Chris Schulz is the deputy head of entertainment for the New Zealand Herald.

Game review: Watch Dogs

It's one of year's most-hyped games, but is it an epic techno fable for our times, or just another wobbly open world adventure? In one of New Zealand's first reviews, Chris Schulz hacks his way through Watch Dogs.
Watch Dogs' protaganist Aiden Pearce is able to hack into Chicago's security network using his phone.
Watch Dogs' protaganist Aiden Pearce is able to hack into Chicago's security network using his phone.

Bloodshot-eyed teens nursing energy drinks in front of laptops. Bearded men wearing trackpants in basements filled with servers and pizza boxes. Or goth girls like Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's Lisbeth Salander and 24's Chloe O'Brian.

Hackers sure seem like a mystical bunch of people, a subclass stereotyped in popular culture as anti-social, anti-daylight and pro-emo, spending their days delving into impenetrable layers of cyber code and the deepest, darkest corners of the internet.

It's a world that's a mystery to most. Until now.

The brilliance of Ubisoft's Watch Dogs - a game that lands this week with next-gen hope and hype piled high upon it - is that it simplifies the hacking experience for everyone to enjoy.

Watch Dogs dispenses with the multiple Matrix-style screens of computer code, providing an open world teeming with easily accessible hacking options available to anyone armed with a smartphone.

It's set in the beautifully rendered city of Chicago, where hacking is as simple as pushing a button. That's thanks to a city-wide electronic grid called CtOS, which Watch Dogs' protagonist Aiden Pearce has easy access to.

Pearce, a gruff, trench coat-wearing vigilante on a hellish techno-sprawl of a revenge mission, sneaks into CtOS systems to manipulate the world around him.

Watch Dogs proves hacking really is a tonne of fun. Security camera footage can be watched at will, and home computer cameras hacked at random. Traffic systems can be fixed to create car jams for flustered police to deal with, and nearby phones provide an endless supply of entertainment, with bank details, love life highlights and even plastic surgery histories easily viewed.

Hacking really takes on a life of its own during the game's more violent moments, when Pearce can turn water mains and power boxes into explosive devices against enemies. There's nothing better than watching a fumbling gunman trying to defuse his own bomb that's been turned against him.

Watch Dogs is such a thrilling hackathon that it hardly matters that it falls down in other areas. Because of its massive open world style of gameplay, the easiest comparison is with last year's Grand Theft Auto V - and that's a tough act for any game to follow.

Watch Dogs does its best, but despite several twists and turns, its campaign feels too generic to really connect. Main story missions can be confusingly hard in places, some requiring repeated attempts to perfect. And Pearce's optional side missions and mini games can be repetitive and boring.

So is it an epic techno fable for our times, or just another wobbly open world adventure?

What will really decide Watch Dogs fate are its online components, which have been mashed into its story modes. Gamers have the option of hacking into others' campaigns at will and wreaking mayhem - but until Watch Dogs' world is more heavily populated with users, it's hard to tell whether that will be an addictive addition, or a bit of an annoyance.

Either way, thanks to its simplified hacking abilities, Watch Dogs right now feels fresh, endlessly exciting and a hell of a lot of fun. Perhaps trackpants, pizza boxes and all-night hackfests isn't such a bad life after all.

Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC
Rating: R18


- TimeOut

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