Few games have as much weight on their shoulders as Watch Dogs. When the open-world, hacking-themed title was delayed back in November 2013 it left a lingering question: had ongoing hype set the bar of expectation too high? Ubisoft took a step back to focus on delivering not only on the hype but in making a game people would want to play.
Six months later has Watch Dogs become the game that we've all been waiting for? After all, with Grand Theft Auto 5 fresh on the mind, it needs to stand out for all the right reasons as being the next-gen's golden game. We've been digging deep into the world of alt-Chicago to see if it's the game that we'll keep on talking about all year long.
All artists steal
Making a stamp on any given genre is a tough call these days. Boat loads of first person shooters hit the market on ever-shrinking release cycles, while open-world games are more commonplace. However, what Watch Dogs does is embrace the expectation of a free-roaming open-world adventure and all that entails, but then twists it up with its hacking theme. It's not a theme solely for the sake of embellishing a modern tale either as sections of the game involve solving certain hacking puzzles or remotely engaging enemies.
Although these elements may have been touched upon in other games to some extent, Watch Dogs manages to combine gameplay and genres to create something fresh. Yes there are sections when you'll be sailing through the sky at high speed on a motorbike a la Grand Theft Auto 5, or repeatedly getting caught during some of the stealth-or-die sections feel like Metal Gear Solid 5 - but when was that not cool? Watch Dogs takes on these big moment sand embraces them. If it didn't it would have risked being boring. And it's the exact opposite of that.
Watch Dogs kicks off with a bank heist intro delivered with Hollywood movie grandeur. The theme is familiar, but this is a heist with a difference: there are no guns, only the apparently invisible weapon of hacking. The game cleverly plugs into today's cyber security concerns and remains on that gritty thriller path throughout the majority of its story.
You play Aiden Pearce, hacker extraordinaire, who is in a bit of a predicament after the job causes a rift with his work partner. But it's not just an office tiff: things turn bad, people die and he's then on a one man mission to set things right. And even though he's a career criminal at heart, for some reason that's ok. Take him under your wing and go with it.
The story's premise isn't going to win any Oscars - plus some of the "arrrgh" vocals from dying enemies or repetitive taunts in gunfights seem too forced - and when we first played the game some months ago we were worried there would be a disconnect between player and protagonist. But that's not the case: the more hours we put in, the deeper and more rewarding everything got.
It's as play unfolds you'll realise the level of detail put in to the sea of alt-Chicago's inhabitants. By opening your "profiler" you're connected to the system, able to see people's details, hack into their lives and, in turn, this often unfolds side missions. If Pearce was on Facebook he'd never put his phone down and he's most certainly the kind of guy who would record entire gigs holding his phone up. In-between all the online fraud and murdering.
Whether you care for Pearce's first-person mutterings or not, it's the surrounding characters encountered and ongoing investigation that keep you wondering what's coming next. Sometimes there are interjections to interrupt the linear story too, just to keep things varied.
Stealth and shoot
Playing through the game there are distinct sections of gameplay. The free-to-roam city can be navigated by land or sea, on foot or in a vehicle, including car chases and avoiding detection by those tailing you. Although at first driving cars feels like driving on an ice rink, that is something you'll learn to master over time.
The main missions largely revolve around staying hidden, whether undetected for full stealth or as a defence mechanism when under fire. From cover it's possible to perform stealth attacks by getting the timing right and we found the control system readily responsive. Dashing between cover becomes an essential to avoid the odd grenade or new swathes of enemies that can be called in.
Throw some weapons into the mix and it all gets a bit more intense. From silenced pistols to automatic weapons, shotguns, a variety of explosives and, of course, the compulsory sniper rifle - it's all here. But just because you have guns doesn't mean you can always go in loud and noisy: certain missions require stealth extractions, for example, which gives the game more variety than something like Grand Theft Auto where it's almost always shoot to kill.
The other element is the hacking. Although Watch Dogs is a third-person perspective, large chunks of the game are aided by first-person hacking of cameras. You'll need to daisychain through numerous cameras to access specific areas, to open gates, access computers and so forth. It adds a new dynamic that helps separate Watch Dogs from other games of this type.
There are also various side missions that range from the fun - take down gangs, hunt out special items to unlock new missions and more - to the downright silly. More on that later.
Hacking is Pearce's commodity; a skill to be tempered and expanded throughout the game and to the player's advantage. Much like Infamous: Second Son, a skill tree details potential powers that can be acquired by spending skill points as you level-up.
The more you achieve throughout the game the more skill points you acquire. You'll progress from the basics of hacking people's phones through to raising bollards into cars, raising bridges to escape chases, handling off-road cars better to assist in tailing your enemies out in the wilderness, and plenty more besides.
How it's possible to hack steam pipes underground, mechanical bridges and so forth? We don't know. But we'll play along. We alluded to "gritty thriller" earlier, and while that does ring true - key scenes mid-way through the story occur in an auction house selling women, for example, so it's pretty dark stuff (no cameo from Liam Neeson though) - the play on the hacking dynamic can go a bit over the top.
When it's on the right side of sane it's cool: Timing a traffic light hack to switch oncoming cars to pile into enemies hot on your tail. It's delivered in a slow-motion cut-away smash that not only looks great, it feels satisfying.
Add blackouts, signal interrupts to stop police searches and plenty more and you feel like a badass much of the time. There's a vast number of ways to engage throughout the game. Set to a brooding electronic soundtrack by Brian Reitzell (it's really an amazing piece of work) - in addition to the usual in-car radio tunes from a variety of A-list artists - there's a real sense of drama.
But when it goes too far Watch Dogs risks that cool factor. There are parts of the game that, to us, feel like afterthoughts: "digital trips" where you, um, "hack your mind" for a crazy experience commanding a giant spider tank, for example, loosen the grasp on the close-to-life concept. There are also "coin runs" that feel more Mario 3D and some other nonsense stuff too. We really hope Ubisoft didn't add these in during the last six months as they're just not needed here - we've got Saints Row for that.
Where Watch Dogs achieves its art imitating life Scouts badge is with the intelligent integration of online play. In the single player world other players can hack you, but you've got a given period of time to stop them and are presented with a location perimeter to locate them. This invasive feature can catch you by surprise, but it's an innovation to disrupt the linear flow of play, plus a way to gain kudos - too much or too little and the public and media will either love or loathe you.
You can actively choose online missions too, which could see the game as a never-ending spectacle. Hacking a single individual, working as a team to tail or decrypt rival players, racing or free-roaming where anything goes are the main ones.
Unlike the Grand Theft Auto Online game mode, Watch Dogs online takes a leaf out of first person shooters' books in some regards. You're teleported to designated "arenas" within the map where the team action unfolds; exceed these map limits for 12 seconds and it's all over, depending on which online mode you're playing.
We doubt that we would buy Watch Dogs solely to play online, but after failing to win three consecutive "Dogfight" matches, we couldn't help but keep playing until we had won one. And then another. How complex this will get when the world is unlocked to the buying public should be interesting - there's potential for lots of very good players to quickly rise to the top of the online tree.
Despite moments of brilliance throughout, not everything is silky smooth in the pre-release version of Watch Dogs that we've been playing on PlayStation 4.
Those slow-motion take-down scenes shift from being cool to confused when the supposed "neutralised" car isn't even shown in the scene, while the timing of events between hacking and seeing the results feels more constructed than genuine.
Some online players have also flitted around the screen in apparently impossible Matrix-style teleporting, which was rather irksome when trying to catch them.
We also encountered a key part of a mission when train doors wouldn't open. So we restarted the whole mission and the same happened again. A full system restart and attempt number three saw the doors open. This was the only bug to properly affected our progression and enjoyment of the game, but if and when it's patched it'll be of no consequence.
After successfully completing solo missions we also found the PlayStation 4 version (as tested, we've not seen any other versions) stutters along for about two-three seconds. No biggie, but a point of note.
As open-world games tend to be judged on the GTA-o-meter, Watch Dogs does a clever thing by not trying to be that game. By utilising a variety of gameplay genres and relying on its hacking theme (admittedly sometimes going a little bit too far) it delivers a fresh and exciting experience that, most importantly, is fun to play.
We had early doubts whether the storyline would connect, but after a long weekend of play it has hooked us in. The alt-Chicago world is a glorious setting with plenty to do and the online mechanics are an innovation for modern gaming.
Yes there are glitches, the world isn't as big or grand as that found in Grand Theft Auto 5, and some of the wackiness ought to not be here - but after each day of play we were more eager to get back into the game than any other new title we've played so far this year.
Scratch away the surface and Watch Dogs offers multiple layers of depth in a game world unlike any other. It's a game that will likely divide opinion, but even through its subtle imperfections at its core this is the defining open-world game of 2014. It's not just hype, Watch Dogs delivers real substance and originality.