Watch Dogs review: hacking the GTA formula

Watch Dogs is a game that defines itself as more than a mere Grand Theft Auto clone.

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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.

From The Chatty

  • reply
    May 27, 2014 12:01 AM

    Robert Workman posted a new article, Watch Dogs review: hacking the GTA formula.

    Watch Dogs is a game that defines itself as more than a mere Grand Theft Auto clone.

    • reply
      May 27, 2014 5:22 AM

      Cool. Good write up

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      May 27, 2014 6:15 AM

      Completely agree wth you.

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      May 27, 2014 6:19 AM

      Damn. Great to hear!!!

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      May 27, 2014 6:22 AM

      Going over some of the videos and I have got to say that casual players trying to make the game look fun have done a much better job at making this look interesting than the devs who really went out of their way to try and make the game look smart and poignant.

      This definitely looks a lot better than I thought it would.

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      May 27, 2014 6:26 AM

      nice review - RPS mentioned the targeting system was clumsy and caused much calamity but activating the wrong things (ex: grenades in pockets vs street lamps). Was this an issue in your playthrough?

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        May 27, 2014 6:27 AM

        it sounded like RPS didn't actually know how to play the game

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          May 27, 2014 7:58 AM

          The controls are clumsy, though.

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            May 27, 2014 10:15 AM

            If you're a bear or using the M+KB, yes.

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              May 27, 2014 10:22 AM

              Have you played the game?

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                May 27, 2014 10:26 AM

                Have you? The only review that mentions any issues with the controls (and most actually praise them) is RPS. They are idiots.

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                  May 27, 2014 10:28 AM

                  I've been playing all morning on the PS4

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                    May 27, 2014 10:33 AM

                    Well then lrn2control newb

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                      May 27, 2014 10:55 AM

                      I really shouldn't even reply to such a bullshit post, but here goes.

                      http://www.reddit.com/r/Games/comments/26l57g/watch_dogs_review_thread/

                      Skim through that, you'll see several people who say the controls are less than ideal. Do you get used to them? Sure, but that doesn't make it less clumsy.

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                        May 27, 2014 10:57 AM

                        Lol calm down son I'm not being serious.

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                          May 27, 2014 10:58 AM

                          In any event, I'm enjoying the game. I have had several incidents of blowing up something behind the target I'm trying to hack. Its slightly annoying, but I can look past it.

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                          May 27, 2014 2:15 PM

                          None of your replies here come across as joking.

                          • reply
                            May 27, 2014 2:40 PM

                            when I say lrn2control newb....I think its safe to assume I'm not being serious. Internet memes. LOOK IT UP.

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      May 27, 2014 6:28 AM

      Interesting! It seems as though the reviewers that expected - and wanted GTA5 with hacking don't like it, and those who are taking the game as what it is rather than what it isn't, are.

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        May 27, 2014 7:01 AM

        That makes a lot of sense, from what I've played.

        The first impression that I have got from combat is two fold.

        1 It feels like a massive open world Ghost Recon Future Soldier. Very punchy. Very tech driven combat. It's super solid.

        2. Because it's so far so rare, (No rampages and even "justified" shoot outs) that you hardly feel safe taking out a weapon and going to town that it's SO satisfying when combat is engaged.

        I like the supporting characters in much the same way you might like a good Game of Thrones douche-bag bad guy.

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          May 27, 2014 7:03 AM

          I don't know how that post came out so weirdly written and convoluted.

          That's what I get for leaving in the middle of typing it out. That game is a lot more fun than I thought it would be, so far.

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            May 27, 2014 12:14 PM

            Is it more of an open world Splinter Cell/Ghost Recon than a GTA clone and if it is why haven't they sold that?

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              May 27, 2014 12:19 PM

              Because GTA sells

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                May 27, 2014 2:47 PM

                Indeed but the second part of the tutorial had me crouching/moving from cover to cover a la Blacklist and I was okay with that.

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                May 27, 2014 4:24 PM

                JohnnyRey which Rockstar developer fucked your wife?

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              May 27, 2014 11:37 PM

              Sorry. I still get a deep impression that there was some ghost recon crossover. Even though that game (GRFS) was just a series of kill boxes, the combat was compelling enough to see me through the game.

              When I found myself sneaking around, using cameras and environmental things to distract and kill enemies. I was tickled. Within the first 5 minutes of the beginning they show you how to craft electronic combat devices of various types.

              About an hour in I got caught by a blume agent, and in a panic, I whipped out my assault rifle instead of my silenced pistol and found it had the same grin inducing punchy sound and feel as Ghost Recon.

              So far, I am loving it. (I've been wrestling with computer BS since, which has kept me at about 2-3 hours in. New ram from Newegg in the morning.)

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        May 27, 2014 8:28 PM

        Splintercell: Chaos Theory open world. I jacked the difficulty to "realistic" and turned off the minimap via the config files. Eonix said he approached it with fresh eyes and that's how I went in, am having a blast.

        The game is improved without the minimap; it's one thing to see an enemy and tag him via exploring an area through cameras. It's another to just... know where he is on a map, all the time, nonstop. The tension of fucking up an "op" is much more believable in the world Watchdogs presents than in any that GTA ever sold. I've gotten weird looks as I talked myself through a parking garage full of soldiers, saving myself from certain death by splitting hairs.

        I honestly think this is what Splintercell should have evolved into and I appreciate it as a spiritual successor to those bygone days.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEUZw95b1JQ

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          May 27, 2014 11:45 PM

          I can see why you say Splintercell. I was thinking more about the visceral feel of combat specifically (GhostRecon) and slightly less about the spycraft in general (Splintercell). Without the map though, that would push it into full spycraft, which I couldn't find a way to turn it off.

          Which file has the option to turn it off?

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            May 28, 2014 4:33 AM

            GamerProfile.xml in Users\...\My Documents\My Games\(Where-ever Watchmen files are stored for you)

            This is also where you can choose

            UseCompassMiniMap="1"
            UseMinimap="0"

            This is also where you should choose DeferredFxQuality="pc" rather than "console"

            Switching DeferredFxQuality to PC made a night-and-day difference. I can't say it decreased my FPS in the least bit and it made the world pop in the way it ought to.

            And no. I'll never refer to the game as anything other than Watchmen ever again.

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              May 28, 2014 4:39 AM

              Not sure how tweaking these values effects online play, I've avoided online contracts and declined to allow players to invade PvP. I dealt with one "Fixer" after the pseudoFixer and I don't think I'll ever allow invading multiplayer again.

              My approach to the game involves minimal collateral. Having it go full-retard Mercenaries bombs-everywhere-and-grenadelaunchers-vs-pistols just isn't appealing at the moment. Once was enough.

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                May 28, 2014 12:20 PM

                That's basically my approach. I find the ctos hubs a welcome release for that reason also.

                Oh! Last night, I found myself running around the woods up in Pawnee, and up a path behind a motel, I found a little ramshackle barn... let's just say in the middle of the night with surround sound, I nearly filled the back of my pants.

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      May 27, 2014 7:28 AM

      Cool review.

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      May 27, 2014 10:05 AM

      Man the Shack is higher than every other review I've seen.

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        May 27, 2014 12:11 PM

        It's fairly in line with other reviews - PC Gamer 87, IGN 84, USGamer 100, The Escapist 90, Gametrailers 89, Gameinformer 85, Edge 80.

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      May 27, 2014 10:14 AM

      eh I kind of disagree. There is a bit of a learning curve, but I was pretty ok with them once I got used to the sprint being mapped somewhere else

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      May 27, 2014 10:36 AM

      The driving controls feel something like Scarface: The World Is Yours, if anyone else has played that (on the original XBOX/PS2).

      I definitely prefer GTA IV/V driving controls, BUT I think the tank-like controls in Watch Dogs are more out of necessity: you will be triggering traps etc. a lot as you drive around and at least for people playing it the first time you will want that extra grip on the road/controls.

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      May 27, 2014 10:59 AM

      So just keep playing Dota is what you are saying.

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      May 27, 2014 12:15 PM

      So how's the graphics? With all the noise the last few weeks about the graphics feeling downgraded (only to then hear word of a magic PC setting that makes it look good again), I'm curious how people think it looks on both PS4 and PC.

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      May 27, 2014 12:19 PM

      Nice writeup! Especially glad to hear they nailed Chicago. Can't wait to get out of here so I can start playing.

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      May 27, 2014 1:12 PM

      Should be downloaded when I get home. Can't wait to try it out.

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      May 27, 2014 1:48 PM

      I remember back when the shack used to review games on PC.

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        May 27, 2014 2:00 PM

        They only gave us console copies to review :(

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          May 27, 2014 2:43 PM

          It's all good, most of us just want to hear about the gameplay anyway! Version specific details can always be added as an update later.

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            May 27, 2014 4:23 PM

            version specific things…..we played the same scene on XB1 and PS4 and the XB version had really noticeable screen tear. I might upload a video tomorrow for shackers to see.

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        May 27, 2014 2:14 PM

        Yeah but they used to also review shitty game demos. Demos! Remember that? Old Shack wasn't always perfect!

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        May 27, 2014 3:29 PM

        I remember when PC gamers didn't whine so much. Those were the days.

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      May 27, 2014 2:19 PM

      I've enjoyed it a lot so far during my time playing today. It's very much a GTA clone style game, and it does some bits better and some bits worse than GTA. But, I'm honestly having more fun with it so far than I did with GTA 5. It looks nice and the world actually feels fairly lively. Playing on PS4 here btw.

      Anyway, like any open world game, we'll see i it holds my attention in the long run or if I suffer the usual open world fatigue I always do. But, for now it has been a blast save for the usual Uplay being stupid bits.

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      May 27, 2014 2:56 PM

      probably because the PC version shutters, hiccups and farts a lot. Although in the config file there is a setting that for some reason is set to 'console', apparently changing it to 'pc' makes a big difference, but I havent had a chance to try it yet.

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      May 27, 2014 3:49 PM

      The only thing I cam across was finding a "blue" citizen in a crowd, and then trying to find them again and they are gone. I mean, the actual model is still there, but for some reason the game decided to refresh te info on the NPC walking around and now that song I saw wasn't there.

      It happened like 5 times in the couple of hours I got to play.

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      May 27, 2014 11:41 PM

      So sad Ubisoft still sticks to UPlay :-(