Watch Dogs Review: Press Q to Hack Planet

Ubisoft seems perfectly willing to give players what they want, and what players want is apparently the same Assassin’s Creed open world foundation under every single game.

So it is with Watch Dogs, Ubisoft Montreal’s Chicago-based open world title. It has many of the Assassin’s Creed elements, like sneaking, assassinating, some light climbing, tons of collectibles, and towers from which you unlock map new information. Mix in the rest of the de facto rules for making open world titles in the new age — some mostly crappy driving and some cover-based shooter combat — and you have Watch Dogs: a fairly bog-standard title in the genre that has some good ideas, and some gimmicks, mixed in.

Well, they’re not all gimmicks, to be fair. Watch Dogs is all about “hacking” the network of surveillance gear that covers Chicago and using it to your advantage throughout the game. And when you’re really relying on the hacking system, by bouncing from camera to camera in order to scout an infiltration route or using city infrastructure to throw a tail three cars back, Watch Dogs feels like something special.

Those hacking systems just as often sit on the surface, however, adding only the illusion of something different to what is essentially the same old shooting and driving game.

Like most open world games, I certainly haven’t hated playing it as I worked through the campaign and picked up a few of the roughly one billion side quests and collectibles along the way. When Watch Dogs isn’t acting as just Another Open World Game™, taking pages from what feels like every other game in the genre, it can be pretty engaging. When it falls back on repetition and meaningless activities, though, it becomes a slog.

Watch Dogs
Platform: PC (reviewed), Playstation 4, Playstation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: May 27, 2014
MSRP: $59.99
Available: uPlay, Steam

That thing that’s supposed to make Watch Dogs cool — your ability to take control of most of Chicago — actually does make it pretty fresh-feeling at times. You’re Aiden Pearce, an angry Internet thief with the know-how to break into ctOS, the computer system that runs the city. With the system in your hands, you can scan personal data from everyone, jack into cameras, steal from bank accounts and adjust things like traffic lights and moveable bridges.

The game’s premise starts with a hacking-and-stealing job going bad, resulting in a hit squad coming after Pearce. The hit gets botched, a car accident ensues, and Pearce’s niece dies in the crash. That means No More Mr. Nice Fixer Guy, apparently.

The lengthy campaign has Pearce working to find the folks who wanted to kill him, with wrenches regularly thrown in by his sister and her remaining kid, his ex-partner, other hackers and fixers, and random additional gangsters. Pearce is a pretty bland character, though — he waffles between unstoppable killing machine and sad favorite uncle, and he has no problem stripping money out of innocents’ bank accounts or jacking a car in order to go stop a crime. Watch Dogs wants us to think he’s some kind of techno-Batman, but Pearce the man is fairly dull and empty, driven by thoughts of revenge and little else.

The story winds up concerning conspiracies, secrets and information control as multiple players compete to blackmail everyone else. Some of the side characters are fun, such as Jordi, the criminal Aiden employs to help him, who is often pretty funny — and some are not, such as Pearce’s ex-partner Damien, who spends most of the game just a shade shy of a cackling Bond villain. When Pearce is finally starts to ponder whether it was such a great idea to leave a trail of thousands of bodies in his wake, it’s way too little and way too late. The best parts of Watch Dogs’ story show all the potential it might have unlocked but never quite reached.

Watch Dogs is also pretty bad about its depictions of race and class. All the hackers and computer types are white; the only black characters of note are thugs and gangbangers, and I’ve shot many more than my fair share of them in Watch Dogs. Meanwhile, Pearce’s hacker pal looks like she could have been an extra in certain scenes of 1995′s Hackers. Much about the writing of Watch Dogs seems to be plumbed from the Big Book of Stereotypes, and it’s tone-deaf as well as boring.

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10 Comments on Watch Dogs Review: Press Q to Hack Planet


On May 29, 2014 at 4:28 am

“Several moments throw hacking in as the solution to a problem that makes no sense (such as when you’re able to hack a Pacemaker — inside someone’s chest)”.

Just a tip that maybe you should amend that statement. This is actually based on real world concerns. Most modern pacemakers use a wifi connection to allow the doctor to make adjustments without surgery.

This was a seriously problem when Vice President Cheney was in office. They actually had to modify his pacemaker to disable the wireless access due to security concerns.

Phil Hornshaw

On May 29, 2014 at 9:22 am


Oh wow, didn’t know that. Okay, fair enough — however, Watch Dogs IS still littered with “press Q to solve problem” moments. It’s not like you have to use your head to hack these things. There’s one button prompt, it’s the only thing you can do, and you just hold Q until it’s over.

Thanks for the tip, though — now I have a lot more respect for that Pacemaker idea.


On May 29, 2014 at 5:06 pm

This game is firmly in the “maybe when it’s cheaper” category for me. As interesting as it sounded when first announced, plenty of it seems to have fallen short. Driving looks pretty bad for something that is coming from a big publisher, and I have a hard time getting behind somebody ripping off Joe Public for his own purposes when he is supposedly meant to be sympathetic. I like a revenge tale as much as the next guy, but I don’t see why random pedestrians have to foot the bill. I’m also not too keen on how easy hacking is. I wouldn’t expect a lengthy, drawn-out process since it would limit its usefulness, but one button makes it seem way too easy to me.

Laurie P

On May 30, 2014 at 10:54 pm

To clarify the pacemaker comment, they don’t work on wifi exactly, but they do use radio-based communication with external devices so that doctors can program them. A computer security expert (read: hacker) called Barnaby Jack demonstrated security breaches on a cardiac assist implant and an insulin pump; breaches that would have been lethal had the implants been inside a patient. As Anonymous above points out, Cheney was worried about the possibility of his device being hacked, which was probably a reasonable concern.

The security on most implants is pretty terrible and serious consequences could occur if they are accessed maliciously. It’s comparatively easy to gain access, and it can be done with a laptop and some off-the-shelf components from a reasonable distance away. An interesting twist on the issue is that this technique could be applied to other implants, such as neurological ones (e.g. deep brain stimulation devices), potentially allowing some degree of control over the behaviour of the victim. It does sound like an ill-considered science fiction plot, but this is surprisingly plausible scenario.

Red Menace

On May 31, 2014 at 9:30 am

It was just way oversold.

Jeff Kaos

On June 1, 2014 at 11:09 am

I almost pre-ordered Watch_Dogs but decided to hold off because I’ve noticed a trend in the release of AAA titles lately: a lot of them seem to have some serious issue on launch that makes the game either mediocre at best or unplayable at worst. I used to love pre-ordering games and waiting in anticipation for the midnight release but it seems like the last game I was able to play to full effect on launch was Skyrim. Even GTA V, which was pretty solid on launch, had some problems with the online component. I’m sad that there will probably never be a game I’ll trust enough to pre-order.


On June 1, 2014 at 11:13 am

@ Anonymous
Wait a minute, I call BS. How could Cheney have a pacemaker? Don’t you need as heart for that to work?

Thank you, I’ll be here all night.


On June 1, 2014 at 4:13 pm

Basically I see this game as being like Assassin’s Creed. I’ll either let someone else buy it for me for my birthday or Christmas, or I’ll get it when it’s on sale or I find a particularly cheap second hand option. The amount of hype surrounding it is simply impossible to live up to, and it all seems to be about the superficial and how cool it looks. I’m glad at least someone is willing to not suck up to the big wigs on this, while also not being overly harsh.

Victor Reynauld

On June 7, 2014 at 12:00 am

Yeah, I’m calling BS on this statement from the article: “I had no technical problems whatsoever running the game on Ultra settings on my rig, which sports an i5 processor, AMD Radeon 7870 graphics card and 8GB of RAM.”

First of all, I wasn’t aware that there was a 7870 card with more than 3GB of VRAM. Considering it’s been established that the Ultra preset consumes 3.2GB VRAM at minimum and since every version of the Radeon 7870 I can find has only 2GB VRAM, there’s no way the game could have been running at Ultra with “no technical problems”.

Secondly, there’s no discussion about the performance hit AMD cards take due to Ubisoft’s nVidia GameWorks collaboration, which was brought to light in significant detail over on Forbes, of all places. The 7870 benchmarks only slightly higher than the GTX 660 but in Watch_Dogs, the GTX 660 would out perform it.

Thirdly, I’m playing the game with a GTX 770 4GB on an i7-3770K and 16GB DDR3 system RAM and the game chugs to maintain a consistent frame rate ay 1080p – even WITH the nVidia GameWorks optimizations. During play, the game often has double digit frame drops and microstuttering, both especially prevalent while driving. Turning it down to the High preset eliminated the microstuttering but the game still can’t maintain a consistent frame rate.

The ONLY way I could possibly believe you ran Ultra on the aforementioned system is if you ran the game at 720p with the frame rate locked at 30fps.


On June 12, 2014 at 5:57 am

Looks nothing like the e3 trailer