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Watch Dogs (PlayStation 3) artwork

Watch Dogs (PlayStation 3) review

"Cell phone or universal remote? Is there even a difference?"

After a surprise 7-month delay, Watch_Dogs finally launched on every platform you care about (sorry, Wii U) at the end of last month. The game was reportedly delayed to make it not-terrible, and hooray! Mission... mostly accomplished!

Watch_Dogs stars hacker/unlovable rogue Aiden Pearce, a jerk on a mission to identify and get revenge on the people who caused the death of his sweet little niece while they were going after Aiden himself, probably because they were sick of him committing crimes all the time. On his way, Aiden will find himself involved in a conspiracy much bigger than he originally planned, because of course he will.

Aiden is a wizard who can control all sorts of things with his magic wand. Or, he's a hacker with a smartphone. It's difficult to tell the difference. That's the game's main gimmick and it comes in handy in basically every situation. Trying to infiltrate a building? Hack a drink machine to attract the guard's attention, then beat them to death with a stick! Being chased by the cops? Hack a moving train to stop it. From there, climb on board and hack it again to start it moving (as a bonus, the cops will never know where you went, even if they saw you get on the train). Want to watch Aisha Tyler brag about stealing plates from a fancy restaurant? That's really weird! But just hack her home network! The future is now!

The hacking is fun to use as a game mechanic, even if it's not all that interesting when you break it down. Basically, some things have switches on them and if you flip the switch on a thing, it will do something. Phones will ring. Pipes will explode. Barriers (which are located everywhere for some reason) will raise or lower. Complexity basically begins and ends with hacking cameras to see and hack other cameras to find other things you can hack to unlock doors. Apparently, you can only hack things that you can see.

Of course, you wouldn't be much of a tech wiz if you couldn't build bombs out of random bits of electronics and Volatile Chemicals Brand chemicals. Watch_Dogs features a crafting system that lets you build some pretty cool stuff. Sure, there's the old standby frag grenades, but you can build some trickier items, too, such as one-time hacks that can scan the ctOS network and add everyone in the vicinity to your minimap, or even cause blackouts to help you escape pursuers.

It's good that Watch_Dogs' brings some interesting new mechanics to the GTA-clone genre, because the rest of them aren't that interesting. Shootouts will lead to you ducking behind crates, of course, because cover is the only thing that matters in third-person shooters. Yawn. Driving doesn't feel particularly good when you're not on a motorcycle. When a mission requires you to hop in a car to chase someone, you'd better hope the nearby traffic hasn't mysteriously disappeared (something that happens strangely often). And if you do find a car, pray that it doesn't feel like it's made of bricks. Thankfully, hacking things like steam pipes makes both driving and shootouts more interesting than they otherwise would be, and most shootouts can be avoided entirely if you choose to go for stealth takedowns instead.

That's one of the nice things about Watch_Dogs, actually. Many missions allow for various approaches. If you're having trouble doing things one way, try something else. Need to use cameras to guide someone out of a dangerous area? Maybe sneak in and take out a few guards yourself first. Are the cops on the lookout for you? Go all "Dukes of Hazzard" and drive through a fence, fly through the air onto a dock, drive along the dock to another jump, and land safely on a back road. They'll never find you now! Police checkpoints be damned!

Sadly, this freedom doesn't always keep things interesting. Some of Watch_Dogs' missions are great, especially in its second half. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for many missions in the game's first half. There were many instances where I would start a mission, see that I had to do something annoying like tail someone in a car (where driving like a normal person is suspicious but crashing through a fence and ducking down is totally smooth) or sneak out of a prison unarmed (something that should be prevented by some kind of internal mandate at the company that brought us the fiasco that was Assassin Creed III's prison mission). Such instances prompted me to think “You know what? I don't want to have to deal with this right now,” and just shut the game off for a while. I had to suffer through some pretty bad objectives to get to the good parts, and I don't think I should have had to.

The side content is just as mixed. You can gain EXP by finding certain collectibles or doing certain “missions.” I put that word in quotation marks because most of the things you do would more accurately be described as “tasks.” As you explore the city, you'll (constantly) get notifications about things like gang hideouts, criminal convoys, or just potential crimes in progress. These tasks don't change much as the game goes on. Criminal convoys are dealt with by ambushing cars at some point along a path that's marked on your map. Basically: lay some bombs on the street, stand off to the side, and blow them up when your target is in range. Crimes in progress are stopped by remaining unseen by the criminal until you see that they're about to mug/stab/shoot someone and then intervening. These things aren't very interesting the first time you do them and they're much less interesting the 30th or 40th time you do them, which you'll have to do if you want extra EXP for skill unlocks or trophies.

Collectibles are pretty bad, too. Privacy Invasions and Weapon Caches are “collected” by finding the correct door or box on your map and then following a line from the door or box to a switch that unlocks them, and then heading back to your target. Sometimes, instead of finding a lock, you'll have to play a simple hacking minigame. At least Privacy Invasions let you watch people in their homes, which can sometimes be interesting or amusing, making them a nice reward. Another collectible, ctOS Breaches, will just try your patience, making you hunt for and hack ctOS boxes within a short time limit, for no real reward. Some collectibles will give you access to audio logs, which are as all over the place as the rest of the game in terms of how interesting they are. Audio logs left by a serial killer are creepy, but eventually lead to a huge anticlimax of a bonus mission. Meanwhile, audio diaries left behind by minor character Maurice Vega tell a story I actually found more interesting and sympathetic than Aiden's.

Like many of Ubisoft Montreal's first attempts at new franchises, Watch_Dogs has some good ideas that are implemented to various degrees of success, while completely dropping the ball in other ways. Watch_Dogs 2 might be 2016's game of the year, but this first entry leaves something to be desired. I just have to wonder how much of a mess this game was in October.

Roto13's avatar
Staff review by Rhody Tobin (June 24, 2014)

Rhody likes to press the keys on his keyboard. Sometimes the resulting letters form strings of words that kind of make sense when you think about them for a moment. Most times they're just random gibberish that should be ignored. Ball-peen wobble glurk.

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