navigating to a waypoint and hacking something in exchange for a snippet of audio or video. It’s not all bad: Gang Hideouts (inner-city versions of Far Cry 3’s excellent Outposts) and Fixer Contracts (racing challenges) are high points, but the former lack the careful design of the campaign’s combat spaces, and while there are 40 of the latter, they’re of wildly varying quality. The world map teems with noise, but while most of it can be ignored, you’ll miss out on skills by doing so. Clear five Gang Hideouts to increase reload speed; complete ten chess challenges to max out your Focus meter. Perhaps this explains the constant HUD pop-ups offering to mark waypoints for side-missions: if you leave them all until after the campaign, you risk unlocking skills you no longer need.
This lack of focus on the premise and promise of Watch Dogs’ own systems extends to the online modes. The Dark Souls-style ambient invasions are excellent, your search of the vicinity for behaviour unbefitting of a brainless NPC provoking the sort of paranoia you might feel living in a hackable, computer-controlled city. Races, however, are a flawed concept: having first dibs on every set of traffic lights and blockers means everyone in your wake faces a trail of destruction. Online Decryption, meanwhile, is an eight-way fight over a file in which you get shot in the back a lot.
It’s all a bit of a muddle, suggesting an unwarranted lack of confidence in the core systems, and at times the most keenly anticipated game of this new generation leans too heavily on the conventions of the past. Watch Dogs was so well received at E3 2012 not for its looks, but what it promised: a truly new way to play open-world games in which the concept of agency extends beyond choosing where to go and what to do next. And whether you’re on foot, behind the wheel or in combat, Watch Dogs delivers on that promise. Rarely has a single button done so much, and so well.