Watch Dogs review: hacking the GTA formula

When you make a Grand Theft Auto clone, you better make sure it provides some special ingredient that makes it stand out. Red Dead Redemption takes place in the Old West, and Sleeping Dogs lets you run wild through Hong Kong. Then you have Watch Dogs, which proves that Ubisoft isn't putting all its concentration into its Assassin's Creed endeavors, and provides the inventive hook of manipulating the world with gadgetry.

Making Use of the Magic Phone

The game puts you in control of Aiden Pearce, a morally gray hero who finds himself chasing after cybernetic criminals after the death of a loved one. Armed with vicious fighting skills and all sorts of technical know-how built into his cell phone, he sets forth to write the wrongs in Chicago's CToS system, doing anything from breaking through firewalls to creating car accidents, all with the push of a few buttons. What sets apart Watch Dogs from the other GTA clones is how you can use all these technical doodads to your advantage. Aside from setting markets up for would-be targets, including ones that don't necessarily appear on your radar until you scan the area for anomalies, you can use the environment to your advantage. During police chases, you can pop up blockers and change signals to throw off your pursuers. In gun battles, the smallest things, like a car alarm or an exploding circuit, could throw someone off enough to let you clean house. More surprises await, and they often find new ways to toy with your surroundings. Ubisoft Montreal was smart enough to make all this functional with the push of a button. Granted, the phone did need to be reasonably charged in order to use its special abilities, but there was a fair recharge system that didn't take me out of the action for long. Plus, Watch Dogs shows its opportunities from a good distance away, including said traffic lights and secondary details, so it's easy to plan accordingly and improvise in the middle of a mission.

Aiden Pearce, man on a mission

A Fighting Chance

Aiden's melee techniques are fierce and effective, capable of bringing down armed guards with very little lethal force. If you prefer gunplay, the game has it in spades, along with a truly capable cover system that promises you won't get your head blown off. That's if you aren't leaving yourself open to bullets, mind you. My only complaint was the inconsistent enemy AI. Over the course of several missions, most guards would remain placidly ineffectual as I ran towards them wielding a baton. Other times, they would catch on quickly and respond with deadly force. The unpredictability became especially problematic in later missions, where I would have appreciated a more consistent balance. You can buy or steal a wide variety of vehicles, from trucks to motorcycles to fancy cars. Though the steering controls are a bit stiff and tank-like, I found that once I got used to them I was driving around Chicago without much of a problem. It's fun once you get the hang of it. Meanwhile, this virtualized Chicago has plenty to see and do aside from the regular mission structure. Being able to hack in to random phone conversations and play vigilante with people in trouble provides plenty of entertaining side activity, especially when you find some key people in the city. All of this is complemented with a rich variety upgrade options to use Pearce's abilities however you'd like. Want to make your reload faster while shooting? Or perhaps add a little oomph to your combat techniques? There are literally dozens of ways to expand your expertise in the game, and all of them feel like they pay off later on, especially against tougher opposition.

Reach Out and Make Some Enemies

An online-capable feature also allows you to hunt down (or become hunted) through other players with contracts, which adds a nice distraction to the regular run-of-the-mill action. Unfortunately, we weren't able to test out the other online modes in our review period. Even so, the campaign itself lasted a solid 35-40 hours in my playthrough, and provided plenty of fun playing in the city sandbox and listening in on passers-by even when I was finished.

The city of Chicago looks outstanding throughout

Sweet Home Chicago

When it comes to presentation, Ubisoft hit it out of the park with Watch Dogs. The city of Chicago is faithfully represented, from the smaller suburbs to the bustling, populated areas to the bridges. Every inch has been layered with nicely rendered visuals, so you actually feel like you're coasting around the city, creating the kind of havoc usually reserved for the Blues Brothers. The character design is truly dynamic, as this world doesn't just belong to Pearce. You'll be introduced to several of his colleagues and his enemies, and also get some insight with his family in a tremendous, subtle way. It's great to see fleshed-out characters such as these provide heft to the story. Audio is excellent, too, between some quality voice work (even Pearce's scrambled contact sounds pretty cool) and a variety of great tunes you can store on your phone to blare later while you're driving. Being able to hack other people's libraries to grow your own is a tremendous feature. There are times when you'll have to readjust the camera, mainly while you're backing up with driving, and sometimes the solution won't be so obvious with getting through a room, though access to something such as a camera can help move things along. Overall, though, this game is a nice intro of the GTA formula into a next-generation set-up.

You're gonna have fun with this one -- you'll see

It's a Hacker Party, and You're Invited

Watch Dogs could've easily been Grand Theft Auto with tech equipment. But Ubisoft Montreal has managed to flesh out this experience as something more, making fantastic use of the technology and applying it just right to deliver a remarkably deep experience. Furthermore, the presentation is quite good on newer game machines, and all the aspects click--albeit with somewhat inconsistent driving controls and AI. This game may have been a long time coming, but it's been worth the wait. Final Score: 9 out of 10.
This review is based on an Xbox One copy provided by the publisher. Watch Dogs is available now for Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3 and PC for $59.99, and will come later this year to Nintendo Wii U. The game is rated M.