Watch Dogs is the biggest event in next-gen gaming since those swanky new consoles from Sony and Microsoft launched last year.
Robot shooter Titanfall caused a ripple when it was released in March, but that was nothing compared to the massive hype around Ubisoft's open-world tech thriller. It's easily the most anticipated game of 2014 so far, following on from it being one of the most anticipated games of 2013 until its makers pushed it back a few months to allow more polishing.
There have been huge expectations surrounding Watch Dogs and much speculation about whether it would be as incredible a game as the build-up from Ubisoft suggested it might be.
So what's it all about?
Watch Dogs is an open-world sandbox sort of game set in a near-future, somewhat dystopian, version of Chicago.
The main character is a hacker and vigilante called Aiden Pearce. A failed robbery at a hotel gets him on the wrong side of the wrong people, resulting in his young niece being killed. The crux of the game after this is Aiden's thirst for answers and revenge, a journey that leads him to uncover corruption and conspiracy in the city's underworld.
Watch Dogs' gameplay is a mix of third-person action, stealth, combat, driving and, to some extent, puzzle solving.
There is a linear series of main missions which drive the story forward, but when not engaged in any of these you can free-roam around the city taking on side quests and doing all sorts of other activities.
It's easy to spot similarities with other games, such as Ubisoft stablemates Assassin's Creed and Far Cry, but the overriding resemblance is to Grand Theft Auto.
It's hard to shake off the feeling that what you're playing is a more hi-tech, gadget-heavy, slightly sci-fi version of Rockstar's crime-action games, Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Hackerty City if you will.
The main difference between this and the GTA adventures before it is the hacking.
Aiden's smartphone, the like of which we probably won't see until at least the iPhone 9C, allows him to hack into the city's electronic systems, which lets him manipulate objects, trigger events and access personal information about citizens.
Chicago is a super-connected city and Aiden has full access to its controls.
What's good about it?
1. The hacking adds a clever, fun and interesting extra dimension to the open-world format.
Pearce's array of tricks includes being able to remotely activate machinery such as forklifts and unlock gates. He can also cause electrical boxes to explode and pipes to burst. He can set off car alarms, trigger blackouts and send distracting text messages to bad guys. While driving he can raise bollards and bridges or tamper with traffic lights to cause pile-ups. Most frequently, he is able to hack into CCTV cameras, particularly useful for scouting enemies or accessing areas that are out of sight.
Hacking can be used in a multitude of ways depending on the situation Pearce finds himself in, such as helping him escape tight spots or being able to view otherwise out-of-reach places.
It provides a wide variety of options and solutions when deciding how best to tackle missions. In potential combat scenarios you can go in all guns and grenades blazing, but it's often more satisfying using hacks to stay unseen or to lure enemies into traps where you can take them down. In some cases it's possible to chain together hack after hack so you can achieve objectives, for example, accessing a computer terminal, from a distance without having to get up close and personal with guards.
2. One of the nice side effects of the hacking is how it gives the game a human flavour. Aiden is able to view personal information about people he comes into contact with, such as their age, job and random trivia. It makes them seem like real people with back stories rather than just sitting ducks to be shot or run over. Of course, through his snooping Aiden is also able to access their bank accounts and siphon cash, which is handy.
3. Watch Dogs contains a massive amount of content. As well as the five-act story which contains 40 missions, there are also loads of side quests and activities to discover.
Chasing crooks on foot, ambushing criminal convoys, stealing cars and infiltrating gang hideouts are just some of the tasks.
There are some bizarre mini games too, including a demonic car rampage sort of thing and another mad one involving a spider-tank.
In line with other open-world games, some of the content is merely filler rather than thriller, such as playing chess and poker, but overall there's no doubt Watch Dogs provides players with a lot to do.
4. When you begin poking around the city and interacting with its residents you're quickly reminded it’s just an artificial setting. It happens the first time there's a door you can't send Aiden through or there's a person who's oblivious to his presence. However, this virtual version of Chicago is as alive and bustling as any other place seen in an open-world game. The scale of it and level of detail are impressive, making it a great playground to explore.
5. Much has been made of the graphics in Watch Dogs, especially focusing on the noticeable differences in quality between when the game was first revealed in 2012 and what's actually been provided in the end product.
In some ways they are disappointing, such as movements looking a little awkward in places. I've seen better character models and animations before, including some in previous-gen releases, and there are certainly one or two better looking games on PS4 already. There was a scene early on involving Aiden's sister which I found jarring because it just didn't look good.
Fortunately, taken as a whole, Watch Dogs is much more of an attractive game than an ugly one. The weather system, for one thing, is very good and the city does look particularly arresting at night-time.
6. All the components of the game work well individually and also combine well together for a seamless experience. Whether it's shooting, taking cover, driving a car or whatever you're doing, everything is Watch Dogs is solid and runs very smoothly.
7. Hacking is the big difference between Watch Dogs and other games of this type, but the innovative multiplayer isn't far behind.
Ubisoft has done a great job of merging multiplayer into the single-player game, and making it optional for the most part rather than forced.
Among the online events there are hacking contracts, where you can invade another player's game (or vice versa), which sets off an intense cat-and-mouse battle. One person tries to stay inconspicuous to perform the hack while the other tries to uncover who is doing the hacking.
There are also car races and stealthy tailing challenges, as well as a team-based decryption mode in which multiple players compete over a file.
A really cool thing with Watch Dogs, which may prove to be just a novelty but which for the moment at least is fun to play, is the free mobile companion app. As one player races through the city in their console or PC version, another player using the app on their tablet controls police cars, helicopters, road blocks and other systems to try and sabotage progress.
What's not to like?
1. The gravelly-voiced surly Aiden is a bit of an anti-hero by numbers. He's got the troubled past, the tortured soul, the dysfunctional relationships, the driven-by-justice motives and so on. None of this makes him very interesting or easy to relate to - and at no point is he very likeable. I've struggled to form any sort of connection with him, which has made it difficult to care about his fight or his fate.
Other characters such as Clara, T-Bone and the creepy old mob boss Quinn are better but still not particularly inspired. Bioshock Infinite, Beyond: Two Souls, Grand Theft Auto V and even Assassin's Creed IV are just some of the games of the past few months to have had more memorable casts. The script and acting are not up there with the best either.
2. Watch Dogs' story never quite feels fully realised. If you take away all the tech stuff you're left with a fairly standard revenge tale and crime thriller. When you put all the tech stuff back in, you don't get anything which is particularly powerful or profound. The game of course contains constant references, visual and spoken, to the themes of privacy, surveillance, data security and freedom but it never quite makes the most of these and doesn’t seem sure about the point it's trying to make about them.
Should I buy it?
Watch Dogs never quite fulfils Ubisoft's lofty ambitions and falls short of being the truly game-changing, groundbreaking experience it might have been.
But it is still a very well put together and, most importantly, enjoyable open-world game which brings some different, fresh ideas to the genre.
With its vast amount of content, it offers a lot of value as well as entertainment.
Considering this is the opening instalment in what will presumably become an ongoing franchise, Watch Dogs shows a lot of promise. It's got a way to go to catch up with the genre-leading GTA, but it makes a strong first impression.
Overall, yes, buy it.
8.5 out of 10
Out now on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC - PS4 version played.
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