Watch Dogs PS4 review – A neat twist on sandbox formulae, if you can hack it

Most people use their phones for texting friends, spamming Facebook feeds with stupid grinning selfies and rage-Tweeting First Great Western when all the trains in the world seem to have driven into black holes, leaving commuters stranded and furious on rainy platforms. Aiden Pearce uses his phone to control an entire city and download the personal data of each and every citizen, then covers off the spiralling data costs by skimming cash out of the bank accounts of unfortunate passers-by.

Watch Dogs PS4 review

When it all works, Watch Dogs is essentially Grand Theft Auto 4 (that’s GTA 4, not GTA 5) with a one-button hacking tool. If you’re bombing down Chicago’s streets in a supercar with the fuzz in tow you can stab r to turn all the traffic lights green and cause other vehicles to plough into your pursuers, or overload subterranean steam pipe pressure gauges and blow the streets wide open, totalling nearby vehicles in the process. Or, when you’re infiltrating a heavily guarded compound, rather than putting yourself in harm’s way you can simply line-of-sight-jump your way through security camera feeds until you reach the server you need to tinker with.

Somebody nearby calling for backup? Deploy the Jam Comms tool to disrupt their SOS. Armoured guards about to rumble your location? Remote-activate the digital switch on their grenades and then stifle your chuckles as they succumb to a surprise ‘industrial accident’.

High profile target hiding in a car dealership along with almost a dozen bodyguards? Cut the power to a full city block, sprint past everyone in the confusion, murder your victim and slip away undetected before the backup generator kicks in.

“Your phone’s environment-altering apps are varied enough for radically different playstyles”

Aiden’s phone is an empowering piece of kit, far more exciting than any weapon he or his peers could ever wield. It gives you meaningful choices to approach jobs in directions of your choosing, and its environment-altering apps are varied enough to cater for radically different playstyles.

Again, I’ll wheel out that line when it works. In these moments, Watch Dogs hands you the keys to its starring city and lets you wring out more entertainment from its systems than the majority of its competition. When it doesn’t work, however – when the smoke clears and the mirrors shatter – serious cracks in the mechanics start emerging.

And there are cracks everywhere. Not counting the now-fixed server issues that hampered week-one online play, Watch Dogs is beset with issues. Some of them are amusing problems – hack a junction with just one car waiting at the lights and watch it plough into a nearby park as the driver panics at the earlier-than- expected green – but there are fundamental problems with missions and progression that aren’t so easily laughed off.

“It’s the combination of the underwhelming campaign, plot and characters that disappoints the most”

Key skill upgrades hidden behind dozens of bloated side- quests grate (I’m tempted to swear off alcohol for life thanks to the awful drinking games), but it’s the combination of the underwhelming campaign, plot and characters that disappoints the most. Watch Dogs’ core mission branch bounces between mildly interesting and plain boring, and never excels.

Standout moments are almost all found in side- missions or during emergent moments, buried between scores more forgettable missions involving chess or auto-pilot hacking tasks.

Every corner of the city has been packed with content, whether it’s digital trips that transport you into mini-games based on Carmageddon or DayZ-style zombie-robo survival sims, or crimes in progress you need to prevent – and you’ve got to dig deep to find the good stuff.

It’s the anti-inFamous: Second Son. Whereas Sucker Punch’s sandbox was for the most part a beautiful, concentrated experience, Watch Dogs relies on unfiltered girth to entertain. Another victim of cross-gen releases, there’s nothing particularly ‘new-gen’ about the game, but there are plenty of good ideas and a lot of activities to keep you busy. The fundamentals for a truly special game are in place – but as was the case with Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, it now falls to the sequels to fully realise it.

Our Score

Score: 7