Game delays happen. They always have and they always will. Those of us who closely follow the industry know that this is never going to change. When it happened to Watch Dogs for the Xbox One and Xbox 360 gamers who were looking forward to snatching up the game for the holiday season were livid.

Watch Dogs finally got its day in the sun this past May. Since then we’ve been testing the title, sinking hours into finding as many hackables and completing as many campaign missions as possible. Is Watch Dogs worth the money? We can’t tell you that. Each individual gamer has to decide that on their own. What we can do is judge Watch Dogs based on our own experience so that you have a better idea of what the game entails.

Is Watch Dogs worth the money?

[divider] It’s About Hacking [/divider]

It’s About Hacking

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You hack stuff. To let some shallow reviewers tell it, that’s the only unique part of Watch Dogs. That’s not true. You do other things, but it is one of the things that you’ll enjoy the most.

Throughout Watch Dogs users earn experience points for taking down small-time thugs and miniature criminal enterprises. Some small missions require players to track down criminals on foot using a combination of firearms and hacking. Others require users to break into a forbidden area and take down specific criminals and then escape. There are even some missions where players must take down convoys and violate the privacy of unsuspecting citizens.

I note all of this now, because hacking affects all of this in some way. Using a camera to spy on suspected criminals makes catching and not alerting those small time criminals much easier. Rigging steam pipes to explode during a car chase makes getting away from henchmen and the authorities much easier. The are some levels where hacking the camera on an enemy’s vest allows players to deeply infiltrate a hideout and take out everyone without firing a single shot.

All of this hacking is made possible by Chicago’s ctOS network, a municipal system that controls just about everything. Players can set out for the game’s core mission and stick to that for all eight acts, or they can run around taking down random criminals and crafting power-ups for their next core mission. Earning XP allows users to unlock new and more daring power ups. For example, midway through the game users can hack cameras, bridges, the sewer system, the subway, cars, notebooks and the power grid.

Some say that the hacking in this game is way too easy. Don’t listen to those people. ctOS being so prevalent in the game world means that users rely on it for just about any activity. When players are trying to hack something of a serious nature there are switches and time limits. When they just need to do something quickly hacking is done with a simple press of the X button on the Xbox One and Xbox 360 controller. This makes sense, if hacking during action sequences was any harder this game would be a lot less fun. Opening a bridge with the in-game smartphone is meant to feel as simple as firing a semi-automatic weapon because that’s what makes sense. (For the record, Ubisoft manages to nail aiming, shooting and cover mechanics by making those as simple as they can be as well.)

Hacking citizens provides users with three things they need. First, players are treated to information about the subject in question. Sometimes it’s basic stuff like listening in on their phone calls only to learn that they have an insane mother-in-law. Sometimes it’s to read their text conversations and track down criminal elements and new missions in that area. Other times its to earn more crafting components.

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[divider] It’s About The Story[/divider]

It’s About The Story

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In Watch Dogs users play as Aiden Pearce. Pearce is a hacker and after the first few moments of the game users are tasked with taking those hacking abilities and using them to take down enemies in a crime-ridden futuristic Chicago that’s ran by machines. Ubisoft could have left the story there, but it tries to use Pearce’s loss early in the game as a catalyst, a way for users to see through the eyes of Pearce an understand why he’s running around the streets of Chicago doing what he’s doing.

I’ve heard other’s say that it’s the hacking that sets Watch Dogs apart from other open world games. The sort of true, but then it’s not. Comparisons are usually made between this game and Grand Theft Auto 5. Grand Theft Auto 5 is a blockbuster movie with over the top theatrics and action sequences out of a summer ticket seller. Watch Dogs is very much an indie-film. Watch Dogs wants you to feel the thrill of hacking traffic lights and escaping from cops, but it also wants you to feel the weight of the world on your shoulders and understand its main character’s motives. In short, Ubisoft wants players to put down their controller and ask themselves serious questions. The obvious question is how far are we willing to let our government go in the name of protection? Others aren’t so obvious like, what would it take for us to take a stand, and don’t we all secretly wish we had something like The Vigilante, Aiden Pearce, to believe in?

[divider] The Experience [/divider]

The Experience

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Colorful characters, cool looking cars, funny citizen biographies and revealing dialogue…

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There are a lot of things that Watch Dogs does right. Chicago feels alive and the ubiquity of ctOS makes every encounter with an enemy or even a person walking down the street feel dynamic. Early on just getting a car is problem because in-game players will see the player smashing the car’s window and call the cops. Solving crimes and protecting citizens earns players a better reputation. With that reputation comes a little more anonymity.

Players with good reputations will find that it takes a lot for the police to be called. There are ways to prevent this like brutally assaulting the person calling the cops mid phone call. Later in the game users earn the ability to temporarily shut down the authorities scanners. Of course, players with bad reputations will find that Chicago’s citizens are less willing to put up with they’re antics.

The skill tree, the really cool weapons that users can purchase from gun stores and hacking book end a great player experience.

That being said, there are a few minus. For the most part, level design in this game is pretty consistent. When users aren’t infiltrating a place they aren’t allowed to be, they’re trying to escape from cops or shutdown a street gang. Watch Dogs uses some variation of these three activities throughout the game. Each activity is so well done that the repetition shouldn’t get tiresome.

But it does get tiresome. That’s not because the game suddenly stopped being interesting but because Ubisoft opted to pack in a campaign that spans 8 separate acts. Each of those acts have their own story arc and they’re made more interesting by the cast of interesting characters. Nevertheless, by the end of the story I wanted the game to end so that I could get a break from the same old.

For the most part, the game’s level quality is pretty consistent. One level though is so egregious that it actually almost earned a controller throw from me. In that level Watch Dogs is sending waves of thugs while the player is on a roof top. Suddenly, enemies are surfacing out of thin air and when the player move they spawn in new places each time. It was the most excruciating gaming experience I’ve had all year.

All at one time, Ubisoft seems to be encouraging the player to plan for the next incoming wave of enemies, but ensuring that the player has no way of doing so. It also doesn’t help that the game character sending in those enemies has a minute-long monologue. Every time the player dies in this level, they have to sit though that monologue over again. That highlights the other key issues: the game’s strange save points.

Watch Dogs has a great atmosphere thanks to colorful characters, cool looking cars, funny citizen biographies and dialogue that is randomly generated. Someone actually ran into Bruce Wayne at some point in my travels, according to a popular picture circulating on the internet.

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[divider] It’s About the Multiplayer Experience [/divider]

It’s About The Multiplayer

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I often found myself just getting ready to start a mission when someone tried to hack my game.

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Open world games, particularly members of the Assassin’s Creed series have taken to multiplayer like wet paint does to a fresh pair of expensive jeans. I found myself wanting to get comfortable with it, wanting to admire the scenery around it. At the same time it just kept making me pay the price.

By default, users connected to Xbox Live can have their game hacked at any time by another player. When this happens, users are immediately alerted and tasked with finding this person. In theory, it doesn’t actually sound that bad. In practice, it’s a not all that fun. I often found myself just getting ready to start a mission when someone tried to hack my game. Users can turn this off, but some achievements in the game require players to go out and hack someone else’s game.

Where Ubisoft nails this game is with a mobile device. Using an Android smartphone or an iPhone, other players can log in and try to take users out before they reach a certain area of Chicago. Again, hacking takes the focus here. All of the steam pipes and traffic jams of the main part of the game are at the mobile user’s disposal. It’s fun and gives the game a bit more shelf life as a fun party title.

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[divider] The Verdict [/divider]

The Verdict

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Watch Dogs — like the version of Chicago that it shows off — is a coin with two faces. On one side of that coin are all the things users would expect and a few they wouldn’t. Watch Dogs is filled with fast cars, computer hacking, snide jokes and interesting topics. All of this is held together by the hacking mechanic that Ubisoft did so much to disperse throughout the experience. The hacking is great, but I’m of the opinion that the game would stand up on its own without it. Don’t misunderstand though – I’m much happier that it’s there.

Watch Dogs is so fun that I think it doesn’t deserve to be perpetually stuck in Grand Theft Auto’s shadow. The genres are the same, but the approach is different. It’s that approach, the hacking, the sane characters that exist in an almost realistic world that make it a must-play.

Just have a sane person standing by for those missions that make you want to hurl projectiles.

This review is based on 30 hours with the game. It was done with a in-house digital copy of Watch Dogs, not with a version provided by the game’s developer.