An unofficial subtitle for Watch Dogs? "Ubisoft's Greatest Hits". Multi-team productions are now an established part of the publisher's development plans in order to hit milestones and share the workload of their large Triple-A franchises. Yet its newest IP, more than any other in the publisher's catalogue, feels like a Frankenstein experiment that sows together the strongest elements from its other series. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the result is far from a freakish monster. The stitching between the different play styles is nearly invisible, each well-crafted in their own right and stuffed as it is with its own unique gameplay aspects, Ubisoft's new sandbox effort is sitting comfortably just behind the genre's best.
Impressions don't start so glowingly though. An early stalk through a stadium's interior as we blend through crowds and duck police as tutorial almost mirrors a similar modern day scene from Assassin's Creed. The comparison to that franchise's weakest moments and the lack of the rich detailing we expected from the visuals - even though we played our review build on PS4 - coupled with a slow-burn opening sours our expectation immediately.
Thankfully once this tutorial introduction finishes and we spill into the city proper, do gameplay and graphics start to impress, and the early story proves nowhere near as lingeringly boring or as stretched out as Assassin's Creed III's, instead building strongly as each new narrative beat and game mission is introduced. As we head towards the finish of the first multi-part Act, five of which make up the game's backbone, we've found our footing with the game's rhythms and from then on enjoy ourselves, even when the gameplay elements start revealing their repetitive nature.
And it's the cherry-picking of the best elements of Ubisoft's other works rather than copying them wholesale that makes the experience not only feel cohesive, but better as a combined whole. Start free-running with a pull of the right trigger (and another button hold to automatically vault Aiden over objects) and you'll feel, and see, the ghostly presence of a slightly unfit Edward Kenway in Pearce's movements. Yet for a game that relies heavily on cover and stealth, Ubisoft Montreal abandons Assassin's god-awful attempts at it and instead turns to the genre master: Sam Fisher. Aiden slides to cover with a button press, and automatically sneaks to nearby cover points with a reticule point and button prompt, while he smoothly slides round corners with a directional tweak and button push.
While a huge chunk of the gameplay is built around passively hacking devices, Pearce packs a punch weapon-wise: shotguns, grenade launchers, assault rifles and silenced pistols are all hidden in that oversized coat of his. Through the fifteen hours plus to clock the main story campaign, mainly a revenge tale with NSA overtones, you'll use your finger on gun triggers as much, if not more, than on touch screens. Good then that gunplay looks, feels and sounds satisfying. Jump into a car or onto a motorcycle, and you've the arcade handling and physics of The Crew or Driver. Even Aiden Pearce feels like an amalgamation of Nolan's Batman (gadgets), Jack Bauer (excessive violence to pursue a lead) and Clint Eastwood (that forty-a-day gravely voice). This feels like an IP decided by committee, but designed by great developers showing off strong work in their respective fields.
Like its peers in the genre, Watch Dogs presents a condensed, artistic interpretation of a real-world city. The game's Chicago shrinks the layout and different districts, but the location's unique architecture and landmarks are present, and the latter are used as key moments in the story (or double up as tight spaces to race through when driving). The closeness to the reality may matter little if you haven't been there, but there's a distinct vibe to the place that hasn't the immediate flash of, say, Los Santos, but you grow to appreciate its look and feel the longer you linger on its streets, and with its talkative populace mixed in, it feels as alive as any other sandbox game.
The last is an important point. The game's central distinction from its competition - electronic hacking - pervades every aspect of the experience. It's the central story arc, as hacker Aiden Pearce interacts with his peers while tracking down those who ordered a bungled hit on him through their digital footprints. Part of that is through ctOS, a centralised data hub that controls everything from Chicago's traffic lights and cameras, to tracking criminal activity (in retrospect, it's gladdening to know Ubisoft didn't try an easy Skynet spin with the story's direction).
We're able to tamper with this system through Aiden's mobile phone, and gunfights and driving aside, this is where most of the gameplay comes from. Click a button and Pierce pulls his mobile from his pocket, and the screen lights up momentarily to indicate he's now connected to the grid. Panning the aiming reticule over different things elicits different responses and options.
However, you need to first disable a district's ctOS towers to get connected. This'll mark the third game series from Ubisoft in which map waypoint information is tied to an objective. Unoriginal the idea is, at least the execution is better, forcing you to follow power lines to circuit breakers that are well hidden, getting to them a puzzle in itself (though Chicago seems to have cornered the market in lifts). Equally, digitally intruding on computer systems offers up a hacking mini-game that remains challenging but not obtuse.
Get connected and activate your mobile, and every NPC in the area gets a pop-up window detailing their name, financial records and their dirty secrets. Anyone on a mobile can have their bank account hacked, letting Aiden pull money from local ATMs, or their text and phone conversations listened in on, opening up side missions or just letting you hear exchanges between callers. Given the length of time spent in Chicago and the amount of people we pass, the voice-work and text type is massively impressive in both range and quality, and we rarely get repeats (though the game's randomising of people to script sometimes presents unexpectedly funny exchanges - in Watch Dogs you really can't judge a voice by someone's face).
But it's in the main story missions that hacking comes into its own. As with weapons, driving and crafting, hacking offers a series of abilities that are gradually unlocked through XP gains, earned during missions, both main and side. The escalation is impressive - blocking a foe's ability to radio in backup is one thing, but cutting the power to an entire city block so you can move undetected during night-time firefights remains enjoyable to the game's end. Shame then that some missions don't allow you to decide the time of day in your infiltration, as that would offer an additional tactical element.
Most, but not all, objectives revolve around entering a heavily-guarded area to hack a computer, and exiting alive rather than in a body bag. Your palm-sized mobile device allows you to hack cameras, then jump between any others in the vicinity, effectively letting you case the joint prior to entry, and plan the best access point in and the best route through. There's an echo of earlier Rainbow Six titles and Arkham's Invisible Predator challenges here, and though sometimes a lengthy process, it remains compelling, letting you eavesdrop on NPCs or simple see things you really shouldn't. It's perhaps a worrying comment on our voyeuristic tendencies.
While the emphasis is on stealth, more times than enough we ended leaving the place under a hail of bullets - very few missions enforce the need to remain undetected, and an awareness icon above guards who spot you give you vital seconds to duck to the nearest hideyhole. It's a shame this wasn't a mission objective more often, as you'd be forced to think tactically, and work methodically. Less would become more. Without that limitation, ctOS towers and gang hangouts become 4th July celebrations, as you overload junction boxes to explode and set off guards' explosives in a cascade as you jump from camera to camera.
Rather than treating each place as an elaborate puzzle with multiple moving parts to navigate, we tended to clear out as many enemies as we could before entering, then mopping up any remaining stragglers. Enemy AI leans more towards smart, and backup numbers are huge, so gun battles are enjoyable when they inevitably arrive, but we wished for more stealth tension - that we got was because we actively pursued infiltration.
The only side effect to dying, and an annoying one at that, is a game reset to before entry - and before you'd spotted enemies and marked them on your HUD. Enjoyable first time, arduous any time after. Defusing firefights of their intensity is a prime goal come each engagement, but truthfully we were confident in our gunplay ability to make hacking a nice addition rather than an essential element.
Better balanced is when you're pursued on the move, mainly because it's so bloody difficult to shake your tail. One fallout was that we actively avoided some side-missions early on (even if you play protector to city citizens, pull a gun and you'll have the cops called on you) until we'd unlocked better hacking abilities and were more proficient with the car handling. Motorcycle enthusiasts will love Watch Dogs: two-wheeled travel is the best way to blast through back alleys, pedestrian districts and between car-stopping bollards. There's a little unconscious homage to Crazy Taxi here - pedestrians do a (mostly) great job of leaping out of the way of your oncoming metal bullet.
But while the game wants you to use the ctOS system to neutralise criminals' rides during pursuit sequences through changing traffic lights or bollards, it feels odd you're not offered the additional option to shoot while racing - you feel limited as a result.
Infiltrate, firefight, chase or escape. The game mainly sticks to formula throughout, and while there's tailing missions similar to Assassin's Creed, they're few and far between and thankfully due to Aiden's more nimble cover options being married to some light parkour, far more enjoyable. Again, because all these elements are well-polished, the fifteen hours plus of campaign doesn't get boring.
Yet finish that, and you're looking at just over 30% of completion clocked up on the progression menu: there's still plenty left to do. Though sadly, a lot of the side-missions don't match up under continued scrutiny. VR games accessed through your mobile (collect pixeled coins, parkour style, down demons in a racing game, bounce on gigantic flowers in a weird psychedelic trip in another) are a fun distraction, but the meat of the other optional objectives aren't as well-fleshed out as the main story, even as they dovetail into one another. Closing down a human-trafficking ring, the introduction of which forms a powerful mid-act of the story before segueing into an optional city-wide search for traffickers, devolves into finding and scanning briefcases dotted around the city.
Solving a manhunt for a serial killer? Same thing. Find a clue, scan it. It becomes a matter of collecting breadcrumbs for completion's sake rather than inciting gameplay. In solving random crimes, you're forced to track a potential criminal until they're about to commit the act, then run after them until you're close enough to tackle them. Variety and originality would have went a long way to making all these seem an essential part of the game and an extension of Pierce's role as vilgiante.
The extra few months of development time have made the selection of different manipulative objects in close proximity easy (we only had one blip when choosing the right thing was a problem), though we'd have liked a colour-coded outline of any usable object once we'd spotted it for quick reference - we sometimes forgot their positions and missed an easy kill - but that's a small issue.
Equally the hacking abilities aren't quite as ambitious as your imagination would let you run with - an extension of your combat arsenal rather than something wholly new to the genre, while the cross-gen development may be reason for the game not looking as detailed as you'd hope (at least on new-gen) but you quickly get used to the slightly-washed out look.
These are the biggest failings of Watch Dogs - a smattering of issues that could have been done better. It's all too easy to say ‘they'll be fixed in the sequel', but what exists here and now is great, interesting stuff, and the character work is solid. This is a cast we actually want to see more of. Despite the amalgamation of different franchises here, the IP is strong, the ideas and execution good. Oh, and its use of licensed music, particularly at key moments, betters even GTAV. You should play - or just watch - the game for the Wu-Tang Clan sequence alone.
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